Monday, June 30, 2014

2014 (well, from June on) monthly movie list: June edition

Inspired by friend David Steffens and his list-making over short fiction podcasts (like this), I thought I would start keeping track of the movies I watched in 2014. There'll be minimal commentary here--I'm just interested in keeping track of what I saw and about how much I liked it. And since I rarely get out to the movies, most of these will be rentals and Netflix.

Also, to be clear, this is not a list of "best" but rather a list of "most enjoyed."
  1. Kill Bill 1 & 2
  2. Her
  3. Edge of Tomorrow
  4. The Emperor's New Groove
  5. World War Z
  6. The Wolverine
  7. We're the Millers
  8. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
June surprises: I was a little bored with I saw Kill Bill the first time, but now I thought it was not only enjoyable, but clearly a work of incredible craftsmanship.

Her was very interesting, as a rom-com (sort of) about a guy getting over his ex with a new girlfriend, who was able to help him reconnect with his joyousness--only this new girlfriend is a computer OS (rather than a manic pixie girl) and there are certain missed connections between a human and an OS (which is what really sets her off from the MPG, since she has her own arc); in many ways a tone poem to depression and recovery, and by "tone poem," I mean I was occasionally bored.

Emperor's New Groove is one of the not-very-much-talked-about Disney movies from after the 90s Renaissance but before the Pixar salvation. Apparently it had a very troubled making, but I thought the movie was enjoyably meta and strange, from the non-linear telling and interruptions to the setting of a pre-Columbian Incan Empire (with plenty of anachronisms).

Emperor's New Groove also demonstrates something that Incredible Burt Wonderstone failed at, which is making your unpleasant protagonist fun and/or identifiable: Kuzco and Burt are both self-centered, but Kuzco has a sense of humor, whereas Burt is a joyless jerk; and while Kuzco is introduced in contrast to the really evil villain, Burt's sad introduction with bullies and an absent mother don't actually build to anything.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 233: Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (#233)

Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) from Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs:

The LoA introduction for this week's story dwells almost exclusively on the mysterious disappearance of Bierce. Perhaps it's inevitable that the topic would be "mysterious death or disappearance"when the story up for discussion is about a mysterious death/disappearance. I would mark that last sentence with a "spoiler warning," except this is a story that many people read in high school--remember, the one where the guy gets hanged and has this whole fantasy of escaping that seems real until the last line?--and that the story starts off with him about to be hanged.

Re-reading the story as an older person, there's a lot to notice. Not least of all is the way in which memory has changed the story, as it sometimes will: whereas almost all of the story tells about his escape and his sudden death occurs when he arrives home, I remembered it as the story of someone who lives out his whole life in this fantasy realm. (That might have to do with some of the tv/film adaptations, not to mention Robert Sheckley's "Store of the Worlds" story.)

And now that I've taken a course on American Gothic with a Bierce expert, where we emphasized Bierce's interest in psychology, it's interesting how the opening section sounds like the opening to one of Bierce's battle stories, where the main topic is geography and troop placement. There's almost no psychology at all, just "here's the railroad, here's a guy, here's another guy."

It's also curious to me how Bierce structures the story, with a flashback following this action-packed -promising set-up, before returning to the action. Often when I read these LoA stories, I think to myself how writing style has changed, in everything from word choice, to sentence length, to story structure. And yet, while Bierce has that sort of 19th-century slow opening, the structure is one that I see a lot today: start in medias res, with some big action--rewind to show how we got there--and then pick up. (It's also a structure that is getting more common in tv, I think. Or maybe it was always common?)

And once you know the reality of the story (the guy dies), suddenly certain things jump out about the flashback and the action. I mean, I've read this story many times (probably), but most of the times I probably read it quickly, with an "I know, I know" attitude. (Alternative: Everything I think I've just noticed, I've actually noticed ever time I read this and just forgotten. For instance, for the first dozen times I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, I kept figuring out where the Nazis got the medallion copy from--and only on the 13th time did I actually remember what I'd learned last time.) So, if you know that the escape is really just a fantasy (or psychological break), then it makes a certain sort of sense for the hero to be shot at by everyone, including the cannon at the fort. Maybe that really would've happened, but it sure does seem like narcissism--the narcissism of a guy who feels held back from his rightful place winning glory in battle.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Three Men in a Boat: Favorite Jokes Project, part 4

Some last overall notes: Jerome K. Jerome fits with the tradition of comic low-stakes. We can laugh about the bumbling adventures of three twits because they don't have their hands on the levers of power. We could compare this to something like Dr. Strangelove, where the stakes are nuclear war, or Catch-22, where we're in the middle of World War II. It's a little more complex to make high-stakes comedy, I think, though in both these examples, a lot of the comedy comes from the nervous laughter of pushing high-stakes stories together with banal bureaucratic humor. In other words: twits are great for comedy.

So it's no surprise that a lot of Jerome K. Jerome's sense of humor often revolves around human incompetence. What's curious to me--and what calls up some of the humor of Douglas Adams--is how, in this book, to coin a phrase, hell is other people. People try to row together and end up fouling each other, making a worse mess together than they would have apart, even though they're both incompetent twits. It's not always a cheerful view of the world, even if the stakes are just bragging rights for who caught the biggest fish.

Chapter 15:
I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.  
You cannot give me too much work; to accumulate work has almost become a passion with me: my study is so full of it now, that there is hardly an inch of room for any more. I shall have to throw out a wing soon.  
And I am careful of my work, too. Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take a great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it. No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do.
I'm a sucker for this sort of joke: taking a common phrase or idea and twisting it. Instead of "I like work" as "I like doing things," we have the opposite: "I like work" meaning "I'm a collector of work." And then, just for fun, he runs the joke out: work fills up his house, he keeps his work close by, he preserves his work in mint condition.

Chapter 16:

The very short chapter 16 is likewise very short of jokes, though there is this one aside:
Anyhow, she had sinned—some of us do now and then—...
But I should add that this aside occurs in a story about a woman who got pregnant out of wedlock and committed suicide. So, not really a ha-ha moment.

