Saturday, May 24, 2014

Godzilla Is Red: An American Indian Reading of the King of Monsters

Misshipeshu by Carl Ray (1943-1978)
When I saw Godzilla in his latest movie swimming quickly under the ocean waves, leaving behind a flotilla of U.S. Navy ships, I immediately thought about American Indians in the Northern Plains.

Godzilla in his city-smashing battle with a pair of radiation-guzzling monsters reminded me of Mishebeshu, “the great underwater monster.” That is what Theresa Smith calls him in her book The Island of the Anishnaabeg: Thunderers and Water Monsters in the Traditional Ojibwe Life-World.

(The Anishinaabe territory lies on both sides of the central U.S.-Canadian border. They are known to most Americans as the Ojibwe or Chippewa.)

Mishebeshu also is a reptile who lives between the waves and who battles a creature from the sky, the Animiki -- known variously as Thunderer, Thunder being, and Thunderbird and generally imagined in the form of an eagle or giant bird of prey. This struck me as interesting because the male MUTO can fly with his enormous wings.

Mishebeshu and Animiki are in perpetual battle with each other, and humans are at times caught between them – a lot like the people of San Francisco in the movie. The humans and their city are not the target of Godzilla and the MUTO; they are merely the collateral damage.

There is a big difference, though, because the moral poles are reversed. Mishebeshu is the “bad guy.” Animiki is the “good guy.” The Thunderers (actually, there are many) can come to the aid of the humans if Mishebeshu comes after them.

In the first Godzilla movie, Gojira (1954), and the American remix, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956), the monster more closely resembles the Anishinaabe version. Mishebeshu rules all of the creatures of the water and even the waves themselves, and he “frequently was asked simply to allow humans to travel on the water in safety” (Smith 97). In the Japanese original, Godzilla destroys several ships at sea before he is ever seen. And though he emerges to stomp and chew on Tokyo, the final showdown is beneath the waves, where he is destroyed.

Gojira (1954)
Since the original Godzilla serves as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, seeing him as the bad guy is quite easy – even if the film suggests that humanity created him by playing with natural forces that it should have left alone.

However, the Japanese did not wait long to resurrect Godzilla as a hero (albeit no friend to the insurance industry) who would rise from the waves to save humans from various monsters from Earth and elsewhere.

Although the character roles seem switched between the Japanese and Anishinaabe narratives, the dynamics in them are similar.

Smith suggests the battles between Mishebeshu and the Thunderers “are not experienced as contests between good and evil, light and dark, right and wrong, but between the forces of balance and imbalance, as embodied in powerful persons” (129). Mishebeshu is chaos; Thunderers are order.

Thunderbird by Carl Ray
This latest Godzilla reboot suggests a similar assumption. Although the film’s designers have made sure the MUTO look menacing and, to some degree, demonic – like red-eyed gargoyles come to life – they are not described by the humans in the film as evil. They are not shown attacking, torturing, or eating any people. But the humans do describe them as a chaotic force that must be countered, and the scientist played by Ken Watanabe articulates Godzilla’s role in this way: “Nature has an order, a power to restore balance.”

Like the Anishinaabeg in their stories about the battles between the Thunderers and Mishebeshu, the humans in Godzilla are stuck between contending forces that must do battle if order is to be restored to the world. Although the film gives Godzilla the physical attributes of Mishebeshu, it gives him the character of an Animiki.  In doing this, Godzilla suggests an epistemology consistent with the Anishinaabe stories.

In her book, Smith suggests that the Anishinaabe world defined bad behavior not as many people imagine “sin” – the transgression of a divinely ordained rule – but as “the failure to keep up one’s side of a healthy relationship” (105). However, the relationships that are to be maintained are not limited to other humans. Important relationships are everywhere and include those between humans and “other-than-human persons.” That is, plants, animals, and other things that are alive in various ways.

Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster
This view of the world resonates with the latest Godzilla and other entries in the canon. For instance, in Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971), our scaly hero comes from the deep to save humanity from a monster of its own making. Humans had once again thrown the world out of balance, and Godzilla must come to fix it. (The film was released two years after the pollution in Lake Erie caught fire, and the same year as the “Keep America Beautiful” commercials that featured an Indian crying about roadside trash.)

