Thursday, June 28, 2012

Suicide Club and Noriko's Dinner Table: Big Picture vs. Intimate Characters

Note: This post reveals spoiler-type points about the movies and books it discusses.

Noriko’s Dinner Table has been on my Netflix radar for a while now, and I even started watching it once before, but I gave up after I figured out it’s the sequel to a movie I hadn’t yet seen (Suicide Club). I was browsing through my Netflix Instant queue (I don't get DVDs from the right now) the other day, saw that Noriko was going to disappear at the end of June, and decided I wanted to give it another try.

Luckily, Suicide Club was available for a cheap online rental on Amazon, so I watched it last night and Noriko this afternoon. One thing that struck me is that, even though both movies look similar visually and fit together nicely, they are very different in several ways. The first is in tone: Suicide Club is a horror movie, quite gory in a few scenes and genuinely disturbing in several more; Noriko mostly sidesteps the horror tropes, and ends up feeling like more of a dysfunctional family drama.

Another major difference is how each movie tells its story: Suicide Club is much more image- and event-driven, while Noriko relies (too much, in some places) on voiceover narration. At times, it feels more like an illustrated novel than a movie.

Along with that, there’s a marked difference in how characters are used in each movie, and as a result, the scope that they try to cover. Suicide Club’s opening scene (and the sequence at the center of both movies) shows numerous Japanese high school girls lining up along the tracks at a train station. As a train pulls in, the girls (54 of them) jump onto the tracks and are killed, with accompanying explosions of blood. 

In contrast, Noriko begins in a similar location, but instead of a grisly tableau, we listen to the teenaged title character explain that she has run away to Tokyo.

As Suicide Club continues, the original mass train suicide seems to set off an epidemic, with several scenes of Japanese people (mostly young people) killing themselves, sometimes with a group, other times individually. Each soon-to-be dead character only gets a scene or two before they die, making it difficult, first, to understand why they want to die, and second, to identify with the characters on a personal level. Thus, the focus of these scenes focuses more on the phenomenon of suicide than with the characters who are dying.

Noriko, on the other hand, indulges in extended backstory sequences explaining where Noriko and her family live, and how and why she decides to leave her hometown and run away to Tokyo. She has connected with a group of girls on an online message board, and all of these girls live in the big city; thus, Noriko believes she will not be lonely if she can meet them in real life. If you pay attention, you’ll recognize that the website Noriko frequents also plays an important role in Suicide Club, but other than that, the two movies don’t feel very closely connected early on.

(SPOILERS in the next paragraph)

Gradually, we come to learn that the Noriko’s message board friends are also responsible for the mass suicide at the train station (and other events before and after it), and we see how the characters we have come to know are part of a larger movement. Suicide Club does the opposite, focusing on the events of the movement without revealing who is behind them until late in the film, and even then, it’s really hard to figure out why they are committing these acts of destruction.

The only other example I can think of where the same creator (Shion Sono wrote and directed Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table) used such different storytelling modes in the same overall work is Jose Saramago’s novels Blindness and Seeing. In Blindness, we follow a small group of individuals struggling to survive after an epidemic of blindness has left everyone (except for one character) unable to see. Seeing picks up the story after (SPOILER) humanity has regained its sight, and is working to put society back together. Most of its scenes are set in boardrooms and offices where high-powered archetypes discuss everything that has happened.

The Noriko/Blindness approach to a story is more common these days (The Hunger Games novels are another example, as are most YA novels), I think because it’s much harder to get readers and viewers to invest in a story if they don’t care about the people in it. Action movies tend to focus more on events than characters, but even then, audiences are usually given an identifiable protagonist (like Sam Witwicky in the Transformers movies).

I’m not sure which mode I prefer. I tend to fall more on the character side, but in the case of Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table, I think Suicide Club is a better movie. Not having a central character gives each scene a palpable sense of danger, because you’re never sure if a given character is going to survive his or her next scene. And in a horror movie, that’s a major asset. At the same time, though, the emotional payoff in Noriko is more immediate, first because it’s much easier to understand what’s going on, and second because we have invested a significant amount of time with the central characters.

Personally, though, I found myself more in the grip of the anything-could-happen existential crazypants of Suicide Club. It was more than the challenge of trying to piece together a coherent narrative, too; the central character void allowed me to enter the psychological space of the story in a way that I could not have if a traditional protagonist were embodying those feelings and showing me how they react to them. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Man From Primrose Lane (Sort-of Review)

NOTE: This post discusses, in general terms, aspects of The Man from Primrose Lane you should ideally not know before reading the novel.

