Thursday, November 20, 2008

Unimportant Things

by Stefan Delatovic [I make a brief comment below.]

In fiction I find myself drawn to the small touches, those little flourishes that bring a story to life.

They let you know a writer has thought about the universe they've created for their characters and aids in the willing suspension in disbelief.

When I occasionally rewatch The Matrix - which it seems everyone owns as it was the first effects-driven film released at the same time as DVD players - it's the small touches I appreciate. When a black cat crosses Neo's path for a second time he remarks, and I'm paraphrasing, 'whoa, deja vu, whoa'. The other characters, more familiar with the digital facsimile that is the Matrix, tell him that deja vu is in fact a glitch in the system, things are repeating like a scratched LP.
It's a nice touch. While it flags the appearance of the movie's villains, its ancillary to the thrust of the story. It's not important, but its one of those nice little flourishes that I enjoy so much.

I enjoy things like that for two reasons. Firstly, they make the world I'm watching feel lived in. Otherwise - much like a comic panel without a background - things feel a bit thin. Secondly, they strike me with the thought that the world's creator cares. They know this world and its mechanics, and they're letting me know with a wink. It helps me get involved.

Asides such as this can vary in importance and can foreshadow future events, lending them an integral role in the story, even if its not immediately recognizable.
In season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy shares a dream with her comatose counterpart Faith. As the girls make a bed and discuss the world in that dreamy-yet-weighty way our subconscious loves so much, Faith remarks that 'Dawn is coming', and that Ms Muffet is 'counting down from 730'. As the audience we write it off as dreamy nonsense, something to add to the atmosphere. But it is in two seasons - two years, or 730 days in the real world - that the character of Dawn will be introduced. There is never anything as dull as a 'this is like that dream I had' revelation from Buffy, and the dream is not mentioned again, but we as the audience make the connection, and the author winks to us that he has thought about this world, and he had a plan all along.

As a child I had glasses of such thickness that I appeared to have two highly-polished trashcan lids attached to my face, and a spine which was bent into the shape of an S. While I thought the spine thing was cool, as it was the first letter of my name, the whole arrangement added up to crippling migraines and quickly lost its luster. That situation however (the less said about the hair I was sporting at the time the better), allowed me to first find appreciation in these small flourishes of fiction. In an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation - which alongside Nintendo had formed a patchwork replacement for friends, sports and the opposite sex - Captain Picard is getting headaches. They eventually turn out to be the nefarious plan of some kind of almost-human-but-with-slightly-more-face alien, but before that revelation, Doctor Crusher gives him the once over. He complains, dismissing his condition as 'just headaches'. She remains worried though, explaining that headaches are no longer commonplace since the brain was mapped hundreds of years ago. It's clumsy exposition to be sure, but it's a nice touch from this future world. It also neatly encapsulates the thematic centre of Star Trek, and I'm paraphrasing again: The future will be shiny and great.

Anybody else love this stuff? Any favourites?

LOST doesn't count though, as their entire structure is built around the small details that may or may not gain importance sometime but could equally just be a polar bear but what if the island is in the past whoosh.

[I watch for these moments too -- but the key problem I raise is what to do with them in the evaluation of the thing as a whole. How many "bonus points" do I award for these perfect little details? If the movie is a B at best because of structure, pacing, acting, or whatever, do these little details push the thing into an A? Dark Knight had a lot of problems but a hundred little details around the Joker pushed that thing into a higher category -- for many people making a B movie into an A. But for me -- and I will admit I am a little inconsistent on this point -- the A has to go to movies that do not have flaws, rather than movies with flaws but great moments to make up for them. Otherwise you get in a position where you have to say, for example. that Phantom Menace is a great movie on the principle that the fight scenes are so good they make up for everything else.]

I have already mentioned some of my favorite throw-away details on this blog, but I will repeat one here: Cameron Frye in Ferris Buller's Day off wears both a belt and suspenders, perfectly capturing what his character is all about. ]


finsof72 said...

How about in The Dark Knight where Coleman Reese is talking about the missing information about the Applied Science department? It strikes a double whammy because not only is it a nice little touch to show you that Bruce Wayne isn't just pulling all his crap out of a hat but also plays a key part in the story later on.

Marc Caputo said...

