Scarecrows to the left of me, Jokers to the right. Here I am, stuck in the meta with you.

I think this is one of my problems: I’m stuck for too much of the time in the meta-level processing of stories. Now, as I could bore on the subject for hours, I think meta-level story processing probably overwhelms story-level processing in a modern culture. Rather than relating to story characters as people whose emotions we might share, or in whose situations we might empathetically see reflections of our own, we compare stories with stories: we ask how this author typically constructs plot to give us clues about the story we’re currently processing; we assess the likely future of a character in a film plot based largely on the above-the-titleness of the actor; and so on, massively so in Hollywood genre-stuff. The meta-stuff is all the more powerful for being largely un-reflected-on. (Which doesn’t of course preclude screwing subversively with those meta-level expectations. LL Cool J’s cook character in better-than-it-ought-to-be Deep Blue Sea very explicitly discusses the meta-level expectations for his character, based on his being black. It’s a bit of meta-meta, and fun exactly because it reminds us how much meta there is.)

Or is this just me? Or is this just me to such a great extent? What happens for me is that, as I’ve alluded to before, I find myself moved by structure, rather than character. My own meta-level story-processing completely squishes any character-level response. It makes me worry sometimes that we’re wearing out stories; that there’s nothing new; that we can only process stories as they relate to other stories. There’s an innocence gone somewhere. Maybe it’s okay to be moved primarily by structure, though. I mean, isn’t the point to be moved by something, and in the end does it really matter much what it is?

Thinking about this absent-mindedly tonight after seeing Batman Begins, which I thoroughly enjoyed but wasn’t blown away by. The usual meta-level gripes are what I came out with: the structure is weakened by having too many bad-guys; the final third has a clunkiness that the rest of the film doesn’t deserve, as the plot-gears crash backwards and forwards. Christian Bale is very very good, though. He’s been hiding himself for a while in solid but wilfully unstarry roles; that’s not going to last much longer, I think. Here’s the thing, though: Shane Rimmer. Shane fucking Rimmer. Biggest smile of the film was seeing him at the end.

Oh, and in other news, I’ve hardly been able to rouse myself to write anything about Sith since I saw it. It’s awful, in that airless way Lucas seems to have made his very own. A handful of scenes are so criminally bad it’s hard to believe they’re not meant to be some sort of fiendishly-clever internal parody. The critics who’ve praised it must be on particularly good recreational drugs. Of those I’ve read, only Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian and Anthony Lane in the New Yorker got it right. Lane:

Meanwhile, the Chancellor of the Republic, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), is engaged in a sly bout of Realpolitik, suspected by nobody except Anakin, Obi-Wan, and every single person watching the movie.

Ay-yup. Here’s a clue, George, from Screenwriting 101: It’s okay to make a film that fills in the back-story of another film. It’s cool, really. But you’ve got to give the new film its own back-story. Trust me. That’s just how it is.


  • But are you stuck in the meta, or have you just realized that it is all just levels of meta, with no kernel of authentic experience inside? In other words, is there any possible way to experience “character” without the structurization that places character, not only within plot, but within histories of plot, and within our own history of experience? There is no “pure” or “innocent” experience of story or character, and longing for such is just another structure laid on our perception — this one’s just called nostalgia. See ya, brother INTJ!

  • Sister INTJ:

    I should define my terms. What you refer to as ‘our own history of experience’ I wouldn’t call meta. That’s the baseline for me: reasoning about stories according to our knowledge of the world. That’s the first-order stuff that the meta-levels take us above. Also, it might be useful to bear in mind that I come at this from a computational perspective. I’m interested in formalising how people process stories. The obvious place to start that analysis is at the first-order level, which would use only our knowledge of the world.

    Obviously there’s a vast amount at that level – vastly more than we’re typically aware of – even if we don’t consider the meta. I suppose my point is that there’s also vastly more at the various meta-levels than we’re used to considering. Processing stories not by reasoning about the world, but by reasoning about other stories, would be a second-order level; processing stories by reasoning about our reasoning about stories would be a third-order level, and so on.

    So, yeah, I definitely don’t think it’s all meta. You’re encouraging me to see it as all meta, but I’d encourage you to see that there’s vastly more non-meta stuff than we notice in our story-processing. That ‘vastly’ is one of the black holes of AI.

    But all of that’s a bit tangential, because my main point was that, however many layers of meta there are, I think I inhabit them far more than others. I see others entirely engrossed within the plot of a film and entirely connecting with the characters. Meanwhile my meta-brain keeps at a distance. I’m not unhappy with that, but there’s an emotional experience that I think I miss.

    Oh, and I’m so entirely extreme in the other three dimensions that I’m not going to give up on the X without a fight. So, I remain –


    Brother INTX

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