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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
Physics versus storytelling...

noWizardme
Grey Havens


Jul 22 2013, 10:58am


Views: 184
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Physics versus storytelling... [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks for this DiD, this is a splendid piece of work - a great explanation, and it is fun to deploy these kinds of tools in reaction to Tolkien on film. I am looking forwards to your Parts 3&4!

The analysis reminds me of an anecdote Sir David Attenborough gave at a public lecture I once attended (at the University of Cambridge Zoology Department, in about 1985, I think). Sir David has had a long career presenting BBC films about the natural world. He spoke about an anthropological piece he had once made, based on a society of jungle-dwellers. It was customary there for young men to climb to a high-up tree house, attach a vine to themselves and do , in effect, a bungee jump. Sir David and team were pleased with the exciting footage they obtained of this, but were later rather flummoxed to get a letter from a university. The letter-writers had taken a stopwatch to the film, done some calculations about forces, and had become very excited by the results - it seemed to them that the human body could not possibly survive the forces unleashed. But, what these intelligent men had neglected, Sir David said, was that the film had been cut for dramatic effect - it did not contain continuous film, from one camera positioned such that it would be valid to take timings from the film and use them for the calculations the letter-writers presented. I didn't see the actual film, but the point was that it would have gone something like this:
  1. Camera angle - young man about to jump - then...
  2. he jumps!
  3. Reaction shot, onlookers on the ground
  4. Young man falling
  5. View from camera in tree-house, young man receding
  6. Young man falling again
  7. Onlookers on ground
  8. Young man arrives near ground, climbs down

...that is, the film only contained footage genuinely recorded at the event, but simultaneous events, or events from different jumps had been cut into a sequence which presented the drama of the event most appropriately, in the film-makers' opinion. This meant it wasn't valid to start a stopwatch at (2), stop it at (8) and base calculations on the elapsed time. Shots such as (3) took the amount of time on film which gave the editor an interesting shot, not the true amount of time of the jumper's decelerated free-fall. Sir David's point was that, caught up in the apparent veracity of the film, the letter-writers had neglected this axiomatic flaw with their analysis.

That exact "scene cutting" problem might quite literally apply to Gandalf and the Balrog (from memory, the Goblin Town sequence is one continuous shot, so this wouldn't apply ). Further cinematic effects might interfere too - for example the dramatic effect the film-makers can get by showing time slowed down or sped up.

But, while this problem might put a particular error factor into the calculations, I really wanted to raise it to introduce (as Sir David did) a wider and more interesting question, about what is accepted as realistic. Sir David went on to discuss some other aspects of his nature documentaries which were not realistic in the most literal sense - for example, he said that the soundtracks were largely not the real sound of the events. Instead, a better recording of that creature was substituted, or sounds such as the expedition slopping through the swamp were done by Foley artists. Again, the results could be so intuitively acceptable that the end result could - was in some senses intended to- fool even the most intelligent viewer.

Returning to our two Tolkien scenes, we have an quite interesting audience reaction here. Someone who does not like Tolkien at all might well be laughing at us "You mean to say that you happily accept that there is a wizard, a gigantic demon-like creature partially made of flame; by magic they demolish a structure in a mythical setting - and then you get all upset when the physics of free fall is not authentic?!! I say, really...." I erect Mr Strawman, the fictional disliker of all things fantasy at this point, because that isn't my own point of view! As these threads show, I'm as able as the next fan to get exercised at odd points of plot consistency or "realism". And what upsets one viewer does not offend another - a friend of mine was one of those who was appalled by the Goblin Town Fall, for example, whereas I thought it an amusing bit of lighthearted cinematography. There's probably some other point which would have the converse effect (I'm annoyed, he likes it). So I, please note am not laughing at the problem, even less at the excellent analysis presented here. Rather, it is making me excited about the subject of "reality" in speculative fiction.

"Reality" in quite obviously unreal fiction? It's all very odd.


Tolkien himself addressed this point, in On Fairy-Stories

Quote
"But since the fairy-story deals with 'marvels' it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion."

[and, in a later passage...]

"What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful 'sub-creator' he makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter, Inside it, what he relates is 'true'; it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed."

Which is how it works, I think - we grant the story-teller a kind of license to be unreal, provided he or she entertains (or "satisfies" as Tolkien puts it elsewhere in his essay). But that license can be suddenly and savagely revoked: as individuals, we make an unconscious critical judgement of what is "realistic" , and surprise ourselves (or others) when the storyteller oversteps our privately and unconscionably-drawn bounds. It's as if suddenly we wake up from an enchantment.

Back to the Tolkien scenes under discussion here. Its a really interesting (and ironic) point that the negative fan reaction has been much more to the Goblin Town Fall, shown in DiD's paper to be physically feasible. The infeasible Balrog catches Gandalf, who goes into power dive, retrieves sword and catches balrog scene, was not as disturbing.

