Regaining that sense of wonder

Old, crotchety and judgemental is no way to go through life, son.

comics

Comic Book Rack

I remember being twelve years old. I remember pedaling two or three miles to TJ’s Party Store. You know the way: down my dirt road, onto the highway, over the bridge, past the other party store the kids didn’t like to go because the old lady would stare at you like a hawk watching a wounded seagull, then onto a bigger highway, with the cars and semis whipping by just a few feet away, and finally to the store with it’s magical, towering rack of comics.

Hell but that thing was tall, wasn’t it? Had to stand on tippy toes to reach Spider Man and the X-Men. I was all Marvel, all the time, mind you — I had some buddies into Batman and Superman and Justice League, but my parents taught me not to judge. And Daredevil: he was pimp before I even knew what the word meant (Badger — still my all-time favorite — would have to wait until I was riding five miles instead of two and could hit Cheboygan’s only comic shop). I’d load up on comic books, candy, grab a pop or two (because what twelve-year-old Scott needed was sugar and caffeine, as you can well imagine), then pedal back home to read up on the exploits of my favorite characters.

And I loved the stories. I loved them all. The other day, I picked up a couple of comics the other day, one specifically because people rave about the writer’s storytelling skill. The comic sucked. Maybe that’s because it was a big ensemble cast and I wasn’t up on the back-story of some fifteen characters, but the story was terrible. I found myself analyzing the story instead of enjoying it, picking it apart and finding the holes, errors and inconsistencies instead of just soaking it in the way I used to do.

Yes, I am going somewhere with this.

That twelve-year-old, skinny-assed ball of hyper also loved the movies. There wasn’t jack shit to do where I grew up (other than swim, bike, explore the woods, read and play D&D and Star Frontiers and Champions, which we did every Saturday and Sunday, all day long), so we were big into movies. At two bucks, hell, the theater was a bargain. Mom would ship me off with two bucks whenever she could. My buddies and I watched everything, usually more than once. It was also the beginning of the VHS era: what we didn’t see in the theaters, my dad would rent and we’d watch at home.

And I loved the movies. Everything I saw seemed to be more amazing than the thing that came before it. I’ll give you a partial list of the movies that I went crazy for back in the day (in no particular order). These range from 1980 to 1989, but the general reaction was the same throughout that era:

  • Star Wars V (80)
  • Star Wars VI (83)
  • Aliens (86)
  • Brainstorm (83)
  • Predator (87)
  • Robocop (87)
  • KAAAHNNN! (82)
  • Night of the Comet (84)
  • The Thing (82)
  • Tron (82)
  • The Fly (86)
  • Back to the Future (85)
  • Escape from NY (81)
  • Flash Gordon (80)
  • Cyborg (89)
  • The Last Starfighter (84)
  • The Abyss (89)
  • They Live (88)
  • Weird Science (85)
  • Galaxy of Terror (81)
  • Terminator (84)
  • Philadelphia Experiment (84)
  • Lifeforce (85)
  • Battle Beyond the Stars (80)

There are some rock-solid classics in there, sure, but have you ever treated your adult eyes to a re-watching Galaxy of Terror? Tron? Night of the Comet? And don’t even think about firing up Battle Beyond the Stars. Trust me. I know of which I speak.

Some of those movies were great, some were awful, and I loved every single one of them.

When I go to the movies now, I start analyzing even before I take my seat. I break down plot beats. I critique character motivation. I seethe at the easy stereotypes. I watch lazy storytelling and feel that the people who made the movie don’t respect me, and don’t give a damn about my hard-earned money. And this is every … single … movie. Even for the movies I like, I walk out with a shopping list of things that bugged me.

Sure, I’m older now. Sure, I’ve seen more of the world and have a larger body of knowledge, more context that the thing I thought was so cool when I was twelve was actually a rehashed plot beat that’s been used over and over again since the first frames of celluloid cast the first flickering images on the first movie screens. And what’s more, I tell stories for a living: it’s my job to analyze these things, to break them down and look for ways I can be better at what I do.

