Thursday, December 18, 2008

Story Analysis 101 Pt. 4 - The Wrap-up

[This is part 4 of an four part essay introducing techniques of story analysis using the episode "Gnothi Seauton" from the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. If you haven't read the first two parts, you can find part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here. This is just a summary of the analytical process.]

Part 1
- We start with the big picture to help us find the details that reinforce it. Since this episode is part of a TV series which is itself part of a larger story universe that includes three theatrical films, we can begin there and lay out the major themes that drive the stories. Even these can be placed into context within the larger world of human storytelling tradition, if desired. So these are our big ideas which will serve to guide us in our analysis of "Gnothi Seauton".

Part 2 - Now that we are armed with the Big Picture, we can start dissecting the episode itself. We examined specific story elements such as character names and used them to help connect this story to the Big Picture. We found elements of Greek mythology, Biblical references and even connections to real-world persons. We pulled out the standard components of the storyteller's toolkit: archetypes, plot, conflict, viewpoint and tried to place them within the context of this particular story. At this point we're ready to dive deeper into the story and pull out specific elements of character, action and dialogue that support the connections we've made so far.

Part 3 - We made our way through the story, recapping it to the extent we had to in order to give context to those elements we chose for analysis. The goal here is to look for consistence in support of the themes and styles we found in our earlier examination. If we don't have that support, we need to re-visit our earlier work and see where we went off the rails. In this case, it looks like we are on track and we successfully connected the small stuff to the big stuff and brought the whole thing to some sort of satisfactory conclusion.

Ultimately a story doesn't come out of nowhere. The author chooses specific words, rhythms, characters and plots to get you to think certain thoughts or feel certain feelings, even if it's only temporary. Humans have been telling each other stories for thousands of years and we've gotten pretty good at it.

To sum up the summary:
  1. Try to figure out what the author is trying to say
  2. See what, if any part of the story supports this theory
  3. Lay out the evidence, using outside references as needed.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sometimes You Have to Let Great Art Wash Over You

When I was teaching a class on science fiction one of my students, who shall remain nameless, asked me why we had to analyze all of these stories and films, picking them apart for things like symbolism, themes and so forth. Why couldn't we just enjoy them as entertainment? Had my mind been a bit quicker on its feet (so to speak) that night, I might have responded with something like this:

There's absolutely no reason why you can't just enjoy a book or movie or TV show for its entertainment value. However, if this is the only thing you enjoy then you're missing out.
It's as if I told you that I really loved my wife's nose. In fact, her nose is what made me fall in love with her and I really just enjoy being in the presence of her nose.
"But, Tom", you might respond, "I've met your wife and though she has a wonderful nose, she has many other qualities you might also enjoy. She has a charming manner and a delightful sense of humor. Her figure is quite lovely and she has beautiful eyes and an enchanting smile. She is warm and loving and spending time with her is a delight."
If after you had shown me all of these wonderful things I had been missing I were to reply, "But can't I just enjoy her for her nose?", then feel free to smack me silly.

Story Analysis 101 Pt. 3 - Once Upon a Time

[This is part 3 of an four part essay introducing techniques of story analysis using the episode "Gnothi Seauton" from the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. If you haven't read the first two parts, you can find part 1 here and part 2 here.]

