Thursday, February 13, 2020

What Korean TV dramas are teaching me about plot

My discovery of Korean TV dramas has coincided with my working through the book, Story Genius (SG) by Lisa Cron, which is about how to craft a good story.

Specifically, I am currently in the throes of a Netflix creation called “Crash Landing on You” (CLOY), which is still being released. The last two episodes (15 and 16) will be released on Saturday and Sunday—and I will be watching them, possibly in the morning of each day.

I can’t remember the last time I was so caught up in a TV show, except maybe Twin Peaks, which my spouse and I (pre-DVR days) would rush from wherever we were to watch at home in real time. But that was back in the days when there was no social media engagement—so our interest was shared among ourselves and our acquaintances only.

This is the first TV show I have watched that is dropping in real time (instead of its entire season being instantly binge-able), so I have been waiting each weekend with tens of thousands of others for the next episodes to drop. Although the show hasn’t gotten much press in American media (no reviews from TV critics of the New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) it is a fan favorite on Rotten Tomatoes, receiving a 96% audience score and 9.1 stars from viewers on IMDB. When a clip of it is posted on YouTube or when Hyun-Bin (one of the main actors) posts something about it on his Instagram feed, dozens of people comment about how much they are enjoying it—and a common thread among these comments (written in multiple languages) is something like: “Happy ending—please!!” Viewers are really engaged in the story. A few have (jokingly) threatened the writers if it ends sadly. So I am not the only one caught up in it.

It’s fun to enter this fictional world and anticipate the next thing that could happen, especially since almost every episode ends with a cliffhanger (and also to think there are so many people experiencing this euphoric anticipation along with me). But why, according to the tenets set forth in Story Genius, has this been such compelling viewing for me? I know it’s not the best thing I’ve ever watched and I am sometimes frustrated at the lack of action, when the actors just stand there and make moony eyes at each other while the camera pans around them. (Although there is often poetry in what they say to each other in such times--see example dialog at the bottom of this post *).

Since I am still learning what “story” is (apparently what I’ve written a lot of in the past is beautiful exposition), I thought CLOY would be useful as an exercise for me to apply some of Cron’s examples/questions about the elements of story to it. (I can’t apply her earlier questions about why I should care about the story, or what prompted it since I didn’t write it).

SG: What is the problem she/they can’t avoid?

• Yoon-Seri has crash-landed in North Korea—so the first and main question is: how will she get out? And how will Captain Ri help her get out? So simple, yet so compelling (despite the absurdity). She must get out—it is dangerous for her there. But they fall in love, so the secondary question is: how can they/will they reunite?

SG: What is the point?

I’m not sure about this question. Maybe: Love gives meaning to life? Or, if given the chance, people can rise to the occasion and be heroic (they both risk their lives for each other)? But in an online interview, Cron also said: “what most people are writing about is human connection, the cost of human connection. What does it cost me to connect.

This might be a better question for CLOY. Seri is a woman who has little close human connection—never accepted by her mother, hated by her brothers. Capt. Ri has shut himself down emotionally after the death of his brother. They learn to love and rely upon each other—but the cost is heartbreak, and the absence of a future together.

SG: What did the protagonist enter the story already wanting?

• Is the answer as simple as “to be loved and known”--? Not just romantic love but to find community with people, even those who are as different from you as they could possibly be.

SG: What is the protagonist’s internal change? How does the external dilemma/plot change her worldview?

Seri learns to love, to trust, to be giving—this is mirrored also by Capt. Ri’s internal change as well. But how heartbreaking—and the thing that drives the later episodes forward—that the thing that has changed her the most and given her the most happiness is the one thing she can’t have.

* Who wouldn’t love a man who can say something like this to comfort a weeping woman?

“Next year, the year after that, and even the one after that will all be good. Because I’ll be thinking about you. I’ll be grateful that you were born into this world. I’ll be grateful that the person I love is still breathing. That’s why your birthday will always be a good day.”

