Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Archetypal Lesson from Kung Fu Panda 3

What’s more adorable than a Panda? Few creatures in nature are. Pandas have color markings highlighting eyes that seem to look upon the world with innocence. They seem just a bit melancholy, too, in spite of a zen-like existence.

What is equally adorable is a human toddler. Eager to explore, eager to learn, adapt and please. Panda plus toddler equals Po, adopted son of Mr. Ling, a goose; biological son of long-lost Li in Kung Fu Panda 3; and Dragon Warrior in training with Shifu. Ling, Li, and Shifu are but three of the father figures with which Po must wrestle to find himself and his strength. His is an archetypal literary struggle.

Po is an insecure creature. Abandoned as a baby, he finds his way to the Valley of Peace where his appetite and size set him apart. He arrives as a toddler--exuberant, awkward, and oversized when compared to others living in the Valley.

By the third movie, Po has acquired some skills, but he lacks the discipline of his peers. Nevertheless, Shifu retires to meditate in order to access the Secret of Chi. He names Po as the teacher, astounding everyone. Tigress, for example, possesses discipline and skills superior to Po’s, but she, like Crane, Viper, Mantis, and Monkey, accept Shifu’s wisdom and yield to Po’s leadership. He doesn’t perform well. He flounders and retreats to Mr. Ling’s noodle shop.

Kansas City Zoo
Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin
A disturbance in the market place draws both Po and Ling there, and that is where Po meets his biological father, Li. Po sees that it is his nature to eat and enjoy life. He agrees to accompany his father to the secret Panda home where he can learn to accept who he is and embrace Panda skills. His father also pretends to know the Secret of Chi.

Po’s departure leaves a vacuum in the Valley of Peace at a time when an old nemesis returns. Kai has stolen the chi of many spirit warriors, including that of Grand Master Oogway in the spirit realm. He has one more chi to claim in order to reign supreme. That is Po’s chi.

Kai crushes the opposition in the Valley of Peace; he wins the chi of Crane, Viper, Mantis, and Monkey. Only Tigress escapes to warn Po.

Now Po’s conflicts with father figures explode. Not only must he overcome his own fears, he must choose between his duty to the greater good and pleas from his adopted and biological fathers to save himself. He must weigh the wisdom of Shifu who believed in Po’s potential and present. He must summon courage against a fierce foe and unknowns. In brief, he must evaluate all the expectations others have of him and synthesize them into a whole known as Po.

The end is, of course, a triumph for Po. He finds, embraces, and lives up to his promise. We expect nothing less. This is an animated story for children, after all. They will struggle with adult expectations, too. They will feel pulled to be what their parents wish for them, and they will be attracted to what their peers want them to be and do. They must go to war with the spirit of themselves. In the best outcomes, the best within will emerge to lead.

Reading Challenge:

Read about the father (figure)-son conflict in literature. My Writing and Editing Coach has written about literary conflict before. Armed with these insights, “read” Kung Fu Panda 3.

Writing Challenge:

Write an essay comparing Kung Fu Panda 3 to the recent reboot of Star Wars, Episode 7.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

James Patterson's Zoo

I didn’t watch the Summer 2015 television series inspired by James Patterson’s novel Zoo. After reading Richard Adams’ novel The Plague Dogs and John Grogan’s Marley and Me, I know my heart cannot take lightly the harms humans do to the animals with which we share this earth.

I didn’t escape Zoo forever though. A member of a book club asked me to read it so I did--my first James Patterson book--one about the harms humans do to the animals with which we share this earth.

Patterson appears to be a master of story and pacing. Zoo moves quickly, in part because Patterson builds suspense well. Readers want to read on to know what happens next. The other reason the story’s pace is brisk is because most chapters are short. Readers believe they’re making great progress, and they are through 98 chapters plus a prologue and epilogue.
Photo provided by Al Griffin Photography;
steel sculpture by Mike Mistler, Lake of the Ozarks

The story appeals to readers because it’s timely. With contemporary references to 21st century lifestyles and to modern problems, Patterson casts a spell of verisimilitude. Our addiction to electronics and fossil fuels are an evil combination, it seems. The animal apocalypse links to climate change on pheromones.

Oz, the protagonist, has made it to Emerald City and pulled back the curtain to expose the truth about animal attacks on humans. Science and government dismiss him and deride his theories until the threat is inside their own homes or neighborhoods. With this plot thread, Patterson makes use of an archetypal conflict: one man against society.

Zoo is also a love story. Oz loses one love and gains another. His life grows richer even as it’s endangered by an animal apocalypse, but love restores Oz to a state of well being--not in circumstance but in hope. The animals may win, but man endures with a belief in tomorrows.

Reading Challenge:

Read James Patterson’s Zoo

Writing Challenge:

Write a letter in praise of Zoo; send it to James Patterson.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

Every generation believes it’s the first to be good or bad, clever or gullible, brave or cowardly. Its members tend to be absorbed by making friends, finding love, and discovering their talents. How can they be expected to look into our communal past?