Chapter 17:

After finding a dead body in the river in the last chapter, this chapter focuses on the ridiculousness of fishing and fisherman. (There is also one fun joke about the dirtiness of the river, wherein they try to wash their clothes and end up getting them dirtier.) Fisherman stories include: how often they lie about what they catch; a guy who started out committed to tell mostly the truth; a joke about how fishing is great if you don't want to catch fish.

My favorite joke is too long to quote, but it's a scenario where our twits see a nice fish up on a wall and a succession of natives claim to have caught that fish--and then the fish turns out to be ceramic.

Chapter 18:

In describing the effects of Time in destroying the ruins, J goes on to note
But Time, though he halted at Roman walls, soon crumbled Romans to dust; and on the ground, in later years, fought savage Saxons and huge Danes, until the Normans came.
Which I probably like more than you because I love when British people poke fun at British history as something pure and simple. It reminds me of Defoe's "True-Born Englishman" poem, which goes on to note how "Englishman" are really heterogeneous mongrels born of war, invasion, and--horrors!--immigration.

Chapter 19:

And so, at long last, we come to the end of our boat voyage, largely due to a lot of rain and the sudden remembrance that the city is full of good food and entertainment, whereas the boat has neither and is wet. First, thought, we get a section describing what bad condition the boats to rent are in, which leads J to offer this advice:
To those who do contemplate making Oxford their starting-place, I would say, take your own boat—unless, of course, you can take someone else’s without any possible danger of being found out.
Which could be Wilde on a middling fair day.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 232: Lafcadio Hearn, The Legend of Tchi-Niu (#232)

Lafcadio Hearn, "The Legend of Tchi-Niu" (1885) from Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings:

At first glance, a reworking of a Chinese tale: a father dies penniless after working very hard to educate his son; so the son sells himself into slavery in order to afford the funerary rites; and he's so pious that, when he becomes sick and close to death, a magical woman appears to be his wife; she then goes on to feed and care for him, as well as make lots of money with her silk weaving; so that one day, she can afford to buy the man's freedom, along with lots of land; and on top of that, she gives him a son, too.

So everyone lives happily ever after? Well, not quite. The woman Tchi reveals that she's actually the spirit-goddess Tchi-Niu, and was only given to him as a reward for a while because of his piety. And now that everything is good with him, she disappears. Which curiously resets the story: instead of poor father and son--as we had at the beginning--we have a rich father and son.

As far as folktales goes, it's not terrible: "boy who sacrifices for others gets repaid" is a heartwarming trope, even if the coin of his repayment is in the form of a magical woman. At least, we can comfort ourselves, she's not a real woman given to him against her consent on the orders of another man--she's a spirit-woman given to him on the orders of a male-figured deity.

In short, if you wrote this story today, you would probably have the internet fall on your head and point out how you did wrong. And: you would hopefully learn from that lesson.

But the LoA page goes on to note that Lafcadio Hearn hadn't even been to the mysterious Orient when he wrote this story; and that the "traditionalness" of it is a little suspect. That is, Hearn took a single paragraph summary and elaborated it into this story, all while still working as a journalist in America. Which, whatever you think of the story, is an interesting task he set himself. Hey, let's all take paragraphs from other culture's books and turn them into stories!

(And yeah, if you do that clumsily--filling your story with poorly researched images of the foreign culture or relying on stereotypes--you would probably call the internet down on your head again. Whatever else we want to say about Lafcadio Hearn, he was genuinely interested in foreign cultures and put his research-time in.)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Artist's Way and your way

I recently finished 12 weeks of following Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. Well, impressionistically following it. For those of you who don't know it, Cameron's book is a self-help guide to reconnecting with your creative side. It's full of techniques and philosophy and some cuddling.

Which maybe makes me sound like I didn't like it. But again: impressionistically. There's a lot in this book, so there's plenty to pick and choose between. For instance, the spiritual talk isn't for me, exactly, but it's pretty easy to get around "God" and just insert "life" or "energy." And there are so many tasks and affirmations offered that you really can pick and choose the ones that resonate with you. Though sometimes it's interesting to pick the ones that resonate negatively just to see what comes up.

That said, the central technique in Cameron's book is writing morning pages--and I've had some fun with them.

I could go on, but I'd rather hear about your experience with this or other self-help books for creativity. Have you ever read Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way or some other self-help book? Have you followed the prescriptions--literally or impressionistically? Has it helped?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Three Men in a Boat: Favorite Jokes Project, part 3

Chapter 10:

Remember what I said about how inanimate objects are against these three men? Chapter 10 gives us two shining examples of that, with the tent attachment to the boat viciously counter-attacking during their attempt to set it up; and the curious case of a tea kettle that will never boil if it knows that you want hot water for tea.
It is a good plan, too, if you are in a great hurry, to talk very loudly to each other about how you don’t need any tea, and are not going to have any. You get near the kettle, so that it can overhear you, and then you shout out, “I don’t want any tea; do you, George?” to which George shouts back, “Oh, no, I don’t like tea; we’ll have lemonade instead—tea’s so indigestible.” Upon which the kettle boils over, and puts the stove out.
Though I should add that there are quite a few times in this book where the humor departs for a very 19th-century style of sentimentality: beauty of nature, salve of sorrow, etc. Today, that seems a slightly odd mix, since so often Jerome punctures his sentimentality with some humor, and sometimes lets it stand.

Chapter 11:

Similarly, there are moments--or at least one moment in chapter 11--where the humor departs for a little history lesson on the signing of the Magna Carta. There's one joke in the title of the chapters, which list all the major actions of the chapter, since this part is called out as being "specially inserted for the use of schools." Still, not quite enough of a joke to explain why this chunk is there.

