Friday, 17 July 2020
Stories that resonate
The film director Brian De Palma once gave a vivid description of how resonance works in storytelling. He likened different elements of the story to charged rods. When they get to just the right separation – CRACK! – you get a spark that illuminates the narrative. Too far apart and the discharge doesn’t happen. Too near and you get a closed circuit that never charges up in the first place.
One of the best uses of resonance in games is in Grim Fandango. The 1930s style of the setting allows a pseudo-Art Deco motif in the office block where the hero works, which is the headquarters of the Department of Death. Real-world Art Deco was influenced by Egyptian art, making it an excellent metaphor for the afterlife which is the setting of the game. In Grim Fandango, that Art Deco style comes with a spin, though, in that the decorative images used are not Egyptian but Aztec – which pulls us back to the origins of the Day of the Dead festival in pre-Columbian myth.
The 1930s trope also works well with Grim Fandango’s noirish private-eye slant and the slightly shabby elegance familiar to anyone who has ever visited a Mexican town like Morelia or Oaxaca. The game begins in the city of El Marrow, which looks like a sleepy burg that time has passed by. Indeed, this impression is accentuated by styling the world of the living, which the hero briefly visits, on Richard Hamilton's brashly colourful Pop Art paintings of the 1950s. (Life is to afterlife as the urban USA is to rural Mexico? That's resonance.)
Resonance can be used with varying degrees of subtlety. The least overt involves repeated images that defy instant critical analysis and so work on a very deep level. Examples of this kind of resonance – which we may call motifs – are hats in Miller's Crossing, water and the lack of it in Chinatown, and the use of discordant sounds and background noise in Touch of Evil.
More obvious are symbols that visually express the subtext. Hitchcock's thrillers often embody a sense of inevitability or danger by using shadows that seem to form a web or the bars of a cage. Orson Welles' Touch of Evil is set on the border between the USA and Mexico, and the story concerns a moral border: the grey area between the two lead characters, played by Welles and Charlton Heston. Those are more overt forms of resonance because they operate at the mind's liminal threshold.
Least subtle of all is resonance that simply swipes its whole scenario from another story or from the real world. I haven’t seen the new Picard series and know nothing about it apart from the screenshot that suggests Jean-Luc is now hanging out with Elrond. But a review mentioned that it deals with the refugees displaced by the destruction of the planet Romulus (what is it with Star Trek writers and blowing up planets?) and the notion that a less progressive administration at Starfleet is shirking their responsibility to help them.
Now, I have no quarrel with Star Trek being political. It always was; that was the whole point of it. The question here is whether it’s the kind of Roddenberrian allegorical scenario that fires us up with interesting ideas about timeless philosophical or political issues, or whether you’ll watch it and say, “Oh, so it’s a story about Trump.” The former is one of Mr De Palma’s lightning flashes: it’s alive! The latter fizzles out, its energy draining away in worthy obviousness.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever find out. There’s way too much TV these days to keep track of, and after seven seasons of TNG and Grabthar knows how many movies I don’t really feel the need for yet more Picard. But if you liked the show and can convince me it’s not from Western Union – well, okay then. Make it so.