Friday, November 9, 2018

On television (part two): Handmaid's Tale

(Two screenshots I took of THT, with Prisma filters added)
1. I got sucked into The Handmaid's Tale (THT) a few weeks ago. I began watching at least an episode every day, usually just before bed. Never has a show affected my mood so much. Every torture depicted on-screen became my torture. The utter boredom and despair of a handmaid's life was mine. More and more of my dreams were of being held captive, of trying to escape. 

Even in the daylight, the trauma from the previous evening clung to me. As I went about my day, I often found myself panicked about how Offred could flee from the commander's home. 

Was a compelling story really worth this much psychological trauma?

2. I stopped at Season Two, Episode Four a few days ago. (If you've watched the show, you'll know which episode this is.) It's hard to watch a character who seems to have succumbed to her circumstances. 

Why should I care anymore? I understand the perils and horrors of June's life and don't need to see them repeated and expanded upon without some sense of impending relief. Ongoing grimness and misery are not what I usually look for in a TV show.  

[After I wrote this entry a few days ago, I went back and finished season two of the damned show.]

3. If this was a British drama, it would be done or nearly done by now. A a total of 10 or 20 episodes, issued over two or three seasons, and the story would be complete. No need to keep expanding it, adding more tortures, backstories, and characters just to keep it going. 

Alas, I read recently that the creator of THT TV show envisions having it play out over 10 seasons. That would include, I assume, at least one season of rebellion and war, and perhaps another season of Life-After-Gilead--which would mean at least six more seasons of handmaids being raped, unwomen continuing to dig up radioactive dirt, and traitors being hung for public display.

Why would I want to stick around for that? 

It's time to release Offred (and me) from this trauma. End it with season three or--perhaps even better--with a two-hour special in which the anthropologist from the future at the end of Atwood's book has tried to piece together what happened to Offred and the women of Gilead. 

If I remember it correctly, the anthropologist laughs occasionally during her presentation on Gilead--not to make light of the handmaid's life, but perhaps to show that such a life was unbelievable in the much-saner present day. The appearance of laughter--or a scene invoking laughter--might be the most shocking twist of all in a future episode of THT.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

On Television (part one)

1. I watch too much TV.  In my defense, so much TV is so good now--or maybe it's so easy to watch. One show runs into the next on Netflix and before I can reach for the remote, the next episode has started and, well, it will only be another 21 minutes.

2. I rarely just sit and watch TV--can I pat myself on the back for that? Most of the time I am washing dishes, or cooking dinner, or folding laundry, glancing at the screen when I can.

3. There are few shows that are "downstairs-worthy," which means I am willing to walk downstairs to the bigger TV and sit down and just watch a show. Currently the only downstairs-worthy network show is "The Good Place"--and it's the only show I watch with someone else. Hubby and I watch it together, otherwise afraid we would reveal any spoilers to each other. It continues to surprise me.

4. Most of the time, we all watch something different, in different rooms. I'll watch John Oliver on YouTube while changing my sheets. My husband will read the paper and watch a ball game downstairs. The teenager will watch something on her phone while doing rote work. A few years ago, before the teenager had so many activities, we set out to watch every episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but we drifted away from it. At least we got to Chuckle's funeral. The disc for Season Six sat in the DVD player for months.

5. After college and living out West a few years, I came back home. My mother would insist that we all watch television together in the evenings. "Come on out of your room and be social for awhile," she would say. This was before you could zip through ads. The sitcoms and dramas would be interrupted every eight or so minutes with commercials for hair products and floor cleaners. Having lived for years in dorms and communal houses without a television set, it was a shock to have all those shows reel before us--people shot, lovers ferociously kissing, actors smirking to a laugh track--and then perky actors insisting I needed products I had no money for. They were all at our command, yet at the same time, captivating us. I often sneaked back to my room to read a book.

Sometimes now, alone in the den, watching TV and folding laundry, I can understand her sentiment, how she thought TV might bring us together, that it could be a common language for us--even if our common language was Dallas or Dynasty.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The impermanence of texts, and everything really

I am reminded of the impermanence of life as I go through the agonizing process of cleaning out my old iPhone. Its text messages--sometimes the only written communication I've had with people in the last five years--did not transfer to my new phone. And so, before handing the old phone off to the child whose even older phone is dying, I am reading through old texts to see if there is anything worth keeping.

