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Idiot Plots and other storytelling fallacies

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How about the remake of The Day of the Earth Stood Still?

One thing that really bothered me in this film was that the government assembles a team of scientists when it detects a giant object heading towards the earth. Arguably, this team represents the planet's -- or at least, America's -- best chance at understanding what's going on. And what happens when the object -- the effects of which are completely unknown -- touches down in Central Park? This team of scientists is immediately sent to Ground Zero in hazmat suits.

If this team represents your best hope for understanding this phenomena, wouldn't you be a little more cautious before sending them into such a potentially dangerous situation -- especially when some of the scientists represent fields that would make them relatively useless in such a situation?

Edited by opus

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How about the remake of The Day of the Earth Stood Still?

One thing that really bothered me in this film was that the government assembles a team of scientists when it detects a giant object heading towards the earth. Arguably, this team represents the planet's -- or at least, America's -- best chance at understanding what's going on. And what happens when the object -- the effects of which are completely unknown -- touches down in Central Park? This team of scientists is immediately sent to Ground Zero in hazmat suits.

If this team represents your best hope for understanding this phenomena, wouldn't you be a little more cautious before sending them into such a potentially dangerous situation -- especially when some of the scientists represent fields that would make them relatively useless in such a situation?

That's an interesting point -- maybe it would be better to have the scientists monitor the situation from a more secure location?

But even if this wasn't the smartest thing to do, I wouldn't call it an idiot plot device, because the movie doesn't use this possible lapse in judgment, AFAIR, to wring unnecessary extra complications or conflict that could otherwise have been easily avoided had the authorities done the possibly smarter thing.

The mark of an idiot plot or plot device is this: If Audrey Hepburn had locked the door, if Julianne Moore had ditched the jacket, if the T-1000 had simply killed and replaced Sarah Connor, if Seth had simply phased himself and Sara through the Siphon's attacks .... either the story would have (as far as we can see) ended much quicker, or at least a whole set of extra complications and/or dangers would have been avoided (at least in the form we got them).

This is also the implicit argument regarding the possibility of kidnapping Harry in a simpler and more straightforward fashion or even having the Eagles fly the One Ring to Mount Doom -- even though I consider the latter to be wholly satisfactorily answered and Harris-Stone has mounted an impressive argument for answering the former. Either way, the point of an idiot-plot objection to a story or story device has to do with the relationship of the allegedly stupid choices to the length and/or complexity of plot conflicts that could have been cut short by characters not being idiots.

Idiocy occurs with such alarming regularity on reality TV — not to mention the news — that I wonder just how unrealistic these so-called "idiot plots" really are. In the right situation, almost any intelligent person is capable of acting like an idiot.

I'm not sure "realism" is the issue; not everything that could really happen necessarily makes for good entertainment. In any case, the filmmaker's job is to keep us emotionally invested in the movie, and when Julianne Moore hangs her baby T-rex blood-spattered jacket swaying in the breeze, I check out emotionally. So does Ebert when Audrey Hepburn fails to lock the door.

It's not just a question of characters "behaving like idiots" (which as you note does happen). It's also your individual BS detector. You as the audience member ask yourself the question: "Is it persuasive that these characters would fail to see this solution? And if so, are they characters and is this a story that I care about?"

As I put it earlier, the hallmark of the idiot plot or plot device is that as soon as a certain question is raised that begins, "Why don't they just...?", the whole story (or plot segment) explodes in the eyes of the viewer, i.e., the viewer is taken out of the story by the glaring obviousness of the storytellers' convenience intruding into the characters' choices, and all subsequent complications dependent on the idiot-plot device feel gratuitous and unconvincing. If the question is asked and the story explodes (for you), then you see it as an idiot plot. The more obvious the solution and unbelievable the characters missing it is, the more clearly you have an idiot plot.

If the question is raised but the story doesn't explode (for you) because you have a plot-level answer that begins, "Well, but they don't do that because..." (whether that answer is "because they really are idiots" or whether there is some other reason) -- and you are dramatically and aesthetically satisfied with that answer -- then you don't see it as an idiot plot. (I think it is important that it be a plot-level explanation. If it's merely an aesthetic or dramaturgical explanation ("because the filmmakers wanted to explore theme X in this way"), then I think we have an idiot plot, even if there are other appealing things about it.)

How about the end of Fargo?

