March 20, 2009

Saint Maybe

The number of days since I had a substantial post for Ye Olde Personal Blogge has probably entered triple digits by now. With that in mind, and having just finished a really good book, it seemed like a good time to indulge in a little low-pressure composition.

One of the three courses I'm taking this semester is a religion and lit seminar on theodicy (the theological dilemma posed by evil and suffering in the world). I decided to take this particular class partially because of the professor that was teaching it, and partially because our course texts include films as well as novels (and other things). In fact, I'll be leading the discussion on Chinatown next month, and I'm looking forward to that.

It has been no surprise to me, in this course as in others, to be presented with a list of works that I've never read, and many that I've never heard of. One such book, which we read for this week, is Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler. Tyler is best-known for The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons (the latter won her a Pulitzer), but I've never read anything by her before.

Reading the back-of-the-book synopsis, I expected Saint Maybe to be a sort of grace-centered retread of 1980's Ordinary People, in which a teenager struggles to come to terms with the death of his older, "better" brother (for which he feels partially responsible) with the help of a compassionate psychiatrist. As it happened, there are some superficial parallels, but thematically it turned out to have more in common with 2007's Atonement. I'm actually thinking about exploring the treatment of grief, guilt and forgiveness in all three works for my final paper, but that is neither here nor there. (And, for the record, I know that both of the films I've mentioned are based on novels . . . I just haven't read them and don't know how faithful a comparison would be.)

Saint Maybe begins in 1965 and centers around the Bedloes, a very happy, normal American family living in Baltimore. Doug and Bee are both teachers. Their oldest, Claudia, has been married for some years and seems to be in a near-constant state of pregnancy (I believe the final count by novel's end was eight children). Danny, the middle child, is the family's golden boy. He is handsome, athletic, and well-liked by everyone. He is old enough to be out on his own, but still lives at home and has settled comfortably into a career at the post office. Ian is the baby of the family, a surprise that arrived several years after the first two. As the book begins, he is nearing the end of his high school career.

The even keel of the Bedloe's lives is mildly disrupted when Danny decides to marry Lucy, a divorced mother of two (Agatha,7, and Thomas, 3). Then, almost immediately after the wedding, Lucy announces that she is pregnant, and after only seven months, a baby girl is born "prematurely." Even Ian is perceptive enough to notice that little Daphne is not a preemie, and when he does the math he realizes that this is not even his brother's child. No one else seems to be aware of this, least of all his brother.

Ian is ruffled further when he begins to suspect Lucy of cheating on Danny. She frequently calls on Ian to babysit so she can spend her afternoons out on the town, but she never says where she goes and one day she returns wearing a dress that Ian knows she and Danny can't afford. Matters come to a head on the night when Lucy manipulates Ian into babysitting while Danny is at a bachelor party, even though Ian has an important date planned with his girlfriend Cicely (after which he hopes to lose his virginity).

Lucy promises to be home early, but she completely blows her curfew, and in fact Danny arrives home first, slightly drunk. Ian, furious, demands that Danny drive him home and then to Cicely's house. As they arrive at the Bedloes', his frustration leads him to blurt out his suspicions about Lucy and the new baby. While he is inside, Danny floors the accelerator and drives his vehicle straight into a stone wall at the end of the street, killing himself. A few months later, after Ian has gone away for his first semester at college, Lucy overdoses on sleeping pills and dies.

While he is back in town for the funeral, Ian happens to stroll past a store front with a neon sign that says "Church of the Second Chance" and slips inside. After the service, he stays to talk to the pastor, Reverend Emmett, who tells him that he will not be forgiven unless he at least attempts to atone for what he did. This conversation leads Ian to drop out of college, apprentice himself to a local carpenter, and devote himself to helping raise Lucy's orphaned children.

The novel follows him for the next 25 years as he basically dedicates his life to the quest for redemption, using his story to explore two extreme Christian doctrines of absolution; what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call "cheap grace" on the one hand, and the works-based atonement model on the other. What emerges is neither easy or straightforward. Tyler seems to be saying that forgiveness (which, in this case, also means freedom from guilt), while it will be easier for some than for others, cannot be either assumed lightly or earned through extreme sacrifice.

In this case, forgiveness is something that has to be negotiated by the passage of time and the acquisition of wisdom. Ultimately, it is a process in which the journey is more important than the destination. Rather, I should say the journey is the destination (there isn't really a destination at all, I suppose). I don't actually have it all figured out, but I'm still turning it all over in my mind, and probably will be for quite awhile. I've finished reading, but I can't put away what I've read.

Tyler writes characters very well. This family felt completely alive and real to me, really almost to an alarming degree. I struggled, emotionally, to continue reading at a few different points, and I was caught off-guard by my visceral response. I actually had to stop at one point last night and watch a sit-com before continuing because I was alarmed by my strong reaction to the novel, and I knew I couldn't just lay it aside. For one thing, I had to have it done for class today, and for another, it's really a page-turner.

These days, if I'm even the slightest bit sleep-deprived, I'll be napping after a couple of pages of just about anything. In fact, earlier in the evening I had fallen asleep while reading Faulkner's Light in August, but Saint Maybe kept me wide awake until 4:00 in the morning, when I decided I had reached an adequate stopping place. I should note that these "adequate stopping places" become more frequent as the novel draws on towards its conclusion, though I'm not sure whether to regard this as a weakness or a necessity. Either way, by that point I had more than enough momentum built up to sweep me through to the end.

I probably can't totally pinpoint what prompted my reaction to the novel, and certainly part of it must be attributed to personal factors (certainly many of my classmates didn't have the same experience, though I didn't hear any stringent criticisms). Setting that aside, however, I was probably blindsided by two things.

First, the extremely effective shifts in tone and point of view. Each chapter is limited to the perspective of a different character, and the use of this device during the first third of the novel completely subverted my expectations for what the book would be like and how it would approach the story. The first chapter lulled me into a false sense of security, while the second presumably slipped right through whatever armor I had donned in response to the introduction.

Second, as I mentioned before, Tyler is just crackerjack with characters. Almost before I realized what had happened, I had become enormously invested in these people and their lives, which I then followed for decades through every sort of event imaginable, from births to deaths and everything in-between. It's a lot to take in all at once when you're reading about someone you care about, and it's not the sort of experience that many novels can pull off (though Lord knows they try).

I think I'll try to get Rachel to read this after she finishes the last book I handed her (I try to keep her literarily-occupied at all times). Obviously I would recommend it just in general. It was an absorbing and (for me) moving read, and also a work that I expect to find floating on the surface of my thoughts whenever I consider or discuss the topic of forgiveness in future.

Posted by Jared at 02:49 AM | TrackBack

June 01, 2008

Celtic Women

Doug and YouTube recently introduced me to a ridiculously-talented group called "Celtic Woman." After wandering through many of their songs (and listening to a few of them a couple dozen times), I went out today and bought one of their CDs: "A New Journey." I highly recommend it . . . here are a few of my favorites. It's quality stuff.

The Voice

The Spanish Lady


At the Ceili

Posted by Jared at 08:34 PM | TrackBack

July 26, 2007

It Is Finished

Potterheads rejoice! The 7th book is out, most of you have finished it (if you haven't . . . spoiler warning!), and it is a worthy final chapter in an epically-good series that I will relish sharing with fellow readers for some time to come. Rachel, having seen the first five movies and heard the first book read aloud (by me), wormed a partial summary of book six out of me so I could read Deathly Hallows out loud to her. Not what I would have done, but this is the girl that normally reads the ends of books first. I was just glad she didn't immediately jump to the epilogue and then tell me all about it.

I read about half of it aloud, and the rest we read separately. I finished on Sunday and she finished on Monday. Now she's started over . . . she read Sorceror's Stone and about half of Chamber yesterday. She probably would have read more, but I got irritable at about 2 in the morning when she kept exploding with shrieks of hysterical laughter and thrashing about while I was trying to sleep right next to her. I'm such a grump.

Anyway, back to Deathly Hallows. My expectations for this book were absolutely through the roof (no way to keep them down), and they were satisfied. This book has everything: weddings, funerals, high-speed, high-altitude chases, riddles, mysteries, sudden reversals, disguises, duels, a bank job, a battle . . . even a Grail quest! And it fills in perfectly all the gaps that were left in the story and backstory, all the way back to Dumbledore's early career. Awesome.

And, perhaps most important of all, I hope that anyone still saying these books cannot and do not speak profoundly and meaningfully of key Christian truths feels a right stupid git now. Harry selflessly walks to his death at Voldemort's hands and then finds himself in King's Cross for a discussion with Dumbledore about the deeper magic that Voldemort doesn't understand. He then returns to life where Voldemort is all ready to proclaim his triumphant victory, performing the cruciatus curse on Harry's limp body and lifting him into the air three times. Voldemort declares his supremacy to the still-defiant good guys, but they can't be hurt by him or his followers. They are protected from harm by Harry's blood sacrifice. Harry and Voldy then duel and Harry wins the final Hallow from him, becoming the "master of death."

Pretty blatant stuff.

As soon as I finished the book, I started combing the interwebs in search of others who "got it." I particularly wanted to see what John Granger had to say, but he's not covering the symbolism exhaustively just yet. If you start over at his blog, you'll find a fun list of 20 discussion points to look over. I commented on #12 (the Horcruxes and Hallows) because no one had mentioned the Grail aspects of the Quest.

In the meantime, while I await a more complete discussion of Deathly Hallows from Granger, I also discovered this. It's an outrageously long discussion of the Christian elements of Half-Blood Prince that Granger posted on a Barnes&Noble forum. Good reading, but sadly he eventually allowed himself to be drawn down into a rather silly and petty side-debate over the origins of Christianity (and came off rather badly, IMO) before the thread was locked by a moderator a few weeks later. But the initial post is interesting.

"Christianity Today" (long a bastion of enlightened reason regarding Harry amidst a sea of evangelical inanity and insanity) dove right in with a discussion of the latest books Christian elements. Good article.

And they aren't the only ones that noticed. "The Wall Street Journal" commented on it in their review, as well. (Thanks, Martinez.)

John Mark Reynolds at Scriptorium Daily soberly discusses his impressions of the final book and the series as a whole, as a reader who enjoyed them but is unsure of their literary merit or staying power. Here's more of the same from "Rafting the Tiber." Lots of good commentary out there, and I hope to stumble across some more as people have time to articulate.

Meanwhile, two more links: Remember those raving lunatics from "Exposing Satanism" that I discovered a few years back? No? Well, they're still around, but a lot of the stuff from their site isn't around anymore . . . this article is, though. It's good for an outraged laugh (sexual congress with goats?!), and there's some very clever (if self-defeating) symbology work. Reminds me of Dan Brown, oddly enough. And, finally, courtesy of Uncle Doug, here's an interview with Rowling in which she reveals some information that didn't make it into the epilogue. If you're feeling like you need some more closure, definitely check it out.

Posted by Jared at 04:43 PM | TrackBack

July 20, 2007

Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter

(Finished Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter on Monday and I'm flying through The Phantom Menace. Up next is Rogue Planet, and after that Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn . . . be sure and find yourself a copy of that if you don't own one. Zahn is not to be missed. I'll be breaking for a few days to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, so the Zahn book should come up in a little under 2 weeks.)

Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter was written by Michael Reaves and published in January of 2001. It was Reaves first Star Wars book, though by no means his first writing experience in the universe. Apparently he was involved in a few episodes from the Droids and Ewoks TV series. He has since collaborated with Steve Perry on three Star Wars novels (including a forthcoming book on the origins of the Death Star), and he will be responsible for a trilogy centered on Coruscant during the Jedi Purge which will be released during the next two years. Non-Star Wars writings include a long and varied career in television on such shows as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Batman: The Animated Series, as well as many novels and short stories.

The book is set during the few days before Episode I begins, and ends as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are en route to Naboo.

Connections: The only ongoing characters with a significant role in the book are Darth Maul and Obi-Wan. I didn't detect any cameos, but several other movie characters make incidental appearances (Darth Sidious, Yoda, Qui-Gon, Trade Federation leaders, etc.). Most of the cast is new and appears only here.

Four Nemoidians are in on Darth Sidious's plot to blockade Naboo, but just before the plan goes into effect, one of them drops out and runs for Coruscant. He is intent on selling the information about the impending blockade (and who is really behind it) to the highest bidder and using the proceeds to disappear into comfortable retirement. With time running out, Sidious dispatches Darth Maul to quickly and quietly plug the leak, but there are a number of factors neither of them have counted on.

Drawn inexorably into the midst of these events are Lorn Pavan, a small-time information broker who has been down on his luck ever since the Jedi ruined his life, Pavan's "business partner" I-Five, a wise-cracking, heavily-modified protocol droid, and Darsha Assant, an untried Jedi Padawan who has just completely flubbed her first important solo mission. These three unlikely companions will match wits with a Dark Lord of the Sith (and worse) deep in the treacherous, terrifying underbelly of the galaxy's capital planet.

