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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Standing Tall: #1

There is a city-wide art project currently going on in the streets of Christchurch. Called Standing Tall, it involves the distribution of 99 fibreglass Giraffe sculptures, each symbolizing the strength and dignity of the city after the devastating 2010/2011 earthquakes.

Located on streets, parks and other public spaces, there are 49 large sculptures (reaching 2.5 metres high) and 50 small ones (standing about waist high). Businesses, community groups, charities, education establishments and individuals sponsored the blank Giraffe sculptures (provided by Wild in Art, which has already supplied gorillas to Norwich, rhinos to Southampton and lions to Northampton) and various artists were invited to submit their designs.

The sponsors chose their favourites and the selected artists got to work: adults on the larger Giraffes and school children on the smaller ones. Eventually they'll all be auctioned off in order to raise money for Christchurch charities.

Naturally, I've made it my mini-project to go and see them all, and I thought posting photographs here could be a nice way of keeping this blog active on its off-days.

So here's the first one: The Mosaic by Clare van der Plas, currently situated in front of what remains of the ChristChurch Cathedral.
  
 
 
 
 
 
 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Legend of Korra: Beyond the Wilds

We all survived last week's clip show, so let's get straight back to the important stuff: PLOT.

This felt like another transitional episode, a story in which nothing really gets resolved, but is mostly setup for later developments. By the end of this episode Korra has taken another step on the path to healing, Lin and Opal prepare for a rescue mission, and Varrick and Bolin return to Republic City, only to be almost instantly paired up with other characters in preparation for the next episode: Varrick with Asami and Bolin with Opal.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sleepy Hollow: Magnum Opus

We're on the home stretch now, so I may as well hang in there till the finale.

It appears the show has well and truly found a formula: each episode opens with Ichabod making a portentous comment that ends up being in reference to something completely mundane, some American history is thrown in as part of a National Treasure-esque hunt for a random MacGuffin that nobody's ever heard of before, Ichabod is confounded by some aspect of modernity, a Monster of the Week rears its ugly head while Henry smirks and Katrina flails, and if we're lucky we'll get Ichabod/Abbie discussing how important they are to each other.

As such, most of the show seems stale now. Moloch is wandering around as a sullen teenager, the horsemen have been revealed as emotionally constipated man-children, and the Monsters of the Week are getting increasingly silly. Despite this being the first episode in the build-up to the season finale, I just don't feel particularly engaged.

It starts with Katrina ringing up the Witnesses on the mirror-phone to tell them that she's failed to kill Moloch. Abbie doesn't look remotely surprised, and to add insult to injury it transpires that Henry has bugged the mirror and can rewind events reflected in it to find out exactly what the Witnesses are up to. So not only is Katrina useless, she's now actively making matters worse.

By using last week's MacGuffin (Dixon's journal) Ichabod and Abbie discover the location of this week's MacGuffin (Methusalah's sword), and by interpreting a code in the journal that is too convoluted for me to even attempt to unpack, they learn it's something that can stop Moloch. Just go with it.

Benjamin Franklin, blah, Freemasons, blah, Knights Templar, blah blah blah, and they eventually end up at the ruins Abbie glimpsed in her dream (I wondered if they had some relevance). After the Headless Horseman is forced to retreat thanks to the dawn, the Witnesses dig in the ground and find some easily-displaced bricks that lead to a perfectly functional trapdoor. It's a wonder kids on school field trips don't stumble down there every week.

And then... look, I know this show has done some crazy stuff in the past, but its use of golems and tree demons and nightmare monsters had an internal logic and thematic consistency that made it all work despite itself. But now Ichabod and Abbie are forced to face-off against ... Medusa.


Despite the awesomeness of the above shot, it's still a jarring addition to the show's mythos. They refer to it as a gorgon and even mention Greek mythology, so it's not like its inclusion exists in a total void, but still – it's incredibly strange.

Also thrown into the mix is the symbol of Ouroboros (why not?) and the Shofur Horn (that Henry just had lying around somewhere?) and even a little bit of Indiana Jones/Arthurian Legend when it comes to Abbie being forced to pull the right sword out of the stone and facing dire snake-related consequences if she fails (I was waiting for someone to say "she chose...poorly" but it never happened).

Abbie comes up with the idea to lure the Horseman down into the cave to fight the gorgon, arguing that it can't affect him since he doesn't have eyes to see with, but soon enough Abraham turns his attention to Ichabod. He finally gets the chance to say something halfway interesting, namely that he was meant to be the hero of this tale, not its villain, and though it soon dissolves into a pissing contest over Katrina, the close proximity and intense staring of the sword-fighting that ensues no doubt made a million slash-fans perk up in newfound interest.

There is some neat editing here, in which their battle is intercut with previous fights between the two of them (though oddly, not the definitive one that ended both their lives) but there just hasn't been enough tension built-up between the two of them for any of this to have any real resonance. Ichabod is finally at Abraham's mercy, but Henry sounds the shofur and Abraham just trots out of there. It's so contrived that it wraps all the way back around from "painful" to "eh, there's only three minutes left", and Ichabod and Abbie turn their attention to finding the sword.  

At this point I should say that throughout all this Ichabod has been haunted by the phrase "know thyself", which feels like an attempt to provide something insightful and profound about his characterization, but is the sort of self-indulgent navel gazing that can best be summed up (as ever) by Abbie's face:


The problem is not only that Abbie is completely left out of this "know thyself" narrative, but that it feels too heavy handed. From the opening game of "guess who?" between the Witnesses, to the myriad of flashbacks that are presumably meant to track Ichabod's path toward his destiny, to the lengthy monologues on Who He Really Is, you could feel the authorial fiat at work. The whole thing didn't really feel like anything that Ichabod would internally explore on his own; instead it was just something he had to comment on because it was in that week's script.

They eventually discover the sword's hiding place, but since extracting it involves teamwork it feels rather odd that only Ichabod gets to reach into the pillar and Excalibur it out of there. Shouldn't there be two swords? Or one sword that could be split into two? (see Da Vinci's Demons for an example).

Still, it's a fairly stirring moment, ruined only by Tom Mison's choice of expression:

Dude, it's just a sword.

Meanwhile, the B-plot has dealt with Jenny and Irving trying to make it to the Canadian border. Nothing much happens except when they reach a police stop-point and there's an hilarious moment in which Irving decides to bail out and Jenny patiently informs him that she can't slow down or it'll look suspicious so he'll just have to dive out of a moving vehicle.