Ah, but Fargo, like any number of Coen films, is significantly about stupidity per se. The stupidity of (some of) the characters is (part of) the point, just like Hamlet's introspective inaction is part of the point. It's different in Jurassic Park, where Julianne Moore's character is supposed to be a smart scientist, and there is no other particular hint that she's given to massively stupid choices, etc.

Edited by SDG

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I have to say I'm in substantial agreement about Fargo

Edited by mrmando

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This may be fish in a barrel, but one of the many reasons I think X3 is a terrible film is how utterly unnecessary the final showdown actually is. Magneto's goal is to destroy the facility and kill the child that's the source of the mutant "cure," correct? His plan, let's recap, is to detach the Golden Gate Bridge, use it to ferry his army of two-bit mutant "pawns" onto the island, then have them invade the facility while he stands back and looks on ominously? It's bad enough he does nothing when he could disable nearly half of the enemy combatants (Wolverine and Colossus) with his mind -- probably while sitting back and enjoying a cup of tea -- but what's with the bad army maneuver in the first place? Why not, I don't know, drop the bridge on the facility? It's not like he's looking to spare innocent lives, here.

But then, idiot plots are kind of the bread and butter of superhero stories, moreso the more powerful your characters get.

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But then, idiot plots are kind of the bread and butter of superhero stories, moreso the more powerful your characters get.

Which is what makes the intelligent, strategically thoughtful exploration of super powers and consequences, as e.g., the train-station standoff between Magneto and Professor X in the original X-Men, so satisfying.

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But then, idiot plots are kind of the bread and butter of superhero stories, moreso the more powerful your characters get.

Which is what makes the intelligent, strategically thoughtful exploration of super powers and consequences, as e.g., the train-station standoff between Magneto and Professor X in the original X-Men, so satisfying.

Yes, that is a good one. The first two X-Men films are pretty finely-tuned in this regard, not only in avoiding idiot plot devices, but in setting an appropriate level of power for their characters. Magneto in the comics these days can alter the entire planet's magnetic field and plenty of other little bits of nonsense, meaning he can destroy pretty much everything everywhere at any given moment, which may sell mega-crossovers, but makes him pretty difficult to use with any nuance or intricacy.

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Speaking of Goldblum, I suppose we could start a separate thread about "genius fallacy" plots. In Independence Day, Goldblum manages to cook up a computer virus that's not only powerful enough to bring down an entire alien invasion force, but happens to be compatible with an operating system that comes from another galaxy! (Or, it's an idiot plot in which the aliens are smart enough to steal Microsoft Windows on previous scouting trips to Earth, but too stupid to steal virus protection software.)

I believe they use a Mac. Which is way more plausible. But seriously, computers speak in numbers, and I believe when sending messages into space, the folks doing it are using mathetics and numbers. So, it is not entirely outside the realm of plausibility to think you could use a virus to infect the alien ships. The O/s aspect is debatable, of course...

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I believe they use a Mac.

Yes.

Which is way more plausible.

No. The alien virus scenario is only plausible if the aliens are running something like Windows. If they're running something like Mac O/S, the worst thing you could give them would be an Office macro bug. :)

But seriously, computers speak in numbers, and I believe when sending messages into space, the folks doing it are using mathetics and numbers. So, it is not entirely outside the realm of plausibility to think you could use a virus to infect the alien ships.

Nope, not possible. 0 is 0 and 1 is 1, but even machine code architectures are conventional and disparate, let alone operating systems. There is no mathematical approach to malware applications that will work on any computer system. That's why there's all this malware out there affecting PCs while most Mac users never think about virus protection at all.

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Hillcoat's "The Proposition" resolves itself with an idiot plot device. Ray Winstone's Captain, knowing full well that Danny Huston's sociopath is coming home to avenge his brother's murder in captivity, needs only to LOOK OUT THE FREAKING WINDOW WITH HIS SHOTGUN to avert the beating and near-rape of himself and his wife. But, then again, if that simple security measure had been taken, we'd never have Guy Pierce's redemption scene.

Edited by Buckeye Jones

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Nope, not possible. 0 is 0 and 1 is 1, but even machine code architectures are conventional and disparate, let alone operating systems. There is no mathematical approach to malware applications that will work on any computer system. That's why there's all this malware out there affecting PCs while most Mac users never think about virus protection at all.