I suspect the current generation’s fondness for Marvel comic-book heroes and video-game action movies will prevent the Coen Brothers’ latest film, Hail, Caesar! from rising to the top ten in their movie-going choices. Hail, Caesar! requires some looking back, some knowledge of Hollywood and its progeny through the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

First, the Hollywood then and now produced films grand in scope. Star Wars and Star Trek in all their incarnations, prequels, sequels, and reboots are at their core, Hollywood Westerns. Good guys face off against bad guys. There are shootouts in space and shootouts in corrals. Horses give way to pods, and weapons shift from fists to six-shooters and laser beams.

Hail, Caesar! invokes that love of the Hollywood Western with a character named Hobart Hobie Doyle, a Will-Rogers-ish star who rides, ropes, and talks folksy. He’s also smart, the only one to provide a solid lead in solving the studio’s mystery. He's also the one who accidentally finds the missing star.

Photo provided by Al Griffin of Al Griffin Photography
Because he’s so handsome, the studio decides to replace one star with Hobie’s rising star power, but Hobie is unpretentious and unsophisticated. He doesn’t speak high society, another film style in vogue. In these films, a ruling class with time on its hands wore tuxedos and evening gowns to dine late at night, sip champagne in clubs, and dance until dawn.

With little direction, Hobie tries to slide into the role. He looks great in a tuxedo, after all, but his delivery is flat, the words sounding foreign and strange with a folksy drawl. The effeminate director, Lawrence Laurentz, coaches Hobie in mirthless laughter, wry tones, and clipped speech. Hobie fails miserably. His five-word response becomes a short, clipped two words that he can speak with convicion.

The effeminate director and several lines of dialogue serve to introduce stars, writers, and directors who are snugly inside closets. They were not free to be themselves or to acknowledge their sexuality publically. Women were similarly burdened as DeeAnna Moran’s character proves. She is a pregnant single woman whom the studio wants to marry off because no single woman could survive being pregnant without a husband and father by her side, especially if the father happened to be married to another woman. Ingrid Bergman’s story proves that truth.

DeeAnna refuses the studio’s first offers because they would create a sham marriage for her. They would marry her to men disinterested in her as a sexual partner. The marriage would simply provide her with cover until a divorce could be arranged.

DeeAnna also represents a different sort of grand film--a film designed for her and her alone. Audie Murphy’s wartime heroics inspired writers to create Westerns and movies about war for him. Esther Williams’ Olympic medals inspired Busby Berkley   
spectacles featuring choreographed synchronized swimming.

The sharpest wit and parody go to Baird Whitlock, a debauched actor who’s prone to dames and booze. He’s as shallow as they come--so shallow in fact that a group of Communists persuade him to become their ally in a few short hours. He even returns to the studio and gives voice to his newly acquired theories about workers, justice, and rights. The studio boss literally slaps the nonsense out of him before commanding him to forget it, never speak of it again, and to deliver a moving speech about the Son of God in the closing scene in a third type of grand film favored by Hollywood of old--historical epics, usually set in Rome.

Whitlock acquiesces quickly. He’s a commodity bought and paid for, after all, but in a final irony, he speaks the speech beautifully. His delivery moves the crew on set until he forgets the last word, breaks characters, and curses. The word he forgets is faith, the essence of Hollywood. After all, the fans have faith that the actors are what they portray whether that is hero or villain, lawman or miscreant, ingĂ©nue or vamp, dreamer or cynic. That was and is the essence of typecasting.

The industry also has faith--a sort of cockeyed optimism that what it produces matters and therefore the people involved matter. The Coens seem to suggest that Hollywood is at least full of itself and perhaps even delusional. With a nod to the blacklists during the nation’s fear of Communists and to the writers who were accused of subversive messages, writers in Hail, Caesar! admit to covert, subversive speeches, but they are just as delusional as the studio bosses. Their plot to extort money from the studio fails; their speeches in scripts and in person change nothing. Theirs is a tale of fury told by an idiot signifying nothing (from Macbeth).

Reading Challenge:

Read Hail, Caesar!

Writing Challenge:

Write a review of Hail, Caesar!

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Vivid Figurative Language: Bitter Words

Readers of Our Eyes Upon Missouri enjoy reading about local restaurants, wineries, distilleries, and breweries. We’ve enjoyed some tasty foods and drink, and we’ve tried to remain pleasant when the tastes were anything but pleasant. That brings me to another lesson in vivid figurative language: words used to describe bitter flavors. Some of those words are: sour, tart, astringent, harsh, acidic, vinegary, and unsweetened.

Selecting the most precise word for the food or beverage you’re trying to describe is one way to communicate effectively with your readers. For example:

Unsweetened cherry filling delivered a tart taste that contrasted perfectly with dense, sweet whipped cream.

A delicious blend of berries and cream at Handel Haus, Cole Camp, MO
Photo provided by Al Griffin

Creating an image to convey the taste is even better. For example:

An antique wine press
Photo provided by Al Griffin
The taste of some local wines suggests they have tangled with an acidic foe and lost.

The wine proffered had the distinct color of apple cider vinegar. Worse, it tasted of astringent. If the price were right, I’d buy a bottle just to clean the toilet.

Her homemade lemonade was as sour as a green persimmon.

Reading Challenge:

Read about food in The Bitter Southerner. And if you’re not reading The Bitter Southerner regularly, why not? It’s always a fine read.

Writing Challenge:

Recall the spiciest food or most bitter drink you’ve ever sampled. Describe it.

Could wine be transformed by glasses
this beautiful? Photo by Al Griffin

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach. She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.