Flawless Execution

Terminate With Extreme Prejudice

What better way to start off the new year – yes, I know, belatedly – for this blog than by talking about things that end satisfactory? (Also a good time to drop the Start every post title with a gerund shtick.)

More specifically, by explaining how novels and movies that stick the landing are great, and those that don’t are rather disappointing. Of course, I’m not talking about the Happy End. Neither is my point “All’s well that ends well“. I’ll talk about novels and movies that fulfill the promises they make. (I will not talk about webcomics in this post. That’s not because I ran out of material. Truth to be told, there’s so much great stuff out there that I don’t even know where to start and where to end. And after every single post I wrote about webcomics, there came an update that made me think “Why didn’t I got to include this wonderful example?” So I will continue writing about them in forthcoming posts.)

If a movie disappoints me, it is typically because of one of two specific failure modes: Either the movie is entirely different from what I expected, or the movies ends rather different from what I expected based on the build-up of the story during the beginning and the middle. If I know beforehand that the movie – or some part of it – is bad, and watch it anyway, I may experience discomfort, but it would be wrong to call it disappointment.

The first failure mode can only happen when I watch a movie cold, without reading up stuff and watching more than one trailer. I won’t give examples, but rather a counterexample: I was not disappointed after watching Prometheus, because I already had been fully aware of the problems with the plot and the characterisation, and I went to see it for the cool visuals only.

The second failure mode happens more often. Typically, the issue is not that the movie was outright terrible, but that it could have been much better.

One example of this is the movie InTime, a science fiction – though I would call that kind of story fantasy – story about a world where people have to buy additional lifetime, time is literally money, and will drop down dead when their clock is down. The plot is about a man and his girlfriend fighting the system, so it could be called a Bonnie & Clyde story. Since a the beginning of the movie the hero’s mother dies in his arms just a second before he could load up her clock, the dramatic end could mirror that by either him or his girlfriend dying in the other’s arms. Or, true to B&C, the end could leave them both dead.  Another possible ending for an against-the-system plot is the open end, the Bolivian Army Standoff, where the cut comes before we see either the final confrontation or the budding revolution, and are left to wonder how it will work out. What does not work for such a story is a cheesy Happy End. Unfortunately, that’s what the movie makers used. The movie was still quite good, IMHO, but not nearly as good as it could have been. (To be perfectly frank, I don’t think that the movies’ premise could have supported a really great movie.)

If a story mixes different genres, styles or themes, a really great ending depends on a good mixture during the third act (in a movie, that’s roughly the last quarter). The dominant genre, style or theme for the third act needs to be chosen correctly. Thrillers and action movies are prominent examples of this. In my opinion the best ones are those that mix the thrills and / or the action with some deeper questions:

  • The Silence Of The Lambs mixes police procedural thriller with psychological drama / horror
  • The Matrix mixes action / sci fi with philosophical exploration

Each of these is a fine example of excellent mixing, throughout and at the end of the story.

Ok, any discussion of how a story ends will have SPOILERS, so make sure you have no reason to mind before you continue …


Digging Your Grave One Shovel At A Time

” … brought me in to fine-tune the plan. I’m a details man – figuring angles, covering bases – that’s what I do. [… ] I’m pretty damn good at it.”

That’s how McCrae, called Digger, protagonist of Gravedigger, one of my favorite webcomics, describes himself. It’s an accurate description of the two creators as well: They are details men, and pretty damn good at it.

Me, I’m a details man at the receiving end. Movie, novel, TV show, or webcomic: Gimme the small but significant details!

Digger also asserts he is “one stylish son-of-a-bitch”, and again this can be said of each of the two creators as well.

Here ends the similarity: Digger wants his plans to go straight, smooth and steady; the creators want the plot as twisted as it gets, very tense, and fast-paced. Guess who wins!

This post will focus on what impresses me the most with Gravedigger, the diligence on details.

As I told you in Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure, that’s the same thing I like the most in the novel The Silence Of The Lambs, so I’ll include examples from it as well.

But first, here’s another example (Minor Spoiler ahead) from Opportunities In Space:

  • On this page, we see a couple of ladies standing by a pool discussing where to have a party.
  • The most prominent feature of the page is the open panel in the middle right with a closer look on Sara Emmett saying:
    • “I know for a fact that Ben will not mind.”
    • This line is a subtle reminder that Ben has already met his fate, ahem, I mean there was a family emergency, and that Sara is only posing as his secretary, but really belongs to some group of (alleged?) terrorists.
  • Visual details support and enhance this line of dialog with wonderful effect:
    • That she breaks out of frame into the other panels emphasizes that she is the most important person on the whole page.
    • The washed-out red background alludes to her being an accomplice to murder.
    • In contrast, the positioning of her body in the frame draws attention to the fact that she’s wearing, well, let’s say, pool attire, proudly presenting her fine figure.
    • In one sentence, we see a dangerous evil that is well hidden behind a desirable body, a pretty face, and a friendly smile.
  • What’s more to wish for?