Then he foregoes meeting up with her and instead opts to go bush – though I was left wondering if that was really him on the phone or if the forces of darkness are playing some other game.

Miscellaneous Observations:

We did at least learn that demons in this world are – as according to Biblical lore – fallen angels. A lot of shows (Buffy and Charmed spring to mind) present demons more like a destructive and dangerous species rather than an army of spirits that rebelled against the Almighty.

As disappointing as Abraham is without his head, I loved the shot in which Henry turns from the mirror (which reflects Abraham's face) to the door (where he stands headless).


Katrina is so much more interesting in the opening credits: raising the trees, running through the mist, glancing shifty-eyed off-screen. Why can't we have THAT character?

And she just left that bottle of poison lying around for Henry to find it? Worst spy EVER.

Abbie, you could rope in the Horseman to kill the gorgon for you, or you could just take a cue from mythology and take down a large mirror. The Ancient Greeks had this conundrum sorted out.

And hey, Pestilence is back! After being missing since last season, he's now back in the back. Who will he turn out to be? Abbie's long-lost father? Ichabod's disinherited nephew? Some guy who was fined for not returning his library books and is now really bitter about it?
And when's the fourth one turning up? Famine? Can't have an apocalypse without four Horsemen.
 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: A Christmas Carol

On Friday night I took my first sip of Christmas spirit by attending the Royal New Zealand Ballet's performance of A Christmas Carol at the Isaac Theatre Royal. This made it quite an emotional experience as the theatre was all but destroyed in the 2011 earthquake, and has been painstakingly rebuilt and restored in the intervening years. Walking in for the first time, I could still smell the fresh paint on the walls.


And the performance itself was wonderful. The RNZB is filled with extremely talented dancers, but everything – the lighting, costumes, music – was brilliant, all the more so because you could sense the crew's joy at having a proper venue to work in once again.

A Christmas Carol is indisputably the most famous fictional Christmas story of them all, adapted and updated dozens of times. Its potency is based in its simplicity: a stingy miser learns the error of his ways when confronted by three spirits who show him glimpses of past, present and future. All the best stories have very simple hearts, and the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is as straightforward a redemption tale as they come.


What's more, the story is very short. This ballet was divided by two intervals and the whole thing just flew by, even with a significant amount of what can best be described as padding (though without the negative connotations). On the way home from work, Bob Cratchit stops to dance with a few locals in a scene that had no real purpose beyond giving the dancers a chance to play around on a makeshift slide.

The highlight of the production was the depiction of the three spirits: Past as a white-clad girl (just eerie enough to come across as ethereal rather than angelic), Present as a flamboyant, glitter-throwing cross between Rum Tum Tugger from Cats and Anne Rice's Lestat, and Yet To Come as a truly terrifying spectre of death. I was expecting the skull-face, but not the large ragged wings, the result of which left me shocked that no child in the audience started crying.

I took this from the programme. Just imagine
it dancing around the stage.

The choreography for the spirits was a little strange, for in order to convey otherworldliness they each frequently favoured a movement that looked a little like the "fake drowning" manoeuvre (you know, when a dancer holds their nose and wriggles down to the floor – only in this case, without the nose-holding) or a child waving their arms and swaying back and forth like a ghost. You can see Past doing it in the trailer below at 0.16:


(It's very brief, but there was a lot of it going on).

It was an interesting technique, one that I wasn't entirely sold on, but they were otherwise the highpoint of the show. In particular, Past's dramatic appearance in Scrooge's window earned an audible "ooh" from the audience.

There were lots of little details that I appreciated: the ringing of the single bell that starts the haunting, the clinking of chains as Marley approaches, the nice bit of prop-work as Scrooge's tombstone emerges from his bed during the climactic scene. They were all small but evocative bits featured in the novel, and including them here made it feel like a really thoughtful adaptation.

Other highlights involved the clumsy antics of the Fezziwigs as they tried to keep up with the younger members of their dance party (it must be so difficult for a dancer to convey clumsiness when you've been trained in the art of gracefulness), and Tiny Tim who sings How Far Is It To Bethlehem? without being nauseating (Dickens was notorious for his love of the Littlest Cancer Patient).

The writhing agony of the restless spirits looked like something out of a zombie uprising/rave (again, I'm surprised there was no crying children in the audience) and a lovely sequence in which Scrooge tries to implore his younger self to reconcile with his fiancée, only for the opportunity to pass him by.

So it was a great night out. One of my favourite landmark buildings is back, the Christmas spirit is welling up (next I take my nephew to the Santa Parade) and I got to revisit an old Christmas favourite.

The famous domed roof

The inevitable red curtains

My terrible attempt at a selfie on the main staircase

 

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Legend of Korra: Remembrance

A clip show? Really?

My initial irritation was somewhat tempered when I became aware of Bryan Konietzko's explanation, as posted on his Tumblr:

Sometime around a year and a half ago we were similarly duped on a large scale. We got the news from the higher-ups that our Book 4 budget was getting slashed, almost to the tune of an entire episode’s budget. We had two options: 1) let go a significant number of crew members several weeks early, or 2) make a clips episode. We never considered the first option. We weren’t going to do that to our crew, and even if we were callous enough to do so, we never would have been able to finish the season without them.

Given that they had little choice in the matter, I concede that this episode was a necessary evil. Being placed at the mid-point of the season even helped re-establish some of the characters, their positions and their short/long terms goals, setting us up for the final stretch.


Trailer: Cinderella

Another day, another big screen fairy tale adaptation. Hollywood still hasn't relinquished its  fascination with the genre, for Cinderella follows on the heels of Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty (or rather, Maleficent) and not one but two takes on Snow White. But unlike those other adaptations, which strove to deconstruct or subvert the source material, this feel (and certainly looks) like a fairly straightforward rendering of the classic Rags To Riches story.



I'm rather amused that the trailer isn't even bothering to pretend that you don't know this entire story back to front. The whole plot is laid out on a platter for you: that our protagonist's mother dies, that her father remarries, that her step-family is cruel, that she's nicknamed Cinderella, that she's prevented from going to the ball, that her fairy godmother makes it happen, that a prince falls in love with her, and that there are glass slippers involved.