After pulling apart the thematic and character elements of this episode, we can finally get down to the nitty-gritty of examining the story itself. As we discussed previously, the particular theme for this episode appears to be Identity. That is, those qualities that make us definable and recognizable. So there are two storylines running through this episode. The first consists of the action, drama, gunplay and fights that you expect in this series. The other consists of characters asking (as well as answering) both the question "Who are you?" and the more important question "Who am I?".
We begin with a voice-over from Sarah:
A wise man once said "know thyself." Easier said than done. I've had 9 aliases, 23 jobs, spoken 4 languages and spent 3 years in a mental hospital for speaking the truth. At least when I was there, I could use my real name. Through it all, I've always known who I am and why I'm here....Maybe if you spend your life hiding who you are, you might finally end up fooling yourself.
The use of voice-over as a framing device is used well in this series and in this episode in particular. Sarah has been on the run from both SkyNet and the FBI before she even reached her twentieth birthday. She describes the different ways we identify ourselves and others -- by name (9 aliases), by what we do (23 jobs) and culturally (4 languages). The only time she was what she thinks of as herself, she was locked up in a mental hospital. She knows that she can't let anyone know who she really is, but she's clearly uncomfortable with this situation.
She later encounters John and he complains that Sarah has been avoiding getting new I.D.s for the last three days and as a consequence he's been stuck indoors.
Sarah: It's not just a name. It's a legend. A life. A whole new you.
John: We go through this every time.
Sarah: This is different.
Cameron: New IDs today? It's been three days.
John: I want my new name. I want that whole new me.
There are a couple of elements in play here. The first is that we have both John and Cameron mention the passing of three days since they arrived in our present/their future. To my suspicious mind, mentioning this kind of thing once is casual conversation but more than that indicates that the writer wants us to pay attention to this. The most obvious interpretation brings us back to the John/Jesus connection. In Matthew 12:38, Christ is described as rising three days after death and here we have "John Connor" (as an identity) dying (time-traveling from 1999) so that John (Sarah's son and the future leader of mankind) can live on. This may be a bit of a stretch but the series overall has included many Biblical and other religious references so it's not beyond imagination that this is also the case here.That being said, I don't think it's an important plot point.
So we return to our theme of identity. Both Sarah and John refer to the new I.D.s as more than just pieces of paper, but as whole new lives. Sarah calls it a 'legend' and this word has multiple meanings, at least two of which apply here. Legend can mean a story from the past about a specific person and it also means the phony background given to a spy taking on another identity. The series pilot changed the primary storyline from a chase to a hunt and transformed the Connors from victims to hunters, spies and detectives and this particular dialogue underscores this change, with Sarah noting that things are different now, i.e. they have new roles to play.
Sarah wants to see Enrique, a friend from her gun-running days, to get their new identities, but Cameron tells her that John (future John) sent back resistance fighters to act as a support team. When they arrive at the run-down tenement building to see these men, Sarah has another question for Cameron.
Sarah: These resistance fighters, they know you?
Cameron: They've seen me before.
Of course, Sarah is asking if they know Cameron as a cyborg but Cameron seems to be dodging the question. However, one constant from the movies and this series is that terminators will tell the literal truth, as long as it doesn't interfere with their mission. So while it seems that Cameron is being evasive, I think she is being literal. She really doesn't know whether these soldiers are aware that she's a robot and more importantly, whether they do or not is irrelevant. Cameron is the one character in this story who knows exactly who she is and is completely aware that any other self she presents to the world is a false face. Despite her outward appearance she doesn't even have gender. Switching identities is part of her function as she is programmed to be an infiltrator, to be whoever and whatever she needs to be to complete her mission. In the sense that we humans present different aspects of ourselves to others, depending on the context (I'm a different person to my co-workers than I am to my spouse, for example), we are all infiltrators.
The fighters are found murdered, however, so the two need to contact Enrique after all. He greets them and tells them that he has a new life, a new identity. He refers to himself as El Finito, after the nickname of a boxer who retired with no losses. Enrique has retired after a life spent being free, never once imprisoned or captured. Remember this, we'll come back to it.
Enrique refers them to Carlos, his nephew, who has taken on the family business. The two visit Carlos and while Sarah is negotiating, Cameron is outside waiting with the young girl who acts as the gang's lookout. At this point we're treated to an amusing scene where Cameron begins to imitate the body language and posture of the girl (who is simply listed as Chola in the credits and who is played wonderfully by Sabrina Perez). Cameron doesn't have her new identity yet so we see her trying on that of Chola as if she was trying on a new outfit.
However, it isn't long until she gets into trouble. A police car pulls up and a patrolman gets out.
Cop: (to Chola) Hey, baby girl. What did I tell you about hanging around? (he sees Cameron) Who's your new friend here? She someone I need to know? 'Cause the longer you stand around, the more I think she's someone I need to know. (to Cameron) You got a name?
Cameron: No.
Cop: This your car?
Cameron: No. It's definitely not my car.
Cop: See, I know just about everyone in this neighborhood, and you are not one of those everyone. Now you got me wondering not just who you are, that you won't say, but why you're here. And that you won't say.
