Friday, January 31, 2014

Jonah Hex, heavy metal music video western

For all that Lone Ranger was a mess in some ways, it was also well-structured in other ways.

Jonah Hex is just flat-out a mess, the kind of film that might find an afterlife as a midnight movie because it's such a mess. But I want to stress that might--because usually midnight/cult movies aren't just messes, but fun messes, and Jonah Hex isn't a lot of fun.

Honestly, Josh Brolin is OK as Jonah Hex, though that face wound turns his Southern drawl into something unbearable: an attempt to seem gritty and cool. Megan Fox and John Malkovich are both wooden, but not in a fun bad way. Honestly, the only one who looks like he's having any fun is Michael Fassbender as this psychopathic, Maori-style tattooed, bowler-hat-wearing Irishman. Maybe because there's no depth to that character and just a collection of traits that Fassbender can push.

There's a fine story buried here, with ex-Confederate loner Hex learning to care about the country again (or something) when faced with the evil unreconstructed Confederate played by Malkovich, who is seeking a doomsday weapon.

But so much of the story seems organized around what a 12-year old would consider cool, without any consideration of drama or reality. For instance, Hex starts out anti-social, as we'd expect of the anti-hero to hero journey; only his anti position is almost parodic without being funny. When he comes to collect a bounty and gets double-crossed, he doesn't just kill the double-crossing sheriff, but destroys the whole town. Naturally, he's riding his horse as the town explodes behind him.

For another example, Hex tracks down someone from his old life who now runs an underground fight ring. So naturally, we see this fight between a giant guy and a snake guy. Is that a metaphor for the fight within Hex? Is it important to the plot? Is there any connection at all? No, they just wanted to show us a fight between two weird guys. (I'm guessing 300 was an influence here.)

For another, final example, so many of the fight scenes that actually involve Hex are scored with over-the-top heavy metal. It's ... odd. I think it's reaching for something fun and awesome, but it comes off as trying too hard and not getting there.

But let's take a basic lesson from this mess: every scene needs some dramatic tension and conflict. Man, this film is maybe 80 minutes or something and it fails that basic test? That's a mess.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

30 Years of Mac

I have no big theories or thoughts here. Only a recollection:

In 1984, my parents bought a Mac. This was the very first model, Macintosh 128k--except we just called it a Mac back then because it was the only kind. We had no games to start with, only MacPaint and MacWrite, which were more than enough for me. I probably used MacWrite to write stories; and I used MacPaint to learn about cause and effect. That is, to this day, 30 years later, I remember some of the special, strange features.

For instance: there were a lot of silly patterns (instead of colors), so I learned to make unbroken lines so that I could fill in spaces with a silly pattern--and try to keep it from spilling out. For another example, MacPaint had a mirroring function, where you could make your cursor action mirrored by another across various axes. (For instance, you could set it to mirror horizontally--turning one mark into two--and vertically--turning those two into four. And then you could go to town making snowflake like patterns.)

It couldn't do much, but man, I loved that computer.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 211: Bernard Malamud, The First Seven Years (#211)

Bernard Malamud, "The First Seven Years" (1950) from Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s:

It seems to me that there are two great divisions of parents in fiction: there are the supportive and pushy parents who want more for their kids than they themselves had; and there are the criticizing and pushy parents who think that any attempt the kids make to rise above shows disrespect to the parents. In other words: "I want more for you" vs. "What, you think you're better then me!"

Malamud's story concerns a parent in the first category: aging cobbler Feld wants his daughter Miriam to rise in the world, which is why he gives her number to the student Max. Max may not be all that high-minded, as the story hints with his asking for a photo of Miriam and his studies being in accountancy rather than a different field. (Feld isn't thinking rabbinic studies, but maybe a doctor or a lawyer he could be?) And all this time, Feld's irreplaceable, poorly-paid, constantly-reading assistant Sobel sticks around at the store. Feld isn't sure why until the end, when he admits that he knew all this time: the cobbler in his 30s loves Miriam (just 19). Miriam and Sobel read the same books, but, oy, Feld wanted more for Miriam than she should marry a cobbler and have her mother's life over again!

Apologies to those goyische readers who have trouble with Yiddish syntax, though you might get a primer for it in reading Malamud. Curiously, as the LoA headnote tells us, Malamud started writing these stories of immigrants in the New World when he himself moved from the East (natural home of Jews) to Oregon to teach there. I've heard this story and thought on it some ever since I moved to my Texas desert. ("Texile" is too cute and dismissive--but I've thought of it.) There is something to the idea of knowing a place by leaving it.

