Saturday, January 30, 2010

Deus ex Machina: Plot Devices and Defects

Deus ex Machina:
On a Parramatta Road intersection near where I live is a motorcycle shop with a painting of a big motor bike on the side of the building with the name of the shop: Deus ex Machina. You may have seen it driving into the city. The Latin words translate literally to “God from the Machine”, not a bad name for a motorcycle dealership.
The words, however, predate motorcycles, being a plot device used in Greek tragedy whereby a god appeared in the sky (an actor suspended from a crane, in Greek a mechane) to resolve plot. In this manner insoluble difficulties were overcome and everything finished nicely. Horace, writing about 18BC, coined the term Deus ex Machina and said that it was a crappy way to resolve plots, but not in those words.
The term and concept are still in use today but no longer means a god coming from the sky. Instead, it now denotes something that appears suddenly and unexpectedly, providing an artificial solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.
Examples:
- Superman: Lois dies at the end, so Superman flies faster and faster against the Earth’s rotation until he reverses time and saves her.
- Superman 2: Lois Lane discovers that Clark Kent is Superman, so he takes her to the frozen North to his Fortress of Solitude. He decides that he will become human so that he can love her and so he gives up his super powers, then spending the night with her. He is told that if he gives up his powers, it is forever and is irreversible. When he and Lois get back to Metropolis, they discover that the bad guys from the Phantom Zone have been pretty much tearing the place apart. Clark goes back to the Fortress of Solitude where he discovers the magic green crystal that reverses the irreversible loss of his super powers. He defeats the baddies and gives Lois an amnesia kiss so that she forgets that he and Clark Kent are one and the same.
Chekov’s Gun:
Chekov’s Gun is a literary technique that holds that where an object is to be used later, or it becomes significant or is explained later, it should be introduced early. The concept comes from Anton Chekov himself, who said that anything introduced into the story should be used later, otherwise it should not be in the story in the first place. In his words: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
Examples:
- The James Bond movies are full of Chekov’s Gun examples. When Bond uses a device to escape an impossible situation, we know that he has it because we have seen Q give it to him and explain its use. Had the devices not been mentioned early, they would be Deus ex Machina.
- Dr Jones’s diary in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Plot Holes:
Plot holes are gaps or inconsistencies that go against the flow of logic in the storyline. A plot hole is not just an unanswered question, many movies have such examples as part of the movies themselves, but something that contradicts the storyline itself, such as unlikely changes in character, impossible events, flawed reasoning and contradictory events.
Examples:
- Die Hard 2: Die Harder: Because the bad guys control the airport and equipment, the planes due to land are all in a holding pattern, prevented from landing manually by the fog and overcast conditions. Just as the plane with McClane’s wife is due to run out of fuel, McClane blows up the baddies’ plane, allowing the planes aloft to land using the burning aviation fuel as a guide. Yet at least two planes were blown up on the runways earlier, also ending up in flames.
- Oceans Eleven: Where do the flyers come from that are taken out of the vault and loaded onto the vans?
- Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: If the giant eagles could rescue Frodo and Sam (a Deus ex Machina), why couldn’t they just get to the Crack of Doom in Mordor on the backs of the eagles in the first place?
MacGuffins:
A MacGuffin is a plot device that advances the story or motivates a character. It is not important as to what it is, simply that it acts as a motivational device, and generally it declines in importance as the story advances after the motivation is established.
The term was coined by Alfred Hitchcock, who said that “in a thriller the MacGuffin is usually 'the necklace'; in a spy story it is 'the papers'".
MacGuffins are popular in quest stories where the hero must recover some item to save his beloved/his village/etc.
Since the days of Hitchcock, some directors insist that the MacGuffin in a movie should be powerful and prominent.
Examples:
- George Lucas stated that the MacGuffin in the Star Wars movies was R2 D2, the object of everyone’s search
- Harrison Ford has referred to the Holy Grail as a MacGuffin in India Jones and the Holy Grail..
Plot Voucher and Plot Coupon:
These terms refer to plot devices, coined by Nick Lowe in a 1986 essay. A Plot Coupon is an object required to be held or used to enable the plot upon which the movie hangs to be resolved. It comes from a joke that if enough plot coupons are collected, the movie can be finalised. Hence plot coupons can take the form of objects to be collected, clues to be collected and solved, or some object that is utilised. Plot coupons can therefore be regarded as MacGuffins, either on their own or divided.
Examples:
- Harrison Ford collecting the Sankara Stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
- The use of the alien ship in Independence Day.
- The detection and solving of the murders in ten Little Indians.
A Plot Voucher on the other hand is something that is given to the hero at the beginning and which turns out just the thing to be needed to get him or her out of a sticky situation.
Examples:
- In The Three Musketeers, Aramis is saved from being killed when the bullet strikes the cross around his neck.
- The Harry Potter movies abound with plot vouchers that usually save a situation
- The devices given to James Bond by Q.
Movie Cliches:
It will be apparent from the above that literary devices can enhance or weaken a movie.
Sloppy writing can result in movie clich├ęs, a collection of which can be found at:
Some examples:
Aeroplanes:
- If a flying vehicle runs out of fuel and crashes, it still explodes as if the tank were full
- When a plane is low on fuel, the hero usually taps the gas gauge as if that will help. Example....Top Gun, Tom Cruise tapping the gas gauge of a 60 million dollar F-14 Tomcat like it is a '74 Dodge Dart.
- In any movie that spends a considerable amount of time on an airplane, the pilot always gets killed. This means that someone with little flying experience has to land the plane.
- Airplane always goes: erk...erk...eeeeerrrkkk when it lands.
- Planes with nuns on ALWAYS crash.
- Aircraft always disappear behind a clump of trees before exploding in a ball of flames
Binoculars and Glasses:
- Whenever someone looks through the binoculars, you see two joined circles instead of one.
- Glasses never collect moisture when you come in from the cold outside.
- Computer geeks and "intelligent" persons use them, action heroes never have glasses.
Cabs:
- Movie passengers either don't pay cabs at all, or have the exact change. Same is true in restaurants. Checks are always designed to be 15 percent under the bills the male costumer has in his hands first.
- Movie people can get cabs instantly, unless they are in danger, whereupon no cab can be found
Death:
- In situations like the Vietnam war, and violent inner city neighbourhoods, the person with the most plans, prospects, and hopes will die.
- A dying person's last words will always be coherent and significant.
- A good person will always die in the presence of friends.
- If a person good person dies with his eyes open, a friend will close them, and they will remain closed. If a villain dies with his eyes open, no one will close them, and the camera will linger on his face.
Fencing/Swordplay:
- At some point in a duel, the hero and villain will cross swords at face level, allowing them to grip each other's weapon while making nasty/sarcastic comments before they break the clinch and continue fighting. (Why doesn't anyone just ram the sword guard into their opponent's face, stun him, and then finish him off?)
- If the hero and villain's swords cross at or below waist level, they will break the clinch, fall back, and pause -- despite the fact that a simple upthrust into the opponent's belly after the break would end the duel right there and then.
- If there is a candelabra, the villain will show how talented he is with a sword by cutting the candles and watching them fall over; the hero will do the same but the candles won't fall until after the villain has made a comment about the hero's lack of fencing ability, at which point the hero will topple the cut candles.
- During a duel, the hero will jump or climb onto a table/bench/piano/platform that raises him above the villain. At that point, the villain will swipe at the hero's legs, which the hero avoids by jumping up in the air over the villain's blade.

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