Framing Is Everything

“The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” ― Søren Kierkegaard.png

There was one aspect of Black Panther that settled in my stomach, rough and raw for weeks after I saw the film. It left a bitter taste in my mouth and left a haze of a film that I had mostly praised.  It was around the issue of Erik Killmonger. I mentioned it in my review of the movie so I’ll get straight to the point. The issue I have with Killmonger is a framing problem. His actions, his motives, his motivations, his everything is framed as “perfectly fine” and that is to be very frank, troubling as hell. Killmonger is compelling, heartbreaking, tragic, real and very valid. His anger is rational and he is very much a sympathetic character. So when Erik says radical things like “Hey, maybe we should make our own militant colonizing force.” and similar statements, he sounds like a rational, logical young man. How else would one expect for someone in his position to feel and act?

And in his final moments, there was the line that burrowed deep into my gut and remained there. “Death over bondage.” (Yes, I’m paraphrasing but in my horror, that was all I heard.). And that brings up to framing.

Framing in film language is how a thing is set up. We code (another film and sociology term) lots of things about characters and setting based on framing. A hero is a hero because of swelling music, bright colors, bright clothes and handsome looks. A villain is a villain because of dark music and tones and velvet and other things that make a villain a villain.

And framing done wrong is just as bad as framing done not strongly enough. Poor framing gives up the Victorian mustache twirling villain and the overly Jesus-like hero. Now, weak framing does a similar thing were a bad guy doesn’t seem so bad. Let’s take a scene from Rent that Folding Ideas and Lindsay Ellis both took umbrage with and that I mentioned in my post about Rent. There’s a scene in both the musical and movie during the whole No Day But Today thing where Mimi stands out in the cold with her posse that doesn’t know here while Roger remains in his ivory tower refusing to come down and play. But the framing makes it look like Roger is a stuck up mean guy for not wanting to leave his lonely life but really, his concerns are valid. Mimi is a known stripper and drug-user and Roger is a recovering drug addict with HIV. He has every reason to not want to be with her but the framing makes Mimi’s lack of care, concern or logic seem good and warm while Roger’s very valid logic and hesitation is framed negatively and that’s just not fair.

But plenty of films recently have had framing problems. A big example that comes to mind is actually both Kingsman films. We’ll use the first one mostly because it’s my favorite. Valentine is compelling, charming, charismatic and in parts of the movies just plain right. He has lots of ideas about how the Earth is going to hell and how to stop global warming. The problem is that his plan involves a violent mass genocide. But by the time he gets to the “I want a lot of people to die.” part, he just sounds like a pretty okay guy with a good plan to save the world. And that is a framing problem. The film around him has done a piss poor job of saying “Hey, watcher of this film, this man’s ideas are not good.”

Anime has had this problem for easily 20 years with antagonists and villains who are far more relatable than their hero mains. I’ve been paneling about this topic for literally almost 5 years. Many times, this is done to create more empathetic villains while also giving the hero/main something to do but again, it’s weak storytelling when your villain is more compelling than your protagonist.

Which brings up back to Black Panther. Erik’s sympathetic backstory makes it easy to ignore some of the venom that drips from his mouth. And in today’s current socio-political climate, I am sure that many see his vision as logical, sure a little radical, but surely sound. We’ve seen militancy fail over and over again for African-Americans. And while Black Panther does kill off Killmonger, his actions and words leave a heavy shadow over the film.