I mean, no surprises here. It's the familiarity of the tale that they're trying to sell, with a few design flourishes to catch your attention. There's a whimsical aesthetic going on, especially in the deliberate garishness of the step-families' outfits and the fairy godmother wearing something that appears modelled on Glinda the Good Witch's massive frock.

However, between the ooh-ahh music and Hayley Atwell's sound-bites, they certainly aren't shy about slathering on the sentimentality. It reaches maximum glurge at some points, so hopefully it's a side-effect of the trailer that'll be considerably toned down in the film itself.  

And then there's Lily James as Cinderella. I'm well aware that when it comes to acting ability young actresses are held to much higher standards than any other gender or age group in the industry (it's almost a given that if you're attractive, it's assumed you got by on your looks as opposed to any actual talent), and that playing the embodiment of sweetness and light is probably the most difficult role anyone could ever tackle.

That said, she does come across a little bland here. The problem with Cinderella is that (like most fairytale heroines) she's entirely passive, caught in a story that often boils down to: "women are bitches, so go find a nice man who will help you escape from them."

I'll admit, "my" version of Cinderella will always be Ever After, a film that I've come to appreciate more and more as the years go by. Drew Barrymore has made some questionable career choices (anything involving Adam Sandler), but Ever After proved that she was a solid actress, one who gave Danielle intelligence, kindness, spunk and vulnerability without ever tipping her too far in any one direction. You could see why the prince was smitten with her, but at the same time she never feels like anything other than an ordinary, sweet-natured, well-read young woman.  

The film did well in combining a sense of realism with an ornate fairy tale atmosphere, and it alleviated the underlying subtext of catty girls/honourable prince by surrounding Danielle with supportive female companions, including at least one pleasant step-sister. (Of course, they also turned the fairy godmother into Leonardo da Vinci, so perhaps it all evens out).

But one particular line in this trailer sticks out: "You have more kindness in your little finger than most people possess in their whole body." So says Cinderella's mother to her daughter on her deathbed.

As it happens, I think kindness is the single most important attribute any human being can possess. It's also one of the most difficult things in the world to portray on screen or in writing, all the more so since the rise of the anti-hero has resulted in goodness being equated with dullness or self-righteousness in the minds of an audience.

For example, throughout Snow White and the Huntsman a variety of characters speak ad nauseam about the abundance of inner kindness that Snow White has.  Yet what appears on-screen is a just reasonably nice young woman. Not a bad person by any means, but hardly a paragon of goodness, and what acts of kindness she does render aren't anything that any other half-way decent human being wouldn't be capable of achieving.

Depictions of kindness on-screen usually have to be conjoined with acts of bravery if they're to have any sort of impact. Little gestures and pleasant words are basic indicators of good manners, but they're not difficult to perform, and they can just as easily be used by manipulative people toward evil ends. It's only when compassion spurs a person to take risks or endanger themselves or extract some sort of personal toll that an audience can be properly impressed by the trait of kindness.

Kindness is also something that can't happen in isolation, even though loneliness is an essential part of what makes the Cinderella story possible (there are no other relations to take her in). But kindness involves at least two participants: one to give and one to receive. This is something the Disney film resolved by making Cinderella's mouse friends anthropomorphic, complete with clothes and speech, so that she might have companions to extend her friendship to.

There's also the trouble of equating kindness with passivity, for most depictions of Cinderella show her suffering nobly under the yoke of her stepmother, quietly absorbing her verbal abuse, too good to raise her voice or fight back. And that runs the risk of making her a pushover, especially since she takes no real affirmative action throughout the course of the story. Ever After recognised that being angry was not the same thing as being bad, and added a scene in which Danielle is finally pushed to the brink of tolerance and delivers a well-deserved punch to her step-sister's face.

Where am I going with all this babbling? Only that in having made a statement that Cinderella is kindness personified, I hope the film finds a way to a) depict this in a way that goes beyond feeding pet mice, and b) makes it one facet of a much more nuanced personality. For as harmlessly sweet as Lily James is as Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey, she doesn't seem to do much in this trailer besides cry and gasp.

PROVE ME WRONG, movie.

P.S. If you want a story in which a girl's active and consistent kindness impacts the plot in extraordinary ways; kindness that is a challenge to extend but born out of genuine empathy toward others, please track down Meredith Anne Pierce's The Darkangel. It's a problematic book in a number of ways, and one day I'll write that giant meta I've always been meaning to do, but in terms of how to use kindness as a character virtue that has a deep and abiding effect on the plot, no other novel I've read has done it better.

P.P.S. Wow, this post ended in a very different place from where it started. I was just going to briefly comment on a trailer...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Sleepy Hollow: Mama

I said last week that I'd review this episode for the sake of the Mills girls, but given that the promo for next week announced it as the fall finale, I guess I'll hang in there for that one as well. This show has been skating on thin ice for a while now, but Mama helped raise the calibre a tad.

It's the long-awaited Mama Mills episode, in which light is finally shone on Abbie and Jenny's mysterious mother. It's been established in a previous episode that she committed suicide, but as far back as season one the audience knew that there was something pertinent to be discovered concerning Lori Mills's fate.


Horror and madness have always been bedfellows, no doubt born out of several thousand years of undiagnosed mental illnesses being interpreted as demonic possession. Gothic literature rests on the thin line between insanity and unexplained phenomena, and the Bedlam House is a staple part of any long-running supernaturally-themed TV show. Heck, I'm currently re-watching Penny Dreadful and an entire episode is devoted to a character's stint in a madhouse as she struggles with her very real brush with the demonic.

One thing is for certain: there is no such thing as mental illness in the horror genre. It is always the work of demons. That crazy lady whispering about monsters and dangers and ensuing death? BELIEVE HER.

So it's no surprise that Tarrytown Psychiatric has been a recurring location in Sleepy Hollow, and in this episode Sheriff Reyes puts Abbie in charge of an investigation into a string of suicides at the facility.

Abbie enlists Jenny, which is great. After all, her sister spent several years there. Unfortunately, Ichabod is put on comic-relief duty by wandering in and out of frame with a terrible head-cold. Which means that instead of replacing Jenny, you-know-who is called in to replace Ichabod. Why make Hawley a witness (no pun intended) to the sisters' trauma instead of the co-lead that has deeply established ties with both of them? No idea. Hawley is like fetch. Stop trying to make fetch happen, writers.

As it happens, Lori Mills killed herself in this hospital, and it doesn't take too much digging for the sisters to discover her presence on one of the security videos, apparently goading one a patient into hanging himself.


