Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In the past couple of weeks, I saw two of the most popular films in the world released this year. The first one you have all heard of. The second you probably haven’t.
The first film I am referring to is obviously Avengers: Endgame, which has set all manners of records at the box office. Critics have been describing the not-so-secret secret of its success with phrases like “satisfying” and “full circle,” while fans talk about “callbacks” and “Easter eggs.” Both seem to me to be really referring to the French-Bulgarian literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov called “the grammar of narrative.” (Minor spoiler follows.)
Using examples from the Italian classic Decameron, Todorov famously proposed that for a story to be satisfying, it must conform to a certain structure. A sentence must conform to certain grammar to make sense. So it is that without the correct structure, a story feels incoherent, or indeed not much of a story at all but only a series of events.
And the basic elements of the grammar of narrative, according to Todorov, are transitions from equilibrium to disequilibrium to a new and different equilibrium. This simple formulation disguises much beneath. The trick to screenwriting in each Marvel film (or indeed most successful films) is to build this structure into the story. The trick to screenwriting in the entire Marvel “Infinity Sage” is to impose a meta-structure across the 22 films. That the Marvel screenwriters largely succeed in doing so is frankly astonishing.
The many “callbacks” are often actually verbal motifs, no less than Gatsby’s green light is a motif. Like pins on a map, they help both the audience and the writers trace the developments from one equilibrium to another.
Tony Stark’s motif, for example, is the simple and declarative “I am Iron Man” — it is almost like the Tetragrammaton in the Bible, God’s answer when asked for His name: “YHWH,” “I am what I am.” He said it at the end of the first Iron Man film, announcing his identity to the world. He says it again at the end of Iron Man 3 in self-affirmation. And he says it again in Endgame — I won’t say any more about how or why or when.
Indeed, there is a masterly tangled web of character arcs in Endgame. Instead of spoiling more of it, I’ll move on now to the other film.
The Wandering Earth hit theaters in China in February. Netflix has bought international rights and is now streaming it. It is one of the most successful Chinese films of all time, and it is the first major sci-fi film attempted by modern Chinese filmmakers.
Based on a novella by Liu Cixin, China’s Arthur C. Clarke, The Wandering Earth begins with this audacious (or preposterous) premise: As the sun threatens to expand and swallow the earth, humans build thousands of engines around the globe to push the earth out of its orbit, out of the solar system, all the way to the Alpha Centauri system over four lightyears away.
There are many issues with this premise. It contradicts the premise in Liu’s more famous work, The Three-Body Problem, in which aliens from the Alpha Centauri system attack earth because their system is all but uninhabitable because of its three stars, which lead to chaotic and unpredictable planetary orbits. In the film it is explained that it would take 2,500 years to push the earth to Alpha Centauri. As a former student of physics, I couldn’t help doing some back-of-the-envelope math, and by my calculations, the energy necessary to accelerate the earth to the corresponding speed is on the order of 100 trillion times that provided by all remaining oil reserves.
But all right, one is supposed to accept the premise, as one watching a Marvel film is supposed to accept not only the Norse thunder god as a real guy but also both a talking tree and a talking raccoon.
The Wandering Earth, though, then goes on to steal with enthusiastic determination every Hollywood cliche in the sci-fi disaster genre. A scene outside a spinning spaceship is a near quotation from Gravity. The creepy and murderous AI aboard the ship is a rip-off of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many action sequences on the iced-over surface of the earth could have been from the cutting room floor of Armageddon. The father-son dynamic between a Chinese astronaut and his rebellious earthbound son is straight out of The Day After Tomorrow, as is the son’s trek across the ice.
And the events of the film take place on Chinese New Year, just as Independence Day takes place on the 4th of July weekend. In the latter, a handful of Americans save the world while other countries have no more than bit parts. So in The Wandering Earth, a handful of Chinese save the world, while Americans, Japanese, and Indians are specifically shown to refuse to help. Hinting at China’s geopolitical priorities today, the Chinese astronaut’s best friend is a Russian who repeatedly avows his friendship. His son and his crew drive all the way from Beijing to Sulawesi, Indonesia, to repair an earth-engine, as though embodying China’s political reach into Southeast Asia. The distance from Beijing to Sulawesi is 4,659 kilometers as the bird flies, and yet the crew is shown to get there by truck in a matter of hours. To paraphrase Rocket Raccoon, that better be some truck.
If the filmmakers set out to prove that the Chinese can make sci-fi films with lots of frenetic action and special effects, just like Hollywood, lots of plot holes and physical impossibilities, just like Hollywood, and thinly veiled elements of propaganda, just like Hollywood, then I suppose they succeeded.
But I can’t say that they have mastered the grammar of narrative. The Chinese astronaut begins the film as a self-sacrificing hero and ends as a self-sacrificing hero. His son begins resentful of his father for leaving him to go onto the ship that leads the way for earth as it travels through space, and he stops resenting his father by the end, but it’s hard to see what has changed to justify that shift.
You might point out that many Hollywood films also fail to grasp the grammar of narrative, and you’d be right. When those big-budget blockbusters come out, we shake our heads and wonder how the studios ever thought this was a good idea. Often we explain their awfulness on the grounds that they are corporate-made, big studio films.
Except there is no bigger studio than Disney/Marvel. There is nothing more corporate-made than the Avengers films.
Take away the objection that some have for capitalism, the inherent problem with corporate productions is that there are too many cooks in the kitchen, from screenwriters to directors to executive producers with their dreaded notes. It boils down to the same perennial problem of trying to produce anything by committee.
And yet, occasionally, very occasionally, the committee succeeds beyond all expectations. Like the translators of the King James Bible. Like the argumentative attendees at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Like the makers of the MCU.
And maybe one day Chinese filmmakers will manage to do the same.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."