In this regard, I am puzzled by the central role that radioactivity/nuclear energy play in the recent film. I understand its role in the first films – Japan was barely a decade beyond having two large cities destroyed by atomic bombs.  Worldwide, radioactivity remained a potent demon for years after that, as nations experimented with atomic energy and as the Super Powers threatened everyone with the fallout from a nuclear war. But I do not know that atomic energy remains today a potent symbol for the folly of man.

We have not knocked ourselves back to the Stone Age with a one-day blitz of nuclear missiles – instead we are doing it a little bit at a time, with each year’s incremental increase in global temperatures, with droughts and floods, and hurricanes, and all the trappings of an unstable climate.

Rather than have the MUTO awakened by a nuclear energy plant in Japan, perhaps it would have been more symbolically powerful to have them awakened from beneath a melted ice shelf in the Antarctic, awakened by humanity’s refusal to cooperate in reducing greenhouse gases.

This would have given more resonance to the statement by Watanabe’s character from the “Let Them Fight” clip: “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around… Let them fight.”



That would have made the film even more consistent with an Anishinaabe vision of the right relationship among humans, each other, and the world that surrounds them. The MUTO would have come because of the failure to keep up our side of a healthy relationship with our planet, and Godzilla would have come again to save us.

Perhaps in the next film he can attack Washington, D.C., and destroy a certain NFL franchise. 


* * *

Most people have not heard of the book I am goofing on for my title here, but I will use it anyway. God Is Red is an important book in American Indian Studies, published by Vine Deloria Jr in 1973. In it he explains some thoughts on the divine and humanity's relationship to it from an American Indian perspective.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla vs. Henry James

"What is character but the determination of incident?  What is incident but the illustration of character?"

Those words are possibly the most famous written by American novelist Henry James (1843-1916). They have been read and the concept they express has been studied by nearly every veteran of a college-level literature or creative writing class. They are from his essay titled "The Art of Fiction."

James is saying that the events of a story arise from the personalities of the people involved.  Their desires, fears, jealousies, loves, etc., cause them to act.  Those actions, their consequences, and the following reactions constitute the story.  Conversely, we often times understand those personalities through the actions taken by the characters.  The characters may describe their sentiments with words, but sometimes they do not; so the audience must infer those sentiments from a character's actions. Also, a character may express a sentiment that contradicts his actions -- and the audience will generally trust the character's actions more than his statements.

This relationship between character and incident holds true for monsters, too.

Take the MUTO from Godzilla, which opened last weekend. These giant creatures -- their name is an acronym for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism -- have very clear motivations.  They want to find sources of radioactivity so they can eat it, as that seems to be their only nutritional requirement. The two in the film seek each other out so they can mate and lay eggs.

These motivations drive their actions and therefore the story. The damage they cause to Las Vegas and San Francisco seems incidental; they are not out to kill humans or ruin property values.

Godzilla has a strong motivation that less clearly arises from his character.  For some reason he hates Mr. and Mrs. MUTO and goes to great lengths to kill them.  Even though the film describes him as the best predator of his long-gone era of Earth history, he does not hunt the happy couple in order to eat them.  He kills them and then returns to his home at the bottom of the sea -- perhaps not far from Spongebob's pineapple.

Perhaps he kills them because, as one of the film's scientists tell us, the MUTO are parasitic, laying eggs inside other giant creatures of their original era.  Or perhaps he kills them because, as Ken Watanabe's character tells us, "Nature has an order, a power to restore balance."

Regardless, Godzilla has a motivation -- ruin the MUTO honeymoon -- and he acts accordingly.  His actions and theirs create the events that lead to other events that eventually lead to a resolution of the story's fundamental conflict.

This conflict resolution is an important concept not clearly expressed in James's oft-quoted lines. The incidents that illustrate character are expected by most audiences to cause, alter, or resolve conflict. And the audience generally expects a final resolution to the story's central conflict by end of the tale.