So the question that lies at the heart of this episode is: what's really going on here? Jenny is considerably more unsettled by the reappearance of their mother's spirit than Abbie is, and flashbacks soon demonstrate why. Growing up with her was a fraught experience in which the girls were ordered to repeat a mantra: "eyes open, head up, trust no one," which in turn explains so much about their current-day attitudes. Abbie took her mother's words to heart and lied about the incident in the woods; Jenny reached out for help by telling the truth and got thrown in Tarrytown Psychiatric as a result.  

Ironically, the fact that Abbie fully believed her mother's words about not trusting anyone means that she later got to be pleasantly surprised by the presence of people in her life that she can trust. On the other hand, Jenny got burned by trusting, and has a much more standoffish personality as a result.

Furthermore, Abbie grew up honestly believing that her mother was suffering from a mental illness and living in terror that she too would be thrown in the psychiatric ward. Jenny believed that her mother was being tormented by very-real demons and tried to share that truth with others. And all this informs their behaviour when Lori's spirit reappears: Abbie is eager and curious; Jenny is point-blank terrified.

Of course, we also learn that the last time Jenny saw her mother she was being dragged away by orderlies and that she's got a suppressed memory of Lori trying to kill them both in the car. So between Abbie's commitment to the greater good and Jenny's awareness of a side to Lori that even Abbie isn't fully cognisant of, both sisters quickly come to the conclusion that if Lori is behind these suicides, she needs to be stopped.

Taking notes, Ichabod?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she isn't responsible for the deaths, but is in fact trying to help. Instead the Villain of the Week is a fairly superficial and obviously red-flagged nurse who hovers conspicuously on the edges of the story before being identified as a long-dead "angel of death" who would goad her patients into killing themselves out of a misguided sense of mercy. Lori Mills appears to guide her daughters toward yet another MacGuffin that will banish the ghost/spirit/demon/whatever. In this case it's a journal of spells that's been passed down from generation to generation – you know the drill.

Jenny reads the incantation and Nurse Lambert is duly destroyed just before she completes her usual methods of persuasion on Abbie. It's...rather perfunctory. Honestly, was hoping that this would end up being a pivotal episode in regards to the show's underlying mythology, and though I'm happy that the Mills sisters' got some long-overdue focus, it still feels like a standalone episode.

Questions remain about how much Lori actually knew about Abbie's role as a Witness and what exactly the demons were attempting to make her do (the scene with her and Jenny in the car was perhaps the most harrowing sequence of the episode – but how much was that Lori's plan and how much was it the demons whispering in her ear?)

So it's best to focus on what Mama reveals about Abbie and Jenny; their strengths and weaknesses, and their give and take with each other. Jenny for example, can barely bring herself to watch the recording of her mother's session, and yet in other ways she's the stronger of the two. I suspect that Nurse Lambert targeted Abbie as her victim was because Jenny has already faced down so many demons that she would be impervious to persuasion.

After all, Abbie coped in her adult life because she didn't believe in the supernatural. All this is still new to her, which in turn makes her more vulnerable.


But of course, the sisters come out on top, with a bonus séance to say goodbye to their mother properly. The scene in which they tear down the wall together (symbolism!) to reveal the pictures their mother had drawn of them was beautiful, and I'm glad the director devoted so much time to it.

***

Meanwhile, over in OH WHO CARES ville, Henry introduces Katrina to a newborn baby that he apparently just ... found ... somewhere? Seriously, he pretty much says: "What, this baby? Oh, I just found him and brought him here. For reasons." Super-spy Katrina is tricked into holding him, and he chows down on her shoulder (???) which later tips her off as to its demonic nature. She comes up with a potion of some kind (I thought Fredericks Manor was spelled to prevent her from doing magic) only to find that the newborn is now a seven year old.

In theory, there's plenty of potential to be mined in a story involving a mother attempting to draw her twisted adult son back to the side of good, but everything to do with Henry/Katrina isn't a plot born out of the characters, but a plot that involves the characters doing whatever's required of them.


And then, in what I'm going to pretend was the final scene because it was so much better than what was actually the final scene, Irving literally busts himself out of his terrible subplot (and the woods) to stash himself in the boot of Abbie's car. It's awesome.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Despite the subject matter, there were still a few glitches here and there. The cold opening, which ends with Abbie and Jenny seeing their mother's image on the security tape, felt too casual and quick. They needed more than a jump-cut to the opening credits to really absorb that moment.

The fact that Abbie has been dreaming of Purgatory for a week, wandering around some ruins and being confronted by her mother, makes me wish for the umpteenth time that the season premiere had paced itself and allowed for more of Abbie's experiences in Purgatory. If this interaction with Lori Mills had happened in "real time", there would have been more of a satisfying build-up to this episode.  

This show used to be quite good at adding bits of realism to weigh down the supernatural hijinks – and so it was all the more grating that there appeared to be no added security measures taken at the hospital after a string of suicides. Come on!

Anyone else find it odd that in a story involving a villain forcing her victims to swallow psychotropic drugs, there was a joke based on Hawley spiking Ichabod's food to make him sleep? I'm not sure how self-aware this was, or what we're meant to take from it.

 

Odd that Jenny didn't recognise – or rather, not recognise – Nurse Lambert. Perhaps she just assumed she was a new staff member.

A nice bit of continuity concerning Katrina still being a point of contention between the two Witnesses. Ichabod immediately got shirty when Abbie questioned her.

It was a shame that the set designers didn't think to put that old doll house in the flashback with the Mills sisters as little girls. I was actually peering over their shoulders, looking for it.
 
In all, a pretty good episode, though it doesn't feel as integral as I had hoped it would be. There was a lot of dark stuff here (suicide, drug abuse, the ambiguous relationship between medication and demonic forces), but also plenty of juicy backstory to unpack in regards to Jenny's devotion to the truth and Abbie's until-recent emotional walls. There was also a subtle commentary on the difference between giving up and fighting on – that is, one does not necessarily negate the other.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Exploring Tropes: Gondor Calls For Aid

Meet Mary Anne.


She's up against a series of insurmountable obstacles that she knows she can't possibly overcome all on her own. She's in desperate need of assistance, and with no other options available to her she sends out a distress signal, hoping against hope that it'll be answered.

Of course, there's every chance her allies may not show up. It might have been a while since she's seen them. They might have no real incentive to come. They might be completely unprepared, or out of reach, or too afraid.

