Thursday, July 31, 2014

2014 monthly movie list: July edition

  1. Enough Said (amazingly real rom-com about older people looking for love)
  2. Pain & Gain (a fascinating and fun true-crime story)
  3. Blue is the Warmest Color (very realistic in its fashion--that is, it's long and there are boring moments, but it really immerses you in the main character's life)
  4. Oblivion (at least it looked sort of interesting, with the post-apoc landscape and the shiny shiny toys)
  5. The Conjuring (some good old school scares, but almost a self-parody in parts)
  6. Now You See Me (some fun character interactions in this over-stuffed magician-heist film, but hard to take seriously on any level and not all that fun)
  7. The Ice Harvest (not a good Harold Ramis comedy-noir, but an interesting attempt)
  8. Solomon Kane (cheesy ending with monsters galore)
  9. The Raven (not a good movie, but saved by the over-the-top acting of John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe)
  10. R.I.P.D. (a lazy and poorly done re-tread of various cop + weird stories)
The film I saw most recently was Now You See Me, which takes its heist plans to a ridiculous level of planning. That is, heist films now often have a moment where the good heisters get caught or where something goes wrong in their plan--but, surprise!, that seeming setback was all part of their plan. The real difficulty with something like this is that the screenwriters want to fool the audience by having the characters act a certain way (disappointed, scared) when they're really feeling fine. OK, sure, maybe they're acting out their disappointment as part of the con. Now You See Me hits this idea so hard that characters are constantly acting for us without any real explanation of what they're actually feeling.

They are also pretty shallow characters.

But it did get me thinking about what little role entropy plays in this long-term heist films. There's usually some pretense towards chance--"oh no, the guard is coming back early from his break"--but heist films by-and-large take place in a very mechanistic universe.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Midway through Arrow, season 1

When I went to a Nerdist Writer's Panel, Moira Kirkland, who works on Arrow, said something along the lines of, "Well, it's on the CW, so no matter what else is going on, our main characters have to go to a party in the third act." Which got a big laugh AND is also pretty accurate to what I've seen. Mostly, I watch the show at the gym.

I'll say this for it: Arrow makes very motivating gym watching. (It's right up there with Kacy Catanzaro's qualifying run for American Ninja Warrior.)

Before I watched an episode, I heard that Arrow was good, though a little heavy on cheesecake. To be fair, the cheesecake was a little more even-handed than usual, with Stephen Amell (Oliver Queen) sharing top-billing with his abs. Also, given the fact that WB/DC haven't had any luck with anything but the Christopher Nolan Batman movies--and the general success of more mopey YA literature--it's no surprise that this version of Oliver Queen/Green Arrow is awfully po-faced a lot of the time. Has he always been so emo?

(Also, it's funny to me to see so many actors who I recognize from other beloved and often short-lived nerdy tv shows. I'm curious to what extent casting for these roles is about getting a person that the audience will already recognize.)

But all that to the side, I'm surprised by how interesting and fun the show is. Who knew that a superheroic riff on Robin Hood would have such staying power? Of course, that's part of the appeal today: when we in our own world have to deal with massive inequality, the idea of a rich kid going after the criminal wealthy has a certain obvious resonance.

The Batmanization of Oliver also has some clear appeal, since so much of the story revolves around family issues: Oliver lost his dad and is dealing with a mother with secrets and a younger sister with issues; his best friend has trouble with his dad; his ex-girlfriend has issues with her mom and dad, etc., etc. Very smartly, all of these individual problems are interwoven; for instance, Laurel Lance's dad is a cop, so in addition to their family issues, both of them have issues with Oliver Queen AND with the Hood.

(Though I should add that I'm especially a fan of family complication stories. For instance, Smallville was not a great show by any measure, but every time Clark and his father had a heart-to-heart about their relationship, I sat up.)

So we have universal family problems, plus contemporary issues.

And some mystery. Rather than just give Oliver Queen a mind-altering exile on an island, the show has wisely made the island a big part of the story. Call this the "Lost-ization" of the show: while Oliver's life as superhero of Starling City goes on, we sometimes get stories of what happened to him on the island and what he did. Which nicely combines the pleasures of the origin story (watching a soft rich kid learn about the hard things) with the pleasure of a superhero quest/mystery story (where Oliver tries to clean up the city).