But what's funny about "The First Seven Years" is how little leaving the old country seems to matter to these people. Feld remarks on the ridiculous sadness of Sobel's situation: escaping Hitler to live out a life of basic toil, falling in love with a 14-year-old girl. (Sobel's worked there for five years and Miriam is 19 now, so... there's a Lolita-ish quality if you do the math--or maybe just an old-world quality.) But how much different would their lives be if they had lived in the old country in the old time? There's talk of subways and college (and college for Miriam), but that's about the only hint that they live in 20th-century America.

In fact, we can go even further back to explain the title, which is a Biblical reference to the marriage of Jacob and Rachel--or maybe Jacob and Leah. Which, if you don't remember, goes like this: Jacob wants to marry Laban's daughter Rachel, works seven years for it, gets tricked into marrying older daughter Leah, and THEN works for seven additional years to marry Rachel. So when the story is titled "The First Seven Years," keep in mind that the guy doing the working may not get what he wants. Is that because in the New World, daughter Miriam has some say in the matter of who to marry? Or because cobbler Feld will pull some Laban-style switcheroo?

Why does an episode of Gilmore Girls work?

Have you been watching Agents of SHIELD? No, of course you haven't--the only people I hear talking about the show make it clear that they're watching out of a sense of duty: "we're watching it because it's Marvel/Whedon and it has to get better, right?" One complaint I had--and that I've heard repeated about the show--is that it's taking its damn time to set up the interesting things... rather than actually doing the interesting things.

Now Sarah and I are in Gilmore Girls season six and one thing I've noticed about it is that things tend to go pretty slowly. So, at the end of season five, Lorelei and Rory fought because Rory wanted to take time off from Yale. Now we're in season six and it's only in the seventh episode that these two have talked to each other again--which was pretty much the core of the show (mother and daughter who are more like friends). And a lot of the episodes--in this season and earlier--share a certain form:

  • we meander through a few subplots--Paris and her boyfriend/struggles, Lane and her mother and her boyfriend, Luke and Lorelei, Lorelei and Sookie, wacky happenings at the Inn, something with Taylor...
  • and then at the end we get some sort of kick with the main story--Richard shows up at Lorelei's to say he was wrong to help Rory quit Yale or Lorelei proposes to [redacted], etc. 

Theory: Gilmore Girls works by being slow because so much of the pleasure is hanging around and watching our friends/people we like--which cannot be said of Agents of SHIELD or possibly any genre show, which promises plot-based excitement.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Some little experience in self-publishing

And I do mean "little." As part of NaNoWrimo in November, I blew off some steam/pressure over projects that I cared a lot about by writing some silly little things that I didn't care about all that much. Not to mince words, I wrote some ridiculous romance.

(And why not? Though there's a certain tendency towards conservative gender relations in romance, there's also the possibility for feminist and sex-positive work. Still, while I think this genre is OK, I have no personal attachment to it--no favorite authors to impress (or beat), no worries about repeating tropes, no dreams of being a great romance author.)

Then, for some extra fun, in December, I decided to put these two stories I wrote on Amazon. (It's what all the kids are doing these days.) Not under my own name, of course, but under a pseudonym. (And my first choice was already taken!) And I even sold a couple of stories?

So what have I discovered through this whole process? A lot of little things so far: how to make my own covers from free images online and where to get cheap, semi-pro covers; how to upload stories to Amazon and how to add tags and create an author page; how to create a Kindle file in Scrivener. In other words, I know all the basics to selling ebooks on Amazon.

Now I've just got to get to writing stuff.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Blood on the Moon (1948) and Western-Noir

The other day I started wondering about noir--usually dark, urban, claustrophobic, paranoid/uncertain--and westerns--usually bright, rural, wide-open spaces, with clear us-vs.-them distinctions. Could these two genres really be combined? And lo! someone on the internet already put together a list of great western noirs or noir westerns.