Based on these communications with my husband, our marriage seems composed of an endless quest for grocery items. Lists are sent every few days (eggs, bananas, milk, coconut oil, rice) without  any voicing of affection. From these you would never know that ours is a happy marriage. Occasionally there is the exceptional day where not-good things are noted, like this text: "At pediatricians. E-girl has a fever and pink eye. I-guy is in the bathroom throwing up." Is it worth remembering that moment at the pediatrician's, on that particular date, or would it be better to forget the specifics and move forward? To ponder this is to ponder what composes a life--is it a series of days/events or is it the intelligence and feeling that evolve from all these experiences?

I couldn't ponder this question or this particular day too deeply since there were so many other messages to get through. Overall, most of the messages between my husband and me were mundane and not worth remembering. I took a deep breath, put my finger on our last message there and, with a flick, all of them were gone, as if they had never been. Then it was on to the next cache of texts.

Erasing our messages was a fairly easy decision. He is here with me and texting composes only a small fraction of our communication. Not so with my son, who moved 3,000 miles away more than a year ago. Sometimes a text once a week is the only time we communicate directly. It's not surprising, then, that I have saved his texts for last. Less mundane than the texts with my husband (at least, there are no grocery lists), there's still probably not much worth keeping here either, at least in what we've expressed or how we've expressed it. But still. If I wipe them out, those moments will be gone--just like all the moments of his childhood, which get further away every year.

My memory for specifics fades a little each year as my brain refuses to take on too much more information. Without these texts, how else will I remember what day he wrote about the fire a mile from his house, which almost triggered an evacuation?  Or the July day this year that he successfully cooked his first full meal?

Yet, if I keep the texts from this phone, they will probably take on just another impermanent form, compiled into Word files or inserted into long email messages. And then--where will they really be? Of course, there is always paper. The messages could be copied and printed out, stapled together, and shoved into a file. But having cleaned out my mother's home after her death a couple of years ago and throwing out most of the greeting cards she had saved over the course of a lifetime (along with her correspondences with people I didn't know), I know that eventually, even that will be lost.

Those last few messages need to be gone through. My daughter's phone is dying. Let me just jot down a few of these first. Let me not have to let it all go, at least not yet.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Dirty, Disappointing Dancing

I could not stop watching the trainwreck that was Dirty Dancing 2017 (though I only watched it in fits and starts while washing the dishes). I was never a huge DD fan, but I mostly watched it because I wanted to see how someone would update/alter it.

The problem with DD for me has always been that the heart of the story is kind of icky, if you think about it: Teenage girl helps a pregnant dance instructor after her botched abortion and then, on that same evening, even though she has just witnessed this horrible thing, rushes to Johnny Castle's cabin and begs him to sleep with her (without any discussion of birth control, etc.). And yet, the original was still somehow charming and was campy (like the old ladies who try to dirty dance in the last scene), which took away the ick. This version was stilted and at times grim. And it emphasized the original’s icky elements: Abigail Breslin (despite being 21) looked like she was in middle school while the actor playing Johnny looked like he was in his late 20s. Yes, Baby is supposed to be innocent, but this made it look almost indecent. (Patrick Swayze's Johnny was sweet and vulnerable, which made it easier to see him with a teenager.)  And in the original, Johnny mentions having older female clients paying for private lessons, but it’s mostly implied. Here it shows him with Katie Sagal in a negligee more than once (with whom he had a lot more chemistry than with Ms. Breslin).

I didn’t mind the parent’s marital problems being added in (I assume to help extend the thing to a 3-hour broadcast), mostly because it took time away from seeing Baby and Johnny interact. I also didn’t mind Ms. Breslin’s limited dance skills, as some on the Internet have complained about, because I thought it was a more truthful representation of what someone would actually learn in a week of lessons. But I was hoping she would improve by the end—the last dance was pretty unimpressive and it's supposed to be the wow number.

The worst thing was the La La Land ending. What? The whole idea is that love triumphs. We don't need to be reminded of reality in the last shot.

Oh well, I cleaned my kitchen, etc., so I lost no time on this.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The blog is dead! Long live the blog!