But I think I know why. Whether the scene makes a satisfying story is more potent than whether the physics is correct. As you might predict from Tolkien's comments, for most of us, enjoyment trumps (or jams?) "realism". So, for example, the Gandalf falling scene was canonical, so didn't stir up the "Oi, Jackson, you're messing with the canon" reaction. It is "true" in a sort of mythical or poetical sense - Gandalf "ought" to be able to fall with the balrog, but rise again. In Goblin Town, by contrast, New Line are pushing it with the cannon, pursuing a cinematic device partly for laughs- the bridge falls in 3 stages not only to keep the forces manageable, I think. It falls in many stages so as to give the audience the momentary feeling that all is safe again, only to snatch that away for still more excitement. The "well, that could have been worse" line works all the better for audiences who've seen similar action sequences (from Indiana Jones to How To Train Your Dragon) - I think the audience immediately gets the idea that there will be a slapstick moment proving this statement to be comically wrong. And there it is - it got a laugh in the theatre in which I saw the film.


Thanks once again for a brilliant opening innings to the symposium DwellerinDale! A blessing (or curse?) of the online format is that responses like this one can be much longer than a face-to-face symposium could possibly accommodate as "questions". Like this one, to be sure. I hope |'ve used that opportunity interestingly!


As an optional footnote to the problem of "reality" in speculative fiction...

One of the finest science-fiction stories I have read pushes this to an extreme, producing a highly unreal story which still succeeds in being utterly compelling. It is Robot, by Helena Ball, and published by Escape Pod (you can read, or listen to it for free or for donation here). [I particularly recommend the audio podcast, with Eleiece Krawiec's quite brilliant capture of the old lady's voice - but please be warned, you need a quiet environment to hear that performance, and the story needs your full attention - it's not a long story.].

The relevance of this story to my post it that this story is in the form of comments made by an elderly, unwell woman to the robot which cares for her.
You may wash your aluminum chassis on Monday and leave it on the back porch opposite the recyclables; you may wash your titanium chassis on Friday if you promise to polish it in time for church; donít terrorize the cat; donít lose the pamphlets my husband has brought home from the hospital; they suggest I give you a name, do you like Fred? - See more at: http://escapepod.org/2013/05/09/ep395-robot/#sthash.P5w2y6pi.dpufRelevant to my point here is that the narrator is clearly an unreliable one - her feelings towards the robot lurch from affection to paranoia. She may well have dementia &/or other mental health problems. And yet, the audience happily accepts her most outrageous claim - it is true, for the purposes of the story, that a robot obtained from an alien civilization as part of a trade deal, is employed to excise necrotic flesh from the poor lady's ulcers. We (by which I mean me, other people I've played this to, those commenting on the Escape Pod website) completely accept the absurd, grotesque and fantastical idea that the old lady is being voluntarily eaten alive by an alien machine. That is like the "Let..." at the start of a mathematician's paper - we accept that bit as an axiom, and advance to wonder about other aspects of the lady's relationship (and that of her society's) with the robot.

It's quite a genre where you can pull that kind of stunt!

Disclaimers: The words of noWizardme may stand on their heads! I'm often wrong about things, and its fun to be taught more....

"nowimŽ I am in the West, Furincurunir to the Dwarves (or at least, to their best friend) and by other names in other lands. Mostly they just say 'Oh no it's him - look busy!' "
Or "Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!"

