Sunday, December 28, 2014

3 reasons to tell your children the truth about Santa

Christmas makes us mad. People are forced to smile and eat too much, and if you have children, then you will know the pain of transforming hard earned cash into cheap plastic pieces encased in impenetrable plastic tombs that you wrap in paper more delicate than spider web for them to tear apart. 

But as Minchin says, I just really like it. That is, up to the point where we all take a collective crazy pill and try to deceive our children that an omniscient father figure watches over them, judging their deeds worthy of the plastic crap they desire. 

One video in particular really pushed me over the edge. 

On the surface this ticks all the 'magic of xmas' boxes as far as most parents are concerned. But the very reasons most of us gush and go ahhhh at such a video, make me face palm. 

So here are my top 3 reasons to tell your kid that Santa is just a nice made up character we pretend comes down chimneys to give everyone presents. 

1. It's the truth. Sounds silly, but I think we owe it to our children to always tell them as much of the truth as they can handle. My son asked once why he has to wear a helmet on his scooter. I told him it is to protect his brain because that is where all his thoughts are stored, and should he hit his head too hard, he could lose some or all of his memories. 

'Just like great grandpa,' he said innocently. 

We have talked about great grandpa too, of course, and what it means to forget who you are. My son is only 5, but he gets it. And now he wears his helmet without a fuss. 

2. It's probably not a great idea to indoctrinate your children into theist ideology.

The belief that belief is somehow good for us needs to die. The number one thing parents say to me when I admit to having told our son 'the truth', is that there is something magical about the belief in Santa that needs protecting. Some even proudly proclaim the 'you have to believe to receive' mantra. Sigh.

Here's the thing. It's only a belief for the parents. There is nothing magical about Santa if a child thinks he is literally true. This is the contradiction and central irony of faith. People who need to believe in god or the stars or humming crystals, only do so in a catch 22 kind of way. Magic is real, they believe, but 'reality' is seen as science and is rejected as if the fact checking makes the wonders mundane. Then in the same breath they apply a version of rationality to justify their ideologies. God must be real, they say, because I prayed and my sick aunt got better. Anecdotal evidence used the way a researcher sites a peer reviewed journal, but without all the messy facts.  If all this is confusing for an adult, just think how hard it is for a five year old. 

Being told that santa makes all your toys is no more strange or interesting than being told about the global industry that exists to make all the staggering amount of aforementioned plastic. Flying reindeer are only magical to an adult, because we know they cannot be real. But to a child who knows nothing or aerodynamic lift, a flying sleigh seems as probable as any other device. It's not imagination if they think it's real.

Where does all this lead? Well, after your children grow up get over the shock of having been deceived, the one thing they will remember beside a small residue of resentment, is the knowledge that believing in made up things is somehow important. They won't know why, but all the associated tinsel and songs will reinforce the dangerous feeling that reality is not magical enough. Which of course, it is

3. Teaching your child that they will be rewarded for just being 'nice' is creating a world of spoilt, entitled teenagers. And they are ruining everything.

I am really over rewarding mediocrity. We tell our son we will get him one big present and a few small ones, but not because he has done anything, because we love him. That's it. Simple. 

Parents use Santa as a bargaining chip--and I get it, we need all the help we can get sometimes--but the system falls down because deep down, children know all the terrible things they have done. And despite all their lies, all the times they were mean to someone, or stole something without anyone knowing, they still got given a nintendo from the man who was watching closer than the NSA. This can have two outcomes. 

1, the child realises the 'naughty or nice' system is bullshit, and wakes up to the fact that the entire thing is a lie (but then goes along with it to please mum and dad (see reason #2) 

OR 2, the child thinks that Santa must think all the lying etc. didn't really matter, and they deserved their $300 gaming system anyway. 

Option 1 makes them think their parents are stupid, and number 2 makes them think they are the centre of the universe. Either way, you have an entitled teenager in the making. 