More to come, talking about Opportunities In Space, in futures posts.

Before I continue, I encourage you to check out the archive from Gravedigger. It contains two stories, The Scavengers and The Predators, of 28 respectively 48 pages.

Also, you may want to brush up on The Silence Of The Lambs.

Now, if you are back, or don’t mind the SPOILERS AHEAD, click for more, read on, and discuss.


Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure

Asked whether he had predicted that Breaking Bad would become such a huge success, creator Vince Gilligan answered: “I didn’t expect that. The show had all the ingredients of failure.”

His answer raises three questions:

1) Was the answer more than a throwaway comment?

2) If there is any weight behind this claim, how come the show broke through with such impact?

3) If the phenomenon is real, does it affect other storytellers as well?

When I got the DVD set this summer and started to catch up, I noticed many details that all of YouTube, and the wonderful Honest Trailer video, didn’t convey. This got me thinking, and lead me to the following conclusions:

1) “Ingredients Of Failure” does not only describe the premise of Breaking Bad, and in large part the character arc of Walter White, but also many plot lines, scenes, characters, and stylistic decision on the show.

2)  Breaking Bad achieved success because the creators brought to play a unique combination of Courage, Conscience, Creativity, and Care (Did I miss out on any more words with C’s?)

3) Many storytelling successes depended on the four C’s to cook with the ingredients of failure

One of the all-time most interesting examples of “Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure” is the making of the movie The Silence Of The Lambs.

  • After several false starts the movie rights ended up with a company that assigned it a fairly small budget.
  • After some favorite actors declined, the director, who had only done comedies up to that point, wanted to cast Antony Hopkins as Lecter, whom the producers didn’t want, and the producers wanted to cast Jodie Foster as Starlin, whom the director didn’t want. So they made an artistic compromise and cast both of them.
  • The male lead actor, Hopkins, is slightly more than fifteen minutes on screen in a ninety minutes movie.
  • When the movie was finally ready, the distributor cancelled its 1990 slot, so it got shifted to February 14th, 1991. What was considered a horror movie back then – today, it’s just a quite dark thriller – became, to all intents and purposes, that years “date movie”.
  • While the movie focused strongly on the psychological drama aspect of the novel, to the extent that it became even better in this aspect than the novel, it totally mismanages the details-focused manhunt thriller part. Seriously, don’t you think that the entire part between the cage scene and the doorbell scene is utterly ridiculous? I will discuss this, before the year is over, in a post on Terminating With Extreme Prejudice.

So how did they do it? Wonderful acting of the main cast, great directing, excellent camera work, cool editing (“and what is he?” – “oh, he is a monster” / “ring, ring” “we’re going in” – “ring, ring, riiiiiiing” “Hi, I’m Clarice Starling, I’m with the FBI”) and inventive production design, all focused on the core psychological drama and its dire implications. Did I miss anything?

And for my personal taste, even the fantastic novel that movie is based on contains elements of failure: I don’t want to read about serial killers, cannibals, or people getting flayed, and still, The Silence Of The Lambs is my very favorite novel. I will tell you why, among other things, in next week’s post Digging Your Grave One Shovel At A Time.

I also don’t like stories with superheroes, godlike villains, and world-fate-deciding McGuffins. But I really love the movie Guardians Of The Galaxy.

I dislike funny ears on humans, except, of course, those of Quantum Vibe‘s main protagonist Nicole Oresme (they are NSFW, mind you), so I’m not especially fond of alien designs based on them, on tails, or any other funny additions to the human body, but I think the webcomic Opportunities In Space is awesome. Look at this page.

And if I’m not a fan of talking cacti, I enjoy Girls With Slingshots anyway, because I am a fan of secret weapons, and those of protagonists Hazel “The Lush” and Jamie “The Rack” are listed as Disdain and Tank Tops, respectively. What’s not to like about these?

Note: I will discuss GotG , QV, OiS, and maybe even GwS, in future posts.

Neither do I have any interest in stories about ghosts or genetically modified smart-ass animals, except, of course, Rocket Racoon, but one of my favorite Webcomics is A Girl And Her Fed, which features one of the latter and literally millions of the former.

Before I discuss more specific examples, please be aware that there will be spoilers for Breaking Bad and A Girl And Her Fed, and act accordingly.

Now, if you are well prepared, or if you don’t mind the SPOILERS AHEAD, click for more, read on, and discuss. (more…)