In this regard, the humans in Godzilla present a potential problem. They have character that is illustrated in incident, but those incidents have little impact on the central conflict of the film. That is, we could pretty much remove the humans from the movie, and the battle between Godzilla and the MUTO Family might play out in a similar fashion.

Some of us are familiar with this dilemma of the irrelevant hero from an episode of The Big Bang Theory. In "The Raiders Minimization" (follow the link to a clip) Amy ruins Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark for the gang by pointing out that Harrison Ford's character has little to no influence on whether the Nazis find the Ark and what happens to them when they do.

I left the theater thinking about this problem. The humans in the film served two functions for the most part: they explained things to the audience by explaining things to each other and they attracted audience sympathy or identification. With the exception of some father-son conflict between the characters played by Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (which is quickly resolved), there is little to no conflict among the human characters. Since they can have little influence on the fight between the monsters, that leaves them little to do (except explain and emote).

Christopher Orr at TheAtlantic.com also makes this observation in his commentary titled "Waiting for Godzilla."  However, his desire to be emphatic makes his statement inaccurate: "Indeed, Godzilla is a film in which no deed or decision made by any human character seems to have the slightest impact on the inexorable mechanics of the plot."

SPOILER ALERT: Orr is wrong in at least two ways -- Taylor-Johnson's character destroys the nest of MUTO eggs in San Francisco; this not only saves the city from baby MUTOs, it distracts Mrs. MUTO from the beat-down that she and her husband are giving Godzilla. That break gives our lizard hero time to recover and defeat Mr. MUTO mano a mano. We could say that Taylor-Johnson's character influences the plot in a third way: He is taking a nuclear warhead out to sea as bait, and Mrs. MUTO follows it; she turns her back on Godzilla long enough for him to take her out.

In other words, no Taylor-Johnson, no Godzilla victory dance, no more San Francisco.

And yet, for most of the film, the humans do not influence the "inexorable mechanics" of the fight between monsters, and that hampered somewhat my enjoyment of the film. The characters talk a lot and explain a lot, and the happy family that must by some unwritten law be threatened by the central dilemma of so many films are present and expressing their love for each frequently. (We have seen them so many times, do we really care anymore?) But there is hardly any conflict among them, and that makes for boring scenes.

As the drunk and high Swedish persona of the blogger at "Behind the Proscenium" says it: "Worst thing on a movie that the makers can do - make the thing so that my brain sleeps before I know that I am asleep. Suck, suck, suck, suck."

Other movies have faced a similar dilemma, but they have solved it more satisfyingly. The characters played by Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt in Twister cannot do anything to stop the tornadoes; but they can work to survive them, and in the process of that they can deal with the personal conflicts between them (their marriage is falling apart). An apocalyptic favorite of mine, 2012, also has a central problem the humans cannot alter -- Earth's crust has come apart at the seams. But we have several groups of humans to track as they try to survive the mayhem, and each group has conflicts among various characters that must be resolved.

In Godzilla, however, the humans have little interesting drama among themselves. The scientists and Naval officers following Godzilla through the Pacific on his way to California have little to do other than that. There is no conflict on the ships between the military officers and the scientists.

The wife and child of Taylor-Johnson's character must survive the monsters in San Francisco, but that is not presented as a very interesting or complicated challenge, and there is little dramatic conflict involved. She pretty much stays in place at the hospital. She puts her son on a bus to escape the city and that bus (so wisely) drives across the Golden Gate Bridge just as Godzilla shows up. The child escapes, but the audience never senses he is in danger (as I suggested before, is the child ever really in danger in a monster movie?  Teens who have sex definitely are. The 5-year-old son of the protagonist? Not so much.)

If Steven Speilberg had directed the bridge scenes, we would have had a different story. Look at how often children are endangered in his movies. We may know they are going to survive, but Speilberg devotes a great deal of cinematic energy threatening the young ones and giving them interesting obstacles to overcome on their own. (Jurassic Park, for example.)