But my favorite two related jokes are probably (1) when the three think that the river looks too cold to swim; but then J falls in and tries to trick his friends into swimming with him. (Is there a certain sense of meanness to humor? Or British humor?) And then (2) there's the realization that J is wearing George's shirt and getting it soaked, which instantly turns George's good-humor to annoyance.

Which might be a way of saying that chapter 11 causes smiles, but not too many guffaws. (Not that I'm the guffawing sort.)

Chapter 12:

Like chapter 11, chapter 12 has a chunk of history, which may be explained, if we believe the Wikipedia page on Three Men, by the fact that this book started as a non-humorous travel guide (much in the same way as Dr. Strangelove began as a serious Cold War thriller).

But chapter 12 also has what may be the funniest and most famous episode in the whole book, when these three valiantly struggle with a can (tin) of pineapple:
We are very fond of pine-apple, all three of us. We looked at the picture on the tin; we thought of the juice. We smiled at one another, and Harris got a spoon ready.  
Then we looked for the knife to open the tin with. We turned out everything in the hamper. We turned out the bags. We pulled up the boards at the bottom of the boat. We took everything out on to the bank and shook it. There was no tin-opener to be found.  
Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup.  
Then we all got mad. We took that tin out on the bank, and Harris went up into a field and got a big sharp stone, and I went back into the boat and brought out the mast, and George held the tin and Harris held the sharp end of his stone against the top of it, and I took the mast and poised it high up in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down. 
It was George’s straw hat that saved his life that day. He keeps that hat now (what is left of it), and, of a winter’s evening, when the pipes are lit and the boys are telling stretchers about the dangers they have passed through, George brings it down and shows it round, and the stirring tale is told anew, with fresh exaggerations every time.  
Harris got off with merely a flesh wound.
Damn, that's worth stealing, from the tiny detail of irony (unhurt tin rolls over and breaks a teacup) to the build-and-skip of that final joke where we don't hear how George's straw hat saved him.

Chapter 13:

As a dog person--half man, half dog--I greatly appreciate most jokes about dogs and their people; and this chapter has a bunch of recognizable issues. There's the dog who seems innocent to its owner but causes great discomfort to other dogs and people--just go to any dog park and find the person who acts like their dog jumping on other dogs is great fun for every one involved; and there's the dog who finds his match in the unmovable cat. But I'm going to stick with Connie Willis, who highlights this line:
I never see a steam launch but I feel I should like to lure it to a lonely part of the river, and there, in the silence and the solitude, strangle it.
Chapter 14:

It may be common, but a joke about someone playing an annoying instrument badly often works:
George got out his banjo after supper, and wanted to play it, but Harris objected: he said he had got a headache, and did not feel strong enough to stand it. George thought the music might do him good—said music often soothed the nerves and took away a headache; and he twanged two or three notes, just to show Harris what it was like. 
Harris said he would rather have the headache.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Three Men in a Boat: Favorite Jokes Project, part 2

Chapter 5:

Chapter 5 finally introduces us to, you know, the boat. But before we get there, our three heroes have to struggle through the city to the river, exposing themselves to the jibes of the common people.
“They ain’t a-going to starve, are they?” said the gentleman from the boot-shop.
“Ah! you’d want to take a thing or two with you,” retorted “The Blue Posts,” “if you was a-going to cross the Atlantic in a small boat.”
“They ain’t a-going to cross the Atlantic,” struck in Biggs’s boy; “they’re a-going to find Stanley.”
By this time, quite a small crowd had collected, and people were asking each other what was the matter. One party (the young and giddy portion of the crowd) held that it was a wedding, and pointed out Harris as the bridegroom; while the elder and more thoughtful among the populace inclined to the idea that it was a funeral, and that I was probably the corpse’s brother.
With a book that focuses on three nincompoops, the outside view can be very helpful in showing us what these people really look like. So here we get a crowd noticing that the three men, with all their luggage and food, look like a cross between an exploring party, a wedding, and a funeral--all sorts of things except what they actually see themselves as, a group of holiday-makers.

Chapter 6:

There's a bunch to choose from in this chapter, and I was very close to putting as my favorite joke the idea that, if Harris ever became famous, it would be too hard to put up "Harris drank here" signs because he drank everywhere, so perhaps they would put up "Harris didn't drink here" signs; then there's the lesson on human nature that people never have what they want, which is demonstrated in the story of the boy who wanted to do great at school but got sick, whereas all the other boys would rather be sick than go do great at school; and then there's the Indiana Jones-esque joke about how a terrible china dog might be very valuable and honored in the future.

But my favorite joke here is probably the maze story: Harris had looked at a map and thought the maze was simple, so he went in, and got terribly lost, but with such a sense of confidence that he has a trail of people behind him. They, of course, find the center of the maze after they've given up and try to find the exit. They get so confused that when one of the groundskeepers comes to help them get out, he gets lost too. Eventually, with the help of an experienced groundskeeper, they all get out, much later than they expected.

Which leads us to the final line of the chapter:
Harris said he thought it was a very fine maze, so far as he was a judge; and we agreed that we would try to get George to go into it, on our way back.
Because no matter how bad things are, there's nothing quite as satisfying as making your friends go through it.

Chapter 7:

My favorite bit of chapter 7 is probably the narrator reflecting on how mis-begotten he must be to take no pleasure in the grand old British tradition of looking at old tombstones:
I don’t know whether it is that I am built wrong, but I never did seem to hanker after tombstones myself. I know that the proper thing to do, when you get to a village or town, is to rush off to the churchyard, and enjoy the graves; but it is a recreation that I always deny myself. I take no interest in creeping round dim and chilly churches behind wheezy old men, and reading epitaphs. Not even the sight of a bit of cracked brass let into a stone affords me what I call real happiness.
Of course, when you put it like that--dim and chilly rooms, wheezy guides--it's more a wonder that anyone likes this sort of activity. (And they really did, it seems; and for all I know, still do. But I've done my share of tombstone rubbings in the past, so I can't really point fingers here.)