This book is pretty great, as Star Wars books go: simple and straightforward, but full of excitement and flavor. Reaves writes very naturally in the lingo, and his vocabulary (Star Wars and non-Star Wars) is large and varied. The story is neatly woven together, and you never know what's going to happen next. There is a genuine tension because the heroes can (and probably will) die. The hair-breadth escapes feel like just that, reminiscent of an Indiana Jones-style "how in the heck can they get out of this?" stunt.

The characters, by the way, are really good. The banter between Pavan and his droid is classic, and Darsha (the amazing fallible Jedi) is a nice change from the usual flat, bland characterization others in her order receive. Speaking of flat, that's what Darth Maul is . . . but it's not Reaves fault (gee, whose fault could it be?). Nevertheless, he portrays the character very compellingly. Maul remains a credibly scary villain even though he fails several times to finish off his quarry because of the way Reaves displays the Sith's incredible arrogance. Sending Obi-Wan to follow in the wake of destruction Maul leaves behind is also a fun move.

There is another character in the book that Reaves does exceptionally well: Coruscant. Reaves really brings the planet to life for us, populating its underworld with strange life forms, street gangs, criminal organizations, tribes of mutant cannibals . . . and surrounding it all an atmosphere of deep-ghetto gloom and grime that exists just beneath the shining surface of the planet's upper-levels. This is not (thank goodness) George Lucas's Coruscant. All in all a bit shallow, but a cracking good read nonetheless.

Grade: A-

Posted by Jared at 01:01 PM | TrackBack

July 12, 2007

Cloak of Deception

(Well, well . . . it's a trend. I finished Cloak of Deception over the weekend, about a week behind schedule, and now I'm halfway through Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter. Next up is the novelization of The Phantom Menace.)

Cloak of Deception was written by James Luceno and published in May of 2001. Luceno has unleashed half a dozen Star Wars novels on the world in the past 7 years, and he's still writing them. This was his 3rd foray. Other writings are largely also playing around in other people's universes: some Robotech books and the novelizations of The Shadow and The Mask of Zorro. In my opinion, his novels are about as distasteful as that resume suggests, but apparently the publishers and large segments of the fan community disagree. Luceno continues to receive juicy sections of the timeline to fill in, including the final book in the ambitious 19-book New Jedi Order series and the two novels that bookend Revenge of the Sith.

The book is set during the Rise of the Empire Era, covering several months beginning about a year before Episode I (or 33 years before Star Wars). It is currently the earliest such novel, although there are scads of junior novels that come before it, most notably the 19-book Jedi Apprentice series, detailing the apprenticeship of Obi-Wan Kenobi ad nauseum.

Connections: Luceno is a big fan of cameos, and several characters who are very important in other books or series make brief, minor appearances in Cloak of Deception. The alien Fosh Jedi, Vergere, forms part of the main Jedi team in the book. She will be captured by the Yuuzhan Vong a few years after this and reappear several decades later to play a key role in the New Jedi Order. Of course, Luceno has a personal interest in giving her extra screentime, as he created her character in the first place for his previously-written NJO novels. Jedi Master Jorus C'Baoth makes a brief appearance in the Jedi Temple. He plays a key role in the exploratory Outbound Flight a few years after this, only to disappear and pop up about a decade after Star Wars as a villanous Dark Jedi in Timothy Zahn's excellent Thrawn trilogy. Finally, Grand Moff Tarkin pops up as a lowly lieutenant governor (and friend of Senator Palpatine) on a backwater world.

Cloak of Deception relates the ridiculously complex backstory of the rising tensions and intrigue between the Trade Federation and the Republic that led to the blockade of Naboo seen at the beginning of Episode I. The cast of characters is enormous, almost to the point of being unwieldy. It includes a large number of Jedi (all recognizable from the movies, save a few notable exceptions like Vergere and C'Baoth), the Neimoidian leaders of the Trade Federation, numerous senators (most notably Senator Palpatine) and other government leaders, members of the Nebula Front (a "terrorist" organization), and various mercenaries. Each of these groups has their own subplot (some have more than one), and these labrynthine little storylines appear to be weaving intricately together into what we hope is a coherent whole . . . but it never quite gels.

The gist: The Nebula Front has hired mercenaries to carry out various and sundry plots designed to throw both the Republic and the Trade Federation into chaos (piratery, political assassinations and the like). Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan (written with all the depth of a cardboard cut-out) are in full-on detective mode down the trail left by merc leader Captain Cohl and his sidekicks Rella and Boiny (what a wretched name). These three are easily the most interesting characters in the book, for what it's worth.

Meanwhile, the Trade Federation has entered into what they hope will be a mutually benificial relationship with Darth Sidious, but his schemes are quite a bit more sinister than they had expected. One assumes that he and his alter-ego, Senator Palpatine, are pulling all the strings from behind the scenes, but that is far from clear by the end. In fact, not much is clear except that something very complicated just happened and nobody really knows what it was (but some people know that they don't know).

As you can probably tell, I didn't think this book was all that good. It got off to a bad start, dragged heavily in the middle sections, and then picked up towards the climax, but failed to justify itself in the final pay-off. Luceno's writing feels like he is consciously trying to make it sound Star Wars, which just makes it feel artificial. Luceno also gets way too descriptive in all the wrong places. I don't need to know what a Jedi is. I don't need a detailed description of what a lightsaber looks like. There's really no good reason to aim Star Wars novels at someone who's never seen the movies.

On the flip side, after appearances in 3 books by Luceno, I still don't have a very clear picture of what Vergere looks like. The best mental image I can come up with based on his descriptions looks like something out of Dr. Seuss. And speaking of characters, Luceno just can't bring them to life. His alien characters are indistinguishable from his human characters. His Jedi are all the same (and all boring). Poor Obi-Wan literally has no personality at all.

There are some very promising moments spotted here and there. Captain Cohl and his gang are fun, and all of their scenes are good. The climax has a very intense Manchurian Candidate feel to it that I very much enjoyed (I'm not at all sure that it wasn't directly inspired by that film). And there's a great scene where the Jedi accidentally start a slave rebellion. Senator Palpatine feels like a very interesting character here, as we watch him wheel and deal and play political games with skill and style. But (and this, at least, isn't Luceno's fault) knowing that he's just an evil Sith Lord who wants to take over the galaxy for power's sake just drains all the interest right out of his motivations and machinations. Sad.

Grade: C

Posted by Jared at 12:17 PM | TrackBack

June 28, 2007

Darth Bane: Path of Destruction

(I actually finished Darth Bane last Thursday, but I forgot to post about it, and now I'm well over halfway through the next book, Cloak of Deception by James Luceno.)

Darth Bane: Path of Destruction was written by Drew Karpyshyn and released in September of 2006. This is his first (and only) Star Wars book, and almost all of his other work seems to have been in scripting video games. His most prestigious credits to date are Baldur's Gate II and Knights of the Old Republic, both well-liked by RPG fans, as far as I've heard. As of this month, a sequel to Path of Destruction (which was quite well received, apparently) is slated for release in December 2007. It will replace a previously-planned novel by Luceno about Darth Plagueis (master of Darth Sidious). The tentative title is Darth Bane: Rule of Two.

As you might guess from the title of the latter game (and the fact that I'm moving chronologically), this book is set during the days of the Old Republic. You know that whole "A long time ago . . ." schtick? Well, think longer. Path of Destruction is set 1000 years before the events of Star Wars during the earliest of the 6 Star Wars eras: the Old Republic Era (obviously), which covers events from 5,000 to 1,000 years before Star Wars. Path of Destruction is currently the only novel set during this era . . . the remaining 4 millenia being covered by a whole bunch of comic books and a few computer games. Sparse.

Oh, incidentally, the climactic conclusion of Path of Destruction takes place amidst the massive Seventh Battle of Ruusan, the pivotal event that brings the Old Republic Era to an end and ushers in the Rise of the Empire Era. As a result, the planned sequel would not join Path of Destruction in the earlier era and it is likely to remain the lone Old Republic novel for some time to come.

Connections: Jedi Master General Hoth plays a key role in the novel as a hero of the Republic. While not stated explicitly, it is reasonable to assume that the ice planet from The Empire Strikes Back is named after him. The book makes numerous references to the events and characters of the comic books which chronicle the Jedi/Sith conflicts of three and four millenia before. Darth Revan makes an appearance in a Sith Holocron. The aftermath of the aforementioned Battle of Ruusan will eventually lead to the creation of a monument that would later be known as the Valley of the Jedi and play a crucial role in the Jedi Knight computer games.

Darth Bane: Path of Destruction tells the story of Dessel, a dirt-poor miner enslaved in all but name by a huge corporation on a backwater world, and his transformation into Darth Bane, Dark Lord of the Sith and originator of the "1 master, 1 apprentice" rule of the Sith order. Forced to flee his homeworld, Apatros, he joins the army of the Sith in the epic ongoing conflict against the Republic and the Jedi. After repeatedly leading his unit to glorious victories, he is plucked from the ranks and taken to train at the Sith Academy on Korriban before following his own path to Lehon and Ruusan.

Meanwhile, Lords Kaan, Kopecz, and Qordis lead the Sith forces in their galaxy-wide campaign against the Jedi. Ruusan becomes the focus of the conflict, and General Hoth gathers all of the Jedi padawans, knights, and masters into an "Army of Light" to counter the Sith berserkers, assassins, and lords on the other side. The victories, defeats, strategies, and intrigues on both sides make up the other half of the story, periodically breaking up the rise of Bane before the two plotlines converge at the end.

I liked this book a good deal more than I thought I would. It lacked recognizable characters (even Yoda isn't born yet), starred a villain, had rather lousy cover art, and was written by an unknown . . . not a good confluence, generally, but the result isn't half-bad. Karpyshyn does a fantastic job of developing a sympathetic main character whose descent into evil is both natural and understandable because of his personality and the events around him.

And those events certainly aren't boring: intense games of Sabacc (Star Wars poker), space battles, ground battles, commando missions, saber duels . . . all the usual stuff in a well-paced mix. The main character is solid and well-developed, and there is a pretty good cast of supporting characters. Karphyshyn is wise not to attempt too many clever connections with later events; the 1,000-year distance between events would really stretch internal credibility. He stays focused on the subject at hand, and provides some excellent insights into the nature of the Dark Side of the Force (which we rarely see examined in such detail).

Another element that I enjoyed, just as a change of pace from most Star Wars novels, was the large-scale, very literal good-against-evil conflict. There is an archetypal fantasy feel to it all. You've got the Army of Light taking on the Brotherhood of Darkness in what is essentially a very violent philosophical disagreement. The Jedi believe that strength exists to defend the weak. The Sith believe strength exists to acquire power and subjugate the weak. It is a very simplistic duality, but it raises interesting thoughts about what motivates the conflicts and forces at the heart of Lucas's movie trilogies.

So, good story, good main character, competently written, plenty of action . . . a bit simplistic and not hugely memorable, probably not a good entry point for anyone whose only previous experience is with the movies.

Grade: B

Posted by Jared at 05:32 PM | TrackBack

April 19, 2007

Ding Dong!

And back we went to the Dallas area for another evening of live entertainment. This time it was Wicked, first published as book over ten years ago before emerging as a Broadway musical in 2003. Wicked is a fun, clever deconstruction of The Wizard of OZ from the perspective of the witches.

The scene opens with Glenda the Good confirming rumors of the happy demise of the Wicked Witch of the West (Elpheba hereafter). One bold citizen asks if it is also true that Glenda and Elpheba were once friends, and the remainder of the story operates via flashback as we explore the development of these two characters (who first meet at school) leading up to the infamous melting. Along the way, the story tweaks the origins of Dorothy's beloved traveling companions and offers plenty of cool twists and turns, particularly for those familiar with the original plot.

The sets and costumes . . . actually, the entire atmosphere . . . in this production are enchanting and fantastical. The choreography is lively and fun to watch. Most of all, though, the music is pure magic. Probably nearly half of the songs are "my favorite," and even the ones that aren't are really good. I would say that the music is much stronger in the first act than it is in the second (particularly in terms of the finales of each). However, the second act is where the plot kicks into high gear, and it has some of the best non-musical sections.

Of the eight songs I find the most enjoyable, six appear in the first act (and four of those are in the first half of the first act). The second act songs are a lot more about plot development, while those in the first act are more about character development. This is an almost inevitable failing, I suppose, but it is a failing nonetheless. All of the music is good, as I say, but nothing from the second act is stuck in my head right now.

I have to admit that I have a certain fondness for deconstructive reimaginings of familiar stories. Till We Have Faces is, of course, my favorite C.S. Lewis book, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite movies (yes, I know it's a play . . . I've never seen it staged). Drawing a relatively minor character out into the limelight and using their perspective to cast a new light on a series of events has got to be one of the most fun exercises in speculative fiction.