But this caustic, over-analytical method of consumption is so pervasive, for books, comics and movies, that I have to ask myself: what happened to my sense of wonder? Why can’t I just take it all in without slicing and dicing? I mean, it can’t all be bad … can it?

ComicCon logoLast week ARealGirl and I went to ComicCon, along with 130,000 or so of our closest friends. While there were plenty of jaded entertainment professionals in that crowd, by an large it was packed with people who went ga-ga for freaking everything. “Oh, man, look at this!” “Wow, did you see that thing over there?” “No way! A pirate ship? Get out!

 

There were many in-depth conversations of that nature. Nerds nerding, geeks geeking, and a general level of love for story and character that even the most crotchety, jaded douchebag in the world couldn’t help but appreciate.

The people at ComicCon haven’t lost their sense of wonder. And now, I want mine back.

But I’m worried that losing your sense of wonder is very much like losing your virginity: there are no take-backsies in the latter, and maybe not in the former, either. How do I lighten up when I step into that movie theater? I mean, now it’s $12, not $2, and if I don’t get my money’s worth I feel all stompy and cheated. So there’s that.

I need to learn how to shut off parts of the brain and just watch. I at least need to try. Once upon a time, going to the movies was one of the best damn things one could do. Now the best I can hope for is three out of four “mehs” on the “well, it wasn’t awful” scale.

Is it my competitive streak? Is it the fact that I look at everything and wonder how it could be better? Is it the sad fact that — quite often, dammit — the storytellers are just lazy and take us for granted? Is it the cult of personality that has popped up around certain writers and directors, creating an Emperor’s Clothes effect where I think many people are pre-disposed to throwing out the word “genius” before they even see the product?

Lindelof lostIs it because my sense of wonder was dangling by a thread, then finally put six feet in the ground by the ending of my beloved BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and because I actually believed the producers of LOST knew where their show was going?

I don’t know the answer. I do know it would be fun to just sit back and enjoy a film for a change.

How about you? Do you just enjoy your genre entertainment, or do you slice and dice? Pretty sure a big part of this is because it is both my job and my life’s goal to make great entertainment, and analyzing the craft is part of constantly getting better, and that doesn’t apply to most people.

Or, is this just because we’re all getting older? We’ve been there, seen that. When a book comes out that is clearly a rip-off of something else we’ve read, we are offended, while the younger peeps that have no idea the former book existed think the later book is pure gold. As far as I know, the book I liked when I was a teenager was a direct rip-off of something else. Still, it sucks when blatant, pandering copycats are rewarded. The public doesn’t seem to know better … or, more accurately, the public doesn’t give a shit. They want good stories. As long as they get that, where’s the harm?

No magical answers here, Junkies, just a multi-part question to you all: have you lost your sense of wonder, and if you have, how come? Do you want that back, or do you enjoy being a more critical watcher of all the entertainments?

Comments

  1. Joel

    I trust you understand I was only being cheeky with my comment above…

    And yes I agree, the formulaic nature of film, for example, generally reflects the intended relationship between investments and a return. It’s just the masses that suffer as a result of the endless onslaught of regurgitated narratives.

    But then again it appears that many people do indeed respond to the formulaic nature or said masses wouldn’t predictably shell out their hard-earned cash to watch.

    If you get a chance do check out that movie. I have a suspicion you would find it rather it a sound step away from the norm.

  2. Joel

    I concur that the steady parade of cliche/mechanical stories that are the pervasive norm on TV and in the movies are contributing factors in our collective diminished sense of wonder. I mean how many more assembly line sitcoms, cop/lawyer dramas, or CSI (fill in the blank city) series can we be expected to entertain before we spring loose of our our mortal coil…..on purpose.

    And to be sure, there are prime examples (such as the one’s you mentioned) that remind us that art – be it a book, a television show, or a movie – can indeed help provide us a lens by which to escape our current reality. In fact they can do more than entertain us, they can remind us to step outside ourselves.