Chapter 8:

Next to people not understanding themselves, a classic bit of comedy is the person who takes things too far. So, when the three boaters stop for a picnic and are told they are trespassing, we get a discussion of how annoying it is to be told that some places are off limits for a pleasure picnic. J says that he would like to kill the person who put up the signs, and then Harris goes on:
He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:
“Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.” 
Which is both an example of someone taking things too far and a segue into another bit, where J describes how Harris is not as good as he thinks he is at singing comic songs.

Chapter 9:

One almost infallible source of comedy is to impute to inanimate objects an ability and a willingness to make your life difficult. In Jerome's account, there are so many material things that go into a boating trip--and each of those things secretly wants to make your life difficult. That's doubly true for any inanimate object that involves more than one person. When two people put up a tent, they discover that the tent wants them dead. And here, similarly, when people are involved in towing a boat, they discover the fiendish intelligence of a tow-line:
I do not wish to be insulting, but I firmly believe that if you took an average tow-line, and stretched it out straight across the middle of a field, and then turned your back on it for thirty seconds, that, when you looked round again, you would find that it had got itself altogether in a heap in the middle of the field, and had twisted itself up, and tied itself into knots, and lost its two ends, and become all loops; and it would take you a good half-hour, sitting down there on the grass and swearing all the while, to disentangle it again.
I especially like how Jerome both targets the tow-line and then brings us back to the person's response to it, which involves a lot of swearing.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Three Men in a Boat: Favorite Jokes Project, part 1

After re-reading Connie Willis's essay on comedy, which holds up Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) (1889) as a model of prose comedy, I was seized by the desire to re-read this book again. But the only way I could convince myself that this was a good way to spend my time was to make a project out of it. So...

Welcome to my Favorite Jokes Project!

Which will last at least as long as my reading of Three Men, though possibly not much after. Now, if this were an academic study of the humor in this book, I would go through, categorize each bit of comedy--"this is irony, that is over-statement," etc. But since it's not, I'm just going to go chapter-by-chapter--over a few posts--and highlight one of my favorite moments in each chapter.

Bonus: Since Jerome's book is long out of copy-right, I can quote at length.

If you never read Three Men in a Boat, a) you should consider it, though you should know b) there's so little plot here, since this is basically a collection of episodes of what happened to these three guys on the River Thames. If you're interested in cultural history (ho-hum), this is about the time that the Thames lost its industrial character and became a recreation spot--which was both cause and effect of this book.

Before getting into this, you should also know... well, actually, I can't think of much else you should know about this book: it's about three people, on a boat, with a dog. The dog is fictional; the people involved are based on real people, but, hopefully, fictionalized.

And no, Jerome K. Jerome was not the name he was born with--that was Jerome C. Jerome.

Chapter 1: Desire for a disease
Chapter 1 introduces us to narrator J. and all of his friends, who need a change of pace. In particular, J notes that he's terribly sick: he looked through a book of diseases and realized that he had all of them! This is WebMD before the internet. He lists some of the disease he has and goes on to note specifically:
Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.
I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation?
First, how great is it that J.'s issue is still with us. Second, I love that triplicate form for those three diseases--Bright's disease in modified form, Cholera with complications, and Diphtheria since he was born. Third, the transformation of the single disease you don't have into something you want. What makes you so special, housemaid's knee?

Chapter 2: "How about when it rained?"

After three paragraphs extolling the beauty of nature and camping out at night, the poetry-free Harris bursts that bubble with that simple line: "How about when it rained?" This is reason enough for the story to stop and for us to hear about how Harris has a very practical turn of mind--that usually turns toward getting a drink. But this introduction to him is a perfect puncture of the romantic balloon. And so we fall down to reality. (For your academic paper on Jerome's humor: that fall from the romantic to the real is one of the big sources of comedy.)

Chapter 3: Boss who thinks he does the work

One classic source of comedy is a lack of self-awareness; and chapter three focuses on this with a long aside about the narrator's Uncle Podger (what a name!). We get this aside because Harris reminds the narrator of this uncle, a man who is "so ready to take the burden of everything himself, and put it on the backs of other people."
You never saw such a commotion up and down a house, in all your life, as when my Uncle Podger undertook to do a job. A picture would have come home from the frame-maker’s, and be standing in the dining-room, waiting to be put up; and Aunt Podger would ask what was to be done with it, and Uncle Podger would say:  
“Oh, you leave that to me. Don’t you, any of you, worry yourselves about that. I’ll do all that.”  
And then he would take off his coat, and begin. He would send the girl out for sixpen’orth of nails, and then one of the boys after her to tell her what size to get; and, from that, he would gradually work down, and start the whole house.
It goes on like that for several more paragraphs, with Podger dropping nails, putting the hammer through the wall, bloodying his nose, sitting on his jacket while making everyone look for it, etc. And then at the end, Podger looks at the disaster around him and only sees a job well done.

Chapter 4:

Chapter four covers a lot of ground:

  • food for a trip (overpacked, squashed, and scattered); 
  • the terrible smell of cheeses (an old topic made fresh with some fun details and images, like a man on an empty train carriage by himself while the rest of the train becomes stuffed; and an undertaker comparing the smell to that of a dead baby); 
  • the difficulty of packing (particularly the difficulty of keeping track of one's toothbrush);
  • more packing follies; and
  • dogs and their inveterate love for being underfoot.
This is a prize chapter for me, with almost every episode being funny--probably because they are so relatable. Have you ever been uncertain of whether or not you packed something to the point of having to unpack everything? Have you ever tried to pack food so as not to crush something? Have you ever met a dog? After reading Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, you know you're not alone!

But my favorite parts here are narrator J.'s consideration of grown men packing as a sort of show:
They began in a light-hearted spirit, evidently intending to show me how to do it. I made no comment; I only waited. When George is hanged, Harris will be the worst packer in this world; and I looked at the piles of plates and cups, and kettles, and bottles and jars, and pies, and stoves, and cakes, and tomatoes, &c., and felt that the thing would soon become exciting. 
It did. They started with breaking a cup. That was the first thing they did. They did that just to show you what they could do, and to get you interested.
Naturally, it goes on from there, getting bigger and messier.