But then, just when things are at their worst; when all seems lost – the call is answered. Help arrives. The day is saved.

Gondor Calls For Aid is named for (obviously) the famous scene in The Lord of the Rings when the besieged Gondor reaches out to Rohan for reinforcements.

What's so great about this trope? Oh come on, you don't need me to spell it out. There's something deeply moving about a plea for assistance that's answered. It's a trope that inevitably features people who are willing to put their lives on the line (or at least their time and energy) in the name of altruism, compassion and the greater good.

And as a storytelling device, there's really no end to the suspense you can milk out of it. "Gondor" can be anything from a country to an individual, and the assistance that's required anything from financial aid to military support. Heck, it could involve a girl getting ready for prom, the hairdresser calling in sick, and said girl ringing up all her friends for help in styling her hair. Not particularly epic, but still heart-warming.

But there is room for plenty of interesting variations in the use of Gondor Calls For Aid, and below are six of the most illustrative examples. (Which also happen to be six of my favourite examples. What an amazing coincidence!)

1. The Beacons of Minas Tirith from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Well, obviously. It's the trope-namer. But I do need to specify that I'll be discussing how it plays out in Peter Jackson's film rather than Tolkien's trilogy. As ill-advised as some elements of the films were, occasionally Jackson managed to expand, explore or illuminate aspects of the novels in ways that elevated the source material. One such instance was using the beacons of Minas Tirith to fashion a stirring sequence that combined New Zealand's landscape with Howard Shore's wonderful score and trilogy's overarching theme of unity and camaraderie.


The beacons barely register in the book itself, summed up in a single page:

Gandalf cried aloud to his horse. "On Shadowfax! We must hasten. Time is short. See! The beacons of Gondor are alight, calling for aid. War is kindled. See, there is the fire on Amon Din, and flame on Eilenach; and there they go speeding west: Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad, and the Halifirien on the borders of Rohan."

Pippin became drowsy again and paid little attention to Gandalf telling him of the customs of Gondor, and how the Lord of the City had beacons built on the tops of outlying hills along both borders of the great range, and maintained at these points where fresh horses were always in readiness to bear his errand-riders to Rohan in the North, or to Belfalas in the South.

The call for aid has gone out long before Gandalf and Pippin even reach Gondor, but the film cleverly choses to reconfigure events in order to make Gandalf and Pippin responsible for the lighting of the first beacon.

Here's the setup: Gandalf and Pippin have arrived in the city of Minas Tirith, only to find that its army is underprepared and horribly outnumbered by the forces amassing on its borders. They need reinforcements, and quickly, but the Stewart of the King, Lord Denethor, is proving himself to be extremely stubborn. Wracked with grief over the death of his son Boromir, he sees no point in mustering the Rohirrim.


I'm not fond of the film's depiction of Denethor, changing him from a fallible and desperate man to a straight-up villain (or near enough), but he does serve to throw a wrench in Gandalf's plans, leading to the old wizard sending Pippin up the nearest watch-tower in order to light the first beacon. From there, the audience sees the chain reaction that follows...  


Why does it work so well? A lot of Jackson's controversial creative decisions had pay-off that more or less justified the liberties taken with Tolkien's work. In the case of Denethor, his obstinacy provides the impetus for Pippin to light the beacons, as well as a contrast to Theoden, giving the audience a chance to see the leadership qualities on both ends of the beacons.


Likewise, Theoden’s initial unwillingness to aid Gondor, citing its lack of support in assisting Rohan, culminates in the moment where Aragorn rushes into the hall, crying: “Gondor calls for aid!” and Theoden replies: “And Rohan will answer.” You gotta admit, that’s a great moment.


But between Pippen’s actions and Theoden’s response are the beacons themselves. This sequence was a perfect blend of score, scenery and emotional resonance. It's strange to talk about mountains and beacons as having "emotional resonance", and yet it's there: in the way the fires light up one after the other, in the implication that all the men along the way were still holding vigil at their posts, in the beauty of the land that’s being fought for, and the knowledge that each beacon is part of a greater whole.


It was like Middle Earth itself was being roused and reaching out for the tools it needed to save itself – a great line of light that stretched from one stronghold to another, and a glorious visual metaphor of the relationship between Gondor and Rohan.

It's the trope-namer for a reason.

2. Buffy rallying the Class of '99 in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Ah, season three. The most perfect season of television that has ever existed. I'm not kidding. Even shows that have only thirteen episodes per season can be relied upon to contain a few duds, but season three of Buffy had twenty-two consecutive gems. Each episode stood strongly on its own, yet each added a bit more detail to the overarching plot, all culminating in one of the most satisfying season finales in the show's history.

If any other show has managed to beat (or even meet) that record, it's one that I haven't watched.


Here's the setup: The Mayor has been preparing for the Ascension; a ceremony that will see him transformed into the demon Olvikan. Gradually Buffy and the Scooby Gang have pieced together enough information to know what to expect, but they're still woefully unprepared for the battle ahead. After all, there's only five of them (give or take a few) and Olvikan is a pure-blooded demon that will feast on the graduating students with a power and strength the world hasn't seen in centuries.

Because, oh yeah, the Mayor is making the commencement speech. Graduation and Ascension will be one and the same. The demon is unstoppable. There's no one Buffy can turn to. She doesn't have an army.

Or does she...?

The solution is right in front of her. The Class of '99 will be her army, and Buffy sends out her call for aid by having Xander and Willow approach various students and bring them up to speed on what's going to happen. There are appearances from long-time recurring characters such as Harmony, Jonathan, Larry and Percy, and come Graduation Day the entire class watches in horror (but not surprise) as the Mayor morphs into a giant snake-like demon right before them.

Then Buffy yells "NOW!" and the class whip off their graduation robes to reveal that each and every one of them is armed to the teeth. And the battle begins...





Why does it work so well? Back in those Halcyon Days of the nineties before I had overdosed on TV tropes, the sight of Sunnydale High's student body arming themselves to fight a giant demon left me genuinely flabbergasted.

Despite the significant amount of foreshadowing that's put into the lead-up to battle, it's the unexpected nature of this particular Gondor Calls For Aid that makes it so memorable – because all things considered, it really does break the rules of the genre.

