Friday, October 23, 2015

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Final Fantasy VI is a good game. That's not a controversial thing to say at this point. It enjoys nigh- universal praise and often comes out near the top of many “Greatest X of All Time” lists, beating out the RPG juggernaut/little brother that is Final Fantasy VII . Despite its 16-bit limitations, FFVI manages to accomplish in storytelling, theme, and characterization what some films today can only dream of. FFVI has so many strong character moments, that if you ask any fan of the game what the standout moment of the story is, you will get a range from “Kefka vs. General Leo” to “Sabin suplexing a train!”, but far and away, the most popular, game-defining, number-one beloved scene is the opera.

But why?

In relation to the rest of the game, the opera is a blip on the radar. It sticks out as an unrelated segue that links two major plot points. Any writer could have snipped this portion out and written around it, and the story would have progressed exactly the same way without any story lost. In fact despite the heavy romantic themes of “Maria and Draco,” none of the characters involved have any emotional investment in the opera at all, and your party's role (pun only mostly intended) in it is solely based on manipulating a character that they haven't even met at this point. So why did the opera make the cut? Why do so many fans point to it as their favorite part of FFVI's story? What is the purpose of this sequence at all?

Before Celes Chere masquerades as the actress, Maria, in the opera “Maria and Draco,” she is found by the thief--er, treasure hunter--Locke Cole, chained up for treason in a basement in the occupied town of South Figaro. We learn that she is an ex-general in the Gestahlian Empire and has recently been sentenced to execution. We're not quite sure why, but it may have something to do with her objection to a preemptive act of war on the neutral kingdom of Doma. Then, just like every other character we've met thus far, we're given a short summary of Celes and the option to name her.

The character introduction screen.

The English translation of Celes's text describes her as a “Product of genetic engineering, battle-hardened Magitek Knight, with a spirit as pure as snow...” which invokes an air of innocence about her. Though, the fact that we later find out that Celes led an assault on the city of Maranda contradicts the narrative. The real meat and potatoes to this scene is actually in the original Japanese text, which describes Celes as “Artificially built by the Empire, and specially trained, born a warrior, a Shogun who has fought many battles, and yet, beneath the mask of her rank, she is nobody...”

While it's easy to see how the English translator could conflate “emptiness” and “uncorruptedness,”- after all, words like “pristine” and “immaculate” teeter on the line between both, the descriptions imply very different things. The English translation would lead you to believe that Celes is a noble character, but a victim of circumstance who would be a saint if not for the fact that she's a general for a violent regime. The Japanese text implies that Celes's only identity is the rank that she carries, wracked with insecurity. 

The second detail that interests me about Celes's introduction is the music that accompanies it. Every character, save Celes and the primary protagonist, Terra, have their theme songs playing when they are introduced. Thematically, the song that plays over Terra's introduction, “Awakening,” which features a leitmotif of her theme, makes sense because at the time, she is suffering from amnesia. It suggests her identity is bubbling up from below the surface, breaching momentarily, but obscured. For Celes, the song that introduces her is “Under Martial Law.” This same song also plays in any Empire-occupied town in the game, and suggests that Celes, as a person, is currently “occupied” by the empire. Celes still identifies as a general when the player meets her, despite having lost the title officially. Her true theme isn't heard until much later.

Celes describes who she is.

It's also interesting to note that Celes has an artificial presence to her. Not that she is purposefully misleading the player or the other characters, but, like her introduction screen, she constantly proclaims herself to be something that the narrative demonstrates she isn't. She protests that she is a general and not an “opera floozy” or a “love-starved twit,” but she eventually becomes both, an opera star and the lover of Locke. Additionally, everything about Celes is manufactured. Her magical abilities, which Terra has naturally developed, are the result of an infusion as a baby. Her special skill, Runic, lets Celes absorb the magical abilities of others and use them for herself. The emptiness inside Celes is so all-consuming that everything about her, from her misconceptions of who she is, to the way she has trained herself in battle, to the ease that she becomes an opera singer, all suggest that she is floundering without her title and actively drawing from everything around her to discover how she should relate to the world.

Celes absorbs the abilities of those around her

In the story of “Maria and Draco,” the titular characters are lovers residing in the Western Kingdom. The West is defeated during a war, and the spoils for Ralse, Prince of the East, include Maria's hand in marriage. Ralse keeps Maria atop his castle where she pines for Draco. Eventually, Draco arrives to stop the wedding and defeats Ralse in a duel to save Maria. The climax of the play showcases Maria's solo and dance sequence with a phantasmal Draco before she tosses a bouquet, a symbol of her love, from the balcony of the castle. During this scene, in which Celes stands in for Maria, we finally hear Celes's theme play for the first time as she sings "Aria di Mezzo Carattere." She has finally shed her identity and imperial occupation as a general and has now, after becoming Maria, begun to find herself. It's as if the game held off on her theme until we got to see the “real” Celes.