Some people have said the helplessness of the humans in Godzilla is part of the film's message. Godzilla and the MUTOs are symbolic of the forces of nature unleashed by irresponsible actions of humanity, and nature is a force larger than humanity, so we cannot escape the consequences of our actions. I agree. Presenting the humans as helpless to alter the combat between Godzilla and the MUTOs conveys a fine message. (In my opinion, the humans get off much too easily in the movie.) But if they cannot resolve the film's conflict, then they must given some conflict they can resolve so the audience can become more invested in their presence on the screen.

If you cannot make the humans more interesting, keep them off the screen and give us more monsters destroying things!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

One item missing from The Time Traveler's Almanac

This week I listened to a radio interview with Ann Vandermeer, the editor The Time Traveler's Almanac. Goodreads describes it as "the largest and most definitive collection of time travel stories ever assembled."  I am sure it does not include my story, which was published in The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas in 2008.

"Now and Forever"

The time traveler’s first heroic action occurred just days after he discovered his special abilities. He was standing on the riverbank, fishing by himself, when he saw a pickup truck crash through the railing of the nearby suspension bridge and plunge onto the ferry that was passing right below it. The truck crashed through the roof of the crowded ferry and something exploded. He saw the fire and the bodies flying. He heard the screaming and saw the people thrashing in the flames. The time traveler knew he had to do something. He knew instantly that this must be the moment he had been created for, or at least moments like this were the reason. So he blinked his eyes three times and waved his hands in a circle before him in the little ritual he had invented for himself to conjure this special power.

When he opened his eyes the third time, the ferry was a good half-mile up the river, and so he ran to the bridge to stop the truck before it could crash through the railing. On the roadway of the bridge, he spotted the pickup truck approaching and he bravely stepped into the lane waving his arms. The truck stopped, and he ran to the driver’s door only to see that the older, heavy-set man was in some distress – a heart attack! Should he go back further in time? Could he stop this too? He did not know. He was new to being a hero.

Then he hears a monstrous grinding of metal and the roaring protest of engines. The ferry has crashed into the bridge. He runs to the railing and looks over in time to see the ferry burst into flames, and then something explodes. He sees the fire and the bodies flying. He hears the screaming and sees the people thrashing in the flames. The time traveler steps back from the railing – flames shoot straight up at him. Traffic is stopping on the bridge, backed up behind the truck. Drivers are honking. He hears the deep bellow of the ferry’s horn, but it is coming from the far side of the bridge. He looks over the railing again, but the ferry is gone. He runs across the bridge, and he sees the ferry passing beneath him, unscathed. No flames. No bodies. How did that happen? He thinks to himself, “Is there another like me?” Has someone else traveled back in time and stopped the ferry from colliding with the bridge? Perhaps it is even himself! Perhaps some earlier version of himself has traveled back in time to stop the ferry accident.

Is this possible? He wishes he knew.

The time traveler looks over the railing, wondering if he will spot himself standing on the ferry, perhaps even looking up toward the bridge to spot himself, too. But there is no ferry. It is gone. It is further up river. It is a mile down river. He turns and sees the traffic on the bridge and it seems to pulse. The cars become trucks, the trucks cars. They change size, number, and speed. How many of him exist now? Or are there others? An army of time travelers, all unknown to each other? A sedan that had stopped behind the truck drives past him. It is headed in the opposite direction. It is driven by a woman in a scarf. It is driven by the same woman but with flowing hair. It is driven by that woman with three children in the backseat, fighting over a stuffed lion. It is driven by the woman in the car by herself. It is gone. The bridge is solid with cars, none of them moving. The bridge is deserted. The time traveler turns slowly round and round, looking, looking. There is no bridge at all, and as he falls toward the river he sees that there is no city, just an expanse of trees. He is standing on the bridge, but he is a woman. He is a man, but he stands next to a beautiful woman in a yellow dress, and they hold hands. There is no woman, but he holds the hand of a little boy, whose quizzical, uplifted eyes suggest that he has just asked a question. Before the time traveler can answer, the boy is gone, and a dog sits next to the man and watches two seagulls float on the breeze. He turns to the city and it is noisy with construction and traffic and shining in the sun. The rain pours down. The river rises dangerously close to the bridge’s roadway. The river is bone dry and the city is surrounded by desert. The city is larger than he remembers. The city is smaller. The city is a blackened, silent skeleton, murdered by some apocalypse, and the bridge teeters beneath him, swinging on tattered cables. Standing on the humming, invisible bridge, he sees the pulsing silver city and its flying cars.