Wicked is actually surprisingly similar to Till We Have Faces in many ways, come to think of it. A comparison/contrast between the characters of Orual and Elpheba would probably yield rich results. Both undergo somewhat parallel transformations over the courses of their lives, rejecting the powerful authorities they had once revered. Both have what could be classified as "destructive love" for the people they care about. Throwing these analogous elements into sharp contrast, though, would be the way in which they are viewed and handled within the context of their respective stories. There are obviously very different worldviews at work here, and thematically the priorities are not the same.

Speaking of themes, Wicked explores some very interesting territory. Okay, sure, at its heart I think it boils down to a rather frivolous musical, but there's still a lot going on here. Wicked examines prejudice, honesty, and whether virtue is more than skin-deep. Most of all, though, Wicked is about historiography. Okay . . . not really. Still, it is very aware that history is often, as Napoleon said, "the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon." Or, in this case, the version that people in charge have decided to agree upon.

Actually, what struck me the most was that the difference in perspective between The Wizard of OZ and Wicked comes down to the difference between the way a child (Dorothy) sees things, and the way an adult sees them. Dorothy is an ingénue, and as such she believes that people who are nice to her are good people and people who aren't are wicked people. She cannot tell the difference between the truth and an artful lie (which we already know is the wizard's specialty), and she is very easy to take advantage of.

With that assumption in place, it is not very difficult to believe that this story is more realistic than the other. Wicked simply takes the fantasy material and tacks on the reality that good and evil are rarely as clearly defined as we would like outside of . . . well, fantasy.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

April 05, 2007

Chariots of Fire: Best Picture, 1981

The 54th Annual Academy Awards ceremony was hosted by Johnny Carson, and introduced the Best Makeup category (thanks to the outstanding work done on The Elephant Man the year before). Chariots of Fire was nominated for 7 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Costumes, and Best Supporting Actor (Ian Holm). It lost Best Director to Warren Beatty for Reds. Reds was also nominated for Best Costumes, which is rather ironic. Chariots of Fire had a number of Edwardian costumes reserved for use after Reds (set during the same period) had finished with them. When Reds went over schedule, the costumes became unavailable and other arrangements had to be made. Chariots went on to win the award.

Meanwhile, Best Editing went to Raiders of the Lost Ark (Reds and Raiders were also both Best Picture nominees). Ian Holm lost to John Gielgud for his performance in Arthur. Interestingly, Gielgud also played a minor role in Chariots of Fire as a character who regards Ian Holm's character somewhat disdainfully. Chariots won its other nominations for a total of 4 awards.

The movie follows two very different men, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who both ran and won gold medals for Great Britain in the 1924 World Olympics in Paris.

Abrahams is an Englishman of Jewish descent attending Cambridge. He is obsessively competitive and cannot conceive of losing. All his life he has felt that he has something to prove, seeing prejudice (real and imagined) against his race all around him. He believes that victory on the racetrack will not only cement his right to be called an Englishman, but that it will justify his very existence. "If I can't win, I won't run," he forcefully declares. But later, in a moment of doubt, he admits to a fellow athlete: "That is your secret, contentment; I am 24 and I've never know it. I'm forever in pursuit and I don't even know what I am chasing."

Liddell is a Scottish Protestant whose parents are missionaries to China. He feels called to follow them there, but first he wishes to glorify God by racing in the Olympics. His sister, Jenny, worries that spending time racing instead of attending to his ministry will damage his commitment to the Lord. His response: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." He is truly not interested at all in personal glory. When he wins a race, he capitalizes on the gathering of people to reel off an impromptu sermon (and what a handy metaphor to go from!).

Abrahams finds his perviously unshakeable confidence faltering after he loses a race to Liddell, and recruits a coach to improve his form. As the big race nears, he finds himself intimidated. "I've known the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win," he says. We see the elation of victory rush to his face as he crosses the finish line, but his success leaves him feeling strangely empty. Having achieved his purpose, he begins to feel keenly the void it left behind. Victory for self-glorification has failed to give him meaning.

Liddell faces a very different problem when he discovers that the heat for his race is to be held on Sunday. He will not run on Sunday, standing firm on that principle even when pressured by a small group of the nobility and the prince of Wales himself. He recalls not only the worries of his sister, but also his privileged position as a very public representative of his faith. And, most of all, he believes in the importance of following his convictions about God's law, even if no one is watching. People are watching, though, and soon his principled stand is receiving world-wide press.

His countrymen and his fellow Christians have every reason to be proud of him, but there is still the matter of his being able to run. This is solved when a fellow member of the British team offers Liddell his spot in a different race. Just before the race, one of the American runners hands Liddell a paper with 1st Samuel 2:30 scrawled on it: "He who honors Me, I will honor." Liddell goes on to win the race in his own strange way: head thrown back, mouth wide open, hand clutching the note. And then, elated but without missing a beat, he goes on to become a missionary to China. His entire life's focus is to glorify God, and there will always be ways to do that.

Abrahams lived until 1978, and stayed involved in athletics throughout his life. His funeral bookends the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the movie. Liddell died in a prison camp in China near the end of World War II. As Chariots of Fire informs us just before the credits, "All of Scotland mourned."

My one complaint would have to be directed at the music. Shocking, right? I mean, the opening theme of Chariots of Fire is legendary, and the score won an Oscar. There are parts of it, indeed, that are quite excellent, but overall I found it intrusive. More than anything else, the score grounds this movie solidly in the decade in which it was made. So much synthetic music; so very 1980s. If they had just done the same things with more conventional instruments, there wouldn't be such a jarring sense of anachronism. I have always felt that with a historical movie like this, the music playing over scenes should not be something that the characters would be confused or baffled if they heard. It ought to fit somehow with their time and place, either in style or instrumentation.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty good movie, made all the more excellent by its thematic elements. It manages to come across more as historical fiction/biopic material than as inspirational sports movie, which is all to the good. This may be the closest thing to a Christian movie that has won or ever will win an Oscar, with the possible exception of A Man for All Seasons (in fact, producer David Puttnam was searching for a story about conscience in the same vein as that film when he stumbled across the story of Eric Liddell in an Olympic trivia book). The lead actors get completely lost in their characters, and all of the performances are marvellous. Chariots of Fire also truly evokes its period setting, and I was particularly impressed by the difficulty of reproducing so convincingly the Olympic games of 80 years ago.

As for the other movies that came out that year, they're a pretty rum bunch (as you might expect from the early '80s). The only other truly great movie I've seen from this year is Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is certainly a heavy contender, but perhaps not quite as worthy of the Best Picture award. That aside, I don't think anyone will argue with me when I say that Raiders should have won Best Original Score. The themes from that movie are even more popular than the still well-known Chariots theme, and John Williams never made the desperate mistake of abandoning the traditional symphony orchestra when scoring movies.

Posted by Jared at 10:21 AM | TrackBack

April 03, 2007

To Days of Inspiration

At nearly 4:00 on Saturday afternoon, Rachel and I set out with Gallagher and Becca in one car, following Anna, Scholl, Randy, and Barbour in another. We were all headed for Fort Worth to catch a live performance of the Broadway musical Rent at 8:00. I passed the time with an excellent history of the composition of the King James Bible and an entertaining history of Christian rock while the Rent soundtrack played in the background.

Then we ran into a bit of trouble in Dallas. Namely, that we weren't supposed to be in Dallas. It turns out that there is a grouping of street names in Dallas identical to several of the street names surrounding our destination in Fort Worth. Lame. Fortunately, after a hurried consultation revealed a set of directions on our parking passes, we had just enough time to book it over to our actual destination, find a small pizza joint, and bolt down a large pepperoni pizza before the show began. Afterwards, we searched diligently until we found a Steak 'n Shake, and between this, that, and the other, we didn't get back to campus until 3 AM.

The show was magnificent. I own the movie and the abridged movie soundtrack, but I thought this was much better in some ways. It wasn't quite as good in others . . . Mainly, if I hadn't seen the movie first, some things might have been difficult to follow. But I had, so that wasn't really a problem. The movie version also cut out several numbers, including a really great song called "And It's Beginning to Snow" that is one of my favorites. I thought the actors really got into their roles more on-stage, and there was an emotional electricity that was lacking in the screen version.

The musical is based on La Vie de Bohème. It follows a group of starving artist types living in New York City as they struggle to survive and create over the course of a single year. It is not the sort of musical that I think a conventional Christian worldview incorporates easily, with what could easily be perceived as a glowing endorsement for Bohemianism (a rejection of society's values in all forms), open approval of homosexuality, advice to live by the whims of the moment without regard for consequences, and so on.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I think Rent has a great deal to offer a Christian audience: artistically, intellectually, spiritually, and (of course) thematically. Allow me to explain.

First, Rent is a really good musical. It's not my favorite ever, but it's one of them. It has a well-developed cast of likable characters and a rich setting. The songs are all horribly catchy, and there are several real show-stoppers mixed in amongst many are just pure fun. Just about anyone should be able to appreciate its merits on an artistic level alone, to say nothing of the rest.

Second, Rent has a great deal of valuable insight into the culture it is examining. I think all too often we dismiss the value of understanding cultures that we should be reaching out to. It is perhaps easier to recognize the importance of this when in a foreign country, since we have to learn a whole new language with its own idioms and history in order to even communicate. But why would anyone suppose that those principles don't apply just as much when reaching across worldviews as when reaching across the world itself?

As such, if you're interested in the philosophy and subculture represented in Rent, the musical is a great place to begin. At the least it would be worth experiencing as a point of entry with the show's large and growing following. A whole lot of people are attracted by something that they see here. Maybe it's worth figuring out what that is.

Third, if you watch Rent and come away (like the Plugged In reviewer did) with only the sense that you've just watched a commercial for a lifestyle you don't agree with . . . Well, congratulations on your ultra-shallow analytical skills. This may be an expression of the Bohemian lifestyle, certainly, but it is hardly a glorification of it.

These people's choices have not been affirmed by society or circumstances, by any stretch of the imagination. They've obviously had a lot good times in the past, but by now they are definitely on a downward spiral. They live, starving and freezing, in the worst conditions. Two of them suffer from the consequences of destructive addictions. Four of them are dying of AIDs. Almost all of them carry the scars of fractured or fracturing relationships. This willingness to take such a raw and honest look at the realities of this life smacks of a certain commitment to truth.

This is a commitment sorely lacking in a good 99% of Christian movies, which do not care to acknowledge the fact that, regardless of your lifestyle or religious affiliations, life is not all cotton candy and fabergé eggs. In fact, Rent's gravest misstep comes when it succumbs to that same hollow formula at the very end. The moment rings incredibly false, all the more so because it has rung so true up to that point. We are happy that the story has ended well, but really, who could see it for the first time without rolling their eyes when Mimi invokes the hackneyed "light at the end of the tunnel" gag. It cheapens everything the musical has accomplished. Despite that, there is a great deal of value in the truth of what we have seen before this.

Finally, I would say that the central narrative tension of Rent (although it is rife with subplots) is the question of relationships (especially the one between Mimi and Roger). Angel and Collins have the perfect relationship: a selfless commitment to the other person that doesn't dwell on the past or the future. They serve as a contrast to Roger's fear and Maureen's unwillingness to give up playing the field. Mimi and Roger meet just after Roger has declared his deepest desire: to leave behind just one song to be remembered by, so his life (a mess of drugs and death and AIDs) won't have been a complete waste.

Throughout the couple's long coming to terms, he hangs on to that desire as he has first expressed it, unwilling to give it up. The creative process is a convenient excuse for him to insulate himself from more painful relationships. But what he finally realizes (almost too late) is that he has not only cut himself off from a relationship that is more fulfilling even than an artistic legacy, but in so doing, he has cut himself off from the source of his art itself.

Take a chance on love first and everything else will be added unto you. Tomorrow is not soon enough, because today might be the last day you have. It's not so much about disregarding consequences for impulsive behavior as it is about taking advantage of every fleeting moment you have. We may not have a system by which to measure the value of how someone spent their life, but if they have at least truly loved and been loved, then they haven't wasted their time.

Posted by Jared at 02:26 PM | TrackBack

March 29, 2007

A Double Dose of Dopey Derring-Do

It's high time for a real post. I have been throwing all of my writing energy in other directions for the past week and a half, but now I'm back again. I saw two movies . . . when was it? Gosh, two weeks ago now . . . that I wanted to write about, because they were basically from the same genre and shared some of the same flaws from that genre. I rather enjoyed the first and squirmed uncomfortably during most of the second. They were Curse of the Golden Flower and 300.

Curse of the Golden Flower was just an outrageously fun movie in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero (but not as good as either of those) in terms of genre conventions (but without any flying). If you can't deal with the silliness inherent in the outrageous (but frickin' cool) acrobatics and ridiculous overkill (like the arrows in Hero), then this really isn't for you. I think that's a shame, personally, since I believe the heavily stylized should never be judged by its resemblance to reality. It's like hating a piece of modern art because it doesn't look like what it's supposed to be. You can hate the style if you must, but don't complain that it's unrealistic.

Anyway, Golden Flower is a sumptuous production, beautiful to behold. The costumes got an Oscar nod, and the sets and art direction are rich and ornate to match. It wouldn't be hard to sit and drink that in and enjoy it without paying any attention to the plot or the dialogue.

