Friday, 28 February 2014

Clerks: Mapping Dante's Journey

Clerks: Mapping Dante’s Journey

Dante Hicks was a most tragic hero! Maybe at least the most relatable hero, if you are me anyway. No matter what your opinion he is of course the hero of his own particular journey and of course the hero in Kevin Smith’s 1994 films, Clerks and Clerks II. (Say what you will about Kevin Smith he knows how to name a sequel). This rant however is not about sequels or even about Kevin Smith, it’s about Dante Hicks, and his journey.

It has been said that there are only seven stories told in infinite ways. While I do not know if that is true, Clerks is a great example of this maxim. Clerks is easily a retelling of the rebirth story, although interestingly was originally intended as the tragedy (but more on that later.) The rebirth is the telling of the tragedy where our hero is redeemed at the end. Clerks may have worked best as tragedy as the movie truly encompasses the stages discussed in Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (2014). Booker’s stages of tragedy are made out within the film except the death of the hero. Our hero first gets fascinated by the concept of reuniting with his ex. Next our hero gets determined to win back his lost love; this is referred to as the dream stage within this stage we may see our hero begin to do morally questionable things in order to achieve his goal. We see Dante throughout the film slip through the frustration and nightmare stages as he discovers that his ex-girlfriend is in fact engaged and had cheated on him multiple times. Finally destruction: in the original cut Dante is gunned down before he is able to close the store ultimately completing his own tragedy. The final cut however ends with our hero simply realizing that he has already found the perfect girl for him and coming to some serious realization about his own life and future. This takes our story from tragedy to rebirth in which our hero is redeemed. 

No matter a viewer’s opinion on which of the seven basic plots Clerks falls within, or if in fact you believe that all stories must fall within seven plots at all; It can clearly be established all stories have the same basic elements of the hero’s journey or monomyth (Joseph Campbell, Hero of a Thousand Faces, 1949), and Clerks is no exception. 

Dante’s journey, like all journeys start at the beginning: that is to say, in their ordinary world. For Dante that is at home in bed. It could even be considered that his ordinary world consists of his day off. Essentially it’s imperative that our hero is comfortable and at home at this stage in the journey, and that the viewer can see that this place is different to the world of adventure our hero, Dante, will face. 

Next for Dante is the hero’s call to adventure. For Dante his call to adventure comes from someone (presumably his boss) who asks him to come into work on his day off. This element in the film does not require much explanation as Kevin Smith, whether consciously or unconsciously, slaps the viewer in the face with our hero’s call by making it a literal call in the guise of a telephone. Dante's phone call is the equivalent to Tolkien's ring, if it had started to buzz or vibrate when Bilbo left it with Frodo. In any event no matter the form the call to adventure is one and the same.

Refusal of the call is the next element on the journey. This goes hand in hand with the call itself as Dante, like all heroes, is reluctant to take the call to adventure. Like the previous stage this is a literal refusal of the literal call to adventure. Its important here that our hero Dante goes to work (answers the call) against his better judgement. All heroes will be reluctant to go on their journeys. Luke refused to go with Obi wan, Peter refused to follow Ray to the library, and Dante didn't want to go into work on his day off. The reasons for the reluctance to go are reflections of the character itself.

The next stage of Dante’s journey is meeting the mentor. This can be harder to establish especially when you are not watching or reading mythology or other classic tales. The mentor’s job is to prepare our hero for his adventure. He can only go so far with the hero, but gives the hero some form of gift, physical or not, to prepare him for the ordeal ahead. Our mentor is Randall Graves, Dante’s co-worker and friend. Randall plays the role of comedic mentor. He is there to give his own warped views of love and life and give the hero courage to face the challenges ahead. As is common with this type of mentor, and in Dante’s case specifically, the mentor’s advice while serving the purpose on the journey is rarely good. Dante is now ready to cross the first threshold. 

As stated above this story is, at heart, a tragedy. His first threshold is his commitment to winning back his ex-girlfriend. This is the first ordeal that each hero will face before they realize they are worthy of this task before them. 

Dante will now meet tests and enemies. For Dante, his test’s allies and enemies come in the form of customers and acquaintances who come to the quick stop to buy items and drop bits of wisdom or doom on Dante’s day. Some of these people are sages who offer valuable advice, others will test Dante’s resolve giving him information he may wish he didn't know. These enemies will test Dante and make him prove his worth before he can cross the thresholds ahead. For those that need more help here try and think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The bridge-keeper was a literal guardian who served the same purpose as most of Dante's customer, which was to test him as worthy of the ordeal ahead.

             Stop. Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
                - Bridge Keeper Monty Python and the Holy Grail 1975

The approach of second threshold will be every hero’s seventh stage. This happens for Dante when his ex, Caitlin Bree returns and he decides that he is going to leave his girlfriend and recommit to a relationship with his ex. 

