Why Do the Mighty Fall?

I’m always fascinated by how films are sold. The way that studios set up the story–the ideas that they convey, the things they foreshadow, everything. It’s fascinating. Recently, The Avengers 2 trailer came out and slipped into a familiar marketing trope: the heroes are falling.

And this time it struck me in quite a different way. Why is this the way movies are sold? The original Avengers didn’t get painted as that sort of story, and yet did phenomenally in terms of monetary gain. It’s obviously not necessary to pull audiences in. So why is this where studios decide to go? It’s happened before, too. Think of Iron Man 3, and all the marketing for that. Every single trailer was about Iron Man meeting his match, apparently, and falling. Of course the film was nothing like that, and I’m sure Avengers 2 won’t be anything like a “heroes falling” story. But yet why sell it that way?

The Dark Knight Rises was sold this way explicitly, especially with the tagline for the film: The Legend Ends.

The Legend Ends...Or Does It?

In a sense, the marketing of movies seems to me to be a story before the story. The studios tell a story about the story. The story before the story of Iron Man 3 was, “Iron Man is meeting his match and will fall.” The story The Dark Knight Rises marketing told was, “Batman will have to give up his life to save Gotham.” Avengers 2 seems to be, though we’ll have to wait for the rest of the trailers, “the heroic team has created their own demise.”

So why? Why do audiences come and see this type of story?

Of course, there’s the obvious answer: audiences love these characters and want to see if they’ll defeat evil. Honestly, though, this seems to fall short for me. How many of us actually think that Captain America, or Thor, or Iron Man are going to die in Avengers 2? How many people really bought that Iron Man 3 would have a tragic ending for the hero? I’d be willing to wager that very few actually thought that.

But yet studios tell that story. Why? “The mighty are falling” stories can be quite good, but why must the mighty fall?

Aren’t superheroes supposed to be the saviors? Aren’t they supposed to rise above evil and triumph? A lot of people in writing about the superhero movie trend, have observed that these films are almost an extension of our desire for a hero–for someone to save us. The superheroes seem to be able to save us, ergo we go to see these films.

So then, if we love superheroes stories because they seem to display our saviors, why sell the superhero films as “the mighty are falling?”

In my thinking about this over the days since The Avengers 2 trailer came out, I haven’t firmly come to a conclusion. I’m glad I haven’t, because I don’t think a few days can really answer the question. But a possible answer did arise, and that is that the mighty fall, or at least we go to see films sold as that, because we want to make sure the superheroes can triumph.

Or, to put it a different way, we’re afraid that perhaps our heroes won’t be the saviors we need. We don’t want to think that Iron Man can’t defeat evil, we don’t want to think that Batman will ultimately fall. That threatens our hope, our longing, for a savior that these superheroes might be. This type of marketing threatens our faith in these saviors, and so we go to these films hoping that our faith won’t really be destroyed.

To propose another answer that follows from the same basic idea, perhaps we go to these films because we know our heroes won’t die. We know Batman, and Iron Man, and the Avengers won’t fail, and so we go to see them triumph over the “death of the hero” story that’s been sold to us before the film. We go to see our faith in the superheroes reaffirmed. I’m really going out on a limb here, but I’ll throw this out: maybe we go to see the heroes triumph, not just over the story of death, but over death itself.

Why do we tell stories of the mighty falling, like Avengers 2 or Iron Man 3?

That’s what happened in The Dark Knight Rises–both in the marketing and the actual film–metaphorically speaking. Batman “dies” and rises again. Quite literally, he descends into the pit of death and defeats it by escaping. As his father tells him in flashbacks over the trilogy, he falls into the pit for the explicit purpose of defeating it. “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up,” his father says. Of course, the villain defeats the pit of death by rising from it as well, which throws a wrench in that theory.

So why do the mighty fall? The obvious answer is, “well, they don’t actually” and that’s true in the actual story. But in the story before the story–the story the marketers tell us–the mighty do fall. And so the question remains. And to put it in a slightly cheesy, but hopefully illuminating way: why do we go see movies where the heroes seem to be falling? Is it because we are scared the heroes will fall? Or is it so we can see them pick themselves back up?

The Echoes of Our Stories

“We live in a world that was meant for glory, but now is tragically broken. We hunger for redemption, and we seek it in a myriad of ways. And so we tell stories that reveal the deep longing of the human heart for redemption from sin, for a life that’s meaningful, for love that lasts. We tell stories about warriors overcoming impossible odds to save the world. Stories about how true love can make the soul feel complete. Stories about horrific, prowling villains carrying out a reign of terror, only to be vanquished by an unexpected hero. Stories about friendships that don’t fall apart. Stories about marriages that last. Stories about life, death, and resurrection.”—Mike Cosper

The Awful Speed of Truth: An Analysis of The Turkey by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor certainly likes stories about perception. Of course, for her stories to work, a character must have a very strong perception of themselves. Or, at the very least, her characters must be so immersed in their perceptions that they never actually recognize the truth.