A few years ago, I read Long for This World by Michael Byers. It’s about a doctor researching the fictional Hickman Syndrome, which causes cells to deteriorate, making those afflicted with the disorder age rapidly and die before they reach adulthood. During his research, the doctor discovers a remarkable boy whose cells don’t seem to deteriorate at all. This boy could be the key to curing Hickman, and potentially to stopping death itself.

Byers get to the border of some really interesting territory in the book—what if we could life forever?—but instead of exploring it, he stops. The remarkable boy dies, and life (and death) goes on as it always has.

I had selfish reasons for wanting Long for this World to go in a more fantastic direction—I’m writing a novel about a world where people don’t have to die—but I can understand why Byers cut off his plot where he did. If he had not, it would have pushed his novel onto the science fiction shelves, and since Byers teaches in the MFA program at the University of Michigan, he probably doesn’t want his name to end up there. (I don’t have time to go into it here, but genre writing and MFA programs usually don’t mix.)

I was reminded of Long for this World when I read The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner (I first heard of Renner in the video below, where he explains the book publishing process using Star Wars figures). Renner’s book is about a true crime author’s search for a serial killer, which is, of course, a completely different plot than Long for this World.

The similarity is that Primrose Lane also comes to a point where is could either follow a more traditional story arc or take a turn toward “the genres” (Junot Diaz’s phrase), and where Long for this World stops, Primrose Lane leaps headfirst into crazytown. I don’t mean that as a insult; I rather enjoy leaps into crazytown.

The strange thing is, though, I felt somewhat cheated when I realized where Renner’s book was going. I thought I was reading a straightforward crime procedural, and ended up getting a time-travel saga that plays like a mashup of Primer and Timecrimes, both of which you should watch if you haven't already.

I imagine this is how a lot of people would have felt if Long for this World had followed its eternal life rabbit hole all the way through to its natural conclusion.

The reason for my reaction, I think, had to do with how my expectations had been groomed through the early sections of the book. You don’t find out what’s “really going on” until halfway through the book, by which time I had already decided what sort of book I thought I was reading. (Primrose Lane isn’t being marketed as a science fiction novel, even though it really is; the jacket copy calls it “genre-twisting,” but wisely doesn’t mention which genres it twists.)

I read enough books and watch enough movies that it’s hard to surprise me, so I’m usually grateful when it happens. But when I got to the big reveal in Primrose Lane, I was somehow disappointed to discover I was reading one of “those” books.

I kept going, though, and while I ended up liking Primrose Lane, I’m a little mad at myself for not liking it more than I did, since it really is the kind of book I want to write.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Marriage of Historical Fiction and Science Fiction

I have never been very interested in historical fiction. For a long time, I thought that was because my interests skewed more toward science fiction, and I thought those two genres were on opposite ends of the spectrum. Historical fiction, of course, deals with things that really happened, while science fiction deals with things that haven’t happened (yet, at least).

I recently finished reading Connie Willis’s novels Blackout and All Clear (both books tell a single story—it’s more accurate to call the work a two-volume novel, except no one writes those anymore). My experience with Willis’s books is making me rethink the historical fiction-science fiction binary.

The setup of Blackout and All Clear is that historians at Oxford University in the year 2060 can use time travel to go back and see what life was really like back then. The plot follows three historians who are all studying different aspects of WWII England, especially Germany’s bombing of London. One of the jacket blurbs jokes that the level of period detail will make you think Willis had access to the time machines in the books, and I’m inclined to agree.

I recently graduated from Ball State University with a Master’s in Creative Writing, and one of my professors, Cathy Day, talked about the time and effort it takes to research historical fiction; she wrote about a the origins of her hometown’s circus in The Circus in Winter and is currently working on a novel about Cole Porter’s wife. 

Thinking about the amount of work Connie Willis must have done to get all the details just right in Blackout and All Clear boggles my mind.

The way that Willis evokes distinct time periods in the novels—1940s London and a futuristic Oxford—as well as combines these two genres, has made me realize that historical fiction and science fiction both do the work of world-building. That is, they attempt to flesh out and represent a world significantly different from the world in which the author lives.

The difference comes from how the author constructs those worlds. An author writing historical fiction is bound by how the world really was—the kinds of materials they used for clothes, when a given song was recorded, the dialect and jargon of the period—whereas an author writing science fiction is bound by the particulars of the world they envision—whether time travel is possible, if aliens have visited Earth, what kinds of technology have been invented. Both end up limiting the choices an author can make about the world they create, although the rules for each genre are different.

I’m currently working on a science fiction novel about a world in which a machine allows people to come back from the dead, and noticing the kinds of choices Day and Willis had to make when they wrote their historical stories is helping me to think through all of the little details that will build and define my fictional world. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Doctor Who - Davros's Chair

In part three of "The Genesis of the Daleks," you can clearly see the back of Davros's chair giving you the finger.