So that's it. Remember though, I really do love Christmas. Its sentimental I know, but I just really like it. And its not about giving or receiving, its just about being with the people you love, trying to make them as happy as they make you. Santa--or any made up person--just gets in the way.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Dissecting Totoro with Kishōtenketsu

I decided to start the term with something a little more challenging for my year 7 media class. These students are 12-13 year olds who have grown up with as much Gibli as Disney, so I figured they could handle having the curtain pulled aside on what makes the two most famous animation studios so very different, not just aesthetically, but philosophically.

And there is no better example than My Neighbour Totoro 

I'm going to assume you have watched the film. If not, I'll wait while you go sort that out.

 Miyazaki's  1988 masterpiece is awesome. It has a 92% rating on rotten tomatoes, and Roger Ebert calls it one of his 'Great Movies' Yet no one can really put their finger on what makes it work.

As Ebert himself points out, Totoro is:

...a film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.

If we believe what the experts tell us about how stories work, then frankly, Totoro should be a forgotten oddity, not the cult classic it remains to be.

Even the students in my class who had never seen a Studio Gibli film before were captivated from the opening scene of two girls and their father arriving at their new farmhouse.

So what is going on? What makes Totoro work?

The answer of course, is Kishōtenketsu.

Time for a scene analysis. Like all good structures, Kishōtenketsu works on the macro and micro scale. I'll talk about the film as a whole later, but first, let's look at a seemingly inconsequential moment just after the family arrives at their new home.

Satsuki and Mei run inside, thrilled at the old house that their father tells them is most likely haunted.

Already we see a departure from the typical hollywood narrative, for instead of being frightened by this news, the girls are eager to find out more.

This is the Ki, or introduction moment of the scene. We've been introduced to an idea--old haunted house--and now we, like the sisters, want to see more.

They run through to the back of the house and find the supports of the verandah almost rotted through. This is the Sho, or follow on from the opening. And if you were brought up on western film, then you have a certain expectation about what happens next.

In the three act structure, visualised by the Freytag Pyramid, you can read the rotted wood as an 'inciting incident' and would expect that the next thing to happen will be the roof of the verandah start to fall, just when Mei is in harms way. The music would likewise turn ominous, warning us of the rising danger, and then, just at the climax, Mei's sister would heroically pull her to safety.

Instead, we have this:

The girls push the pillar back into place, with no change of music, no rising tension. It surprises us, and at first we cannot make sense of this moment. Will this be the classic double take, and just when the girls turn their backs, bam! down comes the roof?

Nope. Thrilled by the excitement their new house offers, the girls dance away into the forest.

Kishōtenketsu's third 'act' is Ten, a twist, as you can see above. This is a situation that momentarily unbalances our expectations, or confounds us with new information. Then the conclusion, or Ketsu, consolidates the scene, giving us perspective, rather than resolution.

The girls see a giant tree in the forest.

It seems intimidating, but the girls realise that like the wooden beam, this tree is not threatening, not something to fear.

That short scene at the start of Totoro is inconsequential to the rising action of the film. We never again see the threatening wooden pillar, so it is not the 'Chekhov's gun' some audience members might still assume. Yet it is crucial in understanding the unique emotional journey of the film as a whole. Taken as a part of the bigger film, the previous scene acts as one of the Ki moments of the first 30 minutes, introducing us to the sisters, their world, and an important tree. But not the conflict, for like Ebert pointed out, this film has none.

Ready for more?

Just like every scene in the film has this internal structure, the entire plot unfolds with the same four parts.

After finding soot gremlins in the attic--a scene that again confounds us with the realisation that these ghost creatures are benign--we meet old Granny, who, like their father, not only believes the girls when they tell her they have seen gremlins, but also explains how harmless they are.

Even when there is a scene of tension, such as the storm that howls while the family have a bath....

The moment is twisted around with laughter and the reiteration that while it can be wild, nature is not something to be feared.

Next we have the Shō, or the follow on, part of the film that builds detail around what we already know. The next day the family visit their mother, who is recovering from an undisclosed illness in a nearby hospital.

We would expect her illness to be life threatening, with the doctors telling us that without some hard to get medicine, the mother will die. Instead she assures the girls she will be home soon.