Blood on the Moon has some impeccable noir lineage: with Robert Mitchum as the gunslinging drifter; and directed by Robert Wise, between noirs Born to Kill (1947) and The Set-Up (1949). And it has a real solid noir set-up:

Mitchum drifts through a cattle herd where the herders suspect him of working for the homesteaders, in the traditional western battle between cattlemen and farmers. (Only slightly less popular than white vs. Indian.) The Indian Bureau agent is refusing to buy the cattle--as he usually does--so the herd has to move off the Indian reservation; and the homesteaders are ganging up to stop the herd moving onto their farmland. But this anti-cow resistance is organized by Mitchum's old friend Tate, who has a plan: keep the cattle on the wrong side of the reservation, forcing the owner to sell low, then turn around and sell the cattle to the colluding Indian Bureau agent for a profit. And Tate is nice enough to pay Mitchum out of his own share, since Mitchum's flat broke. Only Mitchum finds that some of the scheme runs against his principles. Meanwhile, cattle-herder Lufton's two daughters have some plans of their own: fiery Amy wants to fight; while proper Carol is improperly sneaking out to inform Tate about her father, since she loves Tate.

Scheming (Tate)! Betrayal (Carol)! Forced by circumstances (Mitchum's broke)! So much noir. Even the cinematography furthers this noir feeling, with lots of dark scenes and low shots in closed in rooms (like a fist-fight between Tate and Mitchum when they break). So it's a dark, rural, claustrophobic film--with a slight uncertainty at first about the right thing to do. I mean, Tate seems like a nice friend to Mitchum, but Mitchum isn't really forced by circumstance--he's broke, but there's no hint that he needs the money for a good reason.

And so the noir stage-setting at the beginning gives way to a Western us-vs.-them scenario, involving an escape through the wilderness (trading close rooms for wide open spaces); and a clear "these are bad men" understanding of what should be done. And so, in typical Western hero fashion, Mitchum uses his gunslinging against the evil gunslingers to protect the people who aren't all that good at gunslinging.

(This is pretty common in Westerns, where the hero uses his out-group skills to protect some in-group against the larger out-group. That is, we often see in Westerns that the gunslinger uses his guns against evil gunslingers to protect the settlers; or the Indian tracker uses his tracking ability against evil Indians to protect the whites.)

But not only that--the movie strongly hints at the post-credit sequence will be a wedding between Mitchum and Amy. So, whereas many a Western ends with the hero moving on--his wild skills are useful in taming the wilderness, but he's too wild for the tame civilized world he helps make--here we have the noir drifter protagonist heading towards domesticity that even a Western hero might balk at.

So Blood on the Moon starts out a perfect noir western, but ends up a very comfortable non-noir and almost non-western.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The To Do List

The To Do List is a 2013 sex comedy with a twist: the main character isn't a horn-dog dude, but a virginal girl who takes to sex like she takes to everything: with a list and a can-do attitude. It got middling reviews and did less-than-expected business--and I have to think that some of that has to do with the gender swap. I mean, one reviewer complained that it was vulgar and kept trying to top its vulgar jokes, which I can imagine him saying about a male-focused sex comedy--or about any comedy. But with films like The Hangover, that sort of review doesn't keep people away.

At the same time, as I was watching it with Sarah, we kept noticing all the markers of 90s-era life--hypercolor shirts and mix-tapes and VCRs. And the soundtrack wasn't exactly Top 40, but it was all name bands with their top hits. And though there's probably a fair amount of ex-90s teens around, it seemed like niche-marketing, in a way. I couldn't imagine a kid today watching that film and connecting with the protagonist because so much of the surrounding environment has changed. Back in the day, if you heard of something called "motorboating," why not assume it has to do with a boat? But today, you can just Google it.
(Me: "I'm not sure these terms were in use in the 90s."
Sarah: "Yes, sex was invented when you started doing it.")
And maybe that 90s-era confusion about sex was part of the point. I mean, if you did it today, the protagonist could look up a lot of porn online and then be confused by the massive amount of information (and misinformation)--but that would be a different kind of film. So while the period setting might be limiting, I also see it as contributing to the character's journey.

So there's one shitty reason why this film didn't do so well (people can't deal with women characters interested in sex); one reason that can't entirely be helped (the 90s setting); and here's a final reason that could've been helped: some of the jokes and characters and story-lines don't all come together. Take Clark Gregg as the conservative dad--who, towards the end of the film, with no real character reason, turns into a laissez faire sort of dad who just wants his daughter to use lube. And while most of the characters are struggling with some form of growing up (the boss at the pool, the sister marrying an absent jerk, and the main character), there's this whole other theme of friends and what they owe to each other. It doesn't quite gel.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 210: Alice Lake, Last Summer in Mississippi (#210)

Alice Lake, "Last Summer in Mississippi" (1964) from Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973:

Alice Lake's "Last Summer in Mississippi" should be read as "1964 Summer" rather than "you'll never experience summer again because you're going to die." Although, now that I put it that way, this reporting about the Mississippi Freedom Project sure seems to carry that threat--both for the white volunteers and for the blacks who took part. Lake smartly looks at the whole project by examining the experience of three volunteers, using their entry into this situation as a way for all of us to get into it.