Subject User Time
TORn AMATEUR SYMPOSIUM Day One- The Physics Of Middle Earth TORn Amateur Symposium Send a private message to TORn Amateur Symposium Jul 21 2013, 9:09am
    Thank you DiD, for a really interesting analysis elaen32 Send a private message to elaen32 Jul 21 2013, 1:39pm
        Interesting idea! DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 21 2013, 2:01pm
    Very nice, but very stable? squire Send a private message to squire Jul 21 2013, 2:32pm
        Thanks for the feedback! DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 21 2013, 3:23pm
            Deceleration injuries Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Jul 21 2013, 5:10pm
                Good points DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 21 2013, 5:25pm
                    Side-slam noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jul 22 2013, 9:06am
                Yes.... elaen32 Send a private message to elaen32 Jul 21 2013, 6:06pm
            Falling into water... elaen32 Send a private message to elaen32 Jul 21 2013, 5:57pm
                Balrogs as airbags, Wizards as pancakes Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Jul 22 2013, 2:04am
                    Moria IHOP DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 22 2013, 5:38am
                        One tough Balrog ! Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Jul 22 2013, 4:24pm
                            My Impression Rembrethil Send a private message to Rembrethil Jul 22 2013, 4:32pm
            Gandalf dived. Elizabeth Send a private message to Elizabeth Jul 22 2013, 6:09pm
    My thoughts Rembrethil Send a private message to Rembrethil Jul 21 2013, 5:06pm
    A great piece, DiD! cats16 Send a private message to cats16 Jul 21 2013, 6:23pm
        Thanks! DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 22 2013, 12:15am
            Thanks for clarifying that. cats16 Send a private message to cats16 Jul 22 2013, 12:36am
            The whip Elizabeth Send a private message to Elizabeth Jul 22 2013, 1:42am
    hmmmm... wondering sevilodorf Send a private message to sevilodorf Jul 21 2013, 7:30pm
        Dwarf density DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 22 2013, 12:31am
            Galileo's square-cube law and Tolkien's Dwarves Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Jul 22 2013, 1:42am
                Dwarf proportions DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 22 2013, 2:24am
                    I see! Thanks Dweller!! // Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Jul 23 2013, 12:36am
    A rather weird set of questions I couldn't help think of while reading Part 1. DanielLB Send a private message to DanielLB Jul 21 2013, 7:46pm
        Thanks for the questions! DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 22 2013, 12:27am
    And a question for part 2: DanielLB Send a private message to DanielLB Jul 21 2013, 7:54pm
        Yes DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 22 2013, 12:19am
            Which is rather lucky for the Dwarves, I guess. DanielLB Send a private message to DanielLB Jul 22 2013, 7:13am
    This is excellent! Silverlode Send a private message to Silverlode Jul 22 2013, 2:24am
        Balrog Slo-Mo DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 22 2013, 5:22am
        Suspension of disbelief ...and .. ignorance of the principles involved noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jul 23 2013, 2:27pm
    I would love to read this. Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Jul 22 2013, 3:24am
        What browser are you using? DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 22 2013, 5:40am
        As DwellerinDale suggests, which browser are you using Aunt Dora? DanielLB Send a private message to DanielLB Jul 22 2013, 6:44am
            Got it now. Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Jul 22 2013, 12:31pm
                Glad it worked Aunt Dora. // Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Jul 22 2013, 1:03pm
    Physics versus storytelling... noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jul 22 2013, 10:58am
        Interesting points DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 22 2013, 11:19am
            The cutting effect noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jul 22 2013, 12:10pm
                Actually... elaen32 Send a private message to elaen32 Jul 22 2013, 9:08pm
            A lot of fans were horrified by the Aragon/cliff scene Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Jul 22 2013, 8:21pm
                Poor, I think. Elizabeth Send a private message to Elizabeth Jul 22 2013, 9:19pm
                    Now that it's been brought up, it's kind of surprising Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Jul 22 2013, 9:41pm
                        Yes, I think Silverlode Send a private message to Silverlode Jul 22 2013, 9:53pm
        The story still needs to come first squire Send a private message to squire Jul 22 2013, 11:51am
            You mean...NONE of it is real???? // noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jul 22 2013, 1:06pm
                Just breathe into the bag Furincurunir! Nice and slow...// Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Jul 22 2013, 4:25pm
                    Breathe into this "pancake-shaped airbag" you mean? // noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jul 22 2013, 7:10pm
                        Exactly. Don't mind the 'Roggy smell. // Brethil Send a private message to Brethil Jul 23 2013, 12:54am
    That is SPECTACULAR! Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Jul 22 2013, 8:03pm
        Thanks! Here's my derivation DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 23 2013, 3:02am
            "The language is calculus, which I shall not utter here" // noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jul 23 2013, 6:33am
                Too right NoWiz!! elaen32 Send a private message to elaen32 Jul 23 2013, 12:32pm
                    Actually, calculus is probably more like Quenya than black speech noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jul 23 2013, 1:58pm
                        Nice :-) // Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Jul 24 2013, 7:28pm
                            "dy/dx cos theta" (dwarfish for "you're welcome") // noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jul 24 2013, 7:36pm
            Oh, duh! It's separable! Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Jul 24 2013, 7:27pm
                Math editing DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 25 2013, 1:17am
                    That's very pretty. Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Jul 25 2013, 1:32am
                        Thanks for the reminder DwellerInDale Send a private message to DwellerInDale Jul 25 2013, 1:50am
                    Found it! (That joke I mentioned in my previous post.) Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Jul 25 2013, 1:54am
                        In regards to AUJ bridge fall Yngwulff Send a private message to Yngwulff Aug 3 2013, 8:12am
    Wow. This is superb! Ataahua Send a private message to Ataahua Jul 23 2013, 5:01am
    this is totally wicked! mawguy Send a private message to mawguy Jul 23 2013, 9:25am
    Thank you sooo much for a fab and entertaining essay --- and everyone for the erudite comments! kiwifan Send a private message to kiwifan Jul 23 2013, 3:39pm
    *jaw drop* Werde Spinner Send a private message to Werde Spinner Jul 24 2013, 9:33pm

 
 
 

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