    To that end, it just occurred to me that a simple movie that did a great job of addressing this very issue is ‘Box of Moonlight’. I think I am going to make it a point to watch this gem again very soon.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115738/

    1. Profile photo of scottsiglerscottsigler

      Joel: Suicide won’t make for more good content, it’s letting the hacks win. Now that I’m getting involved in Hollywood at a very low, beginning level, I’m amazed at what I see: there is no camp, no school, no college, these are just people who want to make stuff. Some people really know how to craft a story, and some don’t. The trouble is the money: people who spend millions of dollars on a show want something they know works, so they can make that money back and turn a profit. If they take a chance on something that is outside the formula and it doesn’t work, they are probably out of a job. Going with formula is a safer bet (comparable to the old IT phrase, “no one gets fired for buying IBM). It takes people with guts and vision to do something that isn’t the standard fare.

  3. Joel

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and I stumbled across this piece. To be sure, I agree on many fronts. It’s much like losing your virginity indeed.

    The question is if we can get it back – or at least a portion of it. I’m sure it has to include being open to the concept which, of course, starts by thinking about it.

    But since you posted this over a year ago, perhaps you have had some further insight into the matter.

    1. Profile photo of scottsiglerscottsigler

      Joel: A year already? Jiminy. I think I do have some further thoughts. I think we mature and expect different things from our entertainment. There is a sense of wonder for shows that are written for adults, and are written well. We need shows/books/movies that don’t aim for the lowest common denominator, because we’ve seen that same story over and over again and it is no longer of interest to us. BREAKING BAD, WALKING DEAD, the movie MEMENTO … just a few where we don’t get spoon-fed the same crap we’ve seen a million times before. Entertainment should give us what we want, but also surprise us, not let us know what’s going to happen next.

  4. Alex

    This stuff just sucks! I think there are occasions of excellence but for the most part, it all just sucks. And the gems that do exist are so diluted by everything else… I don’t know man. When Star Wars said they wanted to get back to real sets and not rely so much on CGI, all I could think was, “You missed the f*#king point!” It isn’t the effects screwing up modern scifi, it’s the story and the relevance. Terminator wasn’t awesome because of the effects, by modern standards they aren’t great. But you show me anyone who was introduced to Kyle Reese and didn’t wan’t to be him… And Predator? What about John Rambo? “Murdock…” (Lightning/Thunder) “…I’m comin’ to get you.” Awesome! Aliens is as real a portrayal of the Marines as anything else I’ve ever seen and Vasquez genuinely convinced me that she was a badass. Those stories were great! (I realize Rambo might be out of place but I’m not losing the Murdock quote) So Mister Dark Overlord Sir, my answer is no, I haven’t lost my sense of wonder. It’s just a bit more discerning. Maybe a tiny bit skeptical that what it thinks is brazen originality is just plagiarized from some obscure Japanese cartoon. It’s tired, but it’s there. Every time something rises to the occasion (Infection, Ancestor, Nocturnal, Blood and Bones) It’s there. Please pardon my descent towards bootlicking sycophant there but sincerely, thanks.

  5. scottsigler

    @jdsawyer: I tried to apply that mentality to HALO: FOREVER UNTO DAWN, and daggumit if it didn’t work. I loved it. I found myself applauding the solutions they found to working around their modest budget. Much like BLAIR WITCH, they found ways around not having a $100 million FX budget, which is what you’d need to do HALO right and proper. 

    But, this is also part of the point I’m trying to make: it was a solid screenplay, the director did a good job, no issues with the acting, the DP made it look great, and when they did spend the money on FX, it looked damn good. When the FX was lacking, I had no problem letting it go because I could see the hard work and — most importantly — the attention to detail and the respect for the viewer’s intelligence. Give me those things, I can forgive a lot.

    The story is the thing that matters. FX is window-dressing. The problem with much of today’s entertainment is that they don’t think telling a well-constructed and disciplined story matters at all. 