The Turkey plays on this concept beautifully. It’s a heartbreaking and haunting story about an event that on its surface doesn’t appear to be either. The story follows a young boy and his attempts to catch an injured turkey and bring it home.

O’Connor sets everything up right from the start, and it is amazing. The story begins with the main character, an eleven-year-old named Ruller, imagining himself as the leader of a gang of cowboys. Throughout the story his fantasies develop: he goes from gang leader, to someone famous in his town for capturing the turkey, to someone affirmed by his family for providing them with food, to a salty, unsavory “bad boy,” to an unusual boy, to one specially ordained by God to help “bad boys.”

The Turkey relies upon the obsession of a boy with his fantasies, and the awful truth he ultimately confronts. Yes, in ten pages he goes through a lot of fantasies–a lot of perceptions about himself. But the important thing seems to be that never once does he face reality. He jumps from fantasy to fantasy but never stops by reality on his way. The reality he keeps running into, and then quickly avoiding with his perceptions, is that his hunt for the turkey is futile.

Consider it: here is a fast turkey, who knows the woods well, running from an eleven-year old boy who is slightly absent-minded, and doesn’t know these woods terribly well. The boy isn’t going to catch the turkey. The hunt is futile.

And so to avoid this truth Ruller creates his fantasies, and it’s painfully obvious. As his hunt for the turkey continues, to avoid reality, he completely contradicts his previous fantasies to create new ones that take into account the realities he’s facing. This is most obvious in these two passages:

As soon as he got in the door, they would holler, “How did you tear your clothes and where did you get that knot on your forehead?” He was going to say he fell in a hole. What difference would it make? Yeah, God, what difference would it make?

He almost stopped. He had never heard himself think that tone before. He wondered should he take the thought back. He guessed it was pretty bad; but heck, it was the way he felt. He couldn’t help feeling that way. Heck…hell, it was the way he felt. He guessed he couldn’t help that.

This is when he’s still in his “bad boy” fantasy, following a passage of profuse cursing. Notice, in this fantasy he can’t help but think the way he does. Later, when the turkey finally bleeds out and he gets it, he becomes convinced that God gave it to him. God must have a special interest in him, he reasons. And then O’Connor writes this:

He had been going to keep the dime for something. He might get another one from his grandmother. How about a ******* dime kid? He pulled his mouth piously out of the grin. He wasn’t going to think that way anymore.

His first fantasy was based on the hunt for the turkey going badly, and his realization that it might be futile. Of course, he won’t accept that, but immediately creates a new fantasy in which it doesn’t matter–and in this fantasy he can’t help but think the way he does.

Then, when he gets the turkey, a new fantasy emerges in which he can help what he thinks.

The point being this: Ruller is desperate to avoid truth, just like many of O’Connor’s characters. And all of this sets up what I believe to be one of the more powerful endings I’ve read of O’Connor’s. Ruller finally gets the turkey and decides, in order to show it off, to walk back through town. He’s still in the “God has a peculiar interest in me” fantasy, and the townspeople’s interest in the turkey reinforces that.

Some country boys in their mid-teens begin to follow him as he goes through the town. Ruller assumes, wrapped up as he is in his fantasy, that they are so incredibly impressed by his catch that they just want to see it closer. Ruller stops and lets them catch up.

“Lemme see it here,” [one of the boys] said.

Ruller handed him the turkey. “You see down there where the bullet hole is?” he asked. “Well, I think it was shot twice in the same hole, I think it was…” The turkey’s head flew in his face as the [boy] slung it up in the air and over his own shoulder and turned. The others turned with him and together they sauntered off in the direction they had come, the turkey sticking stiff out on the [boy’s] back, and its head swinging slowly in a circle as he walked away.

Ruller has become so entrenched in his own perception he can’t see the obvious coming. He’s slammed into reality, and he can’t avoid it now.

He turned toward home, almost creeping. He walked four blocks and then suddenly, noticing that it was dark, he began to run. He ran faster and faster, and as he turned up the road to his house his heart was running as fast as his legs and he was certain that Something Awful was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch.

The last sentence is precisely what O’Connor is all about–the truth is Something Awful to her characters because the truth isn’t what they want. “The truth doesn’t change according to our ability to stomach it,” O’Connor is often quoted as saying.

Ruller couldn’t see the truth, and to him it is “Something Awful.” It’s trying to catch him. It’s a monster ready to devour him and it is coming fast. And so Ruller must run faster to avoid the awful speed of truth.

In other words, welcome to O’Connor.

Bad Stories for Good Money

I posted a quote a few days ago that was similar to this. This one talks about the concept of writing as best one can, and I think that’s something I, at least, need to be reminded about often.