As for said plot, it basically boils down to this: The emperor of China won't be dead anytime soon, but he's got his eye on the question of succession. He brings the whole family (three sons and an estranged wife) together on the eve of an approaching holiday to have a little fun (sound familiar?). Golden Flower basically combines the scheming and intrigue of The Lion in Winter with the violence and high body count of Hamlet and tosses in a dash of the madness of King Lear and plenty of Oriental flair to produce something that is less satisfying than any of them, but still a heck of a lot of fun without taking itself too seriously.

See, the emperor is slowly poisoning his wife with a medicine that will eventually drive her insane. The empress has been having an affair with the oldest son (who is a product from an earlier liason of the emperor's). This earlier liason is now the wife of the ingratiating court physician, who is working with their daughter to produce and serve the empress her medicine. Said daughter, meanwhile, is in love with the oldest son (both being completely unaware of the looming shadow of incest).

The second son, oldest child of the empress, will soon be receiving the title of crown prince now held by his older half-brother, but feels compelled to join his mother in a rebellion against the emperor in an effort to save her sanity. And on and on it goes as the intrigue swirls in tight circles, revelations and counterrevelations are made, and the whole Forbidden City becomes a giant battlefield in reflection of the chaotic relationships between the members of the royal family.

Golden Flower in a nutshell: Imagine Ophelia going crazy and getting killed by ninjas instead of by a pond.

As for 300, well, that's a very different story. I'll try not to let my critique of the movie turn into a critique of the movie's fans. However, if I do and you are one, understand that I'm not talking about anyone I know, I'm talking about a vague, hypothetical "average movie-goer." With that disclaimer in place, I will accuse anyone who takes offense of having a guilty conscience . . . but feel free to defend the thing, if you can.

For those of you who are spelunkers, 300 is a movie based on a comic book inspired by a '60s movie about the Battle of Thermopylae (during which a ridiculously outnumbered Greek force held off the Persian army for three days). As such it would be fairly disingenuous to engage in a rigorous historical critique, since none of the filmmakers are officially pretending that this is historical. At the same time, there is a definite historiographical perspective at work here, and it is none too subtle (or, to me, palatable).

I'd be lying if I said I didn't think the movie had some pretty cool parts, but there were much longer stretches during which I was fantastically bored. And, over and above everything else, I had a distinct sense throughout that somebody was coming after my brain to scour it with lye soap and steel wool. 300 is intellectually idiotic and ideologically iniquitous, and for things I hate it's hard to beat the festering combination of dumb and preachy.

Nearly every spoken word in 300 is so disconnected from its actions that one would almost suspect it of having been completely redubbed by the studio months after production wrapped. Imagine walking into a movie theater of the future and seeing a member of the KKK in full regalia stand before a burning cross and give an impassioned recitation of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech as the soundtrack swells gloriously. That is how confused this movie is. Picture flipping through channels and seeing a televangelist fornicating on-stage while he preaches a sermon on sexual immorality. That is how revolting this movie is. There is a values system at work here that is outrageously simplistic, deeply offensive and fantastically off-base.

Morality in 300 is literally only skin-deep. If you are a good person, you are also a good-looking person . . . If you are an evil person, you look like a freak of nature . . . or vice-versa. The looks may well be the cause and the behavior may be the effect as far as we are given to understand. What is completely disorienting, though, is that what sane, civilized people recognize as good and evil are mixed together like a chocolate and vanilla swirl, and every Spartan gets to snack on a tasty scoop of ambiguity.

Let's review: The Spartans stand for truth, justice and the American way. Their government is some sort of happy enlightened monarchial republic thing where women have a voice. They prize freedom and courage and masculine virtue. They also have legalized baby murder. Their male children are torn from home at the age of seven, brutalized and brainwashed in preparation for a lifetime career based on the idea that there will always be someone to dismember. Meanwhile, the most beautiful females get shipped off to spend their lives in a drug-induced haze of sexual exploitation at the hands of the corrupt, diseased and lecherous priesthood. But hey, at least they hate faggots.

And those are just the heroes. I'll choose to ignore the Persians as a sodden mass of underdeveloped cannon fodder. They aren't villains, they're target dummies. For the most part, their sins are no different from the sins of the Spartans, they are merely carried out on a much grander scale. Seriously, the Persians don't do anything that the Spartans don't do, they just do a lot more of it and it looks wierder. Perhaps their only unique crime is in being too inclusive. Anyone can join the Persian Empire; true Spartans insist on racial purity.

So, forget the Persians. Let's talk for a moment about the only two interesting characters: Theron and Ephialtes, the Spartan traitors. Theron is a namby-pamby peacemonger. This is reason enough to hate him, certainly, but we find out later that this is actually because he has cannily sold out the Spartans to the Persians. In the end, it seems that he is an evil hater of freedom because he is a thinker and a talker instead of a fighter. I couldn't shake that feeling everytime he slunk onto the screen.

Ephialtes looks like some sort of hideous hybrid of Quasimodo and the Elephant Man. He is an outcast whose parents were forced to flee Sparta rather than have their infant child dashed against the rocks (now there's an enlightened free society to give your life for). His father taught him how to fight, and he is nothing if not courageous. But King Leonidas won't accept his service . . . he's too short to be of any use in a phalanx. Ironically (moronically?), the Spartans go on to break formation during virtually every battle sequence so they can grandstand solo, so there was really no reason to shut Ephialtes out.

Rejected outright by the Spartans, the bitter Ephialtes naturally goes straight to the Persians and delivers the tactical weak spot to them. The muted implication surrounding the character is that he stands as a vindication of the policy of infanticide. If his parents weren't so weak and compassionate, his tragic existence would never have brought about such an unfortunate outcome.

There was a rather "healthy" discussion about which of the two movies was better (worse?) after we saw them. For me it boils down to this: Curse of the Golden Flower has a charming literacy going for it, whatever its flaws. 300 relentlessly subverts its own perverted logic while affirming the most loathsome elements of jingoistic machismo.

Posted by Jared at 05:44 PM | TrackBack

March 19, 2007

Tom Jones: Best Picture, 1963

What an incredibly strange batch got hauled in at the 37th Annual Academy Awards (hosted by Jack Lemmon). Tom Jones was nominated for 10 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Tony Richardson), Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Albert Finney), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Art Direction (Color), and 3 for Best Supporting Actress (Diane Cilento, Edith Evans, Joyce Redman). It won the first 4. Ironically, the winners were not present for the first 3 of those 4 awards, and they were accepted by someone else.

As for the rest, Best Actor went to Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field, Best Supporting Actor to Melvyn Douglas for Hud, Best Art Direction to Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) and Best Supporting Actress to Margaret Rutherford for The V.I.P.s (also starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). 1963 was one of those years where Oscar didn't pick many movies that people would remember favorably (if at all) . . . an off-year (awful year?) if you will.

Tom Jones is based (heavily or loosely, I do not know) on Henry Fielding's massive 18th century novel of the same title. Clocking in at just over 2 hours, the movie maintains a relentlessly frenetic pace as much for slapstick effect as to cover even just the bare bones of the original plot. Squire Allworthy, a bachelor living with his spinster sister, retires to his bedroom one evening and discovers an illegitimate infant boy occupying his bed. Blame for the child's existence quickly falls on Jenny Jones, a household servant, and she is promptly exiled along with the local barber accused of being the father. Squire Allworthy adopts the baby, dubbing him Tom Jones and raising him as his own (sort of).

Before long, the squire's sister marries and has a son of her own, Blifil, and the two boys grow up together. Tom is a rollicking, lusty lover of fun and sport, while Blifil is a model student and a prim, stuck-up prig. Both men love Sophie Western, but she only cares for Tom . . . this is unfortunate since he can't seem to keep his pants on around a large segment of the local female population. Blifil soon exposes Tom's wicked ways and he is exiled, leaving Blifil the logical choice to marry Sophie and unite the estates and fortunes of Squires Western and Allworthy. Sophie, horrified, runs away with her cousin, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, and half the major characters follow in hot pursuit.

Meanwhile, Tom falls in with all sorts of entertaining people, and starts bed-hopping again. Everyone winds up in London for a long interlude of dancing around social conventions and whatnot. Tom carries on more affairs and gets in more trouble, and finally all sorts of revelations are made just in time for a climactic last-second rescue from the gallows and a happy ending for Tom.

Tom Jones is chaotic and unfocused, and its pacing is a disaster. It has definite flashes of genius, and a good deal of honest hilarity. However, by the time the ending rolls around, it is difficult not to feel that the film has long since worn out its welcome. Far too much screentime is taken up by material that is either boring or irritating.

Albert Finney is fantastic in the title role, charismatic and fun throughout. His performance here is certainly far better than the one that would get him his next acting nomination over 10 years later (as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express). Finney inhabits and possesses his character completely, and it is difficult not to find at least a little enjoyment whenever he is on screen. Tom Jones is also blessed with some magnificent set pieces, including an enormous, rollicking and elaborately-staged fox hunt featuring some great aerial shots of the action and a rich and magnificent costume ball full of rich and fantastical outfits of all kinds.

The movie further benefits (occasionally) from a style that rarely takes itself seriously, lampooning older movie conventions along the way. Tom Jones opens like a silent film, complete with melodramatic music and title cards, and isn't above frequent slapstick and "Keystone-esque" sped-up chase scenes. Like much of the repertoire of Monty Python (which Tom Jones almost seems to foreshadow from time to time) some of this works extraordinarily well while some is just too silly or outrageous to elicit more than a groan . . . and it is often not clear why some things work and others don't.

Ultimately, though, it's all just too much. Tom Jones drags too often, and in all the wrong places. Perhaps if an additional half-hour of subplots had been shaved off, or if the characters weren't so constantly interacting at a fever pitch, it would be an easier movie to watch and enjoy. There are certainly plenty of glimmers of a much better movie showing through beneath its exhausting and campy tone.

I've only seen three of the movies involved in the 1963 awards (besides Tom Jones), but it seems to have been something of a year of "ultimates," particularly in terms of ensemble casting. The three I've seen are The Sword in the Stone, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and The Great Escape. And I've seen a handful of others that weren't noticed: Hitchcock's campy The Birds, Peter Sellers' hilarious The Pink Panther, and Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant's magnificent pairing in the comedy/romance/thriller Charade.

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World may not be the funniest comedy you've ever seen, but at 192 minutes, it's probably the longest. And it probably has the most epic all-star and comedic cast you're ever likely to find on a single screen: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Jim Backus, Andy Devine, Peter Falk, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, and the Three Stooges. I remember watching the final climactic scene (a masterpiece of juvenile slapstick) over and over and over again when I was younger. Mad World was nominated for 6 Oscars and won 1 (Best Sound Effects, now Best Sound Editing). It lost Best Original Score to Tom Jones.

Then there's The Great Escape, the ultimate prison camp movie. Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, et al came together for a fantastic film with lasting appeal . . . and Oscar missed the boat altogether. The Great Escape was nominated only for Best Editing and lost to another ultimate: How the West Was Won. That film was nominated for 8 awards, including Best Picture, and won 3. It featured performances from Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark, Agnes Moorehead, and Spencer Tracy (as the narrator). And, of course, there's the infamous Cleopatra, widely considered to be one of the most ostentatious failures in movie history. However, it still racked up 9 nominations (including Best Picture) and 4 wins.

Selecting from an admittedly limited pool, my pick for best of 1963 would fall on either The Great Escape or Charade.

Posted by Jared at 11:16 AM | TrackBack

March 17, 2007

Scent of a Woman

This is actually a discussion of my experience watching Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, but I couldn't resist that title. The film was an enrapturing story full of thought-provoking beauty; a moving fable on the power and meaning of love, prone at times to displays of what many might consider profoundly disturbing excess. Perhaps they would be right, perhaps not. But I doubt that I shall be allowed the experience a second time, and so, like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (the title character), I will try to preserve it here.

Unlike Grenouille, I don't think I'll need to kill anyone, but it will be necessary to reveal the ending. I don't think that should stop anyone from reading this. For most, you will finish reading about the movie here and know that you're never going to go see it. For the rest, I don't believe that knowing how the story plays out in advance has any effect on the enjoyment of this particular movie. I went in knowing all about it because I felt the need to read up on it heavily before deciding whether to go see it. I should note one source in particular, this essay from from Metaphilm. Its observations on Grenouille as a Christ figure heavily informed my viewing. However, aside from that guiding framework, the thoughts here are my own unless otherwise noted.

Perfume was directed by Tom Tykwer, director of Run, Lola, Run. In terms of style, I don't think any two movies could be more different. Where Lola's frantic, music-video pace leaves audiences gasping for breath as they struggle to keep up with the mad dash, Perfume lingers seductively amidst breathtaking sets and locations. The film is based on Das Parfum, a 1985 novel by Patrick Süskind that filmmakers have been begging to adapt for two decades. Stanley Kubrick declared it to be completely unfilmable.