Once again, Cameron is telling the literal truth. She has no new identity or name (yet) and since they arrived in a stolen car, it was literally not her car. She is about to be arrested when Sarah swoops in and makes up a story about Cameron being her step-daughter 'Jennifer' and in trouble for hanging out with her no-good boyfriend (or as Sarah refers to him, "that punk-ass") and just generally kicking up enough fuss so that the police officer backs off and lets them go. So we see that having an identity, even a false one, is better than having none. Inside we all know who we are and what we're about but to function in a society we need to present an external identity, for others to use in relating to us. The Connors are currently disconnected from society, functionally non-persons, until they establish their new selves.
After the encounter with the police, Sarah and Cameron are walking home and Sarah begins another discussion.
Sarah: Aren't you supposed to take orders or something like that?
Cameron: I do. From John.
Sarah: From John. So if I tell John to forbid you...
Cameron: Not this John.
Sarah: Not this John. Aren't they the same?
Cameron: Not yet.
So we are introduced into another notation of identity in a world that includes time travel. Cameron distinguishes the current John Connor from the John Connor of her (future) time, despite the fact that the two Johns are identical in every way except life experience. In addition, her reply indicates that Current!John is gradually transforming into Future!John. So just as our clothes, our name, our culture and our genetics determine our identity, so do all of our life experiences. Every decision we make, every person we meet, everything we do becomes another part of the persons we are at any given moment.
But Carlos wants a lot of money for the new papers, money that the Connors don't have. This leads us to another voice-over from Sarah, this time while she's walking down the street, thinking.
Carlos was right. $20,000 wasn't that much money. A new identity, a new life, a chance. You can't put a price on that.But unlike John, I was never eager for that new life to begin. I liked having no name, no story. It was the only time I got to be me. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to pay for that. And the price was getting higher every day.
This underscores Sarah's previous comment where the only good thing about being in a mental hospital is that she could use her real name -- she could be herself. Unfortunately the only way she sees clear to being herself now is to have no name, no identity, to hang on to the self within. Right now she is at peace because nobody knows or cares who she is. She is disconnected from everyone else. Once she gets a new name, she has to re-connect.
Once she gets her new papers from Carlos, she hears him talking to his gang about Enrique, using the Spanish word for rat, slang for 'informer' or 'snitch'. She returns to Enrique and confronts him with this. So the self that Enrique presented to Sarah was false. He had spent some time in prison and had become an informant. The man who spent a lifetime creating false identities for others took on one for himself. While he is trying to plead for his life, drawing on the past relationship he had with Sarah, trying to convince her that he's still the man she knew, Cameron enters and shoots him dead.
Sarah: Why would you do this? Did you hear what he said? We don't know. We don't know.
Cameron: He was possibly lying.
Sarah: Possibly? You just executed him on possibly? He had a family! Why would you do this?
Cameron: Cause you wouldn't.
Sarah: How do you know what I would and would not do? You don't know me. You don't know me! And you don't know my son. Not John. Not my John. You don't know what I would and wouldn't do. I don't even know what I would and wouldn't do. I wake up this morning and you tell me... I don't know anything anymore. I don't even remember what my name is.
Cameron: Sarah Connor.
In one sense, Cameron is being literal. In another sense, she is indicating that 'Sarah Connor' is also who Sarah is -- Mother of the Savior, the Legend. It's because her name is Sarah Connor that SkyNet tried to kill her in the first film (literally, as the terminator was killing all of the Sarah Connors listed in the phone book, in order) and it's what starts her on the road to giving birth to John and thereby saving future humanity by proxy. She has been confronted by visitors from the future who tell her that she will do this and will be that, but to her this Sarah Connor to which they are referring is another person, a stranger. The "Sarah Connor, Mother of the Savior" is an identity, a self that has been forced upon her by others. Unfortunately it's also not a self that she can reject.
This brings us to Sarah's final two monologues for this episode, which sum up the theme of this story. The first:
Know thyself. John once told me it's inscribed on the front of the Temple of Apollo. The entire quote is, "know thyself and thou shall know all the mysteries of the gods and of the universe."
That's quite a mouthful. My version is this. Know thyself because what else is there to know? People hide secrets. Time is a lie. The material world can disappear in an instant. It has and it will again.
You can't know what's in others hearts, only in your own. What Sarah thought of as her life, her world, has vanished many times -- when Kyle Reese appeared in a bubble of electrical force, when she was committed to a mental hospital, when she and her young son destroyed Cyberdyne Systems, when a bank vault exploded in 1999. A robot with a stolen face has told Sarah that she died of cancer two years ago and that the world will end in atomic fire in April of 2011. Time is an illusion. Everything that is happening, is happening now, in this instant.
Our identities change. Our names, the way we look, how we act and speak. We're shape shifters. There is no control. No constant. No shelter but the love of family and the body God gave us. And we can only hope that that will always be enough.
The philosopher Rene Descartes proposed that we can argue that everything is just an illusion: the world, other people, our bodies, everything. The only thing one can truly know for sure is that they exist. Buddhists view the world as an illusion in order to detach themselves from it. In addition, the lines about "no control" and "no constant" is reminiscent of William Butler Yeats' poem 'The Second Coming', which talks about the inevitability of Apocalypse, the end of the world. This re-connects our theme of identity back to the primary story element of the series, stopping the end of the world.