It is a truth universally accepted that any community situated on top of a supernatural magnet must be populated by residents with blinkers on their eyes. But across the course of season three, there were a number of hints that suggested perhaps Sunnydale's residents were not as wilfully blind as the genre has led us to believe. Most obviously, Buffy's peers award her with a "Class Protector" award at the Senior Prom in recognition of her heroic deeds. It's a heart-warming moment – and it's also foreshadowing.



Evil exists where people refuse to look; it festers when we ignore it. In this case the Mayor believed he had an edge on the student body because they didn't know (or care) about the demonic underground in Sunnydale. But Buffy calls for aid in the very last place you'd expect it, and the genius of this particular use of the trope is that the Class of '99 don't just throw off their robes at the Graduation Ceremony, they throw off their blinkers as well, and in doing so become a bigger threat than the Mayor ever thought they could be.



3. The Twilight Bark from 101 Dalmatians

101 Dalmatians is not a film you would immediately expect to make use of the Gondor Calls For Aid trope – after all, there are no wars, no armies, no dark lords. But it does thanks to one of my absolute favourite concepts to exist in any story, ever: the Twilight Bark.

In watching the film for the first time in years, I was struck by just how unusually it's structured. The first thirteen minutes are devoted to a meetcute between Roger and Anita, the owners of Dalmatians Pongo and Perdita. Twenty-seven minutes pass before Cruella's infamous silhouette appears at the doorway, thirty before the puppies are stolen, and forty-five by the time the rescue mission gets underway. It's at this point that the trope is kicked into high-gear, and it's the story's finest element.

Here's the setup: Pongo and Perdita are heartbroken when their litter of fifteen puppies is dog-napped, and they soon realize that their "pets" Roger and Anita are helpless in ensuring their safe return. Pongo decides to take matters into his own hands paws by utilizing "The Twilight Bark" in an attempt to find news of their missing puppies.


Although Perdita initially dismisses it as a "gossip chain", Pongo's frantic barking during his evening walk eventually reaches Danny the Great Dane at Hampstead ... who barks his message to the dogs of London ... which eventually reaches Towser the bloodhound in the countryside ... who passes it on to the sheepdog Colonel in an old farmhouse that's adjacent to Hell Hall, where the terrible Cruella de Vil is keeping the stolen puppies (and plenty more) locked away.


Thanks to this unique mode of communication, Pongo's distress signal reaches the animals that have not only noticed strange behaviour in Hell Hall, but who are in the best position to offer immediate aid to the endangered puppies. More than that, once Pongo and Perdita are reunited with their puppies, the chain of dogs connected to the Twilight Bark continues to keep open the lines of communication so that the family is given the help they need on their journey home.


Why does it work so well? Well, for a lot of reasons really. First of all, the Twilight Bark is just a really cool idea. We've all heard dogs barking or howling to each other in the evening, and clearly Dodie Smith (the original book author) not only wondered to herself: "what are they saying to each other?" but also expanded the idea into the question: "how could such a method of communication be employed in a story?"


It's always fun when fiction can offer a different perspective on the mundane, and as someone who is regularly irritated by the barking of dogs in my neighbourhood, it occasionally helps to assume they're sending important messages to each other.


Secondly, the conceit allows for the plot to leave protagonists Pongo and Perdita and expand all over London and into the countryside. The audience is put into the exciting position of being witness to the entire chain of communication, which includes a few cameos from Lady and the Tramp, several of the dogs that featured in the film's opening sequence, and a variety of other animals that get in on the act – horses and cats, cows and geese.


Some characters have only small – even tiny – roles to play in the rescue effort. Take Towser and Lucy for example:


They have only two scenes, and they never even interact with the Pongo family at any point, yet they're still an essential component in passing intelligence back and forth. Later the Collie and the Labrador (who aren't even given names!) offer shelter and a ride home respectively, before slipping from the action.

Think back to that scene in which the beacons of Minas Tirith are lit all along the mountain range. Each one is essential to success, yet we never learn anything about the men and women who are stationed at each isolated location. Yet 101 Dalmatians makes a point of humanizing (in a manner of speaking) many of the disparate animals that contribute to the rescue effort. The centrality of the trope allows for a host of colourful characters to pass in and out of the film, offering support and help where they're able, all giving the film a surprisingly epic scope.


The final reason why the Twilight Bark is so successful is that it plays out almost as a military operation, with the barking treated as an underground network of intelligence. As the Great Dane says: "if you need help, contact the barking chain, they'll be standing by". The participants are like radio operators, and the military connotations are certainly helped by the inclusion of characters called Captain, Sergeant Tibbs and the Colonel.

101 Dalmatians demonstrates how use of the Gondor Calls For Aid trope doesn't necessarily have to be either a minor element or a climactic finish – in can form the very crux of your story. In this case it allows for a wide range of characters to partake in heroic moments, whether it be Sergeant Tibbs the cat temporarily taking over from Pongo as protagonist when he helps the puppies escape, or the motherly cows that offer the hungry puppies milk from their udders when they stop to sleep in a barn. It illuminates the team effort that was involved in the rescue, and it provides a unique position for the audience to inhabit – after all, they are the only ones who can appreciate the full scope of the Twilight Bark.

And of course, it captures the heart-warming nature of any Gondor Calls For Aid example. Two bereaved parents put out a cry for help, and enough dogs care enough to pass on the message and offer help in their time of need – including ones that they never even meet.

4. The Clapping Scene from Peter Pan

You know what's fun? Audience participation! The best part of any Peter Pan production is the moment Peter turns to the audience and asks for their help in saving Tinkerbell's life. Gondor calls for aid and YOU are the one that has to provide it. All you have to do is believe in fairies and clap!

The story of Peter Pan has quite a complicated history. He first emerged in J.M. Barrie's The Little White Bird (1902), a book for adults that combines dark social satire with childlike whimsy and fantasy. The character next appeared in the stage play Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (1904), where he follows the familiar storyline of whisking the Darling children away to Neverland and fighting Captain Hook to the death.


Realizing the story's popularity, publishers took the relevant chapters from The White Bird and released them under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), before Barrie himself finally adapted the play into novel form in 1911 – originally published as Peter and Wendy, but now simply known as Peter Pan.

The variety of adaptations makes the original story (if there ever was such a thing) difficult to pin down. In 1924 Paramount Pictures released a silent film version, Disney put his own spin on the material in 1953, and a Broadway musical (later filmed) made its debut in 1960. The latest filmic version is 2003's Peter Pan, which might well be the closest we'll get to a faithful adaptation of Barrie's novel, though they couldn't resist adding a more overt love story between Peter and Wendy.  