Tykwer's Perfume is the most expensive German movie to date (it's in English, by the way), with a total unknown (Ben Whishaw) in the lead role. John Hurt provides his always reliable narration skills, Dustin Hoffman appears as aging Italian perfumer Baldini, and Alan Rickman shows up as Richis, Grenouille's self-appointed arch-nemesis. John Hurt narrates. The only other player American audiences are likely to have seen before is Rachel Hurd-Wood, who played Wendy in 2003's Peter Pan, and here portrays Richis' daughter and Grenouille's prime target, Laura.

The film opens with a young man, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, being hauled out of a dark cell onto a balcony. There, in the middle of the night and in front of a howling mob, a sentence of execution is announced. The setting is the 18th century, somewhere in Europe. Flashback a few decades to Paris, where a stinking fish merchant gives birth to a baby boy amidst the rotting remains that litter the floor of her stall.

The woman has already experienced four still-births, and she has no reason to expect this to be any different. Unfortunately, this numbed sense of resignation will be the death of her. The infant is, in fact, alive, a fact that is soon discovered by everyone around her when it begins squalling. The mother is perhaps the most surprised of all to hear the cries of a living baby emanating from just under her feet, but that doesn't save her from an appointment with the gallows for attempted infanticide.

The child, who will somehow acquire the name Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, goes to an orphanage. Immediately, everyone around him can tell that there is something different about him. They are unnerved by him, and from the very beginning he is emotionally severed from the rest of humanity. What truly sets him apart though, is his mutant-like sense of smell.

Grenouille's nose can distinguish between an infinite quantity and variety of smells at a phenomenal distance, and can even (for instance) smell an apple that someone has just thrown at the back of his head in time to dodge. Perfume is 2.5 hours of tightly-packed narrative that would take far too long to summarize completely. It essentially consists of three acts and a final denouement, with the transition between each marked by a moment of discovery.

He moves from the orphanage to a tannery, and from there to become the apprentice of a perfumer after a chance encounter on the street leaves him determined to learn how to preserve scent. A girl selling fruit draws Grenouille helplessly towards her. He approaches her haltingly from behind, drawing her scent in, and stops just behind her. Naturally, this behavior startles her, especially when he refuses to speak and she hurries away. He follows her to a secluded spot and sneaks up on her again.

His actions are intensely creepy, but purely innocent. He doesn't know, has never had a way of knowing, what normal human interaction is like. He is used to being ignored or feared, and it doesn't occur to him that he might have the ability to put people at their ease. Maybe he can't.

In any case, the girl is frightened enough at finding this shady character hovering just over her shoulder that a scream escapes her. Grenouille, equally frightened, grabs her, covering her mouth and nose with his hand. His grip tightens as a passing couple pauses nearby to flirt, and by the time they are gone, the girl is dead. His sadness quickly turns to complete devastation when he realizes that her scent has dissipated with her life, and is now gone for ever. This moment will haunt his dreams and drive his obsessive quest to preserve scent.

Baldini informs him that all perfumes consist of 3 chords, with each chord composed of 4 notes (or scents). The ancient Egyptians, he is told, believed that the ultimate perfume would also require a final 13th note to achieve perfection. Aside from this bit of foreshadowing, his time with Baldini reveals only that the perfumer will be unable to teach him what he wants to know. For that, he will have to travel to Grasse, semi-utopian capital of the perfumers' art. He sets out, armed with journeyman perfumer papers, and along the way he discovers for the first time that he has no scent of his own. He is a soulless void within his own frame of reference.

In Grasse, Grenouille manages to discover a process whereby he can distill a small vial containing the essence of a human being. The process is not fatal, but it would require the complete trust of another human being, something Grenouille has no idea how to gain. So he kills. It begins with prostitutes and the like, while he is conducting his experiments, but once his process is perfected, he targets only the most beautiful women (mostly the daughters of the local gentry). Before long, Grasse is in an uproar. Curfews are imposed, men roam the streets in mobs after dark, and the local priest prays fervently for salvation from heaven . . . all to no avail.

Slowly, Grenouille's box of vials begins to fill up. There are 13 slots, and the women of Grasse are dying to fill them. The final slot is reserved for Laura, who (we are given to understand) possesses a scent of the quality of the girl Grenouille accidentally killed back in Paris. Unfortunately for Grenouille, Laura's father is the only worthy adversary he has. Richis is a formidable opponent, but Grenouille inexorably tracks them wherever they go, and inevitably gets what he wants even as everything falls apart around him and people realize that he is the serial killer. He completes his perfume just seconds ahead of the arrival of the posse from Grasse.

Grenouille is to be strapped to a cross, beaten with an iron bar, and left to bleed to death. As he is driven to the execution block in a carriage, we know that he has already unleashed his perfume on the jailers. The courtyard is packed to the brim . . . standing room only, people covering the balconies and rooftops in all directions. And the sense of hatred for Grenouille is palpable. We see him dab a few drops of perfume on himself and his handkerchief before he steps down. The crowd is loud, but everyone near the accused is strangely silent. He steps up to face the executioner, an imposing figure with the customary black hood . . . and the iron bar falls to the ground as the executioner drops to his knees. The hood comes off, and the executioner cries out, "This man is innocent!"

Most of the crowd is dumbstruck, but those standing closest understand. The handkerchief emerges from Grenouille's pocket and he salutes the crowd with it on each side. We can almost see the scent traveling outward as row after row of people arch their backs and squeeze their eyes shut in ecstasy. Within seconds the entire plaza has fallen on its collective face to worship the man they all hated. But now they feel nothing but love, and the effect has transformed every face in the crowd. Grenouille lifts the handkerchief high above his head, and allows the wind to catch it and carry it slowly over the people's heads.

Hands reach out to grasp it as it flies just beyond their reach . . . floating slowly like a baseball foul landing in slow motion in a crowded stadium. A dozen arms reach out for it as it floats within reach, the crowd surges, and for a moment it looks as though there will be a riot. But there isn't. Instead, the crowd quite literally explodes into an outpouring of love. At least, that is the idea . . . how do you show that? How do you show that an entire crowd has just been swept away by transcendent love for one another? Well, in this case, with the largest orgy scene ever filmed.

I don't want to dwell on this, but I couldn't help but be somewhat impressed by the planning it must have taken to get 700 people to have an organized orgy in a courtyard with the cameras rolling. It is perhaps hard to imagine, but the scene wasn't titillating. The transformation scene in Orlando is the linchpin of that movie, and it is crucial that it be simulatenously graphic, artistic, and tasteful for the scene to work (and it does). The same principle applies here, just on a larger scale. It is a powerful scene, but the most incredible part is yet to come.

Richis, thanks perhaps to a much deeper hatred, is the only one unaffected by the perfume, and he approaches Grenouille with sword drawn and ready. Richis makes it all the way up the steps of the platform before he, too, is overwhelmed. Grenouille murdered his only daughter, but Richis' hatred is no match for the power of love that has been unleashed upon the city. The sword falls and Richis' knees bow. Tears gush from his eyes and he embraces Grenouille about the waste, begging for forgiveness.

And at that moment, Grenouille, experiencing love for the first time in his life, realizes its true power . . . and its true nature. He flashes back to his first fateful encounter with the Paris fruit vendor, but things are different. He sees himself approach her with love, as one human being to another, and he sees her reciprocating. He realizes that he could have had what he wanted all along, but had it on his own merits, had he been willing to win it over instead of wrenching it violently away. He has been a consumer and a destroyer because he didn't know of any other way to achieve the love and the connection that he didn't even realize he desired. And, flooded with this new knowledge, Grenouille begins to cry.

Grenouille leaves Grasse behind him and sets out to return to Paris. The world is at his feet. The narrator tells us that Grenouille could do anything: He could show up at Versailles and ask the king of France to kiss his feet. He could write a perfumed letter to the pope and have himself declared the new messiah. He doesn't want any of that. With the power to command the love of all humanity at his fingertips, he feels strangely empty, for he still lacks the simple power that other humans have: to command the love of another person because you have earned it on your own merits.

Arriving back in Paris, he stumbles upon a group of beggars who are warming themselves around a fire. He pulls out the vial of perfume, and deliberately dumps it over his head. In seconds, the beggars are swarming around him, and in minutes they have devoured him (body and blood) so that there is nothing left. They go away transformed by this strange communion, each feeling that they have committed an act of purely selfless love for perhaps the first time in their lives.

I am rather tired at the moment. Watching Perfume was a bit of a draining experience, and writing about it was even more draining. I'm going to be lazy and let that essay I linked from metaphilm conclude my thoughts for me. I expect Perfume to return to my mind at some unexpected time in the future and grant me a new insight into something as yet unforeseen, or at the least a thought-provoking connection with something else I may be writing about. But for now, the thoughts offered by Tim Stanley (even if I'm not sure I'm in full agreement) will more than suffice:

The perverse and heretical interpretation of Christianity’s central figure could cause the Christian to blow this film off. But the reason I believe Perfume is so important is that its savior is so absurd. The great danger that faces Christianity today is the assumption that its truth is mundane, if not completely normal. As Slavoj Žižek has recently been writing, nothing could be further from the truth. In his essay “The ‘Thrilling Romance of Orthodoxy’” in The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, Žižek argues that “far from being boring, humdrum, and safe, the search for true orthodoxy is the most daring and perilous adventure.” In other words, orthodoxy is out of the ordinary, if not absurd. Does not the Christian tradition feel this every time it attempts to express itself in secular society today? The power of Perfume is that it allegorically reminds us how strange Christianity’s central character is—even if this is done by depicting him in one of the most sinister ways possible.

The fact that Christians worship a human man who was crucified as a criminal is all too easily tin-foiled over like the wrapper on a Cadbury egg. How do Christians celebrate the Eucharist without even the slightest disgust recorded in John 6.56 after Jesus announces, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”? Have Christians lost the revolutionary feeling in the command to love their enemies? Such an ethics is utterly absurd after the Holocaust. How do Christians love Hitler?

Like all good jokes told too many times, Christianity can easily lose its impact and timing. It is because of films like Perfume however, that Christian orthodoxy can regain a sense of the power of a radical punch line. Christians believe Jesus really did die on the cross. The Eucharist really is a taste of the divine. Loving your enemies really is the heart of Christian ethics. Now more than ever will the Christian tradition look back to the brilliant comic genius of St. Paul: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1.18). Or, more appropriately in this context, as he told the same church later,

“But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume” (2 Corinthians 2.14–16, NLT).

Posted by Jared at 04:07 PM | TrackBack

March 07, 2007

The Departed: Best Picture, 2006

The Departed was nominated for 5 Oscars at the 79th Annual Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Mark Wahlberg). It lost only the last, to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine. It is the 4th Martin Scorsese film that I have seen. I really thought Taxi Driver, an urban story of isolation and twisted virtue, was an excellent and amazing film. It was nominated for 4 Oscars and won none. Gangs of New York, a sprawling historical tale of rival Irish gangs and political corruption set against the backdrop of the Civil War, was pretty good, but perhaps overlong. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and also lost every single one. The Aviator, as I've mentioned recently, I disliked a great deal. A vast biopic of wealthy eccentric Howard Hughes, it was definitely overlong. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and took 5.

The Departed is the story of two men of Irish descent, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who join the Boston Police Department at around the same time and become involved in an investigation hoping to take down Irish mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costigan is recruited by Dignam (Wahlberg) and Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) to go undercover and get as close as possible to Costello. Meanwhile, Sullivan, befriended by Costello at a very young age, is busily feeding him information from inside the force. Naturally, it is only a matter of time before the two moles become aware of each other's existence and each is forced to attempt to be the first to discover the other's identity. Meanwhile, unbeknowst to them, they have both fallen in love with the same woman.

This is really an excellent and carefully-crafted set-up, with an equally great cast. It is truly surprising that Wahlberg was the sole acting nominee, because there is fantastic work here all around. Nicholson, as usual, is outstanding, as are both DiCaprio and Damon. In fact, I think this may be my favorite DiCaprio performance to date. I'm surprised Nicholson didn't get a nomination for his performance. Maybe they thought, with 12 previous nominations and 3 wins behind him, why bother? Then again, Meryl Streep got nominated. In any case, I found the characters very believable and compelling, and I was very caught up in what was going on. I didn't get bored or feel the need to check the time at all.

Of course, part of that strength lies as much with the screenplay as the performances. There is a lot to like here with the slow building of very palpable tension, several surprise twists scattered liberally throughout, and cat-and-mouse antics that are as original as I've seen in recent memory. The ultimate fate of the characters is unpredictable, not because the ending cheap-shots the audience out of nowhere (it doesn't, really) but because the movie appears willing to let the story play out naturally instead of contriving a particular ending.

Nevertheless, it has its failings. They are, perhaps, not very significant alone, but together they make this film far from perfect. As great as the story is, I got the very distinct feeling as it drew to a close that the manner in which things played out would fall apart if I were to watch the movie again. A few things didn't quite add up. I was never sure, for instance, how Costigan wound up seeing the same woman that Sullivan was dating. I'm willing to overlook the improbability of it because it added so much to the story, but it seemed much too convenient. I can't discuss other developments in detail for fear of giving away the movie, but there were a number of inconsistencies and one or two major events that didn't seem plausible to me. These occurred mostly in the last 20 minutes of the movie.