How do we correct such framing issues? Well, by simply not rewarding them. We’ve talked about characters getting what they deserve in a previous post and that is one of the best ways to combat poor framing. At least in Black Panther, Erik does not make it to the end of the movie but his message lives on and forces T’Challa and the people of Wakanda to think more closely about their isolationism. Not glorifying clearly horrible things is easy to do in real life but difficult to impose upon fictional characters. Consequences are vital. Erik’s rage rightfully makes him too unstable for this world and his exit is a pained sigh of relief. And those consequences don’t always mean death. Think of Loki in the rest of the Marvel movies: he is denied empathy at every turn despite his actions being mostly reprehensible. And movies are particularly fertile ground for framing issues. When you’re a handsome and well-known actor, you want screen time and being a mustache-twirling villain can be fun but often means that you are not on screen very long. Additionally, movies are a complex and visual media, creating sympathetic and likable characters is vital to keeping your audience’s interest. And I’m happy to see more complex characters, it has come at the cost of clearer storytelling. And I love morally ambiguous stories but those still have the stakes and consequences vital to keeping such narratives afloat. Valentine still dies at the end of Kingsman. Poppy for sure dies at the end of Kingsman 2. And if we’re talking anime then most of the time, the villain goes down with his or her overly complicated plan in a blaze of flames and glory.

Framing is a vital part of writing but an even more vital part of film and other visual media. How a character, scene and act are framed tells you a lot about how to feel about this character, the scenario and about the work. And when you frame a bad guy as a pious saint, you not only risk betraying your work but you risk muddying the waters of your own narrative.

Thine Vengeance Be Done

-On wrongs swift vengeance waits.-Alexander Pope.png

There’s something wonderful about seeing a character get exactly what they deserve. There’s something satisfying about seeing Valentine get impaled at the end of Kingsman. There’s so much weight to watching Aizen finally bound by Urahara-nonsense magic in Bleach. Our media including anime, TV and comic books, normal books and the like are so full of dastardly characters and when they get exactly what’s coming to them; it’s just delightful. And with all these troublesome characters, it’s even more needed to see their actions treated appropriately in their respective stories. 

In the last post we talked about this I brought up an example from my childhood (ugh) InuYasha. I mentioned how in the anime that InuYasha treats Kagome like hot trash while treating Kikyo like a princess but what’s even more egregious in this series is a character many ignore: Hojo. Hojo is one of Kagome’s classmates and he adores her. He loves everything about her, is attentive and kind and supportive. And what does Kagome do? Ignore him. She totally ignores him. In fact, she chooses the man who actively preferred chasing his dead girlfriend to her company. I’m not bitter. This hasn’t been something brewing in me since I was 13. None of the troubling parts of the series are brought up. No one changes. No one learns a lesson. All that happens is Kagome dumps Hojo to go run around with a forest furry who barely remembers her name and wishes she would go back to the time she came from.  

A series I’ve now mentioned a few times is Antique Bakery and I’ve been nothing but complimentary of the series. Yusuke Ono is a flawed character and guess what? He has to change and be a better man to get to the pure cinnamon roll that is Chikage-san. And when something awful happens to him, you empathize with him because he admits that while what happened wasn’t great and is still terrible he admits that he didn’t exactly do much to not be in the situation. The same goes for the main character Tachibana-san. Tachibana in the start of the series is revealed to say and do terrible things and guess what? The series entirely holds him accountable. He has to constantly face his former homophobia and prove himself to Ono again all the while realistically dealing with the trauma of his childhood. No one was unjustly rewarded in the series except for maybe Sakurako, who got a daughter out of Chikage without him really understanding what being a sperm donor is, and anything be it a bakery, closure, a man or a woman is worked for.

If you’ve ever read my fictional jaunts and other creative pieces, I’m known for unreliable narrators and troublesome characters because they are the kind I love the most. I love the control of information in a narrative and just how much the story changes based upon who has the point of view. Think about how empty Tsubasa is if you take it from Fai or Kurogane’s perspective. It has to be mostly focused on Syaoran and Sakura: there’s no plot otherwise. Or even Bleach is a fantastic example. If taken from the view of the Soul Society, the main plot is just a series of incident reports and a  bureaucratic nightmare as some ginger kid runs around with Hollow powers and not listening to orders. But one of my main tenants in my fictional works is simple: it’s to rewrite or to fix a wrong. Slytherins aren’t portrayed well in Harry Potter. Guess who wrote literally hundreds of words to correct that?

