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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hips Don't Lie: Body Language and Character

Let's talk about body language.

No, wait, this is more fun if we talk about something else, first. So let's talk about The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a Spaghetti Western: an Italian cowboy movie that was later dubbed back into English. It is also a profoundly deconstructive work, analyzing the traditional set up of the Western film and introducing a number of ambiguities and grim truths. But none of this would matter if it wasn't for the craft and construction of the film.

Take a look at this scene from the climax of the film. It shouldn't give too much away, so don't worry about spoilers. The set up for this is that the trio of characters (two of which--Blondie, played by Clint Eastwood, and Tuco, played by Eli Wallach--appear in this scene) are looking for a stash of gold in a cemetery. The others know the name of the cemetery, but only Eastwood's character knows the name of the grave where the gold is buried. Recently in the film, however, Wallach and Eastwood have traded information, and now Wallach is after the gold himself.

Got it?

Let's watch:

A lot of things make this little clip extraordinary. The most obvious driving force of the scene is Ennio Morricone's score, which rises in intensity throughout the scene, building to a fever pitch before coming to a sudden halt when Wallach's character finally sees the grave. What's more, the camera work enhances the rising sense of panic by steadily panning faster and faster, until the world is simply a blur. The message here is clear: Tuco's very practical problem of locating one grave among hundreds becomes a way of understanding the awe-inspiring death toll of the Civil War. It is awful in the fullest sense of the word.

But there's one other aspect of this that might be easily overlooked: Tuco's body language throughout this scene. Sure, we get closeups of his face to see his emotions, and that's important, but those wide scenes do more than introduce the viewer to the vastness of the cemetery and, by extension, the devastation of the war. They also allow us a full view of Tuco's body language as he begins his search.

I want you to rewatch that scene, but this time turn off the sound. Ignore the score and let Wallach's acting do the talking.


Did you notice how he progresses in his movements from an easy (albeit somewhat skulking) confidence to a steadily rising panic? Look at the way he walks as he enters the graveyard. He seems to be at ease--he has gotten the information he wanted, and now he's going to get the gold. As he moves forward, even though his back is turned to us, we can see that he becomes hesitant, picking through the graves in a way that suggests his growing concern. By the time he begins running, he is already beginning to feel overwhelmed and panicked by the task before him.

Of course, these shots are interspersed with closeups that show us his emotions more directly. However, I would argue that these shots augment, rather than supplant, the distant shots. They would not work so well if Wallach wasn't able to convey his character's emotions at a distance through his posture and movements. Hell, look at that last shot of him running compared to the ones before: by the end of the search, he's plowing through the graveyard at a feverish pace, and his head is now darting from side to side, desperately seeking the grave. Even something as simple as that head movement enhances our understanding of the character's predicament, even if we aren't aware of it consciously.

What we can learn from this is that body language greatly enhances characterization. Facial expressions carry things a long way, but even at a distance we can read what a person is feeling by paying attention to how their body moves.

And this is why so much fan art fails utterly in its goals.

...And now my coat is covered in your drink. You really need to stop choking on your beverage each time I suddenly swerve full speed into a totally new argument. Maybe I should stop swerving into new arguments while you're drinking? NONSENSE!

Look, here, let me explain with a link. Check out this little image roundup (it's not even really an article) of female versions of male superheroes. There are a lot of problems with the roundup, I'm not denying that. Everything from the assumptions demonstrated in the language ("...if these superheros were all women, not only would they kick a** [sic] but also look very sexy doing it!" Right, because men can't be sexy, and the primary reason to make a character female is to raise the sex appeal) to the boneheaded ignorance (come on, even I know that She-Hulk is an actual character in her own right. Dumba**es). But most of the individual images are failures in their own right, for quite different reasons.

Take this image of The Riddler, for example:

Riddle me this: what the fuck is wrong with people?

Now, what do you know about Female!Riddler from this image?

1. She has a nice butt
2. She has good taste in canes
3. ???

That's... about it, honestly. The picture is all about the sexualization of the character. That's really all that matters for this image. The weird thing is, it ultimately defeats the purpose of the sexualization because it totally overwhelms any sense of the character. This is no longer The Riddler. It's a person in a Riddler suit.

Contrast this with the genderswapped version of The Joker:

She seems like a cheerful person

What a contrast. We know what kind of character Female!Joker is from the pose--the manic laughter, the way she stares at the viewer, the casual hold she has on the gun... I particularly love the contrast between that gun and the cute Batman doll. It actually suggests that Female!Joker has a somewhat different relationship to Batman and to the world--the joke-themed malevolence is still there, but there's something subtly different about her, something almost childish, and more related to Harley Quinn* than to her male counterpart.

*When she isn't being designed by the makers of the recent Arkham games or the DC reboot. I can only assume that those designers are simply giant cocks with hands. That is my only explanation for the staggering, objectifying stupidity of those costumes.

My prizes for most successful and most egregious go, respectively, to the redesign of Indy:

That whip just took on a whole new--actually, scratch that, I'm sure there's plenty of fanfics that have already made fine use of Indy's iconic accessory. Nevermind.

which is sexualized but in a way that actually corresponds well to the sexualization of the original character and manages to convey, through the sexy pose, a sense of Indy's swaggering confidence...

...And to the redesign of Dr Manhattan:

Mmmm, the impossibility of free will in a mechanistic universe gets me soooo hooot.

which manages to totally miss the entire point of the character's nudity in the original work (he doesn't care about clothes because he has basically ceased to be human) in favor of LULZ NEKKIDZ. My protip of the day is that if a fan work misses the nuance and purpose of a character's design, that "fan" is actually probably just someone trying to tap into the rest of the fanbase for fame or profit. They are the worst, most utterly disgusting type of artist.

Anyway, my vitriol aside, what I hope this highlights is the fact that an understanding of body language is essential for anyone who wants to tell a story visually. What's more, it's essential to understanding the relationship between art and social justice. You can argue for equality all you want--it ultimately won't matter a smidge as long as the unconscious truth of a character design is actively working against you.

This is the reason why, as this excellent Border House article explains, the following image is... well... let's say that its heart is in the right place, but its still ultimately kinda dumb:

Seriously, what's going on with her feet?!

Based on what we've gone over, can you see why there's some problems with the image? It's all in the body posture, folks. Beyond costuming, style, music, or even facial expression, body posture is an incredibly powerful force.

Our job as artists and critics is to be aware of its power and to use it effectively. And not like... well... this:
This is beyond stupid. This is in Insane Clown Posse or Rick Perry territory now.
As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

1 comment:

  1. Ok, this is my new favoritest article. If I can make the Twitter work, it's getting twat. Tho it doesn't touch on written fanfictions abuses of characters... which can be horribly worse. @~@;

    Definitely something I've noticed tho. And one of the reasons I'm hesitant to do fanart of something I'm not actually a... well, FAN of. I don't want to f*ck with an existing concept in a way that'll offend someone (possibly the original creator).
    And body language isn't usually my friend to begin with...


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