He stands on the bridge, mesmerized by the eternal now.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Lone Survivor and the Post-Vietnam War Syndrome

Flag waving is something many of us expect to see in Hollywood war films.

By "flag waving" I do not mean mindless patriotism or jingoism. I mean those moments in a film when issues of national identity are raised in a positive way. War is a national effort, and so we should expect to see signs of national values, beliefs, and causes in films about war. Some of that flag waving is done gracefully or artfully and some of it is not.

Even anti-war films participate in this. In finding fault with a particular war, the film will present a set of values as an alternative to those that motivated the war. Frequently those alternative values are presented as the "true" values of the nation; the values that motivated the war frequently are presented as a corruption of the nation's original good intentions.

So I noticed the lack of flag waving in a new film about the American war in Afghanistan, Lone Survivor (starring Mark Wahlberg). The film presents the motivations of its U.S. Navy SEALs as personal and emotional rather than national and political. The men became Navy SEALs because of the personal desire to challenge themselves. The film starts with a voice-over by the lone survivor: "There is a storm inside us.... An unrelenting desire to push yourself harder and farther than anyone could think possible."

They fight mostly for their fellow soldiers, and because it is their job to fight. Hardly a word is said about the larger mission of the United States military in Afghanistan in 2005.

(I have not read the book on which the film is based, so I cannot say if the authors handle this aspect of motivations differently.)

I recently finished leading a senior seminar that compared some literature of the Vietnam War with some literature from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Motivation was one of the biggest differences my students noted in the literature of the two eras. One student brought Lone Survivor to my attention, as his paper focused on this generational difference, and lent me a DVD "screener" of the film.

In two memoirs we read, Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic and Home Before Morning by Lynda Van Devanter, the authors discuss their patriotic and idealistic selves before their tours of duty in Vietnam; this highlights the level of their disillusionment after their tours. The protagonist of Tim O'Brien's novel Going After Cacciato has lengthy debates with himself and others about his reasons for fighting in Vietnam, and while those reasons do include personal motivations, patriotism and politics are also much discussed.

The students noted the absence of such discussions, and especially the general absence of nationalism and patriotism, in two books written by veterans of the war in Iraq:The Yellow Birds (novel) by Kevin Powers, and Love My Rifle More Than You (memoir) by Kayla Williams. There is little talk of politics, national agendas, and patriotism in either book. The soldiers in both books seem to have joined the Army for personal reasons -- such as economic opportunities or proving their merit to themselves or to someone else. The soldiers discuss their reasons for joining the Army, but they hardly mention the nation's reasons for fighting a war in Iraq. They seem to be fighting because it is their job to fight and because they are loyal to their fellow soldiers. They are not fighting for the ideals that sent Kovic and Van Devanter to Vietnam.

My students believed U.S. soldiers in Iraq, at least as depicted in these books and in some documentaries they watched on their own, demonstrated a kind of post-Vietnam War syndrome. Kovic and Van Devanter were upset because they felt their government had lied to them, and their texts were fueled by that sense of disillusionment and anger. They had expected better of their military and political leaders. They thought they were bringing justice and freedom and democracy to South Vietnam, but their experiences told them otherwise. However, if Williams and Powers represent the contemporary situation accurately, soldiers in Iraq seemed to expect their government to lie -- or they seemed indifferent to their government's agenda, since they had their own. (Incidentally, this assumption of governmental dishonesty is shared by nearly all of my students.)

Kovic and Van Devanter told stories of lost innocence. Perhaps the U.S. soldiers in Iraq did not have an innocence to lose.

Some of these dynamics are evinced in Lone Survivor. The soldiers fight for each other, not for a national cause that is ever discussed. The reason for U.S. forces being in Afghanistan is not mentioned. They just are.