Of course, the strange thing about this particular use of trope is how arbitrary is it. According to the story, fairies can be brought back to life with the power of belief, but the mechanics of the call itself goes unexplained (Neverland is the realm of childhood dreams, so presumably Peter has the ability to psychically communicate with those dreaming of it?) and on consideration the act of clapping is rather random. Is it meant to signal belief, to let Tinkerbell hear the demonstration, or does it have some life-regenerating power of its own?

We don't know; we're not meant to know. Given the story's roots as a theatre production, one suspects it was simply the easiest form of audience participation that Barrie could come up with. After all, if a play is any good, the audience is going to be applauding anyway.

But all subsequent adaptations of the story have had to grapple with this most famous of all scenes: Peter begging for help in saving Tinkerbell's life. How do you break the fourth wall in a movie or a book?

Here's the setup: Captain Hook has found Peter's hideaway and crept into the underground cavern where he discovers his nemesis sleeping soundly. Though he's too large to approach and finish him off with hook or sword, he finds he has enough room to reach out and pour poison into the medicine beside Peter's bed.

He leaves, but Tinkerbell overhears his muttering as he leaves through the forest and hurries to warn Peter. Disbelieving her, Peter raises the draught to his lips, only for Tink to throw herself between them and drink it herself.

It sounds dramatic and heart-rending, though Barrie has at least a little of his tongue in his cheek when he records what follows (and keep in mind that this was written after the stage play): "[Peter's] head almost filled the fourth wall of [Tink's] little room as he knelt near her in distress" and when he puts out the distress call: "Tink sat up in bed almost briskly to listen to her fate." The whole thing is over and done with in two pages:

"If you believe," he shouted. "Clap your hands; don’t let Tink die!"

Many clapped. Some didn't. A few little beasts hissed.

The clapping stopped suddenly, as if countless mothers had rushed to the nurseries to see what on earth was happening; but already Tink was saved. First her voice grew strong; then she popped out of bed; then she was flashing through the room more merry and impudent than ever. She never thought of thanking those who believed, but she would have liked to get at the ones who had hissed.

And that's it! The most memorable part of the stage play over and done with.

The television recording of the Broadway musical (which simply filmed the entire stage production) has Mary Martin peer straight into the camera to beseech the audience, whereas Disney avoids the issue entirely by replacing the poison with a bomb and restoring Tinkerbell to life through Peter's declarations of love.


But the 2003 film comes up with an ingenious solution to the problem, one that invites the audience to join in without addressing them directly, and which ends up being the most powerful sequence of the entire film. Building on the presumption that Neverland is a dream-world whose borders touch the minds of those in slumber, this version also establishes that its climate exists in synchronization with Peter's moods. When he's happy, the sun is shining. When he's absent, it begins to snow. When he's ecstatic, the aurora borealis appears in the sky. 

What's more, the film actually makes the effort to explicitly "weaponize" a person's belief (or disbelief) in fairies. When Hook wants to dispose of a fairy guide who has been commissioned to take Wendy and her brothers back to London, he simply sneaks up behind it and whispers: "there's no such thing as fairies." The fairy instantly drops down dead.

It's this carefully depicted web of cause-and-effect that gives Barrie's whimsy just the right amount of logic-based justification it needs to prevent the ensuing scene from being completely random. And so when Tinkerbell drinks the poison to save his life, Neverland is overcome with thunderstorms in the wake of Peter's grief. He crouches over her body in tears, but instead of imploring the audience to clap, he looks skyward and begins to chant instead.

Know what, I'll just let you watch the scene:


Admit it, you're whispering "I do believe in fairies" under your breath right now.

Why does it work so well? Turning to a live audience to partake in a real-time Gondor Calls For Aid is a great idea, though it poses a challenge when the time comes to translate it to page and screen. A variety of storytelling techniques are needed to convey it across three different mediums, and it's the creativity involved that puts it on this list.

In the 2003 film it all comes together beautifully, all the more so because it could have fallen misfired so terribly. That Wendy picks up on Peter's distress, that the pirates are infected by the power of the Lost Boys' chanting, that the call stretches to the sleeping inhabitants of London – the film-makers nailed an exceptionally difficult concept and the child actors poured their hearts into it, making something that could have been hideously Narmful into something truly magical.

5. Bedfall Falls rescues George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life

Ask anyone what It's a Wonderful Life is about and they'll say: "a guardian angel shows a desperate man what the world would be like if he'd never existed in order to demonstrate his true importance." Then they'd give you a strange look, as it's the most famous formula for a Christmas story of all time (well, maybe second to three ghosts turning up one Christmas Eve to tell an old miser how much he sucks).

And they'd be right in their summation – but only about the film's final twenty minutes. For one hour and forty minutes, the story has nothing whatsoever to do with the disturbing "alternate reality" that makes George Bailey regret his suicide attempt. Rewatching the movie for the sake of this entry, I was struck by how detailed and rich director Frank Capra's portrayal of George Bailey's life really is. There are dozens of beautiful shots that silently depict his trials:


As well as a few strange ones:


And so many lovely little details that are really only noticeable if you're paying close attention: that Mr Potter forces his guests to sit in a much smaller chair so he can glower at them, that Mary is constantly touching her stomach in the scene directly preceding her pregnancy announcement, and the banister knob in the Bailey household that continually pops off whenever George leans on it.

There are some dated elements (the only character of colour is the maid; Mary's dire fate in the alt!world is to be an unmarried librarian, and because of regulation codes, most of the kissing can best be described as "passionate face-smushing") and some leaps of logic (for some reason George's absence in the alt!world not only has an impact on his nearest and dearest, but also the state of the weather) but there's a reason it's considered such a beloved Christmas classic, and that hinges on the resolution: one of the most heart-warming uses of Gondor Calls For Aid ever.

Here's the setup: George Bailey is a young man with big dreams. He's going to study at university, travel the world, become a famous architect, and make something of himself. And yet every time a golden opportunity presents itself, he refuses it. His university education, his around-the-world cruise, even his Bermuda honeymoon – he gives it all up for the greater good.

The film takes its sweet time in depicting George's entire life: his childhood, youth, marriage, career and fatherhood, and by the time the famous "intervention" takes place, he's looking back over his life in a state of deep despair. His absent-minded uncle has misplaced eight thousand dollars of the Building and Loan's cash funds and now they both face bankruptcy and jail. In desperation, George goes to miserly banker Mr Potter for a loan, only to be mocked thoroughly in a diatribe that culminates in: "you're worth more dead than alive."

Believing that everyone would be better off without him, George contemplates throwing himself off a bridge, but having been brought back to his senses by his angel's involvement, returns home to discover that every man and woman he's ever helped over the years have emptied their pockets to collectively replace the missing money.


Why does it work so well? It can be a risk devoting so much time to setup. The longer it lasts the bigger the pay-off has to be. But when it's done correctly, when the pay-off justifies the lengthy setup – then it can be magnificent. By the time Clarence the guardian angel takes a direct hand in setting George's life back on course, we know this man inside and outside – his hopes and dreams, his frustrations and fears, his strength and kindness.

And as it happens, there are actually two examples of Gondor Calls For Aid here. Technically George himself is this film's Gondor, and it's his prayers (and the prayers of all the good people of Bedford Falls) that get the attention of none other than Saint Joseph and God Himself. Calling for aid doesn't get much loftier than that.

But the other example is a lovely variation on the trope, considering it's Mary Bailey who calls for aid on her husband's behalf, rendering the final few minutes of the film as surprising to him as it is for us. And consider what's at stake here: not the freedom of a city or the fate of the universe, but simply the life of one good man.

It's proof that this trope doesn’t have to be rooted in an "epic" scenario to be effective. It's the act of generosity and sacrifice and good will that makes it so powerful, not the setting or circumstances.

6. Activating the Phone Tree in Practical Magic

This movie is terrible, and I love it dearly. My affection for it is based entirely on nostalgia (every girl who lived through the nineties went through a witch phase) which grows as every year passes.


Like I said, it's not good by any means (though I recommend the book by Alice Hoffman), largely because it's an uncomfortable blend of romantic-comedy and supernatural thriller with an obnoxiously chipper soundtrack. It doesn't know what it wants to be, and most of the time you're sitting there shouting "pick a damn tone already!"

But it has a low-key Gondor Calls For Aid that's worth including here.

Here's the setup: The Owens women have been persecuted in their small Massachusetts town for generations on suspicion of being a family of witches. This includes Sally and Gillian Owen, bullied as children and ostracized as adults for their unusual family legacy.

Gillian eventually takes off, but years later calls her sister for help in escaping her abusive boyfriend Jimmy Angelov. The sisters end up spiking his drink and accidentally overdosing him on belladonna in a bid to escape, leaving them with a dead body on their hands. After an ill-fated attempt to raise him from the dead, they end up burying him in the backyard – which only results in a restless and malevolent spirit haunting the property.


Gillian is eventually possessed by him (just go with it) and the Owens family realize that they need a full coven of twelve women to exorcise him. As such, Sally Owens reaches out to the entire neighbourhood by activating what's known as "the phone tree". This is a parents' hotline in which one mother is chosen by her peers to be at the top of the pecking order when it comes to raising the alarm for snow days or other important announcements. She calls the second woman on the list, who then calls the third, and so on and so forth until everyone is informed.

Why does it work so well? Okay, let's be honest. There's very little about this sequence that makes a lot of sense. After several centuries of fearing, hating and gossiping about the Owens women, it takes only a phone call and a confession of witchcraft for a dozen or so women to turn up at the house and cheerfully partake in a magical exorcism. And the strangest thing is how twee it all feels, given that they're all trying to purge an evil spirit from a terrified woman.


But the reason why I'm including it on this list is because that in a movie filled with magic and ghosts, the use of this trope is entirely mundane. Gondor Calling For Aid is a woman ringing people on the phone. There's no barking, no beacons, no psychic screaming into the void. It's just not that big a deal. Gondor Calls For Aid doesn't have to be, and Sally could have just as easily rang all these women separately.

Thing is, it's also nicely and unexpectedly foreshadowed. Earlier in the film we're introduced to the concept of the phone tree, which is really just an excuse for a popularity contest over the ranking order. It's treated as a pretty deal, so naturally Gillian crashes the meeting and magically ensures that Sally ends up on the top of the list – a trick that pays off by the film's conclusion. What initially feels like a throwaway gag is actually a Chekhov's Gun waiting to be fired.

***
So there we have it; six of the best examples of Gondor Calls For Aid, each one comprised of three distinct components: a desperate need for help, the act/means of requesting that help, and the eventual arrival of assistance.

I think what's important to stress is that though the trope name naturally calls up images of warfare, it can often have quite modest trappings. Though the stakes should be quite high (all but one of the above examples has someone's life at risk, and even the one that doesn’t involves the possibility of a man going to jail for a significant amount of time) the nature of the aid that's required and the way in which that aid is requested needn't be too epic in scope.

The Lord of the Rings required a line of beacons across a mountain range, whereas Practical Magic utilized a simple phone tree. 101 Dalmatians had a line-up of dogs barking messages to and fro, whilst It's a Wonderful Life had Mary Bailey set out and spur the neighbourhood into action.  Peter Pan simply breaks through the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. It's in this space, in the actual act of calling for help that you can let your creativity run wild.

There's also the placement of this trope within any given story. In The Lord of the Rings it is a plot-point, designed to get certain characters where they need to go. In 101 Dalmatians it's a device that allows the plot to actually happen, by providing information and aid to its protagonists. In Buffy the Vampire the trope comes as a surprise – although there are hints, the full nature of Buffy's call isn't revealed until the climax; that goes the same for It's a Wonderful Life. And in Practical Magic and Peter Pan, despite their vast differences, each one's use of the trope is encompassed in a single scene, something to be smiled at or applauded, but which arguably could be left out of the finished product with no real impact made on the storyline (though would you ever want to leave the clapping scene out?) Gondor Calls For Aid is an incredibly flexible trope, especially in regards to its pertinence to the plot.

But if you really want to utilize this trope to maximum effect, you have to be careful how you frame it. The situation has to be dire. The call for help should be a last resort. The possibility of assistance has to be in doubt. There needs to be some degree of suspense over whether or not things will pan out.

And – though this is just my opinion – the eventual arrival of reinforcements shouldn't be based on fulfilling a deal or in getting something in return, but be the result of common human decency. That's what lifts this trope from the firing of a simple Chekhov's Gunman to a bona-fide Crowning Moment of Awesome.