In case you haven't noticed, I've mostly quit blogging. And I'm only blogging right now because I handed out my business card at a conference this weekend and noticed I still had my blog address on it. (For those checking it out because of the card, Welcome!)

I don't think I'm the only one lately to neglect her blog. Blogs are so last year (or two years ago). What are we doing/reading instead? Posting pictures of food on Instagram,  tweeting 140 characters, writing quips on our Facebook pages: more succinct and visual forms of communication. When I'm online, I am so used to scrolling through tweets and pictures and posts now that it's hard to linger on a page with more than one paragraph. (She said in paragraph two).

And we're (OK, I'm) binge watching TV in my spare time. There is so much good TV right now that it's hard to turn it off for even one night. Last week I finished watching "Victoria" on my PBS App. That's the wrong form of the verb--I didn't "finish watching," I "watched" all eight episodes of Victoria in one week. I watched it when I sat down in the recliner after a long day of work and chores. I watched it while I ate lunch alone on a break from at-home work. I like being swept up in historic dramas--the set design, the beautiful costumes and actors, the gorgeous scenery, all contributing to a feeling of resonant immersiveness. And now I'm watching "The Crown" on Netflix, worth watching for no other reason than to see what the $5 million spent per episode bought (e.g., setting up a state dinner party with what looked like 100 place settings of china and silver, and an orgy of flower centerpieces).

As the day get warmer and the yard/garden calls, I will be pulling myself away from electronic forms of communication and entertainment in the next few weeks--but I'm not sure where this will leave this blog. Is it an electronic form of communication, as well?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Window Shopping

I took over 2,000 photos during my three-week vacation in Europe this summer--not so many that I hope I didn't miss the experience, and not so few that I hope I didn't miss recording at least one picture of each place we visited. It's easy to take a lot of pics when you're not paying for film and film development, and you have a phone in your pocket ready to do the job and quickly.

One thing I documented, occasionally, was interesting shop windows. I could have spent each day walking around the streets of Reykjavik, London, or Paris taking pics just of shop windows, but l didn't since I was usually walking on to something else. And I didn't want to see everything just through my phone screen.

When I got back to the U.S., it struck me how few storefronts have displays anymore--especially out in suburbia, where I live. The stores here are just brick and glass, with plastic signs to distinguish one from the next.

Even in D.C., there are few big store shop windows now that stores like Woodward and Lothrop are gone. The best places to spot creative shop windows are in the small and funky shops that have sprung up in the city.

Old W and L shop window from 1928
Probably the most creative shop window we saw was at Selfridge's in London. They had a whole series of windows dedicated to Shakespearean plays. Here is the window for Hamlet:

It's too bad I couldn't afford anything at Selfridge's--skirts were $800, etc.

Dressing shop windows used to be a potential job for creative (fictional) people, from Agnes, who worked her way up from shop girl to window dresser on Mr. Selfridge, to Rhoda Morgenstern on Mary Tyler Moore.

Probably I need to end this with some kind of statement/summary about the lack of beauty in our everyday lives in America, especially for those living away from the centers of culture. Or I just need to end this. Apparently, I could go on and on about shop windows, which is ironic since I don't like to shop (i.e., spending money on clothing) all that much.

Out here, instead of walking by artisan shops and beautifully decorated windows, I drive by stores that resemble rows of warehouses. Everything has been built the cheapest possible way, without any thought given to providing solace for the eyes and heart. This is America. The icky-sweet gelato in the freezer section of the supermarket tastes nothing like the gorgeous, creamy frozen ecstasy available on almost street corner in Italian towns.

And yet it's what we know, it's what we're used to, it's all we've come to expect. It's good to travel, to see such differences. The challenge becomes learning not to be bitter about the comparison and not to yearn for what we probably will never have.

The top photo is a compilation of some of my shop window pics from this summer. Click on it to see it larger.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Street music in France

I walked by a lot of street music in London and France when I was there this summer, but only took the time to briefly film it three times. Here is the short (44-second) video I made of three very different performances.

The first band, Radio Kamerger, seems to have been on a Russian TV show equivalent of The X Factor. And there they were, playing on the street in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Somewhat feminist musings at the Musee d'Orsay

The Musee d'Orsay has been one of my favorite museums since I first saw it in 1991, on my first trip to Paris.