As a computer programmer, I second this. A "virus," or any other kind of malware, is a computer program like any other computer program. That means it utilizes the operating system to run. You cannot create one without knowledge of the OS. I think saying "There is no mathematical approach to malware applications that will work on any system" may be overstating it a tiny bit though. There are algorithms for most computer operations, but these are abstract. Implementing them in a physical system requires more particular knowledge. If you're dealing with an alien language and alien mode of computing, who knows? It probably wouldn't even be binary. For example, your brain is a kind of computing system. But a neuron has far, far more than just 2 possible states.

Moving into the realm of theory: If a system could capture and record the data flow of another system, it would be possible after much, much study to reverse engineer it and then figure out ways to break it. Breaking is always easier than building and doesn't always require sophisticated understanding.

When it comes to computers, film makers seem to rely on general public ignorance. Do you remember Scotty typing the formula for transparent aluminium into a Mac (I think) in Star Trek IV? He says "how quaint," types a bit and then this parade of flashy graphics appears. The thumping sound heard in the theatre at that point was the previously suspended disbelief of anyone who knew computers at all crashing to the floor.

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When it comes to computers, film makers seem to rely on general public ignorance. Do you remember Scotty typing the formula for transparent aluminium into a Mac (I think) in Star Trek IV? He says "how quaint," types a bit and then this parade of flashy graphics appears. The thumping sound heard in the theatre at that point was the previously suspended disbelief of anyone who knew computers at all crashing to the floor.

Speaking of which, transparent aluminum is now real! (Sort of. Looks like after all these years they're finally working out the dynamics of the matrix...)

Edited by SDG

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When it comes to computers, film makers seem to rely on general public ignorance. Do you remember Scotty typing the formula for transparent aluminium into a Mac (I think) in Star Trek IV? He says "how quaint," types a bit and then this parade of flashy graphics appears. The thumping sound heard in the theatre at that point was the previously suspended disbelief of anyone who knew computers at all crashing to the floor.

Speaking of which, transparent aluminum is now real! (Sort of. Looks like after all these years they're finally working out the dynamics of the matrix...)

Strange and interesting. It doesn't sound very stable. Stuff like this makes me look at my son and wonder what sort of world he'll come of age in!

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Harris-Stone wrote:

: Do you remember Scotty typing the formula for transparent aluminium into a Mac (I think) in Star Trek IV?

Yep, blogged it (with screen-caps) just a few weeks ago.

SDG wrote:

: Speaking of which, transparent aluminum is now real! (Sort of. Looks like after all these years they're finally working out the dynamics of the matrix...)

So ... will they be rich beyond the dreams of avarice?

Harris-Stone wrote:

: It doesn't sound very stable.

Oh no. They must have used protomatter. Every ethical scientist in the galaxy has denounced it as dangerously unpredictable, but it was the only way to solve certain problems.

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Harris-Stone wrote:SDG wrote:

: Speaking of which, transparent aluminum is now real! (Sort of. Looks like after all these years they're finally working out the dynamics of the matrix...)

So ... will they be rich beyond the dreams of avarice?

Harris-Stone wrote:

: It doesn't sound very stable.

Oh no. They must have used protomatter. Every ethical scientist in the galaxy has denounced it as dangerously unpredictable, but it was the only way to solve certain problems.

Peter wins! ::bow::

Edited by SDG

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Harris-Stone wrote:

: Do you remember Scotty typing the formula for transparent aluminium into a Mac (I think) in Star Trek IV?

Yep, blogged it (with screen-caps) just a few weeks ago.

SDG wrote:

: Speaking of which, transparent aluminum is now real! (Sort of. Looks like after all these years they're finally working out the dynamics of the matrix...)

So ... will they be rich beyond the dreams of avarice?

Harris-Stone wrote:

: It doesn't sound very stable.

Oh no. They must have used protomatter. Every ethical scientist in the galaxy has denounced it as dangerously unpredictable, but it was the only way to solve certain problems.

LOL :lol: (Also very enjoyable blog post about technology in films Peter. Too true.

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Harris-Stone wrote:

: Also very enjoyable blog post about technology in films Peter. Too true.

Thanks!

BTW, all this '80s Trek talk reminds me that one complaint I've heard about the two films Leonard Nimoy directed is that they both use footage from the previous movies as though it were security-camera footage.

In ST3:TSFS, Kirk watches Spock do his "remember" thing to McCoy, and the security camera apparently just happened to be focusing on their faces and hands etc. -- and cutting between different points of view, IIRC -- the way a Hollywood movie would.