In opera, the phrase Aria di Mezzo Carattere is the name for a piece that is mid-way between seriousness and comedy. While this could be a metaphor for Final Fantasy VI as a whole, I believe the literal translation of the phrase, "Aria of Half Character," is a direct reference to Celes. Before this point, Celes is a blank slate, "pure as snow." "Maria and Draco" leaves a lasting impression on Celes and allows her to become a whole character long after the curtain closes.

A few gameplay hours after the opera, the world ends. And not hyperbolically, either. The villain causes an apocalypse that kills most of the population of the world. Celes wakes up on a solitary island in the southeasternmost point on the map with her surrogate grandfather, Cid. As far as they know, they are the only two remaining humans on the planet. Even the monsters outside the small hut where Cid has taken refuge succumb to death moments after they are encountered without any input from the player.

"Maria and Draco" (L), and Celes's suicide (R).

Shortly thereafter, Cid dies, leaving Celes alone, and the importance of the opera comes to light. Celes resolves to kill herself (despite what the English Super Nintendo translation says. Nintendo notoriously censored any references to death on their systems.), and heads to the cliffs to the north. As she does, Aria di Mezzo Caratterre plays, bringing the importance of the opera full circle. Celes pauses, thinks to herself, makes her way to the cliffs, and throws herself to the mercy of the ocean in a near-identical sequence as "Maria and Draco's" climax.

Celes soon finds herself on the shores of the Solitary Island, reborn in the post-apocalyptic world as a complete person. It is in this moment, she resolves to set out and save the planet.

“Maria and Draco” is the way Celes learns to cope with the world after the apocalypse. Celes begins her story as a blank slate with no title or identity, despite her protestations, and absorbs from those around her to feel whole. By becoming Maria, Celes adapts the message of the opera to her own life and eventually becomes a complete character, full of drive and purpose. Seemingly inconsequential at first, "Maria and Draco" becomes the impetus that allows Celes to save a world that she finally feels she could have a place in.