Mei, the youngest, continues to explore her yard while her father works inside and her sister goes to school.

And she discovers that there are more than soot gremlins in the forest.

Guided by her curiosity, with no thought of fear or danger, Mei follows these creatures into the trees.

and finds her neighbour...

Her older sister, Satsuki finds Mei, and although they cannot find their way back to Totoro, she believes that the creature is real.

Even their father does not discount Mei's discovery, and all three find the giant tree, respectfully asking the spirits of the forest to watch over them.

And we are shown that they will.

Next is the scene where the girls go to the bus stop to wait for their father. There is a storm, and for a moment the girls are worried.

Their father has missed the bus, and Mei eventually falls asleep on Satsuki's back. Again, we expect this to be a scene of rising action, with the girls, or their father, needing to overcome some problem to resolve the situation. But surprise!

Totoro arrives to remind us that even in moments of uncertainty, you should still stop and appreciate the wonder of nature and the beauty in something as simple as the sound of rain.

The catbus comes to take Totoro away, and, soon after, their father arrives late, but safe.

And they all go home, happy.

The macro Shō section of the film ends with a beautiful scene later that night, when the girls wake, run outside and meet all the Totoros.

They plant acorns in the veggie patch, and watch, as Totoro works his magic and the seeds transform into a giant tree.

Totoro then flies them high above the land, ending the scene with a final moment of consolidating Ketsu perspective.

Next comes the big twist of the film. The Ten moment on the macro scale.

After meeting granny and helping her pick corn, the girls receive a telegram.

Their mother is in trouble. Finally, it seems, we have the classic rising action we have been expecting.

The sisters run home, but Mei is separated and quickly becomes lost.

They are momentarily re-united, but Mei, certain now that her mother needs the corn to get better, decides to run away.

Satsuki searches for her.

And for a moment it seems like the worst has happened...

But Satsuki decides to ask the forest for help.

And finding her way to his hiding place, Totoro comes to the rescue.

Calling out for the catbus, that comes, and whisks Satsuki away to find Mei.

So far this section of the film has been built from micro scenes of Kishōtenketsu, each with an intro, follow on, twist and consolidation. Now is where the micro and macro converge, coming together in a final Ketsu section that resolves both Mei's rescue, and the bigger ideas of the film.

The sisters, together again, take the catbus to see their sick mother.

The do not, however, have the joyous cuddle we might expect. Their mother has no idea that Mei was missing, so there is no reason to upset her. Instead, they watch from the treetops, content, like their friend Totoro, to observe from afar.

And like Totoro, the sisters leave the adults a gift, a symbol of life in the form of the ear of corn taken from Granny's garden.

There is no climax of conflict, no major revelation or resolution of problems. But there is an ending, and it is more satisfying than any Disney 'happily ever after.'

The catbus takes the girls home and the final image is that of the Totoros, watching from their tree, seeing that all is well in the world.

Of course, there are those that think My Neighbour Totoro is about something completely different, and Miyazaki has never said he intentionally followed the structure of Kishōtenketsu. But using it as a lens to study the structure makes it clear that something very different is at work in the film than the majority of hollywood narratives.

As for my students, they ate up the class, loving the discussion as well as the film itself. The film that kept them laughing and wide-eyed to the very end.

And this, in the end, is the point of Kishōtenketsu.

About the only thing I agree with in the book 'Million Dollar Outlines' was the notion that we do not fall in love with genres of film, so much as the emotion different types of stories promise.

Fantasy, like her big sister, Science Fiction, has become more closely aligned to the Thriller and Adventure genres. It promises action, danger, magic and mystery. This is all great, but let's not forget what we fell in love with all the way back at the beginning with Tolkein, Lewis, and Le Guin. Wonder. It is the wide-eyed curiosity we feel exploring a strange new world that kept me reading SF as a child, and it keeps me here, writing it now. Wonder is a harder, more subtle emotion to convey, and it is easy to lose your way in a plot full of twists and battles and villains.

Kishōtenketsu reminds me to keep it simple.