That's what I've got. There will be one final section to this essay, where I'll sum up just what went into this process.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Story Analysis 101 Pt. 2 - Names Are Important

[This is part 2 of an ongoing essay introducing techniques of story analysis using the episode "Gnothi Seauton" from the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The first part can be read here.]

Now that we've established a context by laying out the themes for the story, we can get to work digging through the other elements. I always feel you should start with the simple stuff and work your way up from there, so we'll start with names.
Names are important to a story. The names of characters and places are all elements used by the author to set the mood and move the story forward. So let's take a look at our characters, with references as available:
  • John Connor -The hero of our story and the future leader of the human resistance. John is a very common name in English speaking countries and it has an equivalent in many other languages and cultures, including Finnish, German, Hebrew, Celtic, Russian and even Slovenian. Thus in a sense, by naming the character John, the author is representing him as an EveryMan. The name comes from the Hebrew name Yochanan, which means "God is gracious" and the name appears in the New Testament. In fact, the circumstances of John Connor's birth parallel that of Jesus Christ. In Luke 1:26-38 an angel appears to Mary and tells her that she will give birth to the Savior and his name will be Jesus. In the first Terminator film, a time traveller appears to Sarah Connor and tells her she will give birth to a son that will save mankind and his name will be John. John and Jesus even share the same initials.
  • Sarah Connor - The mother of John Connor. In the Old Testament Sarah was the wife of the prophet Abraham and thus is a name we can find in all three major Western religious traditions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Sarah means "princess", "a person of high rank" or "high, holy one". When Kyle Reese travels from the future to protect Sarah Connor, he tells her that he volunteered for the mission because he wanted to meet The Legend. In the future, Sarah is regarded with awe and almost religious fervor.
  • Cameron Phillips - Cameron is a re-programmed terminator sent to protect John. The show's producer Josh Friedman has acknowledged that the character was named after James Cameron, the writer and director of the first film.
  • Cromartie - Another terminator, Cromartie attempted to kill John in the series pilot by posing as a high school teacher and, after this is foiled by Cameron, continues to pursue John, directly and indirectly, over the course of several episodes. While initially the name sounds like "Chrome Artie" and suggests a mechanical man, I thought the meaning might be more subtle than that. After some digging I came across a reference to a Japanese anime called Cromartie High School, a school of delinquents including a character named Shinichi Mechazawa, one of the most notorious delinquents of the school. Though it is suspected that he is actually a robot, no one but the main characters seems to notice, including himself. I thought I was on to something with this until I came across an interview with creator Josh Friedman who admits that he named the character after Antonio Cromartie, cornerback for the San Diego Chargers.
  • James Ellison - The FBI agent who has been hunting Sarah Connor since the events of the second movie. There is some speculation that he is named after Harlan Ellison, who sued the producers of the first Terminator film, claiming that the creators took ideas from some of his works, including the teleplays for the Outer Limits episodes "Demon with a Glass Hand" and "Soldier". He won the lawsuit.
The last name we will examine is the title of the episode itself: "Gnothi Seauton". This is Greek for 'Know Thyself' and we end the episode with a voice-over from Sarah:
Sarah : Know thyself. John once told me it's inscribed on the front of the Temple of Apollo. The entire quote is, "Know thyself and thou shall know all the mysteries of the gods and of the universe." That's quite a mouthful. My version is this: "Know thyself because what else is there to know?" People hide secrets. Time is a lie. The material world can disappear in an instant. It has and it will again.
Given this, why not call the episode "Know Thyself"? Why use the original Greek? This is what we in the story analysis game call a Clue. Sarah tells us that this phrase is part of an inscription over a Greek temple, so clearly the episode title is intended to point us in that direction. The temple is that of Apollo so perhaps that's significant. So who is Apollo?
Apollo was the Greek god of light, sun, truth, prophecy, archery, medicine, healing, music, poetry and more. He is usually pictured as a beardless youth and he has a twin sister, Artemis, who is described as a virgin huntress. So Apollo seems to reference John and as Cameron is posing as John's sister she takes on the role of Artemis.
Many ancient religions had a sun god. In fact, the sun god was one of the top gods in the pantheon, symbolizing light, warmth, hope, renewal, a new day after a dark night. There are even those who contend that the biblical Jesus Christ actually pre-dates the Bible and springs out of a long line of sun gods. (Disclaimer: I present this for reference only and do not vouch for the validity of the argument.) Once again, Apollo appears to reference John in his role as humanity's hope while also giving us a possible link back to the Christ mythology.
Apollo's mother, Leto, does not play much of a part mythologically speaking, apart from bearing Apollo and his sister. Afterwards she fades into the background and becomes this matronly figure on Mt. Olympus, home of the gods. When John emerges as the savior of humanity, Sarah has been dead and gone for some time, but is still regarded with reverence. We can stretch this as a link to Leto, giving us John as Apollo, Cameron as Artemis and Sarah as Leto.
Before we conclude this part of our analysis, let's take a look at what techniques we've used so far.
  1. Background - Before proceeding with our analysis we need to place the story into a context. This can be done by examining the author's other works, the time period in which the story was written, the personal history of the author and, if the story is part of a series, the overarching themes and ideas linking all of the works in the series together.
  2. Themes -This is an extension of the previous technique and is important enough to merit it's own entry. There are one or more major themes unifying a work of fiction and for longer works there are sometimes smaller themes for individual parts of the story. In our example, the theme for "Gnothi Seauton" is identity. We'll get more into this in the next part of this essay.
  3. Names - As I said, names are important and are rarely chosen at random. In addition, names may have meanings beyond what the author originally intended. Don't just look at character names, but also names of places, animals, objects and even the title of the work (and individual chapters, if appropriate).
  4. Archetypes - Humans have a long tradition of storytelling and there are character and story elements that are so fundamental that they keep re-occurring, across cultures, down through history. These are known as archetypes and if we can determine what elements of a story use them we can gain a deeper understanding of the current story. In addition, archetypes are a sort of storytelling shorthand which allows the author to impart a lot of information in very few words.
In the next part of this essay we'll begin taking a look at the story.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Story Analysis 101 Pt. 1 - Getting Started