  6. scottsigler

    @Sunka: I’ve thought more on your “patterns” comment. Yes, I’m annoyed by seeing the same repetitive patterns, but also by people who phone in those patterns and don’t even bother to connect their own dots. Time-travel stories, in particular, are annoying as hell, especially when critic are raving about “genius” this and that and the writer/director can’t account for the most fundamental time-travel paradox elements. Drives me batty. 

    If you’re going to tell a story with classic structure, there’s a math to it. You have to get the equation right. Just throwing in random elements because the studio insisted you get a third, then a fourth, even a fifth screenwriter doesn’t give the final product a free pass. Shit = shit. 

  7. cpragman

    Heh heh, you said “party store”.  Michigan Bro!

    I feel for you too.  My brother made a career of theater technical stuff (lighting, sound, etc.).  I helped him on numerous projects.  Soon, I realized that whenever I saw a show, I only paid attention to the technical aspects of “how did they do that”, and not the actual show.  It took many years (of not putting on shows), before I got to the point of just enjoying them again for their entertainment value, and not their technical details.

    I think you may have discovered why focus groups exist.

    Maybe it means you’ve turned “Pro”.  In your head, at least.

    Seriously though, how many movies have you seen where you wished they spent more of that enormous budget on the script?  A lot of them, right?  Put all you’ve got into those scripts, and hope they survive the rest of the process!

  8. intruder291

    Scott, you are doomed.

    I’ve been making films since I was 12 and find it very rare to get “into” a movie.

    Like you, I am looking beyond the presentation on the screen. I’m looking at the lighting, what focal length of the lens was chosen, how difficult it was to pull focus for a particular shot, how the actors were blended in a multi-shot sequence, etc. Then there’s the special effects – how was the scene done, were they believable, and how could I duplicate the effect.

    Inevitably, though, it’s the story and characters that gets teased apart the most, so I am a kindred spirit with you on this.

    My wife (who is a writer) and I continually analyze, try to predict plot lines and script lines, and generally berate and praise what we watch. For us, that’s the fun. When it’s good, like “House of Cards” or “The Following,” we very much enjoy the exercise and the watching. When the program or movie is not good, we complain, sometimes bitterly, but generally try to take something out of the experience.

    Like you, I try to use the lessons learned to make my commercials and videos better.

    For what it’s worth, this is why I LOVE your work. The time you take and the rules you have created make the stories you produce top notch. I already know ahead of time that I’ll like your stuff.

  9. romanda

    I think over the years we get slapped around so many times by shows that we HOPE will go somewhere, that we get Jaded, we get tired of the LOSTs and BSGs just going “well we need to end it, we have 2 shows, what do we do.. Ok MAGIC it is”.   And we go into so many movies already pre-judging the whole thing before we have even seen a single frame of the movie.  With all the internet spoilers out there, how do you go to a movie without knowing the whole plot beforehand?  But there are times we get pleasantly surprised.  Last year’s Avengers was just so good, and it had nothing to do with the SUPER part of the SUPER HEROS, it was the bickering, the egos the snide remarks.  I mean come on, you are a GOD (Thor) and you’re not going to let some “puny human” tell you anything, RIGHT?  

    I think we get that “sense of wonder” back when we shut off the adult mind, the cynical part, the gotta get my $ worth part, and channel that 12 year old kid who hasn’t been jaded yet, and just get into the wonder of the movie, or book, or TV show.  

    I got to see some of that wonder this weekend when I introduced my 17 (almost 18 year old son) to not just Dexter Morgan, but Scary Perry as well.  He was up at 4am this morning READING Infected!! WOW, this is a kid who HATES to read. I think he will have infected finished today, and be onto Contagious, and waiting for Pandemic like me.  Seeing the awe he had in watching Dexter for the 1st time, not knowing the entire back story that I do after 7 1/2 seasons, was awesome.