The ordeal has to be Dante’s bleakest moment. For Dante this is moments after he reunites with his long last love. To recap for those who do not know, Caitlin excuses herself to use the bathroom. She comes back hinting to Dante that she really enjoyed what they just did in the bathroom. It quickly becomes evident that Caitlin had inadvertently had sex with someone who had died while using the bathroom earlier in the day. The news of this information sends her into shock. She is taken away in an ambulance and it seems that Dante has lost Caitlin for good. 

The reward is a moment of clarity for Dante. He realizes the grass is not greener on the other side. This comes for Dante after his talk with Jay & Silent Bob who convinces him to appreciate the girl that truly loves him. 
         “There’s a million fine looking women in the world but they don't all bring you lasagne at work, they just cheat on                    you.”  - Kevin Smith as Silent Bob, Clerks, 1994

Almost instantly after hearing these words is the moment when Dante realizes he loves Veronica. 

The road back is just after Dante’s meeting with Jay & Silent Bob. He has now realized that he wants, he has his reward and is ready to return to his ordinary world. On the way back he meets with Veronica who dumps him after being informed of the day’s events by Randall. 

This event leads directly into the resurrection. The resurrection is the moment of Dante’s second ordeal, which is the physical and emotional fight between Dante and Randall. Both our hero and mentor share some truths with each other which culminates in a new Dante. Dante now fully appreciates what he has, and what he has lost. 

Before the film can end, our hero must figuratively return with elixir (his reward). Because Dante’s reward is completely metaphysical, it is what he returns to his ordinary world with. Dante returns to his world with his knowledge of his love for Veronica. It is clear he will attempt to win her back.

The mapping of the heroes journey gives me an even greater interest in a movie, and  a greater appreciation of the depth of the artist's characters. I have always loved Clerks , but looking at the film through the map his hero must travel makes it an even more enjoyable event. 

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Web Series and the Future of Television

Television has evolved quite a bit over the last few years. Original content is coming from everywhere, and some of these sources may be where you may least expect. There are no longer clear lines in the structure of a series. The industry has continued to evolve to the point that every network is doing something a little different and unique with it's programming.  Ultimately these evolutions are aimed at maximising the profits of each show for each network. So what is the future of television as we know it today? Well no one can exclude the conclusion that the future of television is linked with the internet. Whether it is illegal downloads or legitimate streaming it is clear that more and more users will access their "television entertainment" through the internet. This has seemingly led to a strange by-product.  While networks and distributors everywhere are scrambling to get their content accessible in a way that is both profitable to them and is preferable to the consumer; the consumer has continued to use the internet as the hub of their entertainment. In the meantime the web-series evolved into a quality form of entertainment that in many ways exceeds traditional television.  Is the future of entertainment "the web-series"? If I had been asked years ago I would have said certainly not, but now I am not so sure. 

When you consider the dramatic changes that normal programming has undergone in only the last few years. I think it is clear that even those with their ears to the ground in the industry do not know which way the wind is turning (but arguably never did). When I was a kid if a show was not on one of the four major networks, then it was not a real television show. Now there are countless networks each with their own original programming. Many of these networks have changed the standard season from 24 to as few as six episodes. Many shows are supplemented with the webisodes throughout or after the seasons. There just does not seem any longer to be these clear defined rules that establish before hand if something is or is not going to be worth watching. We currently live in an era where anyone can create original content and broadcast it. There is no barometer as to quality and no telling where the next great show is coming from. YouTube channels have content from professionals and armatures alike at the push of a button and on the same playlist. Seasoned actors are appearing in budget five minute series on YouTube channels and seasoned veterans in the industry are creating there own content and broadcasting directly to the consumer cutting out the networks all together.

I was fortunate enough to meet William Shatner at OzCon last year. I was one of the few people that was privileged enough to get 5 minutes of one on one time with him in between drinks and entrĂ©es. Once the initial fanaticism wore off and I was able to come to terms that I was a mere three feet away from Captain Kirk. I was able to get some valuable insight from him on this topic. After a minute of explaining that Australian's do not really drink Foster's we began discussing his current projects. He then went on to explain to my friends and I what a podcast was ( this was clearly information we already had, but when Captain Kirk tells you what a podcast is, you listen and react like he just explained the origins of the universe). He then went on to talk about his newest project (something I had never heard of). Which was called Brown Bag Wine Tasting.  The concept being that the person who does the wine tasting drinks it from a paper bag and has no preconceived idea as to the label or year. Which then goes up on his website of the same name of web-series style viewing. I couldn't help but be blown away at the capacity that this man has to embrace change and pioneer a new idea. He very much spoke about web broadcasts as though they were the future of the industry. 

Now I am not claiming that the web series is a new idea, but at that time I did not realise just how widespread the concept of celebrities starring in low budget web-series would be. Just a few short years ago the concept of acting in television was thought to be either a stepping stone to feature film or a sad backward step. Since The Sopranos onwards networks like HBO and Showtime have made it clear that television can be nothing short of the highest caliber of entertainment.  

