Thursday, June 18, 2015

Field of Dreams, Emotional Logic, and The Destiny Trope

I apologize, right up front. This one is longer than I originally wanted my pieces to be. This article contains a full exploration, and you'll be better for reading the whole thing.

To kick this off: two seemingly unrelated stories.

1. The Oculus Rift

Eight or so months ago I was evaluating the viability of using a new product - the Oculus Rift. I wanted to get a good feel for what it did well and where gaps in the product still existed. More than any product I've looked at in a long time, this thing had been hyped beyond recognition for almost a year prior to my getting one to test. It's a pair of goggles that fill your entire field of view, and track the movement of your head. So when you turn your head, the camera within the game you are looking at also turns, and you feel immersed in the experience. Basically, it's taking another crack at virtual reality. I tried test after test, and game after game trying to figure out what all the hype was about. More than anything else, I got really motion sick. Finally, I pulled up a test app where someone had recreated the final scene from Close Encounters (the alien's landing).

I tinkered around in the scene with my new toy, poking at corners and waiting for the aliens to arrive. That meant I heard the incoming ship before I saw it (I was facing the wrong way), and I turned just in time to see it come in over the mountain top. My. jaw. dropped. open.

As the alien ship, fake-looking and pixelated as it was, filled my entire field of view, I felt a sense of its vastness in my gut and tensed up all over with suspense. For just a moment, I understood all of the hype. For a split second that ship was real to me.

2. My Contentious Girlfriend

When I was in my first year in college - and deeply infatuated with film - I dated a girl who argued constantly with me about the merits of different films and stories - or the lack thereof. She thought that writers of drama in general were people seeking to turn anything into its most extreme form, and would often forsake logic and basic reasoning in favor of opportunities to make an audience laugh or cry. I'm not saying she's wrong, and that she hasn't touched on a major problem in entertainment media, but we always fought because she insisted that dramatic classics were some of the worst offenders, and often used them as her token examples for the central flaws in storytelling as we know it. Her favorite example was Romeo and Juliet - and she loved to trash Shakespeare in general.

I also just happened to be on a huge Shakespeare, and especially Romeo and Juliet, kick at that point. Besides, how could I allow her to badmouth the Bard? So we fought... a lot.

Emotional Logic

The first thing I want to tackle is a blanket term I apply to multiple individual phenomenons or experiences, and how we use them to assess our enjoyment of or empathy towards a film. I gave examples of two of these experiences (or thought  processes) - that I will explain in a minute - in the above stories. But, the big idea behind emotional logic is that when you as an audience member evaluate (even subconsciously) a piece of media, your methods for doing so do not necessarily follow patterns of logic or rational thought. You do not use the same methods as you would to evaluate an argument or research article. There is an emotional and empathetic component that takes over your mental processing, oftentimes even inhibiting rational thought, and sweeping you away. You begin to feel along with the characters on screen (assuming the film has helped the two of you build a relationship) and assess whether or not the narrative feels realistic rather than whether or not it actually is realistic.

In the first story, I told an experience where the emotional aspect of an experience completely overpowered the intellectual conversation I was having with myself. The psychology behind this gets a little complex (and would make this article even longer than it is), but the important part of this is that unless you have years of intense training in controlling your own emotions, this is true of just about everyone. It's a large part of what makes narratives so transportive, and also what allows them to take us to so many places. Sure, suspension of disbelief is part of it, but no audience member is willing to suspend disbelief entirely, accepting fiction on trust or face value. Suspension of disbelief pays off to the audience when they are rewarded with a rich experience that feels real in return for their willingness to believe it could be plausible. And then, when the audience is given those rich emotional experiences, suspending disbelief is no longer a chore, because the emotional assessment of the fictional reality is more powerful than our rational mind can keep at bay. It's why telling yourself that Bambie doesn't exist can't save you from crying when his mother dies. And the clarity, power, and familiarity of those emotions become our basis for assessing how believable or emotionally valuable a story is - regardless of how well it adheres to physical realities.