What's not to like about a museum that has entire sections/rooms devoted to Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and Degas? Housed in the former Gare d'Orsay train station, a Beaux-Arts structure completed in 1900, the building, with its massive, gold-embellished clocks and elegant arched glass ceiling, calls to mind the setting for The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Every trip I've taken to Paris since has included a delightful trip to the Musee. But visiting the Musee alongside a teenage girl this summer was a different experience. Sure, she liked its evocation of Hugo, the Impressionist rooms, the Degas sculptures. But after walking through multiple rooms, she asked, "Where are the women artists?"

Each room had been filled with paintings and sculptures of luscious women, prim women, naked women. But we had seen one lonely artwork by a woman--Mary Cassett, among the Impressionists.

After that, the rest of our afternoon tour became a bitter hunt for female artists. We rushed from artwork to artwork, examining the placards for any hint of a female name, but we never found another woman's art there.*

If you google "female artists at the Musee d'Orsay," the hits on the first page include the museum's own pages for The Modern Woman. Drawings by Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Other Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay and Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910. In other words, women interpreted by men.

What were women doing while all these men had been sculpting, painting, creating? Tending to children? Devoting themselves to maintaining their own beauty? Posing for male artists? Or, perhaps, making art that would never be housed in the Musee d'Orsay.

* I discovered after I returned home that the museum does house a few other female artists, including Berthe Morisot and Cecilia Beaux--but the number of artworks by women is pretty paltry compared to the hundreds by men. (I am counting 12 total among these three women). And to find them, I had to use Wikipedia and go through a list of major artists at the Musee. Otherwise, the Musee's website led me to paintings and art about women rather than by women.

All photographs by Beth Blevins. Copyright 2016.

The Seine seen from one of the clocks at the Musee d'Orsay.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

While reading Cheryl Strayed's Wild...

I am listening to Wild on audiobook in my car. Like the people in those Audible ads, I am immersed in the book. I may appear to be driving, but I'm hiking hot stretches of the Pacific Coast Trail or rounding an icy bend balancing the weight of my pack. I push on to the next goal post by pushing my foot on the accelerator, driving further in an hour than what Cheryl Strayed walked in a day. I'm only running errands, yet I emerge from my car feeling I've accomplished something akin to a hero's journey.

As I drive and listen, I contemplate the question: why did Strayed keep hiking after her toenails fell off? After her pack bruised and skinned her? After she nearly died of heat exhaustion and thirst? Most people would have quit when the first toenail turned black or after the first encounter with a rattlesnake.

But the answer is in every line of the book. She didn't quit because she had nothing else. No home, no other destination, no one needing her to be somewhere particular. Just desperate determination, and the trail ahead.

Maybe it's desperate determination that separates good artists/singers/actors who acquiesce to careers that pay the bills and push their art to the side, and those who  continue to create because they must. Without desperation, a lot of art wouldn't be made or made visible.

Her hike isn't entirely a fantasy for me because I, too, have hiked in California mountain and desert. I, too, have stuck out my thumb and gotten rides along quiet roads and busy highways there. At one time in my life, almost all of my possessions could fit into an external-frame Kelty backpack. I had no ambition but to see new things and talk to people in different towns. I wanted the world to be my education.

It's funny typing this, on a Mac computer, in my house in Maryland. Now all my possessions would fill a large moving truck or two. The Kelty backpack is long gone, traded for money or gas to someone in a town left behind. Just as Cheryl Strayed eventually got off the trail, I, too, moved on to my life. After an off-and-on relationship with college, I finished my degree at about the time I quit hitchhiking and long-distance hiking. Now I rarely see the wilderness and hike only on well-worn trails.

It is without much nostalgia that I think back to being young and hiking in the heat of the Mojave Desert, or camping on high, snowy ridges in Southern California. I don't want to be that unrooted young woman again, yet I'm enjoying being reminded of her/me as I listen to Wild.

Perhaps every life is a hero's journey, getting from there to here, and we don't recognize it as such. Even ambling we can reach our destination or create it as we go along.