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.–Paul Gallico

Writing As Empathy

I’ve talked about this before a little bit, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. This past weekend I was at a debate tournament with several fascinating people. In between debates I ended up simply sitting down and talking to most of them, hearing their backgrounds, and letting them tell their stories.

And once again I was reminded of the simple fact that stories are all around us. The people we walk by in, I don’t know, Wal-Mart have stories and stories–entire lives surrounding them. They’ve hurt and cried, they’ve laughed and rejoiced. People have stories richer than we could ever imagine. So often I, at least, find myself simply walking by these people. They’re just other shoppers. People who I’ll never see again, and probably won’t remember anything about them tomorrow.

But they’re not. They’re real people that have had real experiences. I need to remember that. Why?

My Dad will, on occasion, whenever we go to theme parks or something of the like, tell me about a game he plays. He’ll look around at the people surrounding him and make up stories about who they are, where they come from, and what they’ve experienced. Of course, he doesn’t think that these stories are really their stories, but it’s an exercise that’s always caught my attention, because it applies that basic belief: that everyone has a story. Even if we don’t know what it is, we can guess because there is one. But when we forget that, what happens?

Right now in Africa there are thousands who have died due to Ebola. But how many of us simply think of them as numbers? How many of us realize that they lived lives, that they had plans?

I know I have a tendency to simply think of numbers, and I need to stop. I need to remember that everyone has a history.

I tweeted out a link to an interview recently, and even though I can’t endorse the book or even everything that’s said in the interview, this one thing did stand out to me. The author being interviewed said this:

“There was a study done recently that shows that people who read fiction have a greater capacity for empathy, right? We all knew that; we just didn’t have the data to back it up. To learn about the lives of people who are nothing like you does teach you to understand that the world doesn’t rise and fall with you, and that you have to be charitable to others.”

In a sense, that’s why we write. It’s definitely not the only reason, but it’s an important one. Writing can help us see other people’s live, who they are, what they do, and why they do what they do. Which leads me to ask a question: is writing a form of empathy? I’ve talked before about how writing is thinking, and I still hold to that. But writing certainly doesn’t have to be just one thing–maybe it’s both thinking and empathy. I’m sure this has been talked about before, but this is the first time I’ve really examined it. So what do you think? Is writing a form of empathy?

Writing By Profession

Like the last quote I posted, I don’t agree with everything here. I do think it brings up a good point, though, about writing the best that one can, and working as hard as one can on one’s writing.

Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little overexcited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished—I think only poor Soren K. will get asked that. I’m so sure you’ll only get asked two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.–J.D. Salinger

Culture Tells Stories

Recently I read an article in The Guardian by a Cairo-based scholar named Jonathan Guyer. The article was entitled “The Arab Whodunnit: Crime Fiction Makes a Comeback In the Middle East.” I highly suggest you take a look at and read it, but I’m not going to talk exactly about what the article talks about. The article is more concerned with what caused this rise in, what Guyer calls, the “neo-noir revolution” sweeping Middle Eastern fiction.

While the article is well worth the read, what stood out to me was something much simpler. It was the basic fact that what culture is like influences, and as this article might suggest, perhaps defines what sorts of stories we get. At one point in the article, Guyer quotes another writer saying, “Cairo is the perfect setting for noir: sleaze, glitz, inequality, corruption, lawlessness. It’s got it all.”

Isn’t that sad? Because of the culture of the Middle East and its recent history it isn’t the best place, to put it lightly. In fact, there’s quite a lot of trouble and apparently that’s spawned this rise in the noir novel.

It’s been observed before, but I still can’t help but think it again when I read this article. Culture tells stories. The genres and characters that are popular seem to be determined by what the cultural conversation is. Of course, this is to be expected. The writers aren’t writing in vacuums–they’re observing, absorbing, and sometimes engaging in this conversation as well. And thus it simply fits that the stories we tell reflect who we are as a society.

Which makes me think of something else: how have my stories been influenced by the culture I’ve grown up in? How have yours? Probably a good deal of how and why we tell stories is a result of the circles we’ve walked in. Again, we don’t write in a vacuum. My stories, for example, have a slight philosophical bent that manifests itself from time to time. The people I’ve grown up with and the culture I’ve grown up in tends to be more philosophical, and so it makes sense for me to tell those kinds of stories.

I’m sure there are exceptions to this, and I don’t pretend to be making any sort of argument here. Many people have observed that writers are influenced by their cultures, and so I’m not trying to make an argument for that conclusion. I’m simply looking at the conclusion, and asking what the results of it are.

And so the question must be asked, and is asked. How does the culture of, say, the Middle East determine what stories it tells? How do the cultures we grow up in influence the stories we tell? But ultimately, I think, if we accept that cultures tell stories, we are led to two questions: What stories will our culture tell? And what will we think of them when they are told?