And as a dog owner (or depending on your point of view, owned by a dog), I have to love the description of Montmorency, a fox terrier:
Montmorency was in it all, of course. Montmorency’s ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.
We should all be so lucky.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 231: Mary McCarthy, General Macbeth (#231)

Mary McCarthy, "General Macbeth" (1962) from Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now:
He is a general and has just won a battle; he enters the scene making a remark about the weather. “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” On this flat note Macbeth’s character tone is set. “Terrible weather we’re having.” “The sun can’t seem to make up its mind.” “Is it hot /cold /wet enough for you?”
The headnote in this book summarizes this piece, so you might be tempted to skip reading it, but holy heck, look at that opening gauntlet that Mary McCarthy throws down. I can't blame the headnote writer for summarizing her piece when she just launches into it right away: Macbeth isn't a tragic, larger-than-life figure, he's a middle-class yutz trying to keep up with the Joneses in his own murderous way. This is Macbeth as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. There's tragedy here, but it's smaller-than-life.

In this first paragraph, McCarthy employs one of her deadliest rhetorical tricks against the stuffed shirt, overblown tragedy of the characters, which is to rephrase what they say in 1950s suburban business everyman speech. Sure, this was written in the 60s, but McCarthy's target here is that 1950s corporatist, conformist attitude, a world where "true religion has been silenced." When she goes on to note that Macbeth has a modern, bourgeois "social outlook," she sounds like William Whyte in The Organization Man or David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd: Macbeth is just a 1950s guy, afraid of responsibility, full of common-place platitudes, and always ready to try to fit in.

Which brings us to at least one fun and arguable point in her essay, when she argues that what would be poetry in other situations, in the mouth of Macbeth turns to empty rhetoric: words sans feeling. I say this is arguable in that McCarthy presents this as something uncertain; it's the only part of the essay where she says that this is her opinion and she introduces the subject by noting the slipperiness of the boundary between poetry and rhetoric.

Still, she returns to the main point she made in the opening: Macbeth is the most modern of Shakespeare's villains, not so much a villain or a tragic figure or a fallen hero, as just a yutz, a Babbitt, worried about what others are saying about him. In the end, she reverses this math: Macbeth is modern, but that also means that the moderns around her are all Macbeths in their own way. In that way, she gets Shakespeare to condemn the entire grasping suburban business-man-world of the mid-century.

Lastly, as an aside, I heard the editor, James Shapiro, discuss this book on the New York Times Book Review podcast; and this is the first new LoA book that sounds very interesting to me. So if you don't want to take the plunge yet and buy it, you could do worse than listen to Shapiro talk about how this book came about and what he attempts to do with it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Elysium (the actual review)

Spoilers here--but it's not really a movie that will be spoiled by hearing some of the plot.

Though I'll start with a confession: I did not love District 9. I respected it a lot for some of the choices it made; I think there's a lot in it to enjoy and discuss. Particularly the way in which it took the Dances With Wolves Last Samurai Avatar conceit that a white guy is always better at being the natives than the natives are and twisted it: so Wikus ends up being in an alien body, but he's kind of a terrible mess for most of the movie; and most importantly, he doesn't want to be in that body. Sure, he's got some cool new powers, but it comes with a pretty serious cost. That said, the second half of the movie seemed to devolve into pure shoot-em-up video game cliches that left me bored. And I like video games!

Elysium follows the same basic formula, in some ways: there's a guy who just wants to get on with his life, which is being an ex-con who is still in love with his childhood sweetheart, and who works a shitty factory job. It's a pretty simple character--and I mean that in a good way. He is not a guy who is interested in fighting the system, he just wants love. Nice and simple--and not at all necessary to show all the flashbacks to his childhood, which don't add much. It also doesn't help that his childhood love has left him and, when they meet again, shows no particular interest in him. I don't mind a protagonist who is selfish, in some ways, but it's a little hard to get on the side of a guy who seems mostly interested in a woman who's not interested in him.

And just as Wikus in District 9 gets catapulted into action through an accident, our protagonist here is pushed into action by an industrial accident, which nicely fits with the theme of economic exploitation, but doesn't give him a lot of agency. And then when he's given some super-powers through an exoskeleton, that sort of seals his fate as the Wikus of this film: a guy who likes the status quo (though here, on the bottom of things), who gets pushed into action through an accident, and who gets special powers that help him.

So I've hinted at some reasons that character doesn't really carry the film: not a lot of agency; some wish-fulfillment for powers (that doesn't really actually fit the movie's theme or plot and could easily be done away with); and a goal that is a little off-putting (to make this woman love him).

Sometimes a movie can skate by with a flawed protagonist if the secondary characters are interesting. Unfortunately, that's not really the case here. The hacker who helps the protagonist starts out as a greedy black-market figure, but--for no reason that I can see--morphs into a crusader for justice. The evil bureaucrat and the evil corporate figure and the evil soldier are all so patently evil that it's uninteresting to watch them as characters; they become mere features of the landscape, obstacles for the protagonist to overcome. As in District 9's devolution to shoot-em-up, there's very little here beyond the pleasure of watching the good guy shoot up the bad guys.

To be clear, none of these problems sinks the film utterly; each just saps a little bit of vitality from it.

And there is one, final, big problem to the film, thematically: it's all about the haves vs. the have-nots, where the thing that people need most is medical attention. I can dig that as a set-up. But as others have pointed out, there's no issue of scarcity or medically-related oppression. The rich keep the medicine for themselves because they just do. And (spoiler) once all of the medicine gets distributed, everyone is healthy, with no issues of scarcity or cost coming up. In another type of movie, this would be fine; this would be part of the admission price: "If you want to watch this film, you have to accept that the space condo people are hoarding the medicine for themselves." It's the sort of "buy-in" or "gimme" that lots of films and tv shows start with: you have to believe in X--a doctor with an amazing diagnostic mind (for House), that New York City is incredibly crime ridden (for all those Law & Orders), or whatever it is.

