Saturday, December 3, 2011

Suspension of Disbelief

My daughter took me to see Immortals Wednesday. I was reminded of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, Allen Drury's Washington, just about anything by James Lee Burke, several columns about verisimilitude in writing by Lawrence Block, and of course Naked Came the Stranger. (Really must do a column on NCtS one day.)

In writing Immortals, the Parlapanides brothers did to ancient Greece and its mythology what Stephanie Meyer did to vampire and werewolf traditions. Though the gods do not sparkle in sunlight, the five extras from 90210 who represent the pantheon do wear gold lamé and pout when thoughtful. They also have more trouble with the Prime Directive than Captain Kirk. In Immortals Greek villages are Pueblos carved from cliffs hundreds of feet above the sea – and the Hellenic "wine dark sea" is actually dark with oil that makes everything except the Virgin Oracle's scarlet gown look like Prince William Sound. I was annoyed by the Titans being about five feet tall and jumping around like rabid flying monkeys but got a kick out of Athens being fortified by a model of Hoover Dam (one of the characters actually says it was originally built as a dam). My favorite bit was the horizon-spanning salt desert covering the heart of Greece where nothing grows and even the buildings are carved from salt, but which inexplicably has fresh water oases; this is the location of the salt mine. (My daughter's favorite was the people being tortured in the iron bull breathing through rubber hoses attached to plastic masks held in place by elastic straps – but I see that more as a production issue than part of the storytelling.) And – though Frieda Pinto's naked bottom does have a cameo – it's the storytelling, the plot's inconsistencies, that reminded me of NCtS. (Example: Hyperion spends the first few scenes torturing priests and sacking villages looking for the Virgin Oracle. Survivors are sent to the salt mine, in the middle of the salt desert, where he's been keeping the Virgin Oracle prisoner for weeks. No fear, she leads a prison break, so perhaps Hyperion was just being proactive in his torturing and sacking.)

Despite all of that, Immortals was a guilty-pleasure blast. Freed from the constraints of plot, history, or logic, director Singh was able to focus on overwhelming our senses with wide-screen spectacle. Everything from special effects to costumes to sets to dialog is over the top without slipping into campy. While it seemed clear no one in front of the cameras gave much thought to acting, every man jack of them devoted their hearts and minds and various other body parts to the cause of entertaining the heck out of us. And they delivered.

Which of course relates back to Evan Hunter (McBain), Allen Drury, James Lee Burke, and Lawrence Block. Allen Drury loved Washington – the city and the politics – and when his characters are in the halls of Congress or the streets of Georgetown you know he has seen every detail he describes. My impression is Hunter loved New York City, but he did not want to restrict himself to the reality of the place; the city of McBain's 87th precinct is never identified but it is made up of neighborhoods and locales lifted from NYC then repositioned to serve the needs of his stories. Lawrence Block also loves NYC and sets his stories there, but he fudges just a bit on the geography. I'm told you can always find the neighborhood, maybe even the street corner identified in his story, but you'll never find the exact hotel or bar or alley where the action takes place. Even so, New Yorkers I know aver he gets the city, they know he's one of them when they read his stories. (John D MacDonald did the same thing with south Florida; you'd get lost following his directions, but he got the feel of my home in the 1960s exactly right.) I've spent a total of three weeks in New Orleans – the last thirty-five years ago – and I have no idea how accurate James Lee Burke's descriptions are. But the man has a gift for description that amazes, and if the reality of the region doesn't match what he's created, then – to paraphrase John Milius's opening to The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean – if this isn't the way it was, it's the way it should have been.

And that's important. We are storytellers, not historians, not cartographers, not scientists or biographers. Everything we do, every tool that comes to hand, must serve the story – that is our craft. We should respect facts, we should use them whenever possible. Not just because they're true but because they are the hooks on which we hang our fiction. But we have to use facts in a way that strengthens the story and moves it forward. In teaching English as a second language I frequently returned to the theme of the difference between literal meaning and contextual meaning. (For example, whenever an alarm goes on, most English speakers say it went off.)
Sometimes we have to subsume the literal facts to the facts of the story. This can be as subtle as Lawrence Block capturing the spirit of a neighborhood while using addresses that don't exist or as in-your-face as Tarsem Singh choreographing a Jet-Li-esque kung-fu smackdown between the gods and the Titans. If we do our jobs right, our readers will willingly set objective reality aside and join us on our journey.


Charles Gramlich said...

I agree about the "storytelling" aspects. Of course, there are taking liberties and taking LIBERTIES. The plastic tubing might have been a bit much.

Liane Spicer said...

Once the story is well served I'm okay. BUT - if the discrepancies jolt me out of the story-world - as that plastic-y stuff might have done - that's another matter altogether.

I'll pass on this one. I take the immortals too seriously to not be offended. (By which I mean I don't want anySingh upsetting my personal imagery.)

KeVin K. said...

Oh, we weren't supposed to notice the plastic and elastic -- like I said that was a lapse in production values, not part of the storytelling.

But having to march three days across salt to reach a mine dug into salt in order to reach salt? That's a serious lack of internal logic.

Though not offended, per se, I found the imp-like Titans irksome. Even when giving classics a new spin, one should respect the source.

("anySingh"? ouch)

Lynn Emery said...

I think not being very familiar with a place makes the difference, I mean settings like NYC or New Orleans. Being a native of Louisiana, seeing stereotypes jerks me out of the story if set here. Otherwise, the storytelling draws me in.

Maybe it's just me, but I've found that the authentic, accurate details usually turn out to be way more interesting than the stereotypes; ex. natives of New Orleans don't speak with a southern drawl.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I agree with Lynn. Even in fantasy there must be some level of authenticity otherwise it draws me out of the story... except of course if it is a parody, or a slapstick comedy.

Carol Mitchell said...

Perhaps the writers hoped that there were enough people out there who would not pick up on the details that Kevin did. With my light-weight knowledge of Ancient Greece, I am sure I would have missed many of the inconsistencies.

As I plan my WIP, I am considering knowingly including a small inconsistency which will suit the story and probably only be noted by a few specialist historians, including the one who has been assisting with my research ... remind me not to send her a copy ;-)