And in ST4:TVH, the Klingon ambassador is somehow able to show the Federation Council footage of Klingon crew members walking around the Enterprise mere seconds before it blows up, with the security camera once again following the characters the same way a Hollywood movie would, and then he is able to show them footage of the Enterprise actually blowing up -- but who would have been filming this disaster in the first place? The only other ship in the vicinity was the Klingon Bird of Prey, but [a] it was quickly commandeered by Kirk himself, and so any images recorded on that ship probably wouldn't have been handed over to the Klingon Empire at this point, and if I'm not mistaken, we actually SEE the Bird of Prey within the footage itself, steering clear of the explosion and flying away from the Enterprise as it blows up.

I don't think of these as "idiot" devices, myself, since the plot doesn't hinge on them in any particularly significant way. But there's definitely some "cheating" going on there.

(Well, perhaps Kirk needs to see Spock doing the "remember" thing to McCoy, but I'm willing to allow that the security-camera footage in the movie is a little more helpful -- for the audience's benefit -- than the "real" security-camera footage would have been.) (BTW, who thought it would be a good idea to have Kirk SPEAK to the computer whenever he wanted it to rewind a few seconds? I know it looks very futuristic and all, but good grief, how tedious. And what if he's got laryngitis? I prefer just pressing buttons, myself.)

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Well, the security-camera device calls to mind the famous "The Menagerie" episode of the TV series, where Spock somehow has footage of what happened to Capt. Pike when he was being held captive deep beneath a planet's surface, cut off from his ship and crew ...

... which, as you well know, turns out to be a repackaging of the show's original pilot, "The Cage."

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I believe they use a Mac.

Yes.

Which is way more plausible.

No. The alien virus scenario is only plausible if the aliens are running something like Windows. If they're running something like Mac O/S, the worst thing you could give them would be an Office macro bug. :)

I was only kidding about it being more plausible due to it being a Mac, btw. :)

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Perhaps I should change the title of the thread from "Idiot Plots" to "Film Fallacies"?

Peter - Yep, I noticed the Trek "security footage" cheat long ago.

I was only kidding about it being more plausible due to it being a Mac, btw. :)

I thought so, but I couldn't resist taking the poke at Windows. :P

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I was only kidding about it being more plausible due to it being a Mac, btw. :)

I thought so, but I couldn't resist taking the poke at Windows. :P

I understand...I truly understand. :)

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That's true isn't it-- the precedent for those mysterious film transmissions was set with the TOS pilot episode, "Menagerie."

Also there was "Court Martial" with some hidden camera focusing on Kirk's finger pushing the red or yellow alert button-- "Arena" with the Metrons showing the crew the scenes of Kirk and the Gorn alone together on Cestus 3-- "City on the edge of forever" with the Guardian showing earth history on fast forward

Edited by mrmando

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Oh, speaking of stupid plot points (though would they be "idiotic" by our definition?), I have long thought that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was full of them. E.g.:

-- Spock puts a homing-beacon-thingy velcro patch on Kirk's back without him knowing it, just before Kirk and McCoy go to the Klingon ship and get arrested by the Klingons and sentenced to a lifetime imprisonment in Klingon space, etc. Leaving aside the question of whether this transmitter would even have the range that Spock needs to be of any use to him, does it really make sense that the Klingons would NEVER compel Kirk or McCoy to change their clothes? For that matter, does it really make sense that Kirk and McCoy THEMSELVES would never have wanted to change their clothes in all that time?

-- Military personnel are generally trained in ways to kill, I gather. This would include ways that don't require weapons, since of course you can never be sure that you will have actual weapons at your disposal. What is more, we have always known that Vulcans are a heck of a lot more powerful than mere human beings. So ... when Valeris decides to kill her co-conspirators ... she doesn't rely on her physical strength or even her psychic powers, but rather, she shoots them in the head with a phaser ... and she has to do this at point-blank range because she has turned the phaser's power way-down so that the ship won't detect her phaser use. Oh, and then, just to cover her tracks, she leaves the bodies lying around in a hallway, if memory serves. What is more, Valeris kills these guys in a way that leaves Valeris HERSELF in some doubt as to the success of her kill, since she is easily tricked by Kirk into thinking that the men are still alive in sickbay. Now, c'mon. There have to be so, so many ways that she could have killed these guys and disposed of the bodies that didn't put her at risk, or that didn't run the risk of blowing her cover, etc.