But Elysium is about that situation. So for us to take it seriously, it needs to show us more of the whys and wherefores. Otherwise, it's not about us or people like us, but about cartoon villains who for no reason are killing the poor inhabitants of Earth. And then it becomes just a film where a good guy who just wanted to live a normal, poor life, goes out and righteously kills rich people.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Elysium and political science fiction, part 2

Which brings us to Elysium, which takes it's place with In Time as very political science fiction.

Wait, wait! Let me rephrase that: Elysium and In Time seem very political because they comment directly on and criticize our current systems. Compare that with something like... well, how about Demolition Man, a very entertaining action science fiction film--if I remember correctly. (Mostly I just remember the thing about the three shells replacing toilet paper.) Demolition Man involves a risk-taking cop and a psycho terrorist, with the further s.f. idea that society in the future is very clean and the psycho terrorist has been revived by someone to kill off some rebellious people. So we end up rooting for the underdogs, the individuals, the risk-taking cop--which, frankly, doesn't seem so overtly political because that's one of our founding stories. Underdog George Washington, individualistic cowboys taming the West, risk-taking cops who buck the system for moral reasons--how many stories of ours fit into that basic form?

So when I say that Elysium is very political, I should be clear: it is more obviously political because (a) it is critical and (b) it is not very subtle. By comparison, Demolition Man isn't all that subtle, with Stallone personifying the heroic aspect of a dirty, individualistic America; and something like Alien--where a corporation is willing to kill off its workers for profit--may be critical, but is a little more subtle. (I mean, Alien is a great haunted house story, with a monster picking off people who can't leave. The whole political aspect is small details that you don't really need to understand to enjoy the film. Hence: subtle.)

Which brings us back to the difference between Skinny Bitch Jesus Meeting and my own sketch comedy--which honestly, wasn't as funny. And it's not because I'm more critical in my sketch comedy, but because I'm not subtle.

Which brings us--again!--back to Elysium, which got a lot of flack for being political when it should more properly have gotten flack for being a little unsubtle. Rich people have access to medical technology and poor people live terrible lives that are seriously constrained by material considerations. Well, duh! To put it another way: did we need to make this into science fiction to get some of the same questions and themes? Heck, you could've made this a Roaring 20s noir about a guy trying to get access to some doctor who was dedicated to healing rich gangsters in some resort.

Oh boy, this is going to be a three-parter, isn't it? I haven't even gotten into what Elysium did right and what it did wrong.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Elysium and political science fiction, part 1: All about sketch comedy and political points!

In Austin a few weeks ago, I saw this hilarious New York-based sketch comedy duo named Skinny Bitch Jesus Meeting. Their first sketch involved these two men teaching bird-watching and bird-calls, before their teaching was derailed by their personal issues, mostly around women.

When I was at Second City, my first sketch comedy teacher emphasized the idea of "point" or "point of view"--you don't just throw random things into a sketch; you organize the sketch around some central premise or idea. Coming from grad school, where I taught expository and argumentative writing (where every paper wasn't just "here's some ideas I had" but organized around some central point), I immediately latched on to that idea--and twisted it, so that each sketch had to have some argument.

So I wrote a sketch where two rich people try to convince a poor person that it's okay to eat endangered species, which ended with the idea that they were really stuffing him up to eat him later. Point: the rich want to eat you. I also wrote a hi-larious sketch where some lipstick executives wondered how to make more money, including some tasteless projects (marketing to older women for their funeral lipstick needs), and devolving into violence--lipstick specially marketed to stalkers to write on bathroom mirrors (as happens in all the stalker movies). The last line of the sketch was one executive turning to the other and literally saying "I'd kill you all for a buck."

Don't get me wrong: I still love those sketches and there are still parts of those sketches that make me laugh. And don't get me wrong (again): I don't mind really political comedy.

But let's not fool ourselves about the difference: when Skinny Bitch Jesus Meeting makes a sketch about men who are obsessed with women and sex, they start out with bird calls (for mating?), and they never really have someone state the point of the sketch. (For some of their sketches, I'm not sure I could even articulate the point. When they sing Little Shop of Horrors's "Suddenly Seymour" as "Suddenly Lemur," with one of them wearing a ridiculous lemur costume and shoving food into her face, there's not a lot to analyze--but they had so much electricity and chemistry that I nearly cried laughing.) By contrast, when I was writing my sketches, I would start with the point and have someone say it. Maybe in another draft I'd cool that down a little, make that point only hinted at rather than said baldly.

Which brings us to Elysium--which I'll talk about next time!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 230: Algis Budrys, Who? (#230)

Algis Budrys, "Who?" (1955), related to American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s:

To explain the weird attribution above, the short story "Who?" was later expanded by Budrys into the novel Who?, which is included in the LoA collection of 1950s American sf.

Though, as the headnote says, Budrys's background isn't American: he came over because his father was in the Lithuanian government, and while they were in the US, Lithuania got taken apart by the Soviets and the Nazis (and then the Soviets again). So it's not a surprise (says whoever writes these LoA page) that Budrys's fiction often revolves around themes of identity. The LoA page also includes the excellent fact that Budrys came over when he was 5 and became an American citizen when he was 65; what they don't say is that he was an officer in the Free Lithuanian Army for most of his adult life, which was probably a less-than- (or other-than-)actual organization.

The excellent Tim Powers compares the story to the novel as a sketch to a masterpiece, and since I haven't read that novel, I will have to take his word for it.

The basic story here is summed up in a few sentences by the LoA headnote, but takes a few pages to become clear in the story itself: an American scientist (on the moon) was blown up in an accident, rescued and rebuilt and returned by the Russians--or was he? Because the largely mechanical man (with the nuclear pile in his chest powering his cyborg body, like Iron Man) might just be a Soviet agent. And the Americans have no physical way to check.