Also: there's always some big party with pretty people. So there's that going for Arrow as well.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 237: Henry James, The Middle Years (#237)

Henry James, "The Middle Years" (1893/1895) from Henry James: Complete Stories 1892–1898:

James being very Jamesian: long sentences; obscure and perhaps thin emotional stakes; focus on artistic personalities and their tribulations; and a dollop of homosexual tension.

Dencombe is not elderly, but he's sick, and he's seemingly given up hope that he'll accomplish anything else artistic with his life. So when a young doctor praises Dencombe's most recent book--before realizing that he's talking to Dencombe--it's a shot in the arm for his emotional well-being. Unfortunately for the young Doctor Hugh, it's a potentially terminal condition for his hopes of inheriting from the wealthy and whimsical old woman who he's caring for. Which puts Dencombe in a tight spot: he wants his young friend to succeed, but he also just wants his young friend.

That's the plot; and hopefully I've made it clear why I say the stakes are pretty thin. I mean, the protagonist has so little agency here that his main decision is basically just to figure out how he feels about things that are going on around him. The story wouldn't be materially different if Dencombe spent most of the story unconscious.

Of course, the plot isn't the only thing going on here; most of the action and narrative focus on Dencombe's feelings, from the sad sack opening to the less-sad sack ending. All of which gives the story a certain narcissistic--and autobiographical--feeling. As others have noted, Dencombe's mid-life crisis maps pretty well onto James's own mid-life situation.

Which makes it extra funny when Dencombe finds himself swept away by his own book, as he "surrender[s] to his talent"; and then realizes that even sensitive and admiring Doctor Hugh just doesn't get him. Since we spend so much time in his mind, the story seems to lean towards Dencombe's POV--as if we're supposed to feel bad for him, and by extension, for James.

But that's the ungenerous and un-fun reading. For fun reading, we could look at the vaguely homo-erotic relationship between Dencombe and Hugh. Young Hugh may be torn between a dying old woman--who has nothing to recommend her but her money--and a dying old man--who has nothing to recommend him but his AWESOME talent--but it hardly seems like a fair fight. When Hugh notes, "I don't get on with silly women," it sounds a lot more like he doesn't get along with women at all. (After all, he's not interested in either the old woman or her younger traveling companion.) And when Hugh praises Dencombe, well:
"You're a great success!" said Doctor Hugh, putting into his young voice the ring of a marriage-bell.
Of all the bells in all the world, James would choose a "marriage-bell."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Tropes, memes, yawns

Recently, blogger and writer Charlie Jane Anders put out a call on twitter for suggestions of screenwriting moves that are overused, which resulted in two blog posts: "20 Screenwriting Tricks And Tropes We Never Need To See Again" and "Even More Screenwriting Tricks And Tropes That Need A Nice Long Rest."

And if you read--or let's be honest, skim--these lists, you might find yourself nodding along. Yes, there are lots of scenes where someone talks smack about someone and then realizes that that someone is right behind him. (If you want evidence of any trope, check TV Tropes or look for a supercut on YouTube (though sometimes the examples aren't exactly what we'd want them to be).)

Though you may also find yourself feeling somewhat equivocal about some of these tropes. After all the "villain who wants to get caught" isn't really all that common as a movie trope--it just happens to have appeared in some big budget, popular, nerd-friendly, and recent films (Avengers, Skyfall, The Dark Knight, Star Trek into Darkness). We're not really working with a deep trope here and need to be careful of our impressions being biased.