In the second story, I brought up another aspect of emotional logic: the actual assessment of films based on emotional (rather than logical) evidences that they are realistic or believable. A proper logical assessment of Romeo and Juliet would require that you remember both protagonists are 15, and at that age every emotion feels like the strongest and most real emotion you have ever felt in your life EVER! Both protagonists are motivated by pure, hormone-catalyzed emotion, and you can sit back from your logical high tower and contemplate how crazy the protagonists are. But no one ever thinks of the story in such detached terms. Romeo and Juliet is called one of the greatest romances of all time because we identify with it and empathize with it (at least those who like it do). It's not because we all think those tweens are so fascinating and silly, or because we distantly refer to it as a 'teen drama,' or a 'coming of age' story. We have an entirely separate ruler by which to measure our enjoyment of stories like Romeo and Juliet, and it's largely emotional. Romeo and Juliet is a classic because it captures an emotional rawness towards love that so many people can remember or relate to, and distills and displays it in its purest and most concentrated form - two teenagers that think there really is nothing else to life than that emotion. In this context, every kiss does actually feel like the world is spinning, and each moment is full of fireworks. We empathize with how that feels, and when the characters act irrationally, we evaluate the emotions they must be feeling, their history that informs their emotions, and our own history or understanding of that emotion rather than the reality or logic of the situation. Are the feelings of this character consistent with what I know about him or her? Are his or her actions consistent with their feelings?

In that context, Romeo doesn't kill himself just because he wants you, as an audience member, to be sad. He kills himself because his emotions make him feel as if there is no other option. And that - it turns out - is valuable to us because it is an emotion so many of us recognize. It's certainly not because it seems like realistic behavior.

Think about the return home plot in Wall-E. Logically, the autopilot has a much stronger argument for staying out in space than the captain has for returning to earth. When the evidence is weighed, you have a planet that has been deemed too toxic for humans by scientists, and orders that the crew can never be entirely sure that it has fully righted itself, versus a single robot that found a plant. But we don't care. So emotionally intoxicating is the idea of going home that we ignore the more rational argument in favor of what feels right. That robot steering wheel doesn't want to go home. What kind of monster wouldn't want to go home? (This is also a common tactic in political rhetoric, but I'm certainly not going to discuss that here.)


A Quick Sidenote about those "Fanboyz"

Before someone has a chance to jump in and say, "Wait a minute, I assess films logically and point out their flaws to all my friends and family so that they don't enjoy their experience," and think that they are either an exception to this rule or proof that it just isn't true, I want you to know I call people that do that fanboyz - and that's not a good thing in this case.

Everyone has different things that they value in movies, and everyone has a line of believability they won't let movies cross. My mother-in-law worked as a nurse before she first saw Thor. She loved the movie, except for the fight in the hospital, because she knew there was no way you could have a fist fight in a hospital gown without it falling off and exposing the nether regions. That was her line, and the movie crossed it. She was fine with rainbow bridges, ice giants, and the entire united Marvel universe, but that hospital gown was too unrealistic for her. But again, that's not really what bugs me about fanboyz.

Fanboyz actively seeks to rip apart their own and other people's experience solely for the purpose of proving that they are more knowledgeable than another person. They come up with theories about or attacks on movies based on surface details that don't matter to how the story is perceived or enjoyed. And for a multitude of reasons, fanboys ruin everything. Not only are their millions of them spreading their hate all over the internet at this very moment, but movie companies are beginning to think they actually have to listen to that garbage. Therefore, they feel the need to take an extra 30 minutes of Superman's runtime explaining what a codec is - even though it's an extraneous detail to the characters or emotional plot line of the film. They did it to make sure the film was more scientifically accurate and logical just so no one would complain.

Don't get me wrong. Being realistic, in fiction, is a huge plus. But it's not at the core of what actually matters to us, and with all the other dramatic missteps of Man of Steel, it obviously kept them from doing other, more important, things.But that's not really what I meant to talk about. 