I'm not sure where fault for my larger complaint should lie: with the editing, the directing, or the screenplay. Perhaps it is a combination of all three. Gallagher walked in and joined us after the movie had been going for about half an hour, and he said at the end that he didn't feel like he had missed anything. In a movie where so much depends on character development and small details, being able to miss a good 20% of the runtime with no loss to understanding seems to me to indicate self-indulgence on someone's part. Leave more on the cutting room floor.

Actually, the movie had been playing for at least fifteen minutes already and we felt we were "in the thick of it" ourselves when suddenly the screen went black and "The Departed" flashed in front of us. Someone observed that that was one heck of an opening sequence. Waiting that long to announce the film's title is stupid, and I can think of no good reason for it. It breaks the flow. Really, thinking back, it's a testament to the movie's excellence in other areas that I wasn't more distracted throughout.

There were a number of weird, almost dreamlike breaks that cut in on the actual narrative here and there and disappeared just as quickly; things like Nicholson's character spraying cocaine through the air while a scantily-clad hooker looked on. These brief cuts were irrelevant to whatever was going on before, were gone as quickly as they appeared, and didn't seem to relate to anything that came after. Sloppy and surreal, a bad combination. They didn't happen often, but they shouldn't have happened at all.

That brings me to my final praise/complaint: the music. The music was great. It really was. The main theme was a haunting piece that came across as The Godfather with Celtic overtones, and a lot of the other music was fun Irish punk rock type stuff reminiscent of Flogging Molly. So, it sounded good and it fit very well with the mood and tone of the film. Props to the composer. But I have seldom heard music used so ineffectively and intrusively in a movie. At completely random times for no reason at all the music would fade out, grow suddenly louder, or cut off completely and abruptly (mid-note and mid-scene) for a few seconds before jumping back on at full volume. It was incredibly annoying and distracting, and I thought it was tacky and pretentious.

I would call The Departed a truly high-quality film experience that doesn't stand up well under very close scrutiny. Gallagher wondered aloud at the end how this movie stood up against Snatch and The Boondock Saints. At first I thought he was talking about general quality or something similar . . . he was actually talking about f-bombs. I guess there were quite a few. Randy and I didn't really notice after the first few, and I still don't have vivid memories of there being a great many, but there were. I guess that's a testament to how comfortable I am watching movies with everyone that was in the room (I only notice things like that if I feel like someone in the room is noticing . . . and disapproving).

Anyway, Gallagher was inspired to check, and discovered that there were 237 uses of the f-word and its various derivations. That's approximately one every 40 seconds for two and a half hours. In case you were wondering, The Boondock Saints has 246 f-words, or one every 28 seconds or so, while Snatch weighs in with a paltry 153 for an overall concentration comparable to that of The Departed. I was quick to point out that Gallagher has never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie. Pulp Fiction has 271 (1 every 34 seconds), and Reservoir Dogs has 252 (1 every 24 seconds).

Having since investigated the matter on the internets, I find Casino with 422 (1 every 25 seconds) and Twin Town with 320 (1 every 19 seconds). Both are blown completely out of the water by Nil by Mouth with 470 (1 every 16 seconds), which (incidentally) stars the guy who plays Nicholson's right-hand man in The Departed. I should point out, in closing, that 2005's documentary F*ck contains an astounding 857 f-words (no, I don't know if that is counting the title), cramming in 1 for every 7 seconds of runtime . . . but that's not really fair. As the word is the subject of the documentary, the uses can't be considered completely gratuitous. In any case, point taken. The Departed definitely holds the record number of f-words for a Best Picture winner, since Pulp Fiction lost to Forrest Gump in 1995. But really . . . who's counting?

As for the other serious contender for the Best Picture award, you may have noticed that I saw Babel last week. What a powerful and aptly-named film this is. In the midst of Morocco, a goatherd buys a high-powered rifle from a friend to help rid himself of a jackal problem, and sends his young sons out to tend the flock. Playing around with the weapon, one of them shoots an American tourist (Cate Blanchette) in a passing bus. Hours from civilization, her husband (Brad Pitt) rushes her to the nearest approximation to a doctor in a local village and starts frantically phoning his embassy.

Meanwhile, the couple's two children back in California are being cared for by their housekeeper of many years, and illegal immigrant from Mexico. Her son is going to be married back in Mexico, and with her employers' return delayed and no one to watch the children, she takes them with her to the wedding. On the other side of the world, in Japan, the deaf/mute daughter of a wealthy businessman has just lost her mother, and is searching desperately in all the wrong places for some kind of satisfying emotional connection to another human being. The international incident in Morocco, a tragic accident that is rapidly being blown out of proportion, will have a profound impact on the lives of the characters in Mexico and Japan.

Transpiring in at least 5 languages (counting sign language) and jumping rapidly between the dirty streets of Mexico, the techno-pop Japanese night life, and the primitive desert of Morocco, Babel is like a very concentrated shot of culture shock. The film poignantly illustrates the impossibility of communication across thick barriers of language and culture, and the tragedy of this breakdown in human connection, while at the same time hinting that there may be hope for those with the humility and the sensitivity to try to build relationships. It is a message that is both timely and timeless.

Babel only won Best Music (Score) out of its seven nominations, an award I still think should have gone to Pan's Labyrinth. However, as to the rest, I suspect that it split its own Best Supporting Actress vote, allowing Dreamgirls to walk off with it. Both Adriana Barraza (as the Mexican housekeeper) and Rinko Kikuchi (as the deaf/mute Japanese teen) did incredible work. Because of the masterful way in which it splices and weaves its four stories together into a unified whole, and jumps between them in a way that is both startling and artful, I don't understand why Babel lost Best Editing to The Departed . . . especially considering the flaws I already pointed out in the latter.

I feel that Babel is a genuinely important film with a positive and vital message that should speak to anyone anywhere in the world. The Departed is smart and well done . . . great filmmaking, to be sure. But ultimately I think The Departed is entertainment where Babel is art. Babel is highly original and worthy of imitation . . . The Departed is imitation; a nearly identical remake of Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs (2002) done over with a new location, an all-star cast and a less meaningful ending. What does that say about where Best Picture and Best Director should have gone? Well . . . there it is.

Posted by Jared at 12:06 PM | TrackBack

February 09, 2007

Demagogue in Denim

Today I saw A Face in the Crowd, a 1957 film I had never heard of five days ago, and it blew me away. It was directed by Elia Kazan of A Streetcar Named Desire and Baby Doll (which I loved), and On the Waterfront (which I rather keenly disliked), as well as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and East of Eden (which I should probably see someday). It features the big-screen debuts of Andy Griffith and Lee Remick, as well as Walter Matthau only a few years into his movie career (I believe this was his first non-Western film role).

A Face in the Crowd is about a wandering Arkansas alcoholic with a guitar and a boatload of charisma who rockets to fame as a TV personality, and eventually becomes a potent political force before his mean arrogance brings him crashing back down. The structure is very similar to 1949's All the King's Men (and probably many others), but much better here. The cinematography, sets, writing, and most especially the acting are top-notch. This film bombed with audiences when it was first release, and was completely ignored at the Oscars (notables that year include The Bridge on the River Kwai and 12 Angry Men). This is rather too bad, as the film is a masterpiece and a true classic. It doesn't deserve this obscurity.

You've never seen Andy Griffith like this, and after this movie, you never would again. Griffith stuck to much safer roles following A Face in the Crowd. His character, Lonesome Rhodes, is volatile, mean, and sexually charged, but also fascinating and magnetic. I would never have guessed that the man who went on to play the beloved sheriff of Mayberry for many successful television seasons had this sort of persona lurking inside.

I was also amazed by the movie's continued relevance after 50 years. With television still a growing phenomenon in the late '50s, this movie was way ahead of its time (a recipe for box-office disaster, I suppose). It put me in mind of such phenomena as (for instance) the influence of Fox News over red state America. Regardless of whether a liberal bias exists in the media, there is no doubt that conservative America gets its opinions from the boob tube, and this movie shows that they have for as long as that medium has existed (remember McCarthy?).

It is a riveting and worthwhile experience for any film buff or student of cultural history, and I'm so pleased it caught my eye when I was checking in the VHS copy at the library earlier this week.

Posted by Jared at 12:27 PM | TrackBack

January 29, 2007

A Fairy Tale with Fangs and Horns

Do you remember the original Grimm's Fairy Tales? Good people died. Children got eaten. And even when the story ended well, it probably traumatized you somewhere along the way. This is the spirit in which El Laberinto del Fauno, or Pan's Labyrinth (written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, best known in this country for 2004's Hellboy), was conceived. It is a marvellous and breathtaking creative effort, introducing conventional fairy tale elements into one of the most important ideological conflicts of the twentieth century to produce an enchanting and terrifying fable for adults.

It is the summer of 1944, and Ofelia, a young girl, is traveling to northern Spain with her very pregnant mother so that they can be near her new stepfather, Capitán Vidal, when the child is born. Vidal is a brutal military officer in the Spanish army who has been stationed in the area to eradicate a small rebel militia that is hiding out in the woods, stubborn holdouts from the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia is a bookish kid, used to enduring the usual admonishments that she stop filling her head with nonsense.

Her active imagination is in little danger of starvation in her new surroundings, however. The run-down mill where Vidal has set up his base of operations is right next to an ancient and mysterious stone labyrinth. She has been at the mill for less than 24 hours, in fact, before she receives her first midnight visit from a fairy who leads her deep inside the labyrinth for a meeting with a very shifty-looking faun. The faun reveals that Ofelia is, in fact, the long-lost princess of a fairy kingdom, and in order to return there she must prove herself by completing three tasks of increasing difficulty before the next full moon.

As Ofelia begins her quest, Vidal sadistically tightens his grip on the local community to increase the pressure on the rebels, members of his household play their own dangerous game of aiding the enemy, and Ofelia's mother experiences frightening complications to her health as she prepares to give birth. If ever a child needed a fantasy world to escape to, Ofelia certainly does, but in an interesting twist, the horrors of her tasks parallel the atrocities committed by her new stepfather. Before she can truly escape, she will have to face terror and evil head on.

The film is very dark, both in content and visuals. The people behind the camera seem grimly determined to hold each shot during the film's most gruesome moments long past the point where most movies (and, indeed, most moviegoers) would have gladly turned away. What some might view as a lack of restraint, and possibly even good taste, on the part of the director is also incredibly effective in communicating the stakes to the audience. The characters are right there in the midst of it, and all but the most desensitized of viewers will be forced to invest heavily in their plight or walk out.

Additionally, of course, there is an element of contrast at work here. Ofelia's innocence and the virtue of the rebels and their allies are thrown into sharp relief against the background of evil, both human and monstrous, which they struggle against. Nor is Ofelia helpless in this struggle, although she may seem young, weak, and naive. Underscored by the film's tagline: "Innocence Has A Power Evil Cannot Imagine," this theme is developed throughout Ofelia's adventures. The more terrible evil is shown to be, the more potent the force that defeats it will seem.

Pan's Labyrinth has been nominated for Best Foreign Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Music, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Makeup. While I would not be surprised to see it win any (or all) of the above, it is up against a number of worthy contendors. However, it would be positively wrong for another entry to come out on top in the latter two categories. Del Toro's fantastical creatures have an amazingly palpable screen presence, rivaling anything from the WETA or Jim Henson creature workshops. Although Del Toro's vision lacks their menagerie-like variety and enormous cast of hundreds, its high quality more than compensates for the low quantity. The denizens of the labyrinth live, breathe and move flawlessly and believably, every bit as alive and real as the human characters. One of the them in particular is among the most terrifying things I have ever seen.

This film is suffused with a powerful combination of delightful wonder, harrowing thrills and moving human drama. It emerges from a rich heritage of fairy tale literature without seeming bland or derivative, sure to leave its own unique mark on a tradition that, apparently, is far from extinct.

Posted by Jared at 03:19 PM | TrackBack

January 23, 2007

2007: An Oscar Primer

This year's Oscar nominations were released today, leaving me just a month and change to (if I can) hurry and see all the Best Picture nominees I missed. This year that happens to apply to four out of the five. And the only one I have seen I am, quite frankly, a bit shocked to find on the list: Little Miss Sunshine. I liked it, but . . . it is very indie and the thought that it might be Best Picture material never occurred to me.

The other 3 nominations it scooped up are for Best Supporting Actor (for almost 73-year old Alan Arkin) and Best Supporting Actress (for 10-year old Abigail Breslin) and Best Original Screenplay. Wow. Winning Best Supporting Actress would tie Breslin with Tatum O'Neal as youngest Oscar winner (not counting Shirley Temple's "honorary Oscar" which she got at age 6). Meanwhile, while Alan Arkin is not quite the oldest Oscar winner, I wouldn't be surprised to find that this represents the greatest age disparity between acting nominees from a single film (or even in a single year).

