Friday Flotsam: Fable World Building, ‘Safety Last’, and Reading

1. A week of little progress and a lot of crashing. As often happens when one loosens the reins after Lent, Brother Ass takes off and goes wild. But on the positive side, he’s gotten a taste of discipline and so bringing him under rein again should be a bit easier than it was in the past, if you can just apply the necessary force.

2. I have a naturally pessimistic and down-beat temper. As a corrective I decided to cut out all the negative flotsams for this week (e.g. my thought on environmentalism). After all, we’re still in the Easter Octave, so it ought to be a happy occasion.

3. World building is usually important, but some stories don’t really need it. It depends on the style you’re going for. Toy Story, for instance, is a good example of what I’d call a ‘fable-style’. That is, its world exists as a simple idea – toys have personalities – and once that idea and a few basic rules are established, it doesn’t explore it any further but focuses entirely on the story. The setting and premise exist solely for the sake of the story (and, secondarily, the humor), not as a subject in themselves. Like how in the story of the ant and the grasshopper, the premise that we’re talking about two different kinds of insects only goes as far as allowing the story itself; there’s no question of a grasshopper / ant society, of how or why insects are talking to each other, etc.

In cases like this, the less world building the better, because you don’t want the audience raising these kinds of questions. This isn’t a ‘turn off your brain and don’t think about it’ situation either, this is a ‘this isn’t that kind of story’ situation. If you were to insist on knowing why the toys come alive and what the implications for the wider world are, well, then you’re simply missing the point; this is just a way of, well, ‘phrasing’ what we want to say.

To put it another way, the dividing line is whether it can stand up to analysis on its own ground. You can deconstruct a fable easily enough, but what happens if you accept the premise and engage with it? Well, when you engage with the first three Toy Story films, you find a set of rich, intelligently-written and wildly imaginative stories that reward examination.

4. Keep the fable style in mind when coming up with your own stories; not everything needs serious world building. But also keep in mind that if you do try this style, you have to actually avoid world building. Because once you start to raise questions in the audience’s mind, you had better be prepared to answer them.

Like the man said, “Do not call up that which you cannot put down.”

“Wait, does Buzz think he needs to eat…oh, God!”

5. A couple weeks ago movie night was Safety Last starring Harold Lloyd as Harold Lloyd and his soon-to-be wife Mildred Davis as “The girl” (they remained happily married their whole lives, by the way and enjoyed a quiet retirement after Lloyd’s career fizzled with the advent of the talkies). This is the one with the clock scene.

This one

It came out in 1923, so it’s nearly a century old, but it’s still very funny. The clock bit is of course the most famous, but I think my favorite gag during the climax is the pigeons. And before that I’d say my favorite joke is “who dropped the fifty dollar bill?” The story is feather-light, though; just a string to put up the jokes and no one really acts logically (his later The Freshman is much stronger in the writing department). But, well, that’s pretty much how it was done back then: Lloyd mostly just came up with gags on the fly and then made the story fit them until the movie was done.

Silent film comedy is of a very particular style. It isn’t just slapstick and pratfalls and such, though those occur. The bulk of the humor is made up of purely visual gags; that is, jokes that are told entirely thought the action that occurs on screen.

For instance, there’s a bit early on where Lloyd is leaving his home town and, looking back, reaches out and steps onto the back of the train as it’s leaving…except that actually grabs the rungs of a passing truck going in the other direction, a fact that takes him several seconds to realize, whereupon he has to run after the train. Another bit has him trying to lock a policeman who is after his friend away in a shed. He gets him inside, then shuts and locks the door…and the camera pans over to show the policeman stepping out of the other entrance on the side of the shed.

See, it’s not slapstick because there’s no violence involved, it’s just a matter of the action taking unexpected, but logical turns. It’s a matter of timing, framing, and agility to pull them off so as to appear seamless and fluid (another classic example is the disappearing and reappearing railway car in Buster Keaton’s The General). Anyone with an interest in comedy should definitely study these old films to see how and why these gags work.

Good visual humor, even apart from slapstick or expressive comedy (i.e. making faces) is an art in itself.

6. By the way, Lloyd isn’t really climbing the side of a building during the climax. He’s climbing a false façade of a building set on the roof of a real building. But don’t worry; there was a mattress below him in case he fell! He even tested it with a dummy prior to the stunt to make sure it worked. The dummy bounced off the mattress and plummeted to the street below.

Oh, and did I mention that Lloyd had only eight fingers? He’d lost his right thumb and forefinger in 1919 when a prop bomb exploded. He used a flesh-colored glove with fake fingers ever since.

Yeah, that was a different breed of comedian back then.

(He was also one of the inspirations for Superman, specifically for Clark Kent’s bespectacled, ‘everyman’ appearance. And if Clark hasn’t recreated the clock scene yet, someone needs to get on that).

7. And let’s end with something extra positive. I saw this commercial years ago, and it stuck with me, so the other day I hunted it up and now share it with you.

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