But whether these things are tropes with many examples ("You're off the case" yells the hard-nosed administrator to the maverick cop, who will solve the case and possibly either earn the respect of the administrator or punch him in the face) or with only a few; or problems that go deep into culture beyond films and tv (the white person as savior of some darker natives--or who is even better at being a native than they are)--I think any list like this calls up a few serious questions about each trope:

  • Why is this used at all?
    • For instance, the "villain wanted to get caught" is both a way to show how smart/mastermindy the villain is and is also a scene of sudden reversal (the prisoner is now in power) and lets the hero and villain have a dramatic scene;
    • "You have to see this" (parodied here) is common in tv and movies--just like people popping over to talk rather than calling--because it's a visual medium and watching two people talk is less interesting than seeing them interact in person (is the common wisdom);
  • Is this really a problem?
    • "I just threw up in my mouth a little bit" was fun and slightly edgy and gross the first time it came up; the 100th time, not so much;
    • "We only use 10 percent of our brains" isn't really a trope, per se, but it's a bit of misunderstood and wrong science that really is just used as an excuse for someone to develop mental powers;
  • Is there a way to save this?
    • On the second list, someone offered "when a villain tells the hero that they're the same" as an overused trope--and that particular scene may be over-repeated, but the idea that the hero has to struggle with some similarity with the villain is less a "trope" and more a form of ur-story that we often tell. Just because that scene needs to get reworked doesn't mean the underlying structure needs to get thrown out. So how do we save these story beat? The easiest way would be to change up the trope: maybe it's not the villain who points out the similarity, but someone else. Maybe the villain rejects this similarity. There are dozens of really easy tweaks to breathe a little bit of air into this trope.
    • Or take the villain wanted to get caught: once we know why we're tempted to use it (to show villain's smarts and provide a reversal and give a dramatic confrontation), you can think about how to get those effects through other means: for instance, the villain could (gasp!) escape through a well-thought out escape plan after some drama; and maybe luring the hero out to catch the villain helps the villain to do something else nefarious elsewhere.
As much as I enjoy this sort of list (and this sort of crowd-sourcing), I'd love to see a sort of story clinic for these tropes to dig down into why these tropes were used, why overused, and how to find something new in there.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 236: James R. Gilmore [Edmund Kirke], Our Visit to Richmond (#236)

James R. Gilmore [Edmund Kirke], "Our Visit to Richmond" (1864) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Gilmore was one of two people who sent south to meet with the Confederates about a possible peace plan, a mission which was put in place (or expedited) by the fact that Horace Greeley was meeting in Canada with Confederates who had their own peace plan. In other words, the South looked like it was trying to make peace, which would make Lincoln look bad before the 1864 election; so this other mission went to make it clear that the South's--or at least Jefferson Davis's--idea of peace was nothing the north would want.

Again, it's always interesting, and sometimes a little sad, to read these stories from the past where we know how it all turns out. For instance, when Davis meets the two envoys and talks about how the Confederacy is not suffering and could still win--though is that (1) Davis not knowing the future or (2) Davis putting the best spin on things that he can?

There's also some material here that seems of its time: Gilmore paints Judah Benjamin as a slightly disreputable figure, with "a Jew face," and a noted lack of greatness; while Davis is clearly a great man who can sway his people. Though this is given a little tweak at the end when Gilmore seems to suggest that killing Davis would be one way to end the war.

Gilmore also has a little sense of humor, which is a nice bit of sugar to help this message go down: here's a joke about Georgia banks and mines and mosquitos--all of which bite--to soften you up for the real message of this piece, which is that the Union has to crush the Confederate government. It's a nice rhetorical move; and whether or not this piece had that much material effect on the war, we know how history turns out.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Super short review: The Conjuring

The Conjuring got very good reviews and did really amazing business--so much so that there's going to be both a sequel and a spin-off.

And there's a lot to like here: fine, grounded acting; fun, practical effects rather than CGI; some spooooky bits.

But there's also a lot not to like. Here's a spoiler: when the two demon-hunters start to look into the past of this haunted house, they find a murder. OK, that's pretty standard in horror films: people find some horrible history. Sometimes, in some films, the investigator discovers the horrible history and a red herring horrible history. ("Oh no, there was a murder, but this haunting is from this other suicide!")

Similarly, in this film--and many other horror films--the investigators look for some evidence and find some.