The other nominees for Best Picture are:

-Babel, one of those long movies with several interlocking stories and an ensemble cast (like Magnolia, Crash, Syriana, and so forth). This one is from a Mexican director who also did 21 Grams (same genre, I saw it and thought it was quite good, but very difficult and disturbing) and Amores Perros (which I didn't see, but which apparently made quite a big splash). It netted 6 other nominations as well: Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, 2 for Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay (in other words, there is only one category where Little Miss Sunshine does not face competition from Babel).

-The Departed, a Martin Scorsese-directed crime drama/thriller with a killer cast, adored by critics and several of my friends alike, which I really had no interest in seeing. I guess now I will. I'll probably like it, too. The Departed scooped up four other nominations: Best Director, Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Apparently, Jack Nicholson's exclusion from an Oscar nod for his role was a surprise. I wouldn't really know.

-Letters from Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood directs, Steven Spielberg produces, and the subject is World War II. The reviews practically write themselves, right? This one slipped by completely under my radar as a rather late release among the other nominees, but I probably wouldn't have seen it anyway. It, too, has 3 additional nominations: Best Director, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Screenplay.

-The Queen, a dry-looking biopic (despite apparently great performances) focusing on Elizabeth II in the days following the death of Princess Diana. It might be rather good, actually. The Queen also has five other nominations: Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay.

A major surprise is the exclusion of Dreamgirls from the Best Picture category. It has received eight other nominations, making it the most nominated film this year: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, 3 for Best Original Song, Best Sound, and Best Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphey's first nomination) and Best Supporting Actress.

There are a few others with several nominations but no Best Picture attention: Blood Diamond has 5 nominations and I'm still not very interested in seeing it. Pan's Labyrinth has 6 nominations, including Best Foreign Film. This film currently represents the only reason that I hate living in Longview (these things come and go). I have been desperate to see it for months, it still hasn't come out here, and it likely won't. As of this moment, I am seriously considering going to Shreveport to see it (or somewhere closer, if I can find anywhere).

Will Smith and Forest Whitaker have both received their first nominations (for Best Actor) in films I still would like to see: The Pursuit of Happyness and The Last King of Scotland. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio has received his 3rd acting nomination (for Blood Diamond), so far without a win. But that's nothing; Peter O'Toole's nomination this year (for Venus) represents his eighth nomination without a win (his first was, of course, for Lawrence of Arabia, which he lost to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird). This is O'Toole's first nomination in nearly 25 years. However, he did receive an honorary "throw-me-a-frigging-bone-here" Oscar a few years ago.

The Best Actress category is largely a clash of Oscar veterans. You've got Dame Judi Dench, this is her 6th nomination (she's won once). Then there's Helen Mirr (of The Queen). This is her 3rd nomination, no wins yet. I've seen both of the previous movies she was nominated for (The Madness of King George and Gosford Park) and both are very good. Then there's the obligatory semi-annual Meryl Streep nomination. Streep already held the record for number of acting nominations, and this is her fourteenth. She has won twice, but she's received a nomination pretty much every other year since the late '70s. The only other actress who even comes close is Katherine Hepburn with 12 nominations, and I doubt she'll be closing that gap any further. Finally, there is Kate Winslet, who I would very much like to see win. This is her 5th nomination, with no wins yet.

Other nominees that I have seen:

-Children of Men, 3 nominations
-The Prestige, 2 nominations
-The Illusionist, 1 nomination
-Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, 4 nominations
-Borat, 1 nomination and by far the biggest Oscar groaner this year. To add injury to insult, the nomination is for Best Adapted Screenplay . . . as if that movie had a screenplay.
-Cars, 2 nominations
-Superman Returns, 1 nomination
-Water, 1 nomination (for Best Foreign Film; this is quite possibly the best film I saw last year). Interestingly, this is the first year that it would have been possible for Water to even be nominated. The film was entered by Canada, but it is not in one of the primary languages of Canada. The rules were changed just this year to make that no longer a problem.
-"No Time for Nuts," nominated for Best Animated Short. I was actually surprised to discover that I'd seen something from this category. It was on the DVD of Ice Age 2 that I saw. It features Scrat, who stumbles across a small time machine and ends up chasing his acorn across history. It was rather amusing.

Other nominees that I would very much like to see:

-The Curse of the Golden Flower, 1 nomination
-Marie Antoinette, 1 nomination
-Apocalypto, 3 nominations
-Jesus Camp, 1 nomination (for Best Documentary; I hope it beats An Inconvenient Truth, but I won't hold my breath).
-Deliver Us from Evil, 1 nomination (also for Best Documentary, ditto above)

Let's see . . . oh yeah, haphazard and worthless predictions:

Best Picture: Probably The Departed, ideally let's say Little Miss Sunshine (but I really should actually watch some of the others)
Best Actor: Forest Whitaker
Best Actress: Probably Helen Mirr, ideally Kate Winslet
Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin
Best Supporting Actress: Abigail Breslin
Best Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu for Babel
Best Cinematography (since I've seen more from this category than any other): Probably Children of Men or Pan's Labyrinth
Best Foreign Film: Again, I really need to see Pan's Labyrinth, but if it is as excellent as I've heard, this should be a toss-up between it and Water.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my rundown on the 79th Annual Academy Award nominees. I have some stuff to watch.

Posted by Jared at 03:16 PM | TrackBack

January 14, 2007

Dystopian Fun for Everyone

(Rachel's review)

I went to see Children of Men about a week ago. I'd had my eye on it since I first saw the trailer: novel, thought-provoking concept, respectable cast, directed by Alfonso Cuarón (helmer of the only truly stand-out Harry Potter movie to date). So, when it opened in Longview, we were so there, and I, for one, was not disappointed.

This film has gotten a lot of criticism for things which I feel have nothing to do with how well it played on the big screen, so I won't discuss them right away. It gets so much right: locations, technology, atmosphere, attitudes. From the large to the small, Children of Men convincingly transports the audience to a 2027 where no human pregnancy has occurred in over 18 years. Cuarón is very comfortable working with dark, gloomy material, as is his leading man, Clive Owen. Very ably backing him up are Julianne Moore, Michael Caine (always excellent), newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey, and a growing favorite of mine, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Amistad). Seriously, every time this guy pops up in a movie I'm watching, it happens to be a really great movie.

There are also some bold storytelling choices here that shatter the predictability of the plot. No character is sacred, and there is a very real tension throughout most of the movie as the ultimate ending remains very much up in the air right down to the final moments. Every time things seem to be moving comfortably down a particular path, there is a sudden reversal that throws everything into disarray. There is some really great work here in the action sequences as well, including one of the most intense car chases I've ever seen, during which the car's speed never exceeds 20 mph!

Of course, the thing everyone is talking about is that (I believe) 7-minute unbroken shot that takes place in the midst of a chaotic urban battle near the end of the film. It is indeed impressive, although I barely noticed that the camera hadn't cut once until the scene was probably a little over half over. It is a major undertaking to get everything to work perfectly during a shot that requires so much in the way of explosions, gunfire, and rapid but smooth camera movement, and it is carried off fairly well. However, I've seen Russian Ark, a movie which consists of a single 96-minute take involving 2000 actors costumed and scripted to cover 300 years of Russian history, and three live orchestras performing massive ballroom sequences . . . It makes 7 minutes of pitched battle seem a tad less worthy to write home about.

About halfway through the sequence in Children of Men, blood spatters on the camera lens (this was what first drew my attention to the lack of cuts), and as I watched I found this extremely distracting and annoying. A few minutes later, it suddenly disappeared and I assumed that there had been a cut even though I could not in any way detect one. A few days later, I read this about the filming:

Cuarón had access to his location for the shot for just a few weeks, and his crew used up all but the last two days simply preparing for the long sequence. The first take, which took all of the first day, was a disaster from start to finish. The second, which took up most of the second day, was ruined when the cameraman tripped. Each ruined take would require several hours for the crew to set everything back up and try again, so when the third take began, the sun was literally setting on their final day to use the selected location. No pressure.

With the fate of the scene hanging in the balance, filming began, but then one of the fake blood packets on a dying bystander exploded too close to the camera, spattering the lens as I described above. Disgusted, Cuarón yelled "Cut," but fortunately the sound of an explosion drowned him out and no one heard. He sat through the rest of the sequence, and then Owen and the cameraman came over, elated at their success. He quickly pointed out that, certainly everything seemed to have gone well, but the scene was ruined by the blood. Both Owen and the cameraman, incredulous and furious, told Cuarón off, stating that the accident of the blood was an incredible boon to the scene and was precisely the sort of thing he himself was always looking for.

Well, when they put it that way . . . the scene went in the film and the blood stayed. But Cuarón recognized that it grew tiresome after a few minutes, and the production hired a digital artist to painstakingly remove the blood from every single frame of the final minutes of the scene. The job was, by all accounts, quite tortuous, and the digital artist hated them for it. So, when the blood disappears, the scene was not cut as I had assumed it must have been. Quite a story, I thought.

Anyway, about that criticism . . . apparently Cuarón was not at all interested in reading the original book when he worked on the screenplay and on filming. He thought it would distract him from what he wanted to do: namely, use the idea of a future world with no children as social commentary on certain American governmental policies of the present such as immigration and the environment and so forth.

He pretty much sucks at this no matter which way you look at it. A lot of people were disgusted with the movie because they found it jarring and irrelevant that he should try to use this concept as a soapbox for those issues. I greatly enjoyed the movie and completely missed the fact that this is what he was supposedly trying to do. Looking back I remember maybe one or two asides that might be construed as pertaining to those issues, but I don't really see how they connect to the present, and I certainly don't think they make any sort of coherent political statement.

One thing that I did notice while watching the movie, however, was the number of seemingly disconnected religious pointers floating around in it. Main character names included "Julian," "Theo," "Luke," "Miriam" and "Kee" (spelled differently from the "circulating life energy" of eastern religion, but certainly pronounced the same). The title itself comes from a Psalm. These and other similar names and ideas appeared at random in the movie, didn't seem to really go anywhere, yet did not seem to be coincidental.

I have since grabbed the book from the library and I plan on reading it, and I have discovered that the author is a Christian and her book explores many Christian themes and ideas through the premise that the film version took (or tried to take) in an entirely different direction. In the book, for instance, Luke is an Anglican priest, and the organization called "Fish" (a strange name for what is, in the movie, a terrorist organization) is much more closely linked to the ideas represented by the Christian fish after which it is named in the book. The faith upon which the book is based is strangely absent in the film, but the labels remained like cryptic signposts, pointing at nothing in particular. The director (seeking to "go in a different direction") was too ignorant to realize that he had left in the terminology when he drained the ideology.

My attitude about that is one of sad amusement tinged with disappointment for what might have been. Children of Men is an amazing film experience just as it is, but compared to what it could have been it seems strangely hollow. I loved the movie, but it could have changed my life. Oh, well.

One final thought . . . I keep thinking of Children of Men as a dystopia, but I have to wonder, are dystopias in the eye of the beholder? Children of Men might very well represent my friend Randy's version of utopia . . . a world without children. What say you, Randy? Glorious dytopia?

Posted by Jared at 02:03 PM | TrackBack

January 05, 2007

You Have Been Warned

In a highly experimental attempt to foster critical thought and articulation and encourage regular writing in a public forum, Rachel has agreed to post a certain number of movie reviews in tandem with me (employing, of course, her own unmistakable elan). Anyway, here's Rachel's review.

And so we begin on familiar ground, with a movie I brought home from the library for her: The Wild. There are two things you need to know about this movie immediately: 1) It is a computer-generated cartoon directed by a man credited as Steve "Spaz" Williams whose previous movie work is confined almost exclusively to visual effects. 2) Its story is a hideous stew of ingredients stolen brazenly from Finding Nemo, Madagascar rounded out with the various tired cliches of its genre. Anything that smacks of originality also stinks of the kind of thing other animated movies wouldn't stoop to include.

The Wild (as I've already kind of told you) is about a ragtag group of zoo animals led by Samson the lion (Kiefer Sutherland) that breaks out of the New York City zoo to rescue Samson's son Ryan, who has been mistakenly loaded on board a ship headed for the jungle. This well-worn story seems all the more overdone when weighed down with the standard Disney plot accoutrement of the single-parent family. (What's with that, anyway?) Along the way they mingle with a menagerie of different species representing the full spectrum of offensive racial stereotypes.

The prize goes to the Arab pigeon, a wild-eyed idiot with a gambling habit. However, the icing on the cake has to be the tropical island dung beetles done out in full Swedish yodeling-polka-singer regalia complete with lederhosen and golden braids. The sight brought a single stunned query to my lips, but since this is a review of a kid movie I'll refrain from repeating it.