This does not mean the film has no sense of good guys and bad guys. The bad guys are clearly Al-Qaeda forces. They are bad because they have been terrorizing the local population and because they have been killing U.S. soldiers. They are not portrayed as a threat to the United States itself. The Navy SEALs do not attribute their willingness to fight to justice or democracy or freedom or any ideal other than their love for each other and their desire to challenge themselves.

This silence could be attributed to the war being represented. How do you tell a story about a war that most people do not support? One poll in late 2013 indicated that more than 60 percent of Americans felt the war in Afghanistan had not been worth the price. One way to tell a story about that war is to confine the story to the soldiers and not their cause. Americans may not support the war, but they do support the troops.

Thinking about this, I rewatched Black Hawk Down. It is the story of a war that, perhaps like the fighting in Afghanistan, seemed futile -- international efforts to help the citizens of Somalia who were caught in the collapse of their country. The film foregrounds a sense of futility with its epigraph from Plato: "Only the dead have seen the end of war."

But the film has many of the markers of the usual war film, scenes intended to justify or explain the national values that sent soldiers into Somalia. It clearly discusses the reasons for U.S. troops to be there, and it clearly presents those reasons as good -- feeding the starving population, fighting that bad guys who are withholding the food.

Black Hawk Down also has some typical war movie scenes. Soldiers talk about their reasons for being in Mogadishu. Some express contempt for the people they were sent to help, and other soldiers express the higher -- we assume more American -- ideal of doing good in the world, protecting the innocent, etc. It also has scenes of soldiers expressing their love for each other; they agree the national motivation for the war may be cloudy, but their personal reasons are clear: to do their job and to protect each other.

War stories (fiction and films) can be seen as methods of national recuperation and rehabilitation. They attempt to heal the wounds to the national psyche by showing how the violence that caused those wounds was worthwhile or that the nation survived the violence with its basic good intentions intact. This is important to do for wars the nation won, since even victory comes with great pain, but it is especially important for wars the nation lost.

My class discussed an example of this idea of rehabilitation: Universal Soldier, a 1992 film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. In it, two U.S. soldiers from the Vietnam War are involved in a massacre of citizens: Lundgren's character is killing everything he sees, and Van Damme's character tries to stop him. They kill each other, but their bodies are preserved for a secret military program. Years later they are revived as super soldiers in a secret weapons program, but when they are deployed they resume their previous fight. Finally, the good soldier wins by killing the bad soldier. (Cythnia Fuchs discusses this movie and others about the Vietnam War in her essay titled "What Do We Say Happened Here?: Memory, Identity, and the Vietnam War.")

Whether or not you admire the cinematic achievement of Universal Soldier, the film can be seen as illustrating a battle within the American psyche that results from the Vietnam War. What experiences of that war indicate the nation's true nature? Which soldier represents the heart of the nation? Universal Soldier would be the story we tell to reassure ourselves that the bad soldier in the nation's heart can be defeated; ultimately, we are the good soldier.

Black Hawk Down would be the story we tell to reassure ourselves that our intentions in Somalia were good, however messed up that situation was, and that our soldiers were brave.

Lone Survivor is oddly quiet about the reasons for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It may not be doing much of that national rehabilitation that other war films attempt. It may not be reassuring the nation of its motivations or the success of its mission in Afghanistan. Through the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers, the film may be offering no moral larger than the national and personal survival of the ordeal.

+ + +

One interesting difference between almost all other U.S. war films and Lone Survivor is the involvement of the "native." An early scene in the film represents Al-Qaeda members terrorizing an Afghan village and beheading a local man. That same village is instrumental in saving the Navy SEAL who survives the mission, and it fights off the Al-Qaeda members who come to capture him. The leader of the Al-Qaeda attackers is killed by the village leader and not by a U.S. soldier. This differs from so many films that show Americans solving the problems of "natives." And the motivation of the villagers is their own. They are honoring their own code of Pashtunwali, whereby a guest is protected as if he were a member of that community, and not adopting some American code of conduct. In this sense, the film does not depict the Americanization of Afghanistan.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reindeer, Brian Griffin, a Pencil Named Steve, and the Psychology of Storytelling

One day I was in a grocery store here in Southern California, and I saw a display of some Christmas
decorations -- two reindeer who were being sold at a deep discount because their antlers had broken off.