There's more, but my kids are raiding the garden again, so ...

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I have noticed a phenomenon which I think may be a very distant cousin of the Idiot Plot. It seems to predominate in early slapstick comedies and films influenced by the silents. Namely, I mean a sight gag which makes sense on a strictly visual level, but when considered from the perspective of one or more characters involved in the gag, makes no sense whatsoever (assuming a basic degree of mental health and normality on their part). Typically the joke hinges on a character not noticing what any remotely normal person would almost certainly notice. I suppose this could be called an Idiot Gag, in that only a true idiot could exhibit such ignorance. Not only do these sequences exist mostly for the sake of the joke, but the joke directly depends on the character being more or less perceptually defective, if considered from that perspective. Of course, these slapstick films are not asking us to look at the joke from that character's perspective, but I find it hard not to.

I noticed something like this recently in a bit in Movie Crazy (1932), wherein Harold Lloyd's character is walking one way and looking another. He rests his hand on what appears from the viewer's perspective to be the blanketed rear end of a mule or donkey (a stack of boxes visually separates the head from the rear). But the joke is that the blanket turns out to be the dress of a woman bent over in front of the animal, and she starts up, startled and peeved. He must have seen the woman, at least very briefly, or else how would he know to put his hand there? It isn't a perfect example since I guess I can imagine a normal person making that mistake, but it's a stretch.

In fact, there are quite a few gags that veer very closely into Idiot territory but involve situations which, for various reasons, make it difficult to gauge the perceptual plausibility of the mistake involved--but nonetheless I have a hard time buying it. In Safety Last, for instance, Harold Lloyd's character, needing to sneak past his department store boss, pretends to be a mannequin among mannequins being brought into the store. Whence Lloyd is carried in by the delivery worker, who only notices something amiss when Lloyd sneezes. But how could the worker not have noticed that this particular mannequin was far weightier and (presumably) fleshier than the others? Moreover, while being carried in Lloyd actually moves around in order to clock in; yet the worker detected nothing. It all seems pretty unlikely, but the Idiot judgment isn't easy to make because of the oddity of the scenario. You have to weigh it in a hypothetical human-as-mannequin sort of way.

Think also of all those Marx Bros. gags which involve one of the Marxes reaching into someone's pockets and fiddling around therein without that person noticing. Surely that would be pretty hard to miss! Of course, sometimes the gag is not strictly Idiotic because of its surreal, Marxist logic, as in the scene in (I believe) A Day at the Races where (I believe) Harpo reaches far down into a man's pants pocket and pulls out his sock (the forerunner of the joke in a Simpsons episode where Grandpa Abe somehow removes his underwear with his pants still on). The crazy logic makes perceptual empathy with the gulled character irrelevant. But that surreal zaniness disappears in some of the lamer Marx efforts, and Idiocy tends to surface.

Here is perhaps the best illustration of the Idiot Gag I can think of right now. In Fatty's Magic Pants (1914), Fatty Arbuckle's rival slices up Arbuckle's pants, ties a rope to them, and, when Arbuckle stands and walks away, whips the pants off him with a yank of the rope--all without Arbuckle noticing! Furthermore, Arbuckle does not even notice that he has been detrousered until he sees the shocked expressions of others. Here's a clip (the gag begins just after the two minute mark):

(I note that a number of these gags involve pants.)

An interesting variant of the Idiot Gag is the wreath sequence in M. Hulot's Holiday, in which a leaf-laden tire is mistaken for a funeral wreath and gets incorporated into a funeral. In a color film the joke would not work, because there is no way the leaves could be mistaken like that. In the real world I have a hard time believing that the average person would not instantly notice the disparity. But in black and white the joke works (at least much better than it would in color).

Thus, in these and similar sequences the characters appear to have absorbed the world of the film into their thoughts, behaviors, and judgments. The funeral participants in M. Hulot's Holiday are thinking and acting as if the world really were black and white. Fatty Arbuckle and the delivery worker have absorbed the silent film's perceptual limitations into their own capacity to interact with the world.

It is one thing for Wile E. Coyote not to notice that he has overrun the edge of the cliff. But when live humans are extraordinarily inattentive I cannot help but be somewhat annoyed. However, I must say that I am willing to forgive much in the way of this annoyance because of the marvelous visual and conceptual invention these gags often display. The wreath/tire joke is a thing of beauty.

Edited by du Garbandier

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