I LOVE, in Almost Famous, when, at the end, William finally gets his sitdown with Russell Hammond and it's never shown. Instead we get a montage of future events, all showing that the characters live (at least for the forseeable future) happily ever after. What a lot of people (at least the ones I've talked to) don't notice is that at the end of the montage, we see Russell leaving the house, as if to say all of these "happy endings" were made possible by the interview.

I like that that stuff is there even if it wasn't done so intentionally; it makes me feel like I have ownership of it to some extent.

James said...

A recent small detail I liked was Tony Stark's guitars, but I'm sure I've got much better examples than that in my head somewhere.

I love the fact that in Miller's Crossing, characters repeatedly wonder what happened to Rug Daniels' "hair", but only the viewer ever knows the truth.

Brian said...

There's a scene in the Wire's third season, which takes place in a gay bar, and Rawls can be seen in the background, for maybe a second, holding a drink. The show never references it again, which makes it that much better as an Easter egg.

LOST does something similar with the Tom character, but it's much more obvious. As mentioned in the post, the LOST crew consciously set the reveal up in Season 3 and then milk it a little bit in Season 4.

I love the Rawls reveal so much because you already have to be an pretty observant viewer to watch the Wire, but to catch this one, insignificant part of the show, you have to be insanely observant. I suppose this might have a bit to do with the fact that LOST is a major network show and the Wire is created by HBO, but that's a different topic altogether.

Geoff Klock said...

The best part about the Rawls scene is that the next time you see him he is yelling at someone at work and he calls them a cocksucker like he always does -- but because of that one "blink and you'll miss it moment" you have to completely reevaluate that line and all the ones like it before (and there are many).

Stefan Delatovic said...

It's easy for a slew of cool moments to convinve you that a story is good, when in fact it is terrible.

In fact, it was the latest issue of Wolverine that got me thinking about this again. I'm a sucker for a story that jumps to a future world and lays out easter eggs about what may have happened in the past. In the current issue, future Wolverine passes by many of these - such as Red Skull's head carved into Mount Rushmore - and they do get the imagination firing.
It's a shame that they can't redeem the storyline itself, which is boring as hell.

Before each of my final high school exams I would watch the Darth Maul / Obi Wan battle in the Phantom Menace, as it put me in a good mood, but I never went back and watched anything else in that film.

The Star Wars prequels are notable for their lack of cool little moments, despite being the ideal forum.

Streebo said...

One of my favorite devil in the details gags from Grant Morrison is one that Geoff pointed out in All Star Superman #5 when Luthor quietly redraws his eyebrow with a mascara pencil as he delivers an evil monologue to Clark. I'm trying to think of any one of the hundreds of little details from an Invisibles story or Gaiman's Sandman but nothing is coming to mind at the moment.

Speaking of the Matrix - one of my best friends hates parts of that movie because he believes they did not pay enough attention to the details. He always complains during the big office building shootout near the end of the second act. Neo and Trinity flip their way through the scene with guns ablazing in both hands - yet when the camera cuts to an inset shot of the spent shells hitting the ground - they are from a different type of gun than the ones being shown. I would never notice that flaw and even after he pointed it out I could really care less - but he gnashes his teeth about it every time.

Streebo said...

"Phantom Menace is a great movie on the principle that the fight scenes are so good they make up for everything else."


James said...

The Matrix deja vu thing is perfect because it's one of those little anchors that makes the viewer go "maybe I'M in The Matrix RIGHT NOW". Especially since deja vu is one of those weird little things that everyone's experienced but most people don't know the cause of.

Kyle said...

I tend to have the opposite experience with "The Matrix" (one of my favorites), but more in terms of storytelling quibbles than shell-casings.

When Tank says something along the lines of "He really IS the one," Neo had only done something like advanced rope-twirling and dragging his feet, the same rules-bending that the other rebels could do. It's an okay exposition "whoa" in exactly the wrong place.

I'm probably also in the minority of finding the lobby shoot-out boring.

Roughly the reverse, in the sequels I only like the monologues and Bane-as-Smith.

Good topic, I'll think on it.

Le Ted said...

In THE DARK KNIGHT, Lieutenant Gordon goes to warn Commissioner Loeb than the Joker has threatened the Commish's life. The Commissioner is completely dismissive, going so far as to say (quoth the film's script) "You're unlikely to discover this for yourself, so take my word - the Police Commissioner earns a lot of threats . . ."