[This is an expansion of some lecture notes from a class on science fiction that I recently taught. I decided to introduce my students to some basic story analysis using the episode "Gnothi Seauton" from the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I chose this because the show has plenty of action and drama for the new viewer but the writing is very intelligent and contains plenty of nice, chewy content and subtext. The discussion begins immediately after my students have seen the episode.]

(If you don't watch the series, you can get a very entertaining recap of the previous episode, the series pilot, here. Long story short: Two years after the events of the second Terminator movie, John (Thomas Dekker) and Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) are once again on the run, chased by the terminator Cromartie (Owain Yeoman). Along the way they meet Cameron (Summer Glau), a young woman who turns out to be another terminator sent to protect John. Ultimately the three travel forward in time from 1999 to 2007 in order to escape to safety.

One of the first rules for story analysis is -- don't just re-tell the story. This is not your grade school book report. You need to identify the key elements of the story; plot, themes, archetypes, characters, viewpoints, conflict and references to other works, for example. It's all part of the storytelling toolkit that we humans have used for...well, ever since we started telling each other stories. These elements provide a context for us to gain a deeper understanding of the story and the authorial intent.
You can begin with any part of the story you want. A good start is to figure out the themes because they will help you put the other elements in context. Since this show is based on a series of films, I think we can safely assume that it carries on the same themes.
  • Destiny vs. Fate - Kind of like Climate vs. Weather, Destiny is what you expect, Fate is what you get. John Connor is destined to lead humanity in the fight against the machines. SkyNet is trying to keep him from getting there, to change his fate. In the first movie, Kyle Reese (the soldier sent to protect Sarah Connor who incidentally becomes John's father) tells her "The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves."
  • Decisions Have Consequences - SkyNet, the rogue AI that nukes mankind, began as a computer program to automate the national defense grid and eliminate human error. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. In a larger context, each side in this war is attempting to change the future time line to their advantage and each action they take in our present is a pebble tossed into a quiet pond, rippling outward and affecting everything else.
  • Fighting the Future - Time travel is used by both sides in this series as a tool to change history. SkyNet is trying to prevent the successful rise of the human resistance and the human resistance (along with the Connors) are trying to prevent the rise of SkyNet.
  • How do you defeat an idea? - This is related to the previous theme. In the first movie, SkyNet tries to kill John Connor, who inspires and leads the successful human resistance. In the second, Sarah tries to kill Miles Dyson, who is credited as the creator of the technology that leads to the creation of SkyNet. However, both of these efforts are doomed to failure. SkyNet arises from the effort of many individuals and conversely any resistance movement springs from multiple sources. To quote Alfred Whitney Griswold: "Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas."
  • What does it mean to be human? - In other words, if terminators kill and destroy to achieve their goals and the humans do the same, how exactly is one side more worth preserving than the other? Can the Connors defeat their enemies without becoming them? Conversely, terminators are infiltration units whose effectiveness increases the more closely they can emulate a human, both in appearance and behavior. Each side, in their repeated attempts to defeat the Other, becomes the Other.
These are the major themes, as I see them. Individual episodes in this series have additional, smaller themes that are also important and I'll point them out as we go. Now that we have a context within which to analyze the story, I can begin dissecting the specific story elements in part 2 of this essay.