The story pings some "but what..." questions, but Budrys largely takes care of these: Why would the Russians rebuild him? To interrogate him. Why would they return him? Because of diplomatic pressure and perhaps as part of a larger diplomatic gambit. Why can't the Americans figure this out? Because their cyborg technology is not as advanced as the Russians. Etc.

So it's a well-crafted set-up, but Budrys himself said the ending was weak. Here's the ending: the guy assigned to figure out whether Dr. Martini is really a kid from New Jersey walks into the holding cell and calls him a "wop." And without thinking about it (we're told), Martini jumps up to attack, just as he would've done growing up in ethnically diverse but segregated New Jersey.

Budrys wants to make it clear that ethnic slurs are not restricted to America, as the main guy also thinks that, if "Martini" was really a Russian plant, he'd probably spent his youth fighting with other ethnics in the Soviet Union. Which is funny, in a strange, sad way: no matter your economic situation, there's going to be kids beating each other up because the other kid is a wop or an Asiatic.

It reminds me of Murray Leinster's "First Contact," which is a similar puzzle story: humans and aliens meet, they want to exchange peaceful data, but neither can trust the other. The result, both of them put into play the exact same plan about killing the other--which means that we really can trust each other, since we're so alike. Then at the end, two communication officers from the different species end up telling dirty jokes. It's a fun message of universalism: every (male) army tells dirty jokes about women, every community has some ethnic strife.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Don Jon and emotional porn (and, you know, regular porn)

I'm tagging this "comedy," but Don Jon isn't exactly that; it's a little bit of a rom-com about a man who meets a woman who he thinks he loves, and then meets a woman who he can really fall in love with. If you wanted to, you could break it down along to pretty traditional romance tropes, with maybe a gender swap: there's the guy with the flaw, the person who looks perfect for him, and the person who actually is perfect for him though she has something of a flaw. Take Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth Bennett (flawed), Wickham (secretly terrible), and Mr. Darcy (secretly wonderful once his main flaw is overcome).

(Note: Pride and Prejudice is amazing and wonderful as a romance because Darcy really is flawed. The book doesn't tell Elizabeth that she needs to get over his problem and accept him for who he is. The book says, Sure, Elizabeth is flawed and needs to get her shit together, but so is Darcy. One of the main problems of 1980s romance books--according to Janice Radway's Reading the Romance--is that these books let the guy off the hook: either the woman needs to just love him for his flaws or has to be gaslighted into accepting that she was wrong about his flaws in the first place. "He's not really a jerk" or "Get over it--this jerk is pretty good." Pride and Prejudice says screw that: everyone is flawed and people should try to be better, not force people to love them.)

Don Jon plays with this format by swapping genders: Jon is the main character looking for love (even though he doesn't know it); he meets Barbara, who seems perfect and also makes Jon work for her attention and affection; and eventually he meets an older woman named Esther who seems to not fit in with his life--they first meet with her sobbing uncontrollably and then move on to her catching him watching something on his phone--but who turns out to be just what Jon needs.

That's the first big change this story makes to the rom-com formula. The second is Jon's flaw: he's addicted to pornography. Which you're not going to see in most Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-coms. The movie is pretty awkward to watch because of that explicit sexual content--you may not want to watch this movie with your parents or kids. (On the other hand, you could use this as an example of how we're still much more prudish about sex than we are about violence. On the other other hand--god, what sex we could have with three hand!--the film does take some jabs at the use of sex all over to sell things.)

So Jon is addicted to pornography, even though he meets  the "perfect" woman (Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson). But eventually he learns, through Esther, that porn is a way to ignore the other person and that what he's really missing is that emotional connection. If you wanted to write a paper on it, you could say that she's the one to teach him that since her problem is that she's got too much emotional connection--with her dead husband and child.

But there's two other changes that Don Jon makes to the rom-com formula that makes it feel a little fresh and interesting. The first (well, third, if you're counting) is that the movie avoid love triangles, thank god. Jon and Barbara break up because Barbara discovers that he was lying to her about watching porn. By the time he gets together with Esther, he's a free agent. (The film also doesn't exactly let him off for this lie to Barbara: part of his redemption in the end is his apology to her, not for watching porn, but for lying to her about it.)

And the second/fourth change that Don Jon makes is that it ties Barbara's secret flaw (controlling, manipulative) to her own interest-verging-on-addiction to romantic comedies. It's not a big part of the movie and it's not exactly subtle, since Barbara references romantic comedies as the model of her life; but it feels like a nice commentary on the multiple forms of one-sidedness that can form in relationships.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Man of Dumb; or, How to Wreck a Franchise While Making Lots of Money

Yes, it made $668m on a $225m budget; and yes, there will be a sequel to Man of Steel (2013), which all sounds pretty good...

Until you realize that Avengers made $1.5 TRILLION on a $220m budget. Sure, Avengers had an extra year to make that money, but do you think Man of Steel is going to nearly triple its take in one more year? Or how's this for shaming: Amazing Spider-Man (2012) cost $230 and made $752m. Confining ourselves to 2013, Man of Steel made less than Gravity, it made less then Monsters University, it made less than Fast and Furious 6.

I'm sure the makers of Man of Steel are very happy to nearly triple their budget; and I don't think immediate box office is the be-all and end-all of judging a movie; but I just wanted to give some context to how well this movie did--and how well it could have done if it had been a good movie.