So, my advice to fanboyz is twofold, (1) don't ruin other people's experiences over little details that you were only able to notice because you were watching a bad movie. And (2) those things probably aren't actually what made the movie bad in the first place, so maybe you should take a deeper look. Logistical accuracy has never been a requirement for fictional narratives.

Finally, let's look at one more aspect of emotional logic in for a deeper analysis - Familiarity. Asian "superheroes" differ greatly from western superheroes, and that difference tells us a lot about what people value, and what feels real to them. American superheroes are given their powers through accidents outside their control, magical coincidence, or just by being from somewhere else entirely. Asian heroes, on the other hand, are often normal people who have a whole lot of the right kind of training. Asian heroes are something that you can become by your own power rather than force majeure. So, for westerners to believe that a man can stop a sword blade with just his hand, we have to invent an elaborate story about how he became so powerful by existing within a faux reality - while any old martial artist can do it in Asia if they've trained enough and have the right mindset. And remember, this is all on an emotional level - that is what it takes for our superheroes to feel real to us. And that makes sense - western superheroes match the pattern of stories that we surround ourselves with, where people triumph based on their ingenuity, knowledge of science, and luck. Contrastingly, Asia has had super humans doing insane things out of sheer willpower, practice, and a still mind for thousands of years - and it is a one cultural staple that informs their world views. So, audience members evaluate those stories on a subconscious level by comparing them to the feelings of agreement and assurance that they have had while consuming other stories. Iron Man is Elon Musk - with science and ingenuity on his side, while Katayama Gorobei can sense a blow to the head before it comes, just as many thought Bruce Lee could in real life. It feels right because it feels similar to what we experience around us, even though it may not actually be linked to reality in any other way. So it might just be that Field of Dreams matters to us because it leans on the familiarity and nostalgia of classic baseball. But I'm not really ready to talk about Field of Dreams yet.

The Destiny Trope

Understanding emotional logic is important to our discussion because next I want to talk about the Destiny Trope in movies, and how completely enraptured movies and audiences are with the whole idea. Understanding why we - as audience members - consistently value this kind of story is much more important than understanding why moviemakers continue to create this kind of story, but it is also a lot harder to answer. Especially when it neither seems logical or helpful to us in the long run.

While there are many forms which destiny can take in films, the specific flavor of the unavoidable fate that I am referring to treats each person's life as a river - flowing toward a predetermined point. Trying to make any decision contrary to destiny is not only futile, but makes the character unhappy and unsuccessful. However, should the character finally face their destiny and give in to what was always meant to be, they will find that life has already lined up everything for them to be successful and happy if they can just accept what they were always meant to do. once they accept their destiny they need only go with the flow, and success is assured. This type of destiny is decided by the universe and completely outside the control of the character - and the character need only accept their destiny to be happy and successful, or run from it and be forever unhappy.

This is subtly, but importantly, different from Strictly Ballroom's "A life lived in fear is a life half lived." destiny - wherein destiny is a destination, but the character must choose whether or not that is the life they intend to pursue. With this version of destiny, sometimes the character believes in their heart that is where they want to be, but fear or some other obstacle prevents them from getting to it. No. Instead, the destiny trope I'm talking about would say that the universe demands that the protagonist fulfill their destiny, and he or she has an illusion of choice whether or not to accept, but trying to deny destiny is painful, and giving into fate in inevitable.

A perfect example of the destiny trope I'm getting at is in August Rush (2007). Within the first act of August Rush, we learn that lover characters must love each other, must have a son, and they all must make music. Then, everyone but the boy spend the entire plot of the film trying to duck and dodge their destiny until the final act when they accept it, and VOILA, everything falls into place. (P.S. Spoilers!) This piece was largely panned by critics for being so predictable, but it was lauded by audiences for being touching and meaningful (I didn't make that up - those are real reviews and to clarify I'm not making fun of them). But what about this trope and this approach to story universes is so meaningful to us? As discussed before it is not because of how true to life it is, or how well it matches our perception of reality, but instead we value it on a deeper, more emotional level. So why? Is following destiny to a magical land of happiness a reality that is familiar to us? Or is it just a familiar story?