I felt sad for them. I did not cry, and I did not feel badly enough for them to buy them. But my sadness, however fleeting, was spontaneous and genuine.

I quickly asked myself if I would have felt the same sadness if the ornaments did not have eyes and mouths, if they had not represented living creatures. Suppose they had been Christmas coffee mugs with broken handles. Would I have felt sad?

Nope.

One of the truly strange things about human beings is our ability to form emotional attachments to so many different things -- other humans, animals, even objects that resemble humans and animals. Perhaps most strange is our ability to form strong emotional attachments to things that do not even exist.

Brian Griffin for example.

He is a dog, who acts like a human, and who does not exist.

Brian's non-existence did not stop many viewers of Family Guy from getting very upset when that show recently killed him, the family dog who had been on the show from the beginning. He was run over by a car, and the family quickly replaced him with another talking dog. This one was named Vinny and he sounded like a cast member from The Jersey Shore.

Social media was quickly abuzz with surprise from all and anger from some at this narrative turn.

Someone posted a picture of the tattoo that memorialized Brian. Soon there were petitions calling for the show's creators to resurrect Brian.

And they did. Though it was done so quickly that his death clearly was never intended to be permanent. His best friend Stewie has a time machine, after all, so changing Brian's fate was easily within the show's realm of possibility. The story of bringing him back most likely was being animated at the same time as the story of his death. (I have not heard what the Brian-tattoo dude plans to do now.)

The outcry reminded me of the famous death of Little Nell, a frail little girl from the Charles Dickens novel The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens serialized that novel in a magazine in 1840-1841, and his audience could see her death approaching (unlike Seth McFarlane's audience). Readers begged him to spare Little Nell, and many were heartbroken when she finally died. William Macready, a famous actor of the time, wrote in his diary: "I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain."

One of the many powers of storytelling is its ability to tell us false things and evoke true emotions. Although the deaths of Brian Griffin and Little Nell were unreal (as were their lives), the audience reactions were very real.

Storytelling depends upon the very human and psychological process of identification. When someone says,"I could identify with that character," we usually take that to mean "I could see aspects of myself or my experiences in that character's personality or experiences." But identification is more complicated than that.

Identification can also be called a type of introjection, which is the process by which someone absorbs into their psyche, behavior, or beliefs some aspect of the outside world. That is, a character on the big screen or the small page may experience a great deal of fear, and then members of the audience feel something very similar -- even though they are under no threat. Similarly, they might feel anger, even though nothing bad has happened to them; but something bad has happened to the character in a story, and the audience absorbs those sensations into themselves, even if only temporarily.

But this process also involves an element of projection, which is the psychological process by which a person believes his/her own emotions or ideas are possessed by another person. This can be positive or negative. A person could reject his own feelings of guilt and project them onto another person, assuming the other person is behaving in a guilty manner when he is not. Conversely, a person could feel happy and assume the people around him are happy too, even though they are not.

In the example of representations of living things, this is a strange, mirror-like dynamic. In the grocery store I saw the broken reindeer, and since they resembled living animals that I would feel sympathy for, I was able to project onto them what I would have felt in that situation -- sadness or vulnerability, as if they were those lonely inhabitants of The Island of Misfit Toys on the Christmas TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Having projected those human experiences onto non-human objects, I then identified with that sadness and vulnerability.

When I talk to my classes about the powers of storytelling and its dependence upon this human obsession with relating the world back to ourselves, I illustrate it with a great example: Jeff Winger's "Steve the pencil" speech in the pilot episode of Community (watch the speech here).

Winger tells his friends that "people can connect with anything." To illustrate this point, he says, "... I can pick up this pencil, tell you its name is Steve and go like this [breaking pencil] -- and part of you dies just a little bit on the inside."

So true, Jeff. This type of gullibility -- this desire to be told lies in order to experience real emotions - makes humans different from other creatures and gives storytelling its greatest power.