But in addition to my desire to keep tight control of my narratives, I also don’t like crappy behavior go without comment or punishment. If a character is awful, they are seldom rewarded and that is directly related to the less than ideal narratives I read as a young fan. So many times flat out criminal behavior was rewarded in anime and manga. Stalking? No, he’s just very attentive. Manipulation? He clearly cares so much to turn your friends and family against you to keep you isolated. Physical violence? No, she hit you because you deserved it. You shouldn’t have done something to make her hit you. That carried on into, tragically, some of my very earliest relationships. I remember being 14 and 15 years old assuming that if a boy treated me the way InuYasha treated Kagome, he wasn’t an abuser, he was just playing hard to get. I, luckily, grew out of that pretty quickly (just kidding, it took literally years to retrain my brain and to demand more from my partners and to treat my partners in turn better).

I think that’s why as an adult I love more complex narratives so much. I’ve mentioned the character of Klaus von Wolfstat a few times now and he’s from a little series called Maiden Rose. It’s a war-era boy’s love series and Klaus is the overbearing and obsessive lover of military leader, Taki Reizen. Klaus is…complicated. He’s done terrible things, is a literal addict (but it’s okay because it’s historical, right?) and somehow even as a chibi manages to be taller than everyone else and still somehow have a 6-pack.  But within the canon of Maiden Rose despite how troubling and upsetting Klaus’ behavior is, he is seldom rewarded for his actions. Taki rebukes him often, is cold to him after an incident of less than desirable attention being provided and he is generally hated by the rest of the cast. Every time Klaus is slapped, injured, shot at or yelled at, it somehow lessens the dull pain of how awful of a character he is. No one is there to romanticize his actions or say that what he’s doing is actually okay, he is only met with cold indifference.

On the other hand, there are instances where the wrong character does seem to get picked on as almost a scapegoat to ignore a more disturbing part of the narrative. Let’s take a character that I actually love and does not get the credit she deserves, Millie. Now, Trigun’s an anime that ruined me as a kid. It was probably one of the biggest series to cement my love of dubs and good American voice acting and had characters I’ve loved for years. But a character that is almost entirely ignored despite how important she is to the narrative is Millie. She’s often overshadowed by Meryl because, well, Millie’s not bright. But her optimism is inspirational to the bulk of the cast and she could even be compared to Rem as far as being innocent and fair goes. But what happens at the end for her? Well, Trigun’s ending isn’t exactly favorable to anyone in particular. The ending is unsatisfying for many and disappointing to say the least and leaves our two main females in nearly the same place they started and Millie is even more left into obscurity because she does somewhat fade during the 3rd Act.  Is she at all rewarded for her bravery or empathy or kindness? Nope unless you count getting to bang Wolfwood once. No one is really rewarded for anything in that series so it’s the perfect example, really. Nothing matters. Just like Vash entered in like wrecking ball and so he leaves in quiet cloud of melodrama. Again, I’m still clearly not bitter over this. I clearly haven’t written 15 better versions of this ending since I was 16 years old. No, I’m a well-adjusted adult.  

For an example that isn’t as dated as I am, BoJack Horseman is great about making sure that bad deeds in the show are properly dealt with. BoJack doesn’t get away with anything and honestly, he’s probably punished too severely for some of his actions. Really, the only character in that show that does get away with murder regularly is Mr. Peanutbutter and well, we all know how that works.  

I do think the current cynicism of the world is better about holding characters accountable. Under the Red Hood is probably one of my favorite Batman movies and I love it so much because it makes Bruce Wayne face one of his greatest failures. His inaction cost Jason Todd his life and thus created the Red Hood. The Red Hood is a phantom Bruce made and in letting him live and refusing to kill The Joker based on some falsified moral high ground, now he has to face his demons and a vigilante that can take down enemies in a frighteningly efficient manner. We desire as a community and as a world justice. Why do you think Law and Order: SVU is still running? Only in a fictionalized New York do the police always answer the phones and every case at least seems some sort of justice. We now crave for bad things to happen to bad people and frankly with how the world is right now, I’m okay with that.

Are any of you surprised? I’m Team Kira, after all.

Hold your characters, your media and those in your life accountable, dear readership.