Rather than sitting around talking about a more obscure use of this trope, let's tackle the big kahuna - why is Field of Dreams, that timeless classic, a wonderful and poignant story? It's based on a construct of reality that even by emotional terms doesn't seem like how things are, but we still love it. We can all agree that the universe doesn't actually arrange people's lives for them and give them no choice but to fulfill a specific destiny, right?

Oh wait, I didn't actually want to talk about Field of Dreams yet. My bad. I promise we'll come back.

On one level it is extremely easy for me to understand why moviemakers write, shoot, and edit films with this trope - it's a group of driven people who broke into a tight-knit community, usually just by sheer hard work and patience. This is a group of people who spent a good amount of time going to sleep at night hoping that destiny had something in store for them, feeding their own motivation on the story that working in the movies is where they belong. And many of those who make it, don't necessarily love their jobs more than other people, but my experience has been that they continue to feed themselves the story of it being "meant to be" in order to help make the hard times easier. It's an emotion that I can really empathize with. So, of course moviemakers want to continue to tell that kind of story, but why do we as audience members continue to want to hear it? Are we all waiting to realize our "real" destinies and hanging onto a psychologically unhealthy hope that one day the universe will align and give us our due? I can't actually believe that's true. Are these movies only appealing to passionate youth (like Romeo and Juliet mentioned before) who haven't had their dreams completely crushed by the world? Still not buying it.

Which bring us to my last major point of emotional logic: it's completely self-reflective. It is tainted by our self-centered perspective on reality. You see, of the two types of destiny I mentioned -  unavoidable destiny decided by and driven by the universe and the destiny of a character deciding to set their own path and driving on - both feel the same when we reach our goal. In that moment, our selfish perception is that the world aligns for a moment to bring us unimaginable joy. So, a story that gets us there in more natural or healthy means would have the same emotional outcome as one that actually included the world bending over backwards to solve the protagonist's central issue - they both feel the same once we actually get to that point.

This emotional perception changes throughout our life. As our emotions mature, some stories lose their allure because we no longer identify with how they portray this emotional reality. So I'm not saying this is all subconscious and beyond our control - quite the opposite. What I am saying is that without persistent monitoring our natural reactions betray how emotionally mature we really are, and in some cases we find that we are more mature than the filmmakers trying to construct the emotional experience that we are consuming, and sometimes we find the opposite is true. That's why some films feel immature to many people, but appeal to others. It also helps explain, in part, how so many immature movies claim such large crowds and make so much money - one of the primary demographics for blockbusters is teenagers. And science tells us their brains are out of whack, and their emotions are full-strength without being fully matured.

Either way, the larger point is that neither our (nor the teenagers') emotions are concerned with the larger reality of the world and it's turning. They are completely self-centered. When we meet a huge goal in life it feels like the universe arranged it. It may not be true, but to our emotional experience the world does in fact revolve around us. So when we feel the great triumph of closing a big sale, or a lost loved one reclaimed, or even a high score in a video game - it feels like our entire life up to that point was meant for that moment. And so, films with narratives that move heaven and hell to make the destiny of the protagonists come to fruition end up feeling real by our own emotional logic, and don't seem as far-fetched as they are. Thus, the completely unreal twistings of the vast universe feel personal and poignant, as they do in Field of Dreams.

Field of Dreams

Well, you've made it through the book prior to the actual movie review. And if you are now wondering why I focused in on the destiny trope in this film, while completely ignoring the other themes that the film addresses, there are multiple reasons. First, I don't actually think there are as many themes in this movie as the movie itself seems to think there are. It mentions themes of alienation, 60's aftermath, estrangement, and the tension between following one's dreams and fulfilling responsibilities towards those around us - but these are never explored. The tension between the financial and emotional needs of Ray's family versus this crazy destiny-chase he goes on are a strawman at best (the final argument/decision before Karin is knocked off the bleachers) - and an obligatory reminder that there is a conflict in this film at worst (the phone call scene before picking up Archie on the side of the road). The real themes of this movie are father-son relationships, destiny, and baseball.