      Seeing the look on his face while we were listening to Infected on podio books when you said the 2 most infamous words…. CHICKEN SISSORS was just awesome.  Because I could see him putting 2 and 2 (balls) together and getting O M G!  lol  

    We, as parents, get to see the world thru our kids eyes, and that can help to restore our own vision.

    Keep up the amazing work you do, and take the time now and then, to just shut off your brain and enjoy life.  Watch some MST3K, that will help shut off the brain..

     

  10. Mycroft

    I think the first one I really “noticed” was a James Bond flick.  Bond picks up a shotgun, fires and the guy drops out of the tree on Moonraker.  I don’t care how accurate Bond is, the weapon isn’t that accurate!

    But sometimes I can shut it of, except during really really bad films – like that one with the giant shark vs the giant alligator.  They had a helicopter go from East Coast to Hawaii on 1 tank of fuel in less then 1 hour or something like that….

  11. V.

    I got called on this same thing by my husband a few nights ago. We started watching some new series, and after a half hour, I was back to editing a manuscript. He enjoyed the series, I didn’t. We all find wonder in different things, and sometimes we need to go outside of our comfort zones.

    Several people have said to hang out with a kid; that can help, but you can also give yourself permission to act like a kid. Figure out what you can’t do, and go marvel at an expert. For me, that’s always been art, comics and manga. Find a local artist gathering and watch people showcase their craft. Watch an awesome guitarist play the blues.

    If it’s movies and books, ask people what wows them. Look for new series that give you time to invest in characters rather than 120 minutes of problems and explosions. Consider older series where you can sit back and analyze the writing and character development, now that you know how the story ends.

  12. cjbeck

    Scott, Keep doing what you have been doing. I think most of us old folks are jaded. Screw the rest stick with the best FDO. Who’s your muse now?

  13. GFLfan66

    I’m in the same boat, Scott — while I love the sense of wonder, I do still have to work hard to channel the inner 12-year-old anymore — either the science is wrong or the logic is wrong or something else rubs me the wrong way . . . that’s never a problem with YOUR books, however, thanks for that!

    It’s usually with the movies that I have the biggest problem — sometimes they feel as if they went the path of least resistance.  Telling “just a story” instead of a “Great Story”.  I’m sure budget plays a part in it, but still, there was a time when story ruled instead of special effects.  I’d love to see those days come back . . and maybe they are after the “summer blockbuster” season seems to have been quite subdued compared to the expectations . . .  you never know.

    I’ll still try to hold onto my inner 12 year old — he keeps wanting to go watch Star Trek, but maybe I can still see the world through his eyes for a little longer . . . 

  14. jokerdas

    Alright, let’s just start with this… Scott, you are crotchety! There I said it! Now violently and brutally kill me in your next story to get even!

    Now, I thoroughly enjoy movies. ALL genres of movies! I thoroughly enjoy books.  But I enjoy them differently than movies.  The written word more of an investment in my time and attention than visual entertainment.  So I expect more of them.  Bad plots and characters, and I feel more cheated than if I saw a movie with the same issues.

    First, I go to movies with a completely different mindset.  I go for the absolute rediculousness and absence of reality. I laugh out loud at the fun parts.  I cringe at the appropriate parts.   If there are plot holes, I try to not let it detract from the overall escape for me.  I am not a bullet counter. I know people who are, and when they point out factual discrepancies, I just want to thump them.  Yes, I do care if the characters suck so bad I end up rooting for the antagonist, but if I have any idea it will be like that, I do not waste my money to see it in theaters.  Even if I didn’t like the whole movie, I do not feel let down, I would still find SOMETHING about it to enjoy.  I mean, there had to be something I found attractive about the film so much that I actually drove to the theater, paid for a ticket, bought popcorn and a drink and navigated the crowded rows for a seat and waited for my senses to be bombarded.

    Next, I do NOT go to movies to compare them to the books. That just is so far beyond setting up for failure and disappointment.  Enjoy the movie for the sake that it is someone else’s creative interpretation.  But I will go to compare them if they are a remake.  Especially if I am a fan of the original.  I go to compare and contrast the stories.  My geek nature wants to see what technology and special effects have improved over the last rendition. Yes, many fall flat. (I am looking at you 2011 The Thing! John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing has special effects that can’t be beat.)