This works as irony on numerous levels. Bat-fans know that Gordon will become the Commissioner and Loeb doesn't. We know that Gordon works much harder than Loeb and 'earns' threats while Loeb, depending on who you ask, is either dismissive of his cops' corruption or corrupt himself. Loeb's refusal to recognize the threat also sets in motion the events that lead to Gordon's taking his job, the most important of which is that Gordon pretends to be dead , i.e. fulfills Loeb's prediction in order to nullify it.

Speaking of Batman, one of the first things that Selina says to Bruce in LONG HALLOWEEN is that people will talk about how hot the night Johnny Vitti was for years after it. The first thing she says to him in DARK VICTORY, LH's sequel, is "It's hot, but not as hot as the night Johnny Vitti got married."

RE: The Wire and Rawls - I think that John Doman does an excellent job whenever Rawls talks to Landsman and thumbs through one of his pornographic magazines. He has this perfect, "gym coach curiousity," I don't know how to describe it of something between posturing and bonding.

James said...

"Neo had only done something like advanced rope-twirling and dragging his feet, the same rules-bending that the other rebels could do"

I always thought the implication was that since Neo had no way of knowing Trinity would free herself, he was going to attempt to catch the helicopter. That he believed, and therefore was.

Christian said...

The fact that in all the Hellblazer stories you never actually see Constantine perform any kind of magic tricks. Everything that he supposedly does, if we disregard his dialog, as mere coincidences.

And to add to the Morrison Arguments:

The fact that The Void, The White Place, Purgatory etc. from his JLA run are all the same place, just discovered by various factions and thus named differently.

The Decreator thread in Doom Patrol, where the joke is that all the little things you lose like the socks in the laundry, time you forget etc. is all an effect of the Decreator slowly killing the universe.

A Gaiman one:

Delirium threatening the half-demon in Lucifer's club in one of the last issues:

"If you don't let me in, I will turn you into a demon half-face waitress night-club lady with a crush on her boss, and I'll make it so you've been that from the beginning of time to now and you'll never ever know if you were anything else and it will itch inside your head worse than little bugses."

I'm actually not as big a fan of Sandman as many others, but I do think Delirium is a great character. Even if it's just her constant musing.

scott91777 said...

A cute one...

In Star Wars how it is implied that R2-D2s unique personality is the result of his never having his memory erased (it is also implied that this would be the more common practice).

They actually had some more fun with this in a recent episode of The Clone Wars (which, IMO, isn't bad at all... of course tonight's episode is Jar Jar centric... so I may be speaking to soon) It is actually implied that one of the reason's that R2 never had his memory erased was a result of Anakin who, like any great tragic hero, has a single downfall. Anakin's just happens to be his 'attachment' issues... he can't let anything go. As a result of this, he never wipes R2s memory and even launches a rescue mission to save him because 'R2 is not just a droid... he's a friend'

scott91777 said...

Oh, here's another one:

In Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, when Indy and Dr. Schnider are in the catacombs, they come across an etching of the Ark of the Covenant. Schnider ask what it is, Indy quickly answers "The Ark of the Covenant", Schnider then ask "Are you sure" Indy replies "Pretty Sure"...

But wait... that's not the best part! If you listen closely, the music very briefly segues into the 'Ark theme' from Raiders! Bravo John Williams!

Along the same lines, when Superman catches Lois in the first Superman movie (the "You've got me! Who's got you?" moment) the music shifts into "Can You Read My Mind" (aka the love theme from Superman).

Actually, there are probably a lot of little musical ones like this, like the one Geoff has mentioned here before in Grosse Point Blank where "Live and Let Die" is replaced with a muzak version of "Live and Let Die" as he enters the convenience store.

finsof72 said...

So Wall-E and R2-D2's personalities have an explanation...I just assumed it was a product of 'random segments of code that arrange themselves randomly forming aspects similar to what we call the soul' from I-Robot.

*On a nerdier note, though I have spent much of my life ripping anyone who has ever watched and episode of Star Trek, I'm ashamed to admit that I actually kind of want to see the new one after seeing the trailer...

Kyle said...

James: Yes, Neo would've tried to catch a helicopter, but we don't really know the extent of the strength increase bending the laws of physics grants. Whether he was attempting to break the rules is unclear, but within the movie he is "waiting for his next life" to be the One.

scott91777 said...


Ah yes, but what is the soul but the accumulation of our memories and experience?

... why do I suddenly feel like I'm being written by Grant Morrison?

Streebo said...

Scott - Because we all are.

scott91777 said...


According to AS Superman 10... you're kinda right.