Because Man of Steel is a bad, dumb pointless film. There are so many bad choices made in the film that it would take too long to enumerate and describe them all. I'm sure, for each person who saw it, a different set of problems would stick out. So I won't talk about everything I thought was off, but here's a few things I noticed:

a) As many people have noted, the tone is dour, the color palette is dark, and the overall feeling is so grim. You can do grim Superman--he's the only child of a doomed planet, so sure, there's grimness there. But it's so unrelentingly grim that it basically comes off as trying too hard.

b) Did we really need to spend so much time rehashing everything from his backstory? Guardians of the Galaxy may have to stop the story to explain who these characters are, but Superman's origin can be told in four panels.

c) Just as an example of the bad scene construction, there's a scene where Clark finds an alien ship and he's about to stick his key into the ignition (basically), there's a robot protector behind him that he can't see. Oh no! Wait, what? See, it's shot as if we should be worried about what will happen to Clark, but (a) we don't know that the floating thing is a protector who will attack Clark; and (b) we don't know that putting in the key will turn off the robot. So basically we have a moment where Clark wants to do something, but what, why, and who opposes him?

cSub1) Which reminds me of another dumb move: when Zod's forces go to grab Kal's escape pod, one of them crashes into the barn to find it--and there it is. Did the Kents not try to hide it? As we learn when the evil Kryptonian leaves the barn, the escape pod was hidden in the basement. But by not showing us that first, the first impression is just that the Kents didn't hide the escape pod.

d) The big crisis for Clark seems to be whether he'll choose Krypton or Earth. Or maybe that's not the crisis, because, seriously, who expects Clark to choose to join with Zod--especially after Zod shows him the skull-strewn future? There's one moment where Zod tells Clark that he's destroying Krypton by destroying this one ship--and Clark does it, which seems like a big decision. And then the film goes on and on, with him having to fight Zod again to choose humans over Kryptonians. Blah. How many times are they going to make us watch dumb fights that all prove the same theme?

All that said, I want to highlight one moment at the end that I liked: when Clark comes to the Daily Planet as mild-mannered reporter, he meets Lois Lane, who knows his secret; and she gives a little smile and says, "Welcome to the planet." And that is just about the only humor in the whole movie.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Why aren't you writing (#6) ... fictional duo mash-ups?

I was going to write this dumb tweet about how Watson (from Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories) and Wooster (from Wodehouse's Jeeves & Wooster stories) could join up and form a firm of consulting twits. Now, setting aside how unfair that is to Watson--who isn't that much of a screw-up in Conan Doyle's stories, though some of the later movies relegate him to comic sidekick--it started me trying to expand on the tweet. If Watson and Wooster were paired up, where were Jeeves and Holmes? I guess I could combine them, but Holmes (super-detective) plus Jeeves (super-butler) is sort of already Batman and Alfred.


There's a lesson in just that opening story: Twitter is pretty silly--or at least I use it for silly things--but because it forces me to write and think, I come up with some things. And even if those things are silly, they might lead me on. In short, the lesson (that I need more than you, probably) is "keep writing." Because you never know when something you write will lead you on to something that seriously rings a bell for you.

So here's the bell that rang for me:

If you're stuck for a story, why not play fictional duo mash-up until something works. I don't mean you should literally write out a Watson meets Wooster story. There's a place for that story, but if you do a literary mash-up that's clearly a mash-up, you're going to limit your scope (and, ahem, market). After all, if you're writing Watson & Wooster, you're writing a pastiche or parody or homage. Using already made and known fictional characters is a bit of a wink towards the audience. You can write a comedy that way, but you're probably not going to write a searing love story that will sweep up your audience when you start with "What if Wooster met Watson?"

And searing love story is the goal, right?

Instead of literally taking those (literary) characters, try this: take the characters, find the core, and make that your own thing. For instance...

Take Bill (from Bill and Ted movies/tv shows/apps, hopefully)--a bumbling, romantic time traveler--and throw him together with Thelma, the put-upon housewife (of Thelma and Louise). Now Bill wants to save Thelma, but he's a bumbling, well-meaning idiot, and Thelma has to figure out her own way out of this trap of her humdrum life.

Take Sherlock Holmes--druggie detective--and give him the cat Hobbes as his companion. Now you've got a broken man and his imaginary cat friend trying to solve other people's traumas and probably not able to solve their own.

Take drunk detective Nick Charles (from The Thin Man) and give him the boy wonder/trauma survivor Robin as his ward, and you have a detecting family with a drinking problem, along with probably an anger issue.

And so on.

So next time you're stuck for some characters or a premise, take a spin through your favorite fictional (or real!) duos and see what weird combinations come up. Some of them may seem ridiculous (Batman and Hutch?) or untenable (Dr. Jekyll/Hyde and The Beast?), but some of them may spark an idea for you.

Why aren't you writing ... fictional duo mash-ups?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 229: Gilbert Seldes, Transatlantic (#229)

Gilbert Seldes, "Transatlantic" (1927) from Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight:

Due to server issues, Library of America's weekly entry wasn't available until Monday--but I'm going to backdate this to Sunday because I can.

Luckily, or unluckily, this short essay isn't entirely worth the wait. It's just four pages of Gilbert Seldes talking about the teams trying to cross the Atlantic; and how flight is and isn't an aesthetic act. What's curious is that Seldes doesn't fit easily in the cliche of the anti-mechanical/anti-futurist or the pro-technology. He's definitely into aesthetics and the romance of the individual American, like Lindbergh; so when he says
...the rough-rider is outmoded, and we are all mechanics now.
It can seem, reasonably, like one of those "oh, it's so sad that we're not all knights now that we have suburbs." And, as a native son of Long Island, I find it hilarious when he notes how ugly the mass-produced homes are out there. But his position is a little more nuanced overall, if still a little overly melancholy for some lost aesthetic past.

What's nuanced about his take is that airplanes, in the 1920s, fall in the middle of the Venn diagram of "art" and "mechanics." The planes trying to cross the Atlantic may be unique, but Seldes is more interested in and more impressed by the mass-produced planes that are used for purely commercial reasons. That might seem like an odd statement for a guy who just slagged suburban construction, but the important difference for Seldes is that, OMG, flying is awesome! Funny how you can have your set of aesthetic principles and then bend them enough to fit in the thing that you really like.

And I speak as someone who has been there.