I really don't have much to say about the father-son relationship bit or baseball. This movie makes me nostalgic towards America's pastime in lots of ways that I didn't think were still pertinent to me as a person (since it's been over 15 years since I last picked up a mitt). What the film does show and talk about it does well, and that's a big part of what I like about it. Also, I still get choked up at the end when Ray meets his father as he's never met him - young and wide-eyed. Sure, the father-son theme in the film gets significantly less time than the other two, but it serves to make the final payoff much more personal as well.

Which brings me to my third reason - I focused on the destiny trope because it was the theme that took up the majority of the time, but I had the most problem with. Like a doctor, I ignored the entire body that was healthy and just kept staring and poking at this one strange and puzzling mole.

And Field of Dreams is so inundated with the destiny trope it is practically the price for admission. the first real scene of this movie is Ray hearing a voice that thrusts him unwillingly into the plot. We don't even know who he is (besides his charming but unnecessary narration of his life up to that point) at this point in the film, but we do know that the universe wants him to get to work fulfilling his destiny. I say "unwillingly," but that attitude is only true of this first "destiny push." From then on, any time destiny calls Ray is there taking orders like he's Raymond from the Manchurian Candidate.  He loses all agency and power as a character, and is only there to do what destiny bids. Destiny commands he build a baseball field and he does it; destiny bids he find a lonely, antisocial author and kidnap him, fine, whatever you say; and then destiny tells him to find a dead doctor, and he doesn't know how to do that. But never fear, destiny will ambiguously send him back in time so that he can fulfill his goal. All of this shows that, thematically, this movie isn't telling us anything about Ray - if it were Ray would have some control over the story, his reactions would matter, or he would at least have something to say as the victim of this event. No, instead this film is telling us about karma and the cosmic spinnings of the universe that set events in motion so that Ray can reunite with his father - whether or not he actually wants to. Destiny demands that he act, he does, and he is ultimately rewarded for it. That tells us more about destiny than it tells us about Ray.

And yet it still works on some level. I still got a little choked up when "Moonlight" Graham lost his chance to play baseball, and when John finally got to meet his granddaughter. Especially since our responses are self-reflective, that tells you something about me, and how I resonate with themes and situations. But no matter how effective the moments that do work are, they can't communicate what the film could have been if it had treated this theme more maturely.

Every time I talk this point with people, I get a few eye rolls. I understand that it is kind of silly to compare a film to a hypothetical version that is way better. But ultimately, doing so is about the act of finding where a film fails for you, understanding how you think it could've done better, and drawing conclusions about film in general based on your ideas. And I'm not going to try and support that position, I'll just let Steven Spielberg do it for me.

There's an interesting BTS section on the Close Encounters special features where Steven Spielberg opens up and says that he would never make Close Encounters today; he thought it represented misguided ideas he had as a youth. In the film, Richard Dreyfuss is inexplicably drawn to discover what is at the top of a mountain - no matter the costs. He obsesses about it and ultimately abandons his family in search of what it all means. Sound familiar?

What Spielberg said about that situation was that it skipped over the real story to chase a contrived one. If the protagonist were obsessing about something, what would it take to get so under his skin to uproot or cause him to neglect the things in his life that were most important to him - like his family? How would having a family create conflict and add meaning to that experience? Ignoring the social and familial relationships to chase after the contrived situation of learning the meaning of someone's life and the purpose of their destiny is not only selfish (and yet rewarded in both Encounters and Field of Dreams), but it misses the point of where most people find meaning. In both situations the protagonists ignore their family in order to find the meaning of life. And, by my standards that's just counter-productive.

In summary, I think my wife said it best when, as we were watching Field of Dreams a brief shot came on of Ray pining over his empty field while Christmas happened in the background, "Wait, he's skipping Christmas for that dumb thing?"

And that's an emotional evaluation based on emotional values, and has nothing to do with how well Field of Dreams matches reality. Which is good, because it doesn't do that either. 

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