The movie's subplots are a tad disturbing as well, the most prominent of these being the attempts of Benny the squirrel (James Belushi) to win the love of Bridget the giraffe (Janeane Garofalo). If they can't keep it inter-species, can't they at least stick to romances between vaguely compatible species? There is also a herd of wildebeests intent on becoming carnivores, but I guess that's more weird and, I dunno, impossible than truly disturbing. But did I mention that William Shatner voices the fanatical leader of the wildebeests? Yup. And Eddie Izzard is the show-stealing koala bear/comic relief (I say show-stealing because this movie's few fans seem to be fans because of his character, not because I myself was vastly entertained by him).

So, if the plot and characters fail so spectacularly, how are the visuals? Problematic to say the least. First, the animals are spectacularly realistic. They look so real, in fact, that they just aren't funny. This is a cartoon that has a hard time feeling like a cartoon because its characters lack stylization, and therefore they lack . . . well, character. Meanwhile, the environments that these hyper-realistic, high-quality cartoon animals stroll around in are just plain lousy. I have never seen such total incongruity in an animated feature. It is literally as if the environments were designed and rendered by a completely different team on Big Idea's software (the Veggie Tales people, in case you wondered). This effect is so jarring that, more than once, the animals appear to be performing on a sound stage, complete with static, painted backdrop and plastic props. Tacky.

The humor feels the same way. The best animated movies manage to keep people of all ages entertained with a smorgasboard of cartoon action, clever concepts, and wise-apple humor aimed just over the kiddies' heads. Having run through the first on auto-pilot and skipped the second, The Wild attempts at the third are beyond contrived. The effect produced resembles attending a children's puppet show where the puppets occasionally go limp and lifeless and the puppeteer's head emerges from behind the curtain as he breaks character completely to fire off a smart remark at the adults in the audience.

In conclusion, this is an inferior effort on all fronts. Should have been aborted. Should be avoided.

Posted by Jared at 01:18 PM | TrackBack

January 03, 2007


Randy got me The Film Snob Dictionary for Christmas. That's hilarious. He wins. It also reminds me of something . . . It's that time again; time for the trimester report on the best films I saw during the last (approximately) 4-month period. I don't think whittling things down to a top 10 has been this difficult since that very first summer (2004), when I watched 137 films. Since the end of August I've seen "only" 58, but statistically they've been rather good.

While I've occasionally been forced to dip into the 92-93% types to fill up the full ten, this time there are over a dozen in the high 90s alone, with several deserving entries in the 94-95% range which will simply have to be left out of the final count. Heartbreaking. On the positive side, I have begun a list (based on my record) of movies I'd like to own. Current most coveted is A Passage to India, chiefly because I've begun to look for it specifically every time I walk into a store that sells DVDs and I have yet to find it. Eventually I shall tire of this game and buy it online, but for now I'm enjoying the thrill of the chase.

I discovered an interesting anomaly between two of the films I watched last month (which I shall go ahead and note here, since neither is in the running for a top spot). Oliver! won the 1968 Oscar for Best Picture (rather undeservedly in my opinion, but the competition was thin) and is (to date) the last G-rated film to have carried off that award. I, for one, am sure that there are very good reasons for that, but anyway . . . The very next year, Best Picture went to Midnight Cowboy, the first (and only) X-rated film to win said award. That film, incidentally, I did feel to be most deserving of its recognition, chiefly thanks to its lead actors. I was horrified to discover that Best Actor that year went to John Wayne for True Grit. Dustin Hoffman was surely most grievously robbed, to say nothing of Jon Voight.

Yeah, okay. I'll stop stalling. Let's get to it:




-North by Northwest

-Stranger Than Fiction


-Big Night

-Dead Man Walking

-Joyeux Noël

-The Green Mile

I rather sorely neglected to discuss the films we saw at the Kilgore Film Festival, probably because Randy and I reviewed them all for the YellowJacket (a veritable tour de force it was). There were some really great ones . . . all of them actually, with the exception of Woody Allen's boorish schtick. Water was indisputably the best (although my personal favorite was Wordplay, I have to say . . . more on that later). Incredibly moving, great cinematography and locations, magnificent performances and score, and the plot faked me out completely at least three times. I really need to check out the rest of Deepa Mehta's elemental trilogy (Earth and Fire) one of these days.

Chinatown, North by Northwest, and Stranger Than Fiction, and Joyeux Noël I have discussed before. Chinatown is a seriously worthy noir film, which felt (to me, anyway) very much like a bridge between two very different eras of filmmaking. Alfred Hitchcock . . . one of his best . . . always worth a look. Stranger Than Fiction, the most charming, likeable 2006 release I've seen yet. I hope to see it snag some Oscar nominations. Joyeux Noël, I repeat, best Christmas movie I've ever seen. You have to get it and see it . . . and don't tell me you can't. My brother tells me he even found it in Guatemala.

I have now seen Gattaca probably half a dozen times, and my enjoyment grows with each viewing. Every time I watch it, I think it can't be as good as I remember, and it's always better. It represents a flawless marriage of several rather disparate concepts, producing a retro-futuristic blend of stylish mystery and drama. There is film noir, there is the genetic dystopia of Brave New World, there is more than a hint of Isaac Asimov's fabulous robot mysteries . . . and so much more.

Tsotsi is a shocking story of unexpected redemption. I think I may have mentioned my affinity to the well-done redemption story once or twice before. This one was so excellent that it went directly onto that syllabus I was composing shortly thereafter, neatly saving me from having to insert a more controversial entry like Pulp Fiction or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Tsotsi won the Best Foreign Film Oscar last year, and it certainly had it coming.

Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile certainly don't belong together, since they are almost nothing alike . . . but they both center around death row and feature a less than benevolent view of capital punishment. The former is a focused statement of that position, while the latter's politics are more incidental to its story. But they're both really good. I first saw Dead Man Walking in my Bible class during my senior year in high school, and at that time (perhaps not surprisingly) it failed to make the same impression as it did when I rewatched it last semester. In fact, I barely remembered having seen it. Not so this time. Very impacting.

The Green Mile I saw my freshman year of college, and I've had the urge to rewatch it several times since. I finally sat down and did it while packing to return to Texas. The deliberate, measured way in which this great movie sets up its story and characters before allowing them to unfold their little drama before us is truly impressive. This film is almost as good as its more grounded cousin (by the same author and the same director, and with some similar elements), The Shawshank Redemption.

I have saved the most exhilirating for last: Big Night, the story of two brothers (played by the hilarious and gifted Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci, who also directs) whose newly opened Italian restaurant is floundering because their customers are gastronomic philistines. A friend (and rival) with a highly successful set-up just down the road offers them one last chance to keep the place open: the attendance of a big-name celebrity at a no-holds-barred feast to be prepared by them and served at their restaurant, with full press coverage.

Big Night is an absolute joy to watch from first to last. Every performance, every scene, is a priceless gem. I didn't think a "food movie" could ever top Babette's Feast (another favorite), but this one does. There are so many magnificent moments leading up to the title event, as Primo (Shalhoub) berates his ignorant patrons and clumsily woos the local florist and Segundo (Tucci) juggles two very different women (representative of his cultural confusion), a steady relationship with an adoring American girl who wants him to settle down with her, and a passionate, illicit affair with an Italian mistress who calls him back to his roots and threatens his plans for stability.

But once the festivities begin, the film truly (and I mean truly) pulls out all the stops and just goes crazy. I won't say anymore about that, because I wouldn't want to give anything away . . . but the very last scene, with no dialogue or cutting, is pure and perfect cinema to the core.

Now, maybe this sets a bad precedent, but I have to do it. It was the only way I could talk myself into cutting a few of these off the top ten.

Honorable Mention:

-Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

I saw this one twice. It's just so wildly original; a movie about making a movie about a book about writing a book . . . pure comic genius.

-Taxi Driver

I read somewhere that a prominent movie critic declared at the end of the '70s that it had been the worst decade in film history. Well, first of all, the man had obviously not yet encountered the 1980s (which were the worst years in film history, their dubious lone contribution being the establishment, but not invention, of the summer blockbuster). Second, I can hardly believe that anyone would make such a statement about the decade that produced both Godfather movies, Apocalypse Now, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sting, and even Star Wars (to name just a few). It was quite possibly the best decade for American film, and arguably the most important since the introduction of the "talkie" in the late 1920s.

Well, that was kind of irrelevant. All that to say . . . Taxi Driver is both an important part of the milieu of 70s film, and a disturbingly sympathetic experience inside the mind of a sociopath. And also a really good movie.

-Little Miss Sunshine

I've had a lot of enjoyment for indie films ever since I saw Garden State about two years ago. It was distributed by Fox Searchlight, which finds some of the best stuff . . . among them, last year's Little Miss Sunshine. It is an extremely fun movie that I saw with Rachel and Randy and we reviewed for the YellowJacket. The great cast includes Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear, and Steve Carrell, and it is part of a growing sub-genre of recent quirky (that's the key adjective) movies about families (but definitely not for families) moving from dysfunctional bickering to warmth and fellowship.


Best documentary I've ever seen (besides Night and Fog, which is in a whole different class); interesting, entertaining, informative, innovative, hilarious . . . who knew an hour-and-a-half of crossword puzzles could be so manic and riveting?

-The Prestige

I had a very hard time deciding between this and Stranger Than Fiction, and I'm not sure I could explain what made me go with the latter. Regardless, this is right up there among the best releases of 2006 with its brilliant cast, chilling Victorian atmosphere, dark and suspenseful plot, dizzying narrative technique, and Twilight Zone-esque flair. A must-see movie that I'd love to see receive some Oscar attention, but its chances are probably not as good as Stranger Than Fiction's, sadly.

-The Mission

I was amazed by this movie, but even more than that I was amazed that no one had ever gotten me to watch it. Is it possible that Christians don't realize this movie exists? It is a story of Christian love, grace, and redemption amidst the violence, evil, and greed of the world that tells its story with honesty and recognizes the hope and light that lie even in apparent defeat and darkness, and all with a PG rating. But you won't find it in a Christian bookstore, and I've never once heard it mentioned amidst all the talk of Hollywood's anti-religious bias . . . and that is something that I simply do not understand.

And that's it for now . . . my mega-movie update of the past few months. Maybe one of these days I'll have the time to devote to keeping up with writing thoughts on these fantastic films as I'm watching them. Novel concept, that.

Oh, and one last thing: the title of this post was cribbed from this excellent blog, which Mr. Wilson introduced me to some months ago. Check it out.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

December 28, 2006

Source Material

I sat through The Fifth Element once more tonight. It is a fat, sloppy, stupid mess of a sci-fi/action flick that you'll hate yourself for liking, and I've probably seen it five or six times. It makes me ill to think I've endured half a dozen showings of this thing and maybe two of, say, Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now or The Godfather but no more . . . I probably haven't seen it in 2 or 3 years now, and as I watched this time a revelation hit me like a ton of bricks:

Writer/director Luc Besson's 1997 movie is the hideous sire of writer/director George Lucas's monstrous 1999-2005 Star Wars prequel trilogy. Lucas ripped off The Fifth Element just as surely as the Wachowskis' Matrix movies ripped off Dark City.

It's in the individual elements: the cab chase in 23rd century New York City translates directly to the Coruscant car chase scenes of Episode II; the opera diva and her entourage are dead ringers for Queen Amidala and hers; Chris Tucker's shrill DJ, Ruby Rhod, and Ahmed Best's frantic Gungan, Jar Jar Binks, are brothers from a different mother. But it is also in the style, the atmosphere, the costumes, the dialogue (and acting), the set design, the characters and the flow. Watch any movie from the original Star Wars trilogy and The Fifth Element, back to back, then follow it up with any movie from the prequel trilogy and tell me where the family resemblance lies.

A quick internet scan revealed that I am not the first person to make this connection to some degree (but I didn't find anyone who seems to realize the extreme degree of sameness). Similarities and even duplicate elements abound to a degree that makes them difficult to catalogue. I'm not sure what conclusion that leads to or what questions it raises (if any), I was just too thunderstruck by the sudden realization not to share it, for whatever that's worth. The Fifth Element is a compendium of everything I hate about the Star Wars prequels.

Posted by Jared at 12:05 AM | TrackBack

December 21, 2006


This struck me as an interesting idea, so I thought I'd give it a shot, even though I have a few in common (sort of). Give the original post and the comments a look-see. They're pretty worthwhile.

Citizen Kane
I might as well start by getting this one out of the way. Allow me to quote myself: "I'm the kind of person who can watch a movie and appreciate it immensely on the technical level, but still not enjoy it, or think it is an exceptional movie." That statement is no longer true. I am now almost incapable of disliking a well-made movie. I wrote that almost three years ago, here. I think that even as I was composing that post, I knew how silly it was. Perhaps I haven't done a complete 180 on Citizen Kane in one sense, but I have developed a very deep appreciation of it that wasn't there before. In terms of pure artistry, I no longer judge a movie based on its chosen subject. I still think that The Godfather should be the #1 film on that list, but Citizen Kane's spot in the top ten is well-deserved. Dang, I need to see that movie again. I really do.

Dr. Strangelove
I first saw this film the summer before I came to college, and I was baffled (to say the least). I didn't hate it, or even deeply dislike it, I just didn't get it. