Endings: the good, the bad and the insanely awesome!

In this short video, screenwriter Michael Arndt, outlines the ingredients of what he believes make a great film ending. Oscar winner for best original screenplay, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ [2006] and best adapted screenplay ‘Toy Story 3’ [2010], Arndt also worked on the script for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ [2015] and is a true veteran of the craft.

He emphasises several times throughout the presentation that he does NOT intend to state that story telling is formulaic. His analysis merely is an attempt to understand how great stories work by taking the viewer to the point of emotional catharsis.

Arndt points out that many scripts fail to deliver on their endings. While the girl gets the boy, or the hero wins the prize, much of the emotional catharsis of story resolutions are sorely lacking. With much reflection, he has identified three important ingredients for a great story, which when resolved create a great ending: a personal stake, an external stake and a philosophical stake.

To illustrate what he calls, ‘insanely awesome‘ endings, Arndt uses ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ [1977], ‘The Graduate’ [1967] and his own ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ [2006], each which within only 2 short minutes, bring resounding emotional climax and catharsis for the viewers.

Watch the full video presentation via the link below:

Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great from Pandemonium on Vimeo.

Brutalism

Brutalist architecture, or Brutalism, is an architectural style which emerged in the mid-20th century. It is characterized by simple, block-like structures and bare building materials such as exposed concrete and brick.

The term “Brutalism” was coined in association with béton brut, meaning raw concrete in French. The style descended from the modernist architecture of the turn of the century and embodied an architectural philosophy which was often associated with a socialist utopian ideology: by a desire to improve the condition of every member of society, by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments.

Close to home for me, examples of the Brutalist style are Queensland Art Gallery and more famous global icons include the Barbican Centre and National Theatre in London, UK and Boston City Hall, USA.

It gained momentum in the United Kingdom during the 1950s as economically depressed, World War II-ravaged, communities sought inexpensive construction and design for housing, shopping centres, and government buildings. However, the movement as a whole, has drawn a range of criticism including from Charles, Prince of Wales, who denounced Brutalist structures as,

“piles of concrete”.  

Indeed the style is unappealing due to its “cold” appearance, and association of the buildings with urban decay. The forms can project an atmosphere of totalitarianism while the concrete easily becomes streaked with water stains, moss and lichens, and rust stains from the steel reinforcing bars. Cladding can be applied to improve the appearance of the exterior however has increased fire risks; as exemplified in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire disaster.

How can architecture modeled on a philosophy of utopian desire to improve society, become so dystopian?

In his essay ‘The Feeling of Things: Towards an Architecture of Emotions‘, Peter St. John writes,

The choice of a building’s construction, its material and its structure, has a direct effect on the emotional character of its spaces. Although discussions of construction often centre on issues of performance and technique, ultimately construction is about appearance. 

Brutalist architecture is an interesting study of the intersection between philosophy, politics, history, economics and art. We humans are affected by the building we inhabit, and which make up our towns and out cities, the stories and ideologies they embody and the emotion and character of their space.

When we decide what is right and wrong …[spoilers within].

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. 

Genesis 3: 4-6

In May 2019, the epic HBO TV series Game of Thrones came to an end. The 8 season, 73 episode series was first aired on April 17, 2011 and the finale aired this year to a staggering 17 million viewers worldwide [not including illegal downloads]. Despite controversy and fan protest about the series conclusion, it has shattered all records for being one of the most watched TV series of all time.

The now famously controversial final season was reduced from the normal 8-9 episodes to only 6 intense episodes full of battle scenes and epic special effects. At approximately $5 million-$10 million production budget per episode, the final season was ‘epic’ indeed.

In a poetic soliloquy to sum up epic series, Tyrion Lannister declares:

What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?

…. Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.

And epic story it is. In an earlier post, I discussed the series in a post Game of Faiths, analysing its rich world of spiritual and religious ideas. Jon Snow is styled by George R R Martin to be an epic hero of mythic narrative. A Christ-like figure of messianic proportions.

It is Jon Snow who demonstrates he is a true leader, one worthy of this cosmic battle. He sacrifices for his men and gains their loyalty and trust. He is betrayed at the hands of his friends and murdered, but he returns from the clutches of death to prompt the Priestess of Light to declare him  Azor Ahai, the one prophesied to bring balance between light and dark, to end the Great Battle with the forces of darkness and death.

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However, the final series falls shy of such predictions. Jon does not kill the Night King, ending the long winter, nor does he take the Iron Throne to rule Westeros in peace. Instead he stands by and watches the demise of his love, Daenerys, maddened by grief and power-lust.

She falls prey to the same fate as her Targaryan ancestors, becoming a ‘mad queen’, torching the city that should be hers, mercilessly, and beckoning Jon to join her in creating a new future world, styled in her version of ‘goodness’.

With imagery allusive of post World War II destruction, Daenerys looks over a destroyed city, covered in a white layer of ash including human flesh incinerated. Unrepentant of such necessary evil, she summons Jon to join her to ‘break the wheel’ of tyranny and rule a new world together.

Daenerys ~ ‘It’s not easy to see something that has never been before. A good world.’

Jon ~ ‘How do you know? How do you know it’ll be good?’

Daenerys ~ ‘Because I know what is good. And so do you.’

Jon ~ ‘No I don’t’.

Daenerys ~ ‘You do. You do, you have always known. ‘

Jon – ‘What about everyone else? All the other people who think they know what is good?’

Daenerys ~ ‘They don’t get to choose.’

Daenerys words hearken to one of the oldest stories of human history, a narrative in which humans first fall when they wish to decide what is good and what is evil.

Alongside Nazi Germany and many other of history’s horrible despots, Daenerys goes the way of wicked men and women whose power consumes them and their humanity when they decide their standard of goodness in unique and superior.

Jon Snow, does not sit on any throne, but instead honours a greater standard of good to serve his family and his nation sacrificially.

Whatever you think of the final series of Game of Thrones, the 8 season epic drama has truly set new standards of televisions epic fantasy story telling.

For a good examination of why the final season so disappointed fans of the series, read this excellent article in Scientific American, by Zeynep Tufekci.

Out of Africa

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,”

And so in the lilting Danish accent of Meryl Streep, opens Out of Africa, a 1986 film directed by Sydney Pollack.

With sweeping plains of East Africa in view, an attractive cast including Streep and Robert Redford, bolstered by a beautiful musical score by John Barry, ‘Out of Africa‘ went on to win 7 Academy Awards and box office earnings of over USD $227 million.

Based on the memoir with the same title by Danish author Karen Blixen, [Isak Dinesen] the original book was first published in 1937, and recounts events of the seventeen years when Blixen made her home in Kenya, then called British East Africa. The film script was adapted with additional material from Dinesen’s book Shadows on the Grass and other sources.

The book’s title is probably an abbreviation of the famous ancient Latin adage,

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.

Pliny, The Elder

Out of Africa, always something new.

The book and film are a lyrical meditation on Blixen’s life on her coffee plantation, as well as a tribute to some of the people who touched her life there. It provides a vivid snapshot of African colonial life in the last decades of the British Empire.

Noted for its melancholy, nostalgic and elegiac style, biographer Judith Thurman describes Out of Africa using an African tribal phrase:

clear darkness.

The tale covers the deaths of at least five of the important people in Blixen’s life, and is a meditation on her feelings of loss and nostalgia. She describes her failed business, and comments wryly on her mixture of despair and denial, of the sadness she faces there. A brave and hard working woman for whom almost nothing flows smoothly: marriage, love, business, health. Everything is challenging, even crushing.

Why then is such a story, so sad and so melancholy, yet so enduringly popular among movie goers and readers?

Perhaps in true modernist and existentialist style, Blixen captures the feeling of living, the sights, smells, and sensations of a foreign land and the strange and diverse people she meets there. The bitter-sweetness of existence is shared with us through her experience, marked by love, loss, desire, knowing, holding and surrendering.

Blixen was admired by her contemporaries including Ernest Hemingway, who is reported to have said on winning his own Nobel prize in 1954,

I would have been happy – happier – today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.

Big Little Lies

I recently attended a debate in central London hosted by Intelligence Squared entitled ‘Identity Politics is Tearing Society Apart‘. The panel boasted an editorial director of BBC news Kamal Ahmed, and novelist Lionel Shriver among others.

Identity is defined in Oxford Bibliographies,

as a tool to frame political claims, promote political ideologies, or stimulate and orientate social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice and with the aim of asserting group distinctiveness and belonging and gaining power and recognition.

Vasiliki Neofotistos (2013). “Identity Politics”Oxford Bibliographies. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 27 October 2018. Retrieved 9th June 2019.

Arguments in favour of the motion focused on the fact that identity politics has in fact fueled a backlash of populism, bringing alt-right figures to the fore, destroying society’s broad sense of the common good, and increasing antagonism and fragmentation in our society.

Upon entry and upon exit the audience were polled for their agreement or disagreement with the debate title, and the majority 55% left the debate in agreement that indeed, identity politics was tearing society apart.

I, however, did not agree.

Recently I completed the 7 episode first season of ‘Big Little Lies‘ a HBO original series, produced by and starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. The American drama television series, based on the novel  by Australian author Liane Moriarty, premiered on February 19, 2017, and follows the lives and relationships of four women in Monterey, California, The women are united around their children who share a grade one class at the local school.

Their community is socially and economically homogeneous. The women are white Americans, upper middle class, heterosexual, well educated, and nice people. While there is an African American character, she is a vegan, yoga instructor who is socially and economically their equal. One character is single and working class but she is soon brought into the fold by the other women through shared experience. Under the surface of this idyllic beach-side life, where women share expansive homes with their handsome, domesticated husbands lies violence, lies, betrayal and hatred. Each character has layers, motives, jealousies and wounds which drive them through the story arc, Shakespearean at times in range and depth. It’s clear that this society is being torn apart yet – identity politics does not play one note the pain and violence which exists.

Surely there is something deeper than identity that tears our society apart?

Judeo-Christian theology, upon which our western society is based, teaches radical love and service to the ‘other’ most emphatically, the ‘other’ who is powerless, stateless, and voiceless. As such, duty bearers and power-holders have a mandate to identify with and support the recognition of the group who would otherwise be excluded from rights and privileges. Judeo-Christian theology is the very basis of ‘identity politics’.

So why do good, moral, people, feel identity politics has gotten out of hand, tearing at the fabric of society? Why does identity politics get the fall for the violence and dissolution of society?

A quick perusal of any history text shows that every generation of society has been riven by racial, geographical, class and religious wars – each tearing society apart in different ways. The 18th and 19th centuries were defined by class political wars, and the 16th and 17th centuries were defined by religious political wars. Earlier centuries were marked by ethnic wars and indeed the annals of history stretch back into time immemorial to tell of countless epochs of bloodshed.

It begs the question whether it in fact something deeper, something more human which is the enemy to human peace?

If it were identity which bred violence, one solution for humanity may lie in what the Buddhists teach as the denial of identity, the absolution of any ego-attachment to self or otherness and the blissful nirvana of non-being. It can be captures in the lyrics of the late-great John Lennon – ‘imagine’ a world where no countries, religion, or possessions exist, where humans live in peace and ‘as one.’

The challenge with such a philosophy is that it negates love which from the ground of self engages the ‘other’ and gives of self to the other.

In ‘Big Little Lies’ no one escapes the narrative to be ‘good’ or ‘ethical’. Everyone has their story, their motives, their depths. It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote:

But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. 

It is not the negation of self that brings about peace, nor is it the eradication of ‘identity politics’ which will be the solution to our social ills or the healing of our social fabric. It is only when we address the violence that exists in the human heart that we can begin to find true and lasting peace.

Why Nations Fail

As a follow on to the Bear Skin blog post several weeks ago titled ‘What would Machiavelli Do?‘ comes this short comment on the book “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

While Niccolo Machiavelli gave a very well thought out treatise on what Princes, or individuals of power, should do to maintain a stable state, Acemoglu and Robinson give a very well thought out treatise on how complex political and economic systems contribute to the prosperity [or failure] of a state.

In brief, their book puts emphasis on the need for centralised power in much the same way Machiavelli does. Their argument is that prosperity is generated by investment and innovation. Without centralised power, there is disorder, which is anathema to investment.

However, for investment and innovation to flourish, entrepreneurs and inventors must have good reasons to think that, if successful, they will not be plundered by the powerful. If the institutions of power enable the elite to serve its own interest – a structure they term “extractive institutions” – these interests ultimately undermine the very innovation and investment necessary for prosperity.

Numerous case studies are listed of both ‘inclusive’ and ‘extractive’ systems of government creating both ‘virtuous circle’ and ‘viscous circle’ of national prosperity or decline. Botswana is lauded as a contemporary example of a nation which has prospered under good leadership. At the critical juncture of independence from colonial rule, wise Botswanan leaders such as its first president, Seretse Khama, [see A United Kingdom] and his Botswana Democratic Party chose democracy over dictatorship and the public interest over private greed. Botswana holds regular elections, has not since had a civil war and enforces property rights. When diamonds were discovered, a far-sighted law ensured that the newfound riches were shared for the national good, not elite gain.

What is of most startling interest when contrasting the two works of political theory and philosophy, is that Machiavelli eschewed ‘morality’ and what ‘should’ be done, in favour of what is most politically expedient while Acemoglu and Robinson seem to be pointing us back to ancient wisdom. Acemoglu and Robinson argue for leadership that cedes short term power and gain for long term national good and which promotes public interest over private greed. Yet they argue for this from economic rather than morally grounded reasons.

This begs the question, do ancient moral codes derive their wisdom from systems thinking? And are they less divinely illuminated and more beholden to insight taken from the consequences of decisions across generations rather than within the lifespan of any individual?

Once could counter Machiavelli on his point:

He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.

… with the counter wisdom that, one [a ruler] who neglects what ought to be done, sooner effects the ruin of future generations. This alone should give any leader pause to consider their decisions lest their short term success indeed bring about ruin for those who follow.

What Would Machiavelli Do?

Niccolo Machiavelli was a 16th century Italian diplomat and political theorist, author of The Prince (Il Principe).  His short treatise was published in 1532 and has forever secured his fame [or infamy] as the book is singularly responsible for bringing the word “Machiavellian” into usage as a pejorative word in relation social and political dynamics.

The Prince is sometimes claimed to be one of the first works of modern philosophy, especially political philosophy, in which the pragmatic truth is taken to be more important than any abstract ideal.

Niccolo Machiavelli

The general theme of the short text is to accept that the aims of princes – such as glory and survival – can justify the use of any rational means to achieve those ends, without recourse to questions of morality.

He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.

The Prince starts by defining the “state” to mean,

all forms of organization of supreme political power, whether republican or princely.

He then clearly distinguishes new princedoms from hereditary established princedoms, by saying that hereditary ones are much easier to rule. For such a prince,

unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him.

This is opposed to his advice to new princes, for whom as the

… new ruler who will need to establish himself in defiance of custom.

Conquests by “criminal virtue” are ones in which the new prince secures his power. Machiavelli advises that a prince should carefully calculate all the wicked deeds he needs to do to secure his power, and then execute them all at once, such that he need not commit any more wickedness for the rest of his reign. In this way, his subjects will slowly forget his cruel deeds and his reputation can recover.


Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medicito whom the final version of The Prince was dedicated.

Since there are many possible qualities that a prince can be said to possess, he must not be overly concerned about having all the good ones. A prince may be perceived to be merciful, faithful, humane, frank, and religious, but most important is only to seem to have these qualities. A prince cannot truly have these qualities because at times it is necessary to act against them.

In addressing the question of whether it is better to be loved or feared, Machiavelli writes,

…it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.

Fear is simply a means to an end, and that end is security for the prince. The fear instilled should never be excessive, for that could be dangerous to the prince.

Machiavelli notes that a prince is praised for keeping his word. However, he also notes that a prince is also praised for the illusion of being reliable in keeping his word. A prince, therefore, should only keep his word when it suits his purposes, but do his utmost to maintain the illusion that he does keep his word and that he is reliable in that regard.

As Machiavelli notes,

He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.

In summary, to answer the titular question, ‘What would Machiavelli do?’ one may well surmise he would above all, do what needs to be done…

…for a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.

The Orchid Thief

The Orchid Thief is a 1998 non-fiction book by American journalist Susan Orlean based on an article that Orlean wrote for The New Yorker. It is based on her investigation of the 1994 arrest of John Laroche and a group of Seminole Indians in south Florida for poaching rare orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve.

Laroche, a Miami eccentric, hit upon the idea of collecting endangered species of orchids from swampland that was Seminole territory, by using real Seminole Indians to obtain his specimens and exploiting their legal right to use their own ancestral lands.

Laroche narrates a poetic passage about the beauty and mutability of the Orchid and the limitless shapes and forms they take to attract insects, insects which in turn imitate their shapes and coloring and fall in love with the flowers, propagating them in a curious dance of nature. Orlean’s writing centered on the power of singular passion to drive a person’s life.

Adaptation,  is a 2002 American comedy-drama, directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie [and Donald] Kaufman, based on Orlean’s book. Kaufman who had been hired to write a screenplay of the book, experienced writer’s block He ultimately wrote a script based on his experience of writer’s block while adapting the book into a screenplay.

Kaufman has a similar singular passion to Laroche, the passion to create a truly unique story, one that is far from the formulaic Hollywood scripts he abhors. The film then is a a pun, referring both to Darwinian principle of adaptation among Orchid species as lauded by Laroche, and the ordeal for Kaufman of adapting a book into a screenplay.

Kaufman co-credits the screenplay to his twin brother, a curiosity since Donald does not exist outside of the screenplay. Donald is everything Charlie is not – confident, successful with women, a hack writer. Faced with the surprising news that Donald’s script for a clichéd psychological thriller, called The 3, is selling for six or seven figures in Hollywood , Charlie resorts to attending a screenwriting seminar in New York to seek inspiration.

Needless to say the film slides from biography of man with writer’s block into a ludicrous conglomeration of elements of a Hollywood thriller, drugs, sex, guns, chases, even a crocodile attack. Charlie visibly perks up once he knows how to convert the book into a film and closes wondering which international superstar will portray himself in the film.

The film is both teller and told, both narrator and narrated. One is left realising that we have not watched a story of a man adapting a book into a screenplay, we have in fact been watching the story of a man telling the story we are watching, co-written by a character within the screenplay, leading us on a merry dance of adaptive creativity.

But what more would you expect from the writer-director duo who brought us ‘Being John Malkovich.’

Pygmalion

Pygmalion (Πυγμαλίων Pugmalíōn) is a legendary figure of Cyprus, most familiar from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses. He is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has carved.


Depiction of Ovid’s narrative by Jean Raoux.

Having crafted the perfect woman, Pygmalion makes offerings to Aphrodite at her festival day, quietly wishing for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl.” When he returns home, he kisses his ivory statue, and finds that its lips are warm. He kisses it again, and finds that the ivory has lost its hardness. Aphrodite has granted Pygmalion’s wish. Pygmalion marries the ivory sculpture and they live happily together.

In modern times, George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, reexamines the myth through the story of underclass flower-girl Eliza Doolittle who is metaphorically “brought to life” by a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins. Higgins teaches her to refine her accent and conversation and otherwise conduct herself with upper-class manners in social situations. The play inspired the film My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn.


King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884, by Edward Burne-Jones, currently hangs in the Tate Gallery, London.

George Bernard Shaw’s re-telling of the Pygmalion myth also draws upon the Elizabethan ballad of King Cophetua. Titled “The King and the Beggar-maid,” the story is Cophetua, tells of an African king who one day while looking out a palace window, witnesses a young beggar, Penelophon, “clad all in grey”. Struck by love at first sight, Cophetua walks out into the street, he tells Penelophon that she is to be his wife. She agrees and becomes queen, and soon loses all trace of her former poverty and low class.

C. S. Lewis often used Cophetua and the beggar girl as an image of God’s love for the unlovely. In The Problem of Pain, he writes,

We cannot even wish, in our better moments, that [God] could reconcile Himself to our present impurities – no more than the beggar maid could wish that King Cophetua should be content with her rags and dirt…

In classical fairy tales, the maiden is woken from an enchanted sleep by the kiss of the Prince, just as Pygmalion, the sculptor awakens his bride, with a kiss. Moreover, Professor Higgins endows Eliza with dignity and pride, bringing her ‘to life‘ by bestowing upon her the graces of society. But these tales offer little nuance to what may occur to an unsuspecting creator once he has summoned a real life woman with agency and choice, into his life.

It is not love to to fashion a person as though an object, to be pure and good, endowed with life yet with the expectation it will remain good and pure in perpetuity? A mannequin or socially engineered project like Eliza Doolittle cannot truly feel loved nor genuinely love in return under such conditions.

Bernard Shaw’s play notoriously does not end with the fairy-tale love story of Ovid’s Pygmalion. Rather Eliza rebels from Higgins, refusing to fetch his slippers and he grows furious for “lavishing” his knowledge and his “regard and intimacy” on a “heartless guttersnipe” who he has made “a consort for a king.”  The Hollywood film version ‘My Fair Lady’ of course rejected such a realistic ending in favour of, well a Hollywood one.

What is reality then? The Hebrew prophets tell of a tragic drama between YHWH and his people, here depicted as a young girl taken from poverty to be the bride of the King. Ezekiel 16 reads:

10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.

However, the bride does not remain beautiful and obedient for the king. She soon rebels, turning to prostitution and idol worship and even giving her children up for human sacrifices.

15 “‘But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute… 16 You took some of your garments to make gaudy high places, where you carried on your prostitution... 17 You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them. 

The prophet continues to lament all of Israel’s misfortunes as resulting from the self inflicted chaos of Israel’s choices, a once chosen and adorned bride who chased other lovers. He closes with a reminder of YHWHs eternal promises.

Soren Kierkegaard’s version of the ballad of King Cophetua, ‘The King and the Maiden’ retells the tale with the king willing to take on the clothes of a beggar to claim the woman he loves. It is he that abases himself rather than she he elevates, lest he overwhelm her with his power and grandeur and never truly claim her heart.

The King and the Maiden

This short story strikes at the heart of the reader, for love is true love not when the object of desire is bestowed with graces to make her worthy of love, but when she is met by the humbled heart of one earnestly and repeatedly wishing to know her win her heart, one indeed willing to suffer the pains of loving her and her imperfections and keep coming back to an eternal promise of love.