In The Conjuring, once the investigators start to find out the horrible past, it piles up almost comically. Similarly, the evidence is so over-the-top that it's hard to take these people seriously. A woman hung herself? Someone drowned a kid? There's an evil doll? Birds keep crashing into one wall of the house? The house is freezing and smells like rotten meat?

At some point, this seemed more like an SNL parody of horror than a horror film to me.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 235: Louisa May Alcott, How I Went Out to Service (#235)

Louisa May Alcott, "How I Went Out to Service" (1874) from Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings:

Louisa May Alcott is such an interesting person and writer. While we remember her today mostly for Little Women--and we remember Little Women primarily as a sentimental family story with some semi-typical romantic plots--she wrote a lot of other stuff, not all of which hits these sentimental notes.

(And really, is Little Women really unalloyed sentimentality? There's a lot of strangeness and darkness in that book. Though possibly nothing as weird/dark as her book Moods, from which I love to quote this climactic moment between two romantic rivals on a sinking ship (iirc): "In the black night with only Heaven to see them the men kissed tenderly as women, then hand in hand sprang out into the sea.")

"How I Went Out to Service" is much more in line with that dark and comic Alcott than the sentimental Alcott. It tells the story of how she, in real life, went out to "service" for a small and aging family: old father, nervous sister, reverend brother, and aged servant. That is, she was hired for light housework and to be a companion to the unwell sister of the house and to be one of the family. But it turns out that the situation is worse than that, since the reverend brother is a passive aggressive tyrant (who also, though its not explicit here, made the situation uncomfortable sexually).

Which is all pretty grim and uncomfortable; and though Alcott winds up the story with a silver lining (I learned a lot) and a moral (be nice to people), most of the story has that grimly comic and ridiculous tone, as the villainous reverend talks about how spiritual he is and then orders some heavy food in the same note. In some ways, his horribleness is the central idea here, and we only get a bit about how Alcott responded to it.

And one reason why I love Alcott is because she doesn't always hide the parts of herself that might seem less angelic or wonderful--the usual marks of 19th-century femininity. For instance, when she wants to leave this bad post, her mom
... advised me to be patient, to do the generous thing, and be sure I should not regret it in the end. I groaned, submitted, and did regret it all the days of my life.
Where most writers of the time might want to put a nice (Christian) gloss of working hard now and feeling better after, Louisa May Alcott the writer doesn't give in to the romantic and novelistic and sentimental ideas--the same ones that led Louisa May Alcott the young worker into this bad situation to begin with.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Diplomacy--a perfect and terrible board game for anonymous online play (or maybe just not for me)

A friend recently linked to a Grantland article about the board game Diplomacy; and this friend commented that the game sounded interesting, but also sort of horrifying. "But," I eagerly posted back to him, "if you never played it, you only get some idea of how horrifying it actually can be."

I've played Diplomacy a few times: with college friends, both in person and online; and online with some random and anonymous people. In fact, after that Grantland article, I decided to sign back in to my account at and joined a few games.

Now, as with religion, how you approach a board game like Diplomacy has a lot to do with you. So here's my favorite way to play: back when I was playing online with college friends, I was playing Czar Nicholas (or Kaiser Wilhelm) and I kept up an elaborate correspondence with other players in character; I even researched and discussed what historical uniforms my soldiers would be wearing at the time. Right there, that tells you a lot about what I like: I like roleplaying, I like story-building, I like specifics.

One other benefit--and horror--of playing with friends is that you already have an existing relationship with them. You think you know them. Which of your friends will pull a fast one to get what he wants? Which of your friends will stick to a deal even if another opportunity comes up? Of course, this isn't serious: at the end of the day, you are playing a game, and no soldiers actually get pushed out of territory. So you can't entirely judge people by their private, non-board game lives.

(Much better to judge them according to the "Would they hide me from the Nazis?" sort of game that some people play.)

Now, after playing for a few days online this time around, I resigned all my games, whether I was winning or losing. (Curiously, the games where I was doing the best were the ones where I was Austria; which, if you don't know the game board, is significant because Austria is surrounded by potential enemies.) Why?