    Bottom line, I believe you CAN get your wide-eyed wonder back.  Go to movies and read comics and books, not with the eyes and mind of a successful, New York Times Best-selling author, but as someone who merely seeks to be entertained.  Stop being a creative genius for 140 minutes and turn off your mind.  Take the time off from your job of analyzing and improving! Let your inner child drive the bus for a little while and just enjoy. It can be done! You seem about as open-minded a person as can be.  Keep on loving bad movies and hating decent movies, but do it for the right reasons, the reasons they were intended bad and decent. To entertain! 

  15. Cal

    Thanks for keeping the wonder alive for us, Scott.  Your characters and story lines are great.  Reading your words is always fun, and listening to you is even funner.  Yes, funner.  Keep on keppin on.

    -Cal-

  16. exotiKali

    With my science background, it is extremely hard for me to watch a sci-fi or horror movie and not flinch at the errors in physics and biology. I also think Twitter and Facebook have made it hard not to form a certain expectation of a movie or a new TV show because we’ll see 30 mini-reviews with spoilers before we’ve gotten the chance to see the damn thing. Still, certain semi-recent TV shows have blown me away, like the first season of Dexter and The Walking Dead. In movies … 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead (the remake) and 300. And even though the ending of Lost sucked balls, that first episode fucking rocked.

  17. jdsawyer

    Fuck. Sorry about the lack of paragraph breaks. Somethign didn’t take with the copy/paste from my text editor

  18. jdsawyer

    Scott –

    I don’t know about getting it 03Aback, but it sure is worth cultivating. Like you, I have a very critical eye–moreso on some levels, since I’ve actually made movies (directing, visualFX, and makeupFX work). It’s a rare horror film, for exapmle, that can get me out of the “ooh, that’s a really great use for spaghetti! I’ll have to remember that” headspace.

    I cultivate my appetite for wonder by keeping it well-fed by real things: space news, cutting-edge discoveries, nature docs, amazing music. This gives fiction something to resonate with, instead of just slamming up against the wall of artifice that I am constantly building as a novelist.

    And when that resonance strikes, man, it really is like I’m three years old and watching the Star Destroyer chasing the Corellian Corvette again. Total abandon and absorbtion, the kind that makes you go weak in the knees. And it can come from some odd, even clunky places.

    For example, I re-watched The 5th Element last weekend. When I first saw it, it was the dorkiest thing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t believe *anyone* would take it seriously. But now, looking at it, I see it as an infectious celebration of every excess that makes SF worthwhile. It’s like a Dick Tracy comic related by a charismatic preacher, punctuated by (of all things) an opera. It’s wasteful, and preposterous, and utterly stupid, and yet it is infused with joy and wonder that just sweeps you up.

    I suppose, perhaps, the trick I’ve found with books and movies, is trying to find the story’s sense of self, and engage it on that level. If it doesn’t work on its own terms >coughcough< , it leaves me cold and angry. But when it works on its own terms, whether it's utterly hokey like Ice Pirates, or darkly sublime like Pitch Black, it's a world where I can hang out and enjoy myself for a while.

    I don’t know if that helps, but I hope it does. Try meeting the story on the ground it’s interested in, instead of on the ground you’re used to occupuying. It doesn’t make everything rock, but it might open up a door for that kid who watched King Kong and decided to scare people for a living.

    FWIW
    -Dan

  19. Al Davis

    Amen, Scott!!!  My feelings exactly…But since I am an old codger now and cant aee for shit…I’m loving audio books..(Just  got through with 
    “Ancestor”..It was kick ass…Seems like I get more out of them than I do actually reading them myself, and listening to the author read them, you know the story is exactly the way it was ment to be told..

    Just another Junkie (turned on to you by Jamie Preston”