Then we have pioneers like Felicia Day who created The Guild in 2007. This is just my opinion but this series remains to date one of the best shows of all time (not just for a web series). It is in my opinion that good. This show was created on a shoestring often from volunteers in its early years and the writing ranks for me as clever and funny as any hit show I have seen in the last couple years. The quality of this show was due in no small part to its creator. It begs the question what great programming might we have missed for years because produces and studio executives determined something was not funny, inappropriate or wouldn't play well in the mid west. The Guild is a great example of what can be accomplished with artistic freedom, and the ability of anyone with a pen can create television.

Do not get me wrong! I certainly hope that there is always a place for networks to create ground breaking television. Whether those networks are traditional free to air, cable, or premium channels. I will always need shows that have a budget well into the stratosphere, but time will tell where we get our "tv" in the future.
I think is clear is that the most clever entertainers have already begun adapting, and while the large networks and distributors may be the last to catch the bus, I believe that the industry will evolve, hopefully not to the exclusion of either big budget television or independent web-series. No matter what happens independent media is here to stay and is going to continue to grow. We will see more and more professional YouTube channels.  I do hope to see these concepts merge, but not to the exclusion of the independent film-makers.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

An American Film Abroad

It occurred to me the other day that the 'Star Trek 2009' reboot was a huge success, and its success was due in no small part to its Australian cast members. A point that is only relevant because it seems that more and more often I am finding that I am commenting that I really enjoyed a film or performance, only to find out that the Actor, Director, and or writers were actually Australian. A factor I find odd because anyone that knows me knows that I despise the Australian film industry. The paradox is then why is it when Australian talent works on films outside of Australia in collaboration with international talent that the work is almost never short of amazing? It is no small secret that some of the best talent in Hollywood were born and raised in Australia. That is not to say that the Australian gene pool is any more or less talented than their American counterparts. It may be relevant that Australians learn to act from a variety of sources and influences. Australians, like in many aspects of life, are exposed to American and British influences in addition to the ever growing melting pot of Australia. Americans for the most part are stuck in their own ways unable to see outside the border of their country.
I was raised on American film and television which is probably why I have a proclivity towards American entertainment. In fact it took years outside of America to understand British entertainment, and I now have a deep appreciation for English Film and Television. I have now lived in Australia for over 15 years, and I still hate Australian original programming as much as I did on the day I arrived. I reiterate this cannot be because of a lack of Australian talent which we know is out there in abundance. It is a question which has baffled me for years. The lack of talent in original programming is insidious and infests almost all areas of their entertainment. The worst and least talented area is ironically the film industry. With the rare exception, Australian film is nothing short of terrible. An occasional nugget of entertainment may slip out and on that odd occasion the Australian public praise it like it’s the best thing to hit Hollywood since Casablanca. In reality, by and large these few Australian films that are remotely entertaining have no international appeal and often only a very limited domestic appeal. Australian television is not much better. The majority of Australian television is reality based and is adapted from American shows of the same name. Australia also makes its share of one hour dramas, which are the worst kind of soap operas but oddly have found a hardcore audience both domestically and internationally. Due to the immense talent mentioned previously, sometimes good shows do break out. So much so that they are even remade in America often to the show’s detriment as it cannot translate to an American audience. This is, however, the exception rather than the rule.
I make room for the reason for all for this simply that I am a film snob. I like what I was raised on. There can be no denying the amazing talent and contributions of Australians in the American film industry and there is no one with an open mind that would not think that the American industry is better for these contributions. The only reason I can think of for my loathing of the Australian industry is how I was raised. My colleagues were raised watching all the same movies and television that I was. They grew up on the same cartoons the same comics, and the same children's entertainment. They saw the same horror movies and the same comedies. The difference is that they also saw and were exposed to entertainment both home grown and from abroad that Americans could not get access to growing up. This is just one example of how an American's exposure to the world differs so greatly from an Australian’s. Put simply, Australians are aware that there is a world outside of Australia and many Americans are not.
Does this American arrogance create the dominance we can observe in so many areas of the world, not the least of which is the Entertainment industry? Maybe! I would certainly be biased on this topic and I am probably not the correct person to answer the question. Surely ignorance can’t lead to great art, and I do think the result of the largest part of the American entertainment industry is great art. I know there are many people that would disagree. And while popularity may not be the test of art I would suggest that everyone has heard of Citizen Cane and a far fewer have heard of Red Dog.
The bigger issue (for this blog) and advantage to the world at large is the blurring of the lines. It is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what is an American, English, or Australian film. So much amazing film and television is currently the collaboration of people from multiple backgrounds who identify with many homes; so many production companies that are owned in majority by different countries and directors, writers, and producers from many different backgrounds, that arguments can be had about whether something even is an Australian or American film let alone who was responsible for making it great.
In the end it is all just a thought. I am more than content with the quality of entertainment I get to see as an American abroad. I will leave the question for people smarter than I as to why Australians add so much to American films while leaving the filmed industry back home so wanton with no international appeal.
 If however the American industry is better than the Australian, if that is indeed the consensus then Occam's razor suggests that simply all the talent in Australia flocks to the place with the largest industry which is indeed the simplest  and most obvious answer.