Why You are the Problem with The Muppets

I love the Muppets. I’ve owned more Cookie Monster shirts in my adult life than I’ve owned dress shirts. I have the Electric Mayhem listed as one of my favorite bands on Facebook. I think Gonzo generally has a better grasp on what it means to be human than most people. For my  26th birthday I went to FAO Schwarz to make a Muppet of my own. My love for the felt critters runs deep.
That’s why it hurts to say this, but ABC’s “The Muppets” sucks. When ABC announced that they wanted to relaunch the Muppets for a more adult audience, people got scared. They asked, “How could these characters make crass jokes and say things like ‘hell’?” To which I asked, “I guess you’ve never seen 1981’s  'The Great Muppet Caper.'” The show isn’t even offensively bad. It’s not trying to be an “extreme” version of a kid’s show, like “Death to Smoochy” or “Meet the Feebles,” but inversely, it’s another safe, boring, by-the-numbers sitcom, and that’s really the worst thing you can do to the Muppets.
Since the 70s, the Muppets have been a cultural staple, and in the ensuing four decades, the ragtag band of rags have cultivated their own quirks and personalities; Piggy is brash and selfish, Fozzie is dense and optimistic, Gonzo is adventurous and artistic, and Kermit is the straight man trying to keep everyone in check. Even the secondary characters like Rowlf and Bunsen and Sam the Eagle are all recognized and known for their distinct personalities. So how, with all of this work that has gone into cultivating these puppets into fully realized characters, has the new show fallen so flat? Part of it is, I believe, the setting. The Muppets takes place backstage at a talk show. On its face, this is an excellent idea. After all, the classic “Muppet Show” had Kermit at the Muppet Theater trying to keep it all together and deal with the drama of the week while Peter Sellers or Julie Andrews or Mark Hamill scrambled around with our fuzzy friends and tried to put on a good show. So what changed?
The choice to shoot the show in documentary-style has severely neutered the personalities of the characters. When Kermit used to be the lens we saw the world through, we could see the Muppets for what they were, because we didn’t have to relate to them. We only had to relate to Kermit. As everyone ran around trying to electrocute their costars and shoot themselves out cannons, we rooted for Kermit, who tried to “get things started” week after week. The non-Kermit characters were allowed to be as crazy as they wanted, and through Kermit’s constant frustrations as they tried to steer things off the rails, we had comedy.
The Muppets, in all of their movies, also loved leaning on the fourth wall. Every movie has the troupe acknowledge the fact that they’re playing parts, or has a celebrity friend pop up, or, in the case of the Segel film, reference the fact that it’s really weird when people break into song every time there’s a musical number.
By removing the fourth wall and having the Muppets directly interact with the audience, we lose something. Gonzo isn’t allowed to be experimental and crazy anymore because we have to care about his online dating. Kermit can’t address an aside to the audience, because he has to wait for the next scene to explain his feelings directly to the cameraman. And the characters don’t have to talk to each other or interact anymore because they can talk directly to us, instead, to say what’s on their minds. When there is no fourth wall, there is no boundary to break, and when the Muppets are given no boundaries, there isn’t any anarchy for them to wreak.
Tina Fey’s 30 Rock had a similar setup and it worked because the characters had to live with each other and their decisions. There was no retreating to a room with the crew to express their frustrations. If Tracy was having a problem with Jenna, he’d go to Liz Lemon to complain, or come up with a crazy plan to address it himself. If Gonzo is having a problem with Piggy, he needs to plot with his fellow writers, Rizzo and Pepe, or go complain to a beleaguered Kermit. Instead, the newly boring Gonzo calmly tells the camera that Piggy is annoying and makes a snarky comment as we see Piggy do something funny in the background. The Muppets thrive in interplay and anarchy, not solitude and order. By removing the fourth wall and showing us that the Muppets are just like us, they’ve made them boring by making them just like us.
The throwaway gags are another huge letdown. An offhanded mention of Gonzo’s mother on vacation, or the Swedish Chef wanting an autograph signed “Meghan” exists only for a momentary chuckle, but the lines don’t even deliver that. They’re predictable sitcom fare. Fozzie’s relationship with a human was a hilarious setup that had no followup outside of one episode (so far.) Despite her participation in the marketing of the show, we haven’t seen Denise since episode one. Rowlf has been completely wasted in his one appearance. His one joke was one repeated from the reel used to pitch the show. The Electric Mayhem drug jokes, in particular, are the laziest kind of joke. And what’s more is that any of these jokes could be inserted into any other show and nobody would know the difference. Why bother using the Muppets at all if you’re not going to cater to your “actors”? There’s a whole history of television and film that can be drawn from, and we barely get more than a drug joke. Even Ron Swanson, himself, Nick Offerman, couldn’t escape lazy joke writing with his extended “I owe you one” sequence where he asks for a cappuccino machine, and then a boat. It’s not clever. It’s a joke a 10-year-old would roll his eyes at. It’s as if the crew of the show is playing it safe, but there’s no reason to. They’re the Muppets. They don’t need restraint. New viewers won’t watch because it’d bland, and old fans won’t watch because it’s not true to the Muppets franchise.
Speaking of celebrities, they’ve been used all wrong. That may be because each episode has been bursting at the seams with celebrities, not giving them a chance to breathe. Josh Groban was wonderful as Piggy’s boyfriend, and widened the scope of the show and made room for world-building. It felt more real, mostly because the characters were given time to interact, rather than retreat to the camera crew. Kermit’s reversal of the situation was the show’s best segment, as far as characterization goes, so far. Lawrence Fishburne had one of the greatest cameos I’ve seen, and I’d love to see him pop up to randomly antagonize Kermit more often. On the flip side, Christina Applegate and, again, Nick Offerman, were just there to be there. The fact that they’re celebrities isn’t enough of a joke. “The Muppet Show” usually only had one guest per episode, and that was a much longer running time. The guests should be treated like characters, used as cameos, or just omitted entirely.
There are a few shining spots, however. Sam the Eagle at S&P is brilliant. Scooter has thrived in his gofer role, having some great character moments with Elizabeth Banks and Kermit, himself. He seems to have become a willing participant in the chaos; knowing that something crazy is about to happen, but going along with it anyway. Bobo the bear cracks me up every time he’s on screen. Even the new I.T. guy, Chip, was worth a few laughs in his first appearance.
I had high hopes for The Muppets, and with every episode, I keep praying it’ll find its voice. The pieces are all there. We know these characters. Let them be their crazy selves. Unless they go whole hog (wocka wocka), The Muppets will be remembered the same was as the D.O.A. “Muppets Tonight,” and that’s not what they deserve. Embrace the felt. Let The Muppets do what they do best, and let Kermit worry about the consequences.