Because it wasn't any fun. Would anonymous-player-63 turn on me? Who cares! It wasn't an interesting question since I had no other relationship with these people. Could they trust me? Well, that's a slightly more interesting question, but still not all that interesting to me. Why would I betray an erstwhile ally? To win. Why? Uh, because... winning is good? So now I'm playing with strangers that I don't care about, playing a game that I don't really care about.

And on top of that, it takes a lot of mental energy to go through all the scenarios, trying to figure out the best move to make.

So, for me, Diplomacy is best played with friends, probably while being stuck in a small room.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Computer programming and writing

For the past few weeks, I've been mainlining computer programming courses--taking a Coursera class in Python, a Code Academy class in Ruby, and a few (many) other classes. (I also watched a bunch of lectures on programming for iOS for the immediate goal of making a card counting trainer in time for my girlfriend's trip to Las Vegas--and succeeded!)

The downside of this flurry of activity is that many of my older hobbies and interests have suffered. In particular, I haven't had as much time to write. But I've spent so much time listening to writers and thinking about writing that it's hard to get away from some of the ideas on how to write best. And--surprise surprise--I've noticed a lot of overlap between the two types of work.

For instance, there is the distance between the work in your mind--perfect and elegant and powerful--and the work as it actually starts off, which is usually cramped and clumsy and probably ineffective. In both cases, the writer/programmer has to allow for failure in their process: the computer prototyping process (says the teacher of this Human-Computer Interaction course) should be quick and full of failure--and that's probably the same advice I would give to many a beginning writer. Don't be Professor Seagull, constantly writing and rewriting the same small thing over and over, whether it's code or narrative.

On the other hand, whether you're writing code or writing a story, you may not want to be satisfied with your first version. Your story probably needs revising; and your code could probably use some re-factoring. The first time you write something, it probably won't work perfectly; the second time, it might work, but not do the things you want it to do; the third time, you might want to make sure it not only works, but works elegantly. Curiously, in both writing and coding, a lot of revision is thinking about better ways to say the same thing; and what words you can do without.

There are some other overlaps, but those are the salient pieces of advice that are easily transferred between the two fields.

Oh, another lesson: be careful with your punctuation!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 234: Fanny Fern, Tyrants of the Shop (#234)

Fanny Fern, "Tyrants of the Shop" (1867) from Writing New York: A Literary Anthology:

"Fanny Fern" was the pen-name of Sara Willis--which I mostly mention for the Poe fans among you, who may recognize the last name as that of Nathaniel Parker Willis. N.P. Willis was Fanny's brother and later a "friend" of Poe--in quotation marks more because of Poe's issues than N.P.'s.

Though we could also note that Fanny charged brother Nathaniel Parker with more-or-less abandoning her in her need, as recounted in the semi-autobiographical--and very good--novel, Ruth Hall. As the LoA notes, many contemporaries thought Fanny Fern was too mean, too sarcastic, too--gasp!--unwomanly in her writing. They leave off one of my favorite jokes in that vein: people who thought Ruth Hall was too mean and vicious to real people referred to it as "Ruthless Hall." Ba-da-bing!

Of course, "unwomanly" could also be a positive thing for some people; the LoA notes that Nathaniel Hawthorne praised her work: she "writes as if the devil is in her." What the LoA doesn't note is that this message of his was an addendum to his justly famous and reviled comment on how American novels are dominated by "a damned pack of scribbling women." That is, in one letter, he complained about women's writing; in the next, he singled Fanny Fern out as an exception to that rule.

But if we--for the moment--dump out all the gendered language and the restrictive ideals of femininity of the time that Hawthorne is leaning into, I think we might more or less agree with him: Fanny Fern is not a "nice" writer. This whole piece is two pages about what jerks men shop-owners can be to their female help; and how women who make very little and don't have a lot of job prospects have to submit to this sort of inhumane treatment. And I say "jerks," but Fanny puts this into rather quintessentially American language of tyranny and repression and slavery--all the things that Americans (theoretically) hate, but which many people seem fine with as long as its happening to someone else.

No surprise that Fanny Fern--like her old school-mate Harriet Beecher Stowe--was an abolitionist as well as a feminist.