In many ways, the article moves traditionally, with some of the methods of traditional fiction. So we start in the middle of the action--with a sheriff confronting one of the volunteers--and then we rewind, hearing something about the upbringing of the volunteers.

(So, one volunteer's mother struggled with her Southern upbringing and the racism she got from her parents.)

Then we move on to their training and their actual experience helping to found a school for blacks and to register many to vote for the first time. To condense a whole summer into a 20-page article, Lake changes the level of her focus. So we might hear about one event in detail; and then zoom out sometimes to get an overview. We also get access to the participants' thoughts and feelings--though long after the fact.
Had she been scared? She shook her head. “No, I’d never known violence. No one ever threatened to do anything to me. I had no concept of things like that.”
It's an interesting demonstration of using the control and methods of fiction for non-fictional reportage.

And, overall, it leaves me with a feeling that I should be doing something more like this--volunteering to make the world better. It's a curious feeling since the story makes no bones about the troubles about this program. Not just the obvious dangers--I mean, opposition can be very motivating. But the boredom and the change of circumstances. (These white girls are not used to life in the less wealthy, more rural black families that they are stationed with.)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dangerous Liaisons and complex characters

You've seen the 1988 Dangerous Liaisons, with John Malkovich as the rake Valmont, Glenn Close as the schemer Merteuil, Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves and--well, you get the idea: it's a packed cast with a lot of pretty people. (OK, Malkovich isn't pretty per se, but he's got an interesting face.) I saw it probably when I was in high school and I remember loving it. So much so that when I took French in college, I bought the 18th-century Laclos book in French. (Still haven't read it.)

I rewatched it last night and I was struck by how multiple the motivations seem to be for so many of the characters. That makes immediate sense for Michelle Pfeiffer's character Tourvel, who is torn between her desire to be virtuous and her blooming love for Valmont. I mean, that model of inner conflict--desire for X but conflicting desire for Y--is not all that unusual.

But what about John Malkovich's Valmont? He's introduced as a devilish rake who is interested in Pfeiffer simply for the sport of it: she's a challenge, he likes seducing women. In classic rom-com style, he falls in love with the woman he's wooing, but of course, in classic rom-com style, he's unable to admit this to himself and lose that part that he thinks is most important to him: his rake's detachment.

I say "classic rom-com" because this movie is so clearly not--certainly not a comedy at least. If it were just Valmont and Tourvel, it might be. But Valmont's motivations multiply when we look at his relations with other characters: he loves Tourvel but he loves himself; he loves Tourvel but he wants to spend a night with Merteuil, his friend and fellow schemer; but Merteuil is jealous of the real love Valmont has for Tourvel; and Valmont is also motivated by revenge against Swoosie Kurtz's character Volanges for interfering with Tourvel, which is why he agrees to ruin Kurtz's daughter, Cecile Volanges; and...

What's amazing to me is that characters have to do a lot of talking to make these plans plain. So Merteuil explains why she wants revenge on Volanges in what would be a boring exposition scene. And that's just one issue. So why does a movie with so many characters with so many different motivations work, even though so much of the movie is patiently explaining those motivations?

I think there are a few reasons, not least of all is the sumptuous period piece-ness of it all: there's a lot to look at on the screen while things are being talked about. (Watching with Sarah, every once in a while we would discuss the styles and furniture of the various rooms.) Then there's the basic motivations being talked about: love, lust, anger, hate, jealousy. And all those motivations are tied in to concrete people, not abstract concerns, so the movie always gives us some visual to focus on. Then there's the shifting nature of the motivations and conflicts and relationships; so Merteuil may explain why she wants revenge by ruining Cecile Volanges's honor, but once Valmont accomplishes that, now we have Cecile's relationship with Valmont to deal with, as they become more intimate.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Why do I prefer Forgotten Realms to Greyhawk or Dragonlance?

Here's a question where I can sort of point to some answers and then just have to shrug. Ultimately, I think I prefer the Forgotten Realms setting simply because I was exposed to it more.

Now, if you're confused what the heck I'm talking about, let's back up: I used to be a very big fan of Dungeons and Dragons. I put I-don't-know-how-much money into building up a collection of books, even though these source- and guide-books were for roleplaying and I rarely did any roleplaying. In fact, when I first started collecting these rpg book, I wasn't even entirely sure about the game system, since this was in a time when AD&D was switching over to 2nd Edition, but D&D products were still being printed by TSR.

So I was a pretty indiscriminate collector, with lots of rule books (The Complete Fighter, Thief, etc., the Fiend Folio, etc.) and lots of setting books (Oriental Adventures hardback, Forgotten Realms boxed set, etc.).

I would separate the settings of TSR (and later Wizards of the Coast) into some broad groups:

  • "Generic" (Western, Tolkien) Fantasy:
    • Dragonlance
    • Forgotten Realms
    • Greyhawk
    • Mystara / Hollow World / Savage Coast
  • Cultural/Historical Depictions
    • Al-Qadim (Arabian, part of Forgotten Realms)
    • The Horde (Mongols, part of Forgotten Realms)
    • Kara-Tur (Asia, part of Forgotten Realms)
    • Maztica (New World/Conquistadors, part of Forgotten Realms)
  • Shticks
    • Birthright (play kings and queens--in a generic fantasy world!)
    • Council of Wyrms (play dragons!)
    • Dark Sun (an environmental post-apocalypse!)
    • Eberron (generic fantasy with some magic technology! specially made for 3rd edition!)
    • Ghostwalk (play as undead!)
    • Planescape (play in the outer realms of the gods!)
    • Ravenloft (play in Gothic horror!)
    • Spelljammer (play in space!)

Now, depending on your interests, those cultural/historical settings might be interesting; and depending on your particular bent, those shtick-based settings might be interesting. Though I love all those cultural/historical settings, my absolute favorite settings are probably the shticks that have the most tonal consistency: Dark Sun, where everything you think about fantasy gets turned on its head while still being a recognizable fantasy world; Planescape, where everything in every world mingles in a space that seems anathema to regular life; and Ravenloft, where everything mingles, but the tone is dread.

But that's not the question. The question here is, "Why is Forgotten Realms my favorite generic fantasy setting for D&D?"

Part of that answer is that FR is a wide world that has a place for just about everything. You want Celtic-themed fantasy? Moonshae Isles. You want high medieval knights? Cormyr. You want Egyptian and Mesopotamian god-kings? OK, I'm not sure why but: Mulhorand and Unther (I think). Then there's all the standard fantasy tropes: the evil secret society of wizards, the ancient fallen empire, the cursed desert that is actually a prison for monsters, the secret society of good, the cosmopolitan city that is built OVER A GIANT DUNGEON. If that's not a standard fantasy trope, it should be.

By contrast, while I loved the Dragonlance books, the action of those book overshadowed the world as a roleplaying setting. I mean, you have these characters going around and re-making the world, so what's left for your characters to do?

But why don't I like Greyhawk? Part of that has to do with the standardness of that world: it's pretty plain, with an evil dark lord and some good countries and a giant cosmopolitan city without a dungeon underneath it. It's all... pretty flavorless, with just the standard fantasy of medieval Europe fighting a cosmic evil.

What were your favorite settings and why?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Negative reviews for books, not people

Recently I read (listened to) Mur Lafferty's The Shambling Guide to New York City and then I reviewed it on Goodreads, as usual. Then, somewhat unusually, I returned to that review to make sure I had been as fair as possible. Why did I do that?

I like a lot of the set-up of Shambling Guide: woman learning that there's this whole magical underworld all around her in the city, learning that she's an important part of it--which is a sort of epic fantasy plot with a semi-chosen one, but gender-swapped (girl editor rather than farm-boy), in a paranormal romance/urban fantasy setting.

And I also like Mur Lafferty, whose podcast I Should Be Writing features a lot of straight talk about the costs and emotional rollercoaster of writing. Lafferty has something of a name within the podcasting world (she used to be an editor of one of the Escape Artist podcasts and has podcasted a few of her novels), but Shambling Guide is her first traditionally published novel. In short: I want good things for this book because she's a good person.

Yet, though I like the set-up of the book and I like Mur Lafferty, there were several issues I had with the book. Enough so that my overall review probably reads neutral-to-negative. And that had been bothering me a little bit--just a little, somewhere between day-old paper-cut and "I have to remember to take the garbage out before those yogurt containers start to smell." Was I too mean to her as a person? Was I too nice to the book because I like her as a person?

Finally, today I went back to re-read my review and, luckily, I found that it was pretty fair. I pinpointed the points I had issues with, while making it clear what I thought the strengths were, both of the book and of the writer.

This probably only interests me, but I feel like a lot of academic criticism--and a lot of regular criticism--elides that distance between the person and the work: for the extreme example, I once heard a professor express distaste for someone else's theory by saying that he was surprised she had enough brain power to keep on living. As I said, that's the extreme, but there is that type of criticism: bad book probably means bad person. It's an ungenerous and often unhelpful me vs. you type of review that is rarely warranted.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 209: Sarah Orne Jewett, A Winter Courtship (#209)

Sarah Orne Jewett, "A Winter Courtship" (1889) from Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories:

At some point, you just have to shrug your shoulders and admit that you don't know why you like something. Or go further: admit that you're stuck in a cycle of liking something for the simple fact that you've always liked something.

That might be me with Sarah Orne Jewett--though I'm not fully prepared to just shrug. I mean, I know some of why I like her work: her regional dialogue is a fascinating museum of odd expressions and folksy grammar--without ever feeling like she's making fun of these people or indicating that they're regional accents betrays a shallow interior life. Sure, these people may use odd words like "pudjicky" and don't pronounce the "n't" of "don't"--but they're still people with the complete worries and thoughts of people.

And, on the other hand, she doesn't give in to any b.s. notion of rural authenticity, which is so often the regionalist fault: "oh, these people who don't have Starbucks--they know what's really important in life." Here, the mail and passenger wagon-operator Jefferson Briley reads dime novels about the exciting west and goes so far to pretend that he carries a pistol with him, though he lives in Maine where no stage-coach robber lives. Jewett gently pokes fun at him for that, for being so taken with mass market fantasies that he sees his own life through that. But that's just one part of his life.

Similarly, Jewett gives a full view of Mrs. Tobin (widowed) and Mr. Briley (bachelor) coming to terms to get married late at life: there's feelings involved, but there's also practical issues--neither is so young as to be completely carried away by passion or fantasy in this. And though, like a romantic comedy, there's never any real doubt as to the outcome, the trip is warm and amusing enough to go pretty quickly.

Now, if you didn't care for this style and still had a paper to write, possible topics include: exchange and robbery (Wild West robbers, mail transportation, married goods, the buffalo rugs they have to keep warm); fun and work (circus-life, dressmaking, marriage and re-marriage, cooking skills); and how the omniscient view of their thoughts affects our reception of the story.

Gilmore Girls and the benefits of semi-ensemble, multiple environment plotting

I'm in season five of Gilmore Girls--so no spoilers please! But I've noticed something about the sort of hybrid structure of the episodes, somewhere between a true ensemble (like Friends or Lost) and being a more focused show (like Bewitched or Frasier).

Actually, you might read the next few paragraphs and say, "duh." I'm a little slow sometimes. But it's curious to me how a show like Gilmore Girls--or fine, even Frasier--can create a setting and then populate that with minor characters, most of whom aren't all that interesting/round. For instance, Gilmore Girls has a lot of people in the quirky town of Stars Hollow, and these people will pop up for a joke or a small subplot: Kirk is wackily interested in everything! Taylor is a terrible person, ha! Gypsy, uh, fixes cars?

But (ok, yes, much like Frasier) Gilmore Girls also invests in a number of other characters, all of whom could handle their own plots. Unsurprisingly, most of these characters are in the Gilmore family: grand-daughter Rory, daughter Lorelei, and grandparents Emily and Richard. So we can follow Lorelei dating in Stars Hollow and Emily's issues with her mother-in-law and Rory dating in college.

Which is interesting to me because Gilmore Girls seems to have succeeded in keeping interest past a life change in a way that many other shows falter with. So Buffy starts as a high school show and has a little trouble switching to college. But GG keeps a finger in so many worlds that a change to one doesn't throw the whole show out of balance. Rory goes off to college? Well, mom is still home. Lorelei opens a business? Well, her parents are still there, doing their rich people thing.

So by juggling these different characters in these different environments, the show has some robustness--a single misstep won't derail the whole thing. Even compared to Frasier, this is a pretty interesting feat. (I mean, when Frasier leaves radio for a while, doesn't the show founder a bit?)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Despicable Me 2 and jokes just for adults

I'm not even sure I finished Despicable Me when it was on HBO, but when the sequel made its way into the apartment, eh why not. Now, I have very little desire to write animated movies for kids/families, so I watch this with a different sort of attention--and also a shallower pool of knowledge/referent. So if a person in a horror movie approaches a door and then jumps when a cat surprises him, I know what's going on and can judge whether it's a good example or not of that trope.

But when a kid's animated movie breaks out into a music video, I'm not sure what to compare it to: Anchorman's "Afternoon Delight," The 40-Year Old Virgin's "Age of Aquarius," This is the End's song in heaven? Or is this something that has invaded animated films? Somehow, I doubt it.

So when the minions break out in song--and that song is "I Swear" from 1993/4--I wonder who in the audience this is for. Perhaps the kids will laugh because it's silly, even if they don't get the referent. And just a few moments later, I had the same thought when the minions break into "YMCA" dressed as the Village People. Will kids know this from somewhere? Or is it just for the adults? That this seems like it would bewilder half the audience mostly seems problematic because it's the focus of the movie, with nothing for the kids to enjoy.

But other than those moments that seem like misfires to me, the film is colorful and fun and light. There are some fun visual gags, like the toupee-shop owner acting the supervillain and petting a toupee. It's so colorful and light that the nonsensical parts and the dropped threads are probably not going to bother anyone. Why did the villain fake his own death all those years ago? When did he get a son? Why does the daughter's romance plot end so abruptly.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Wire (2002-2008)

Sarah and I finally finished watching The Wire, HBO's prestigious drama series about Baltimore's crime-and-police world and its relation to various other institutions in the city. There's unions and working men's lives at the dockyards; and teachers and their battles against the drug culture; politicians and lawyers--and all the dirty money involved there; and then, at the end, there's the newspapers, with their mix of self-interest and public service.

As many people have noted, it's an amazing show, with some very particular elements that would be hard to replicate. To wit: David Simon and Ed Burns had a lot of experience as a reporter and a cop, respectively, so when they wanted this show to be realistic, they had the chops to do that, whether that meant realistic characters (some of them versions of real-life people) or realistic dialogue (full of amazing slang and character-building phraseology). Now, I'm not saying you can't do that for your tv show about teenage assassins running wild and attempting to avoid the government--only it might be a little harder for you to get that boots-on-the-ground version of the story.

(Also, it's amazing to me that the awards shows didn't shower these actors with recognition. So many of them are so good, able to communicate so much with just a look or a little shift of the mouth. I was also glad to see people who didn't look like the standard issue we usually get on tv. I just hope that the ones interested in acting can still find work.)

That said, I don't think The Wire is completely lightning-in-a-bottle; it has at least a few, replicable elements. For instance, working at such a length, the show can dive into almost everyone's character a little, showing (realistically) how many facets people have. There's no unbelievable switches to characters, but there's still some capacity for surprise and nuance, as when cool killer Chris Partlow passionately beats a man to death.

Which brings us to another quality of The Wire: it doesn't suffer fools lightly. Or rather, it demands a certain amount of attention and thought from its audience. It doesn't spell everything out: we may suspect that Chris loses his temper because of something in his past (the man he's beating up may have abused a child, so we suspect that Chris may be a survivor of abuse himself)--but that's all we're given, with no one character reading us Chris's history.

There's other lessons to learn from The Wire, but the one I want to end on--again, good for a novel or a tv series, but maybe not for something shorter--is how we get several individual views on some inter-personal structure. So we don't just see one cop--we see lots of cops. And they're not all the cliche maverick cop or the cliche brass-polisher or the cliche rules-lawyer--though there are a few of all of those and more. (And then, as the episodes go on, we see how these cliches break down.) So we don't just see "maverick cop bucking the system" but also see what that looks like to his supervisor and to his wife and to his supervisor's wife--and to the criminals too. That's what's so interesting about The Wire: you can take one piece of the world--a corner store murder--and see how it plays out in several different worlds and for several different people.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Dredd (2012)

So Judge Dredd...

::scratches head::

I guess, the fascism of Dredd...

::takes off glasses, rubs eyes::

I don't know. According to Wikipedia, a fair number of reviewers gave this positive marks, and I can definitely see some positive aspects to it: the contrast between the gray reality and the multicolored splendor of the hot new drug; the unrepentant view of Dredd as a hard man who has no real character beyond his perseverance of his job; the morally questionable nature of the Judge program itself.

But while some of that is true to the character, I can't really understand why people like this character enough to return to him. I mean, when he was created in Thatcher's England, part of the enjoyment is in watching a hard man kick ass; but there's also a real parodic edge to this guy who is, in essence, an incarnation of anarchy in the cloak of law. He's a vigilante hero for people who always fantasize about being on the right side of a gun. (In fact, with Dredd's super-tech gun, he's always on the right side: any one else who tries to use a Judge's gun will find their hand blown off.)

OK, let's put all that Dredd history stuff to the side. How does this film fare as a story? How does it paint characters?

Not so well, I think. Lena Headley's kingpin Ma is ruthless and violence prone, but there's not much under that. Thrilby's rookie/psychic Anderson looks sadly at a picture of her dead parents and seems to want to make a difference in the lives of ordinary people--but beyond that, there's not much to her. And Dredd himself is a cipher, a man who is indistinguishable from his job--and since the job doesn't change, neither does he. Even when he discovers (spoiler) that Ma has hired some Judges to kill him, he never has any questions or doubts. And he never takes off his helmet, which is a bold choice because it's so alienating. But that boldness doesn't erase the alienation. Who could ever identify, connect--or even care about these Judges?

Which is the main problem with this film. The plot has a videogame/roleplaying game structure that, frankly, I think works: the Judges are trapped in the above-ground dungeon of this locked-down super-apartment complex, and they have to survive the attacks of the monsters while searching for a way out--or take the fight to the mastermind. No points for guessing which they do.

That would work fine, with the Judges facing more danger and greater stakes, if we cared about any of the stakes. Does it matter if these Judges survive? Eh, there are plenty more. Will the Judges help save the innocent people caught in the crossfire? No, and that's not even really their job. Are the judges so unambiguously good? Well, no, as I said before: part of the character's core concept is that he's a semi-fascist killing machine.

I wonder if this sort of empty and ambiguous character works better in comic book form, where his adventures gain a veneer of unreality. So we can enjoy his tremendous violence because he's just hurting other drawings, not real people.

No matter what media you put him in, I think the key issues in writing a successful Dredd work are to make the characters around him interesting, so that his quest to protect them has some emotional weight; while their reactions to him should show that they think of him in a positive but realistic way (to help lead the readers to that position). Also: make his enemies unambiguously evil if you want to make his unrelenting quest for justice seem good. Or maybe not--maybe some ambiguity to the villains would help throw into relief the bad aspects of the judging system that threatens killers and victims alike.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Change of schedule?

Usually I post on Mondays and Fridays, with the Library of America post on Sunday; but it looks like the LoA may be updating their Story of the Week on Monday, which is why there's no LoA tonight. But if I move LoA to Mondays, I might want to change my other post to Wednesday maybe. Maybe?

Friday, January 3, 2014

2013 Round-up, 2014 plans

I was going to write a whole post about 2013 and 2014, but I just spent the last two days fixing my laptop, so my brain is a little fried. So instead, here's some random data/observations about 2013:

  • with the blog, I wrote as few as 14 posts a month or as many as 40 a month;
  • I started three reading-related blog projects:
    • a re-reading of Cordwainer Smith (not finished at 4 posts), 
    • a reading of Paolo Bacigalupi's short fiction (finished at 6 posts), 
    • and a reading of the Library of America's Story of the Week (208! posts and ongoing);
  • I set and continued a twice-weekly blogging schedule that I like and will keep to;
  • I started and stopped an audio fiction review--partly because I was too swamped with audio fiction and partly because I've become more interested in film and TV writing;
  • I successfully completed NaNoWriMo for the first time;
  • I wrote almost every day, except for the last few days of December when I decided to stop doing the Magic Spreadsheet method, but I learned a bunch about my average writing and my optimal writing condition;
  • I went to WorldCon and went to Austin for the YA book fest;
  • I audited a class on programming for games here, as well as doing an online course on Java.
Upcoming plans include a scouting trip out to LA to see if I think it's livable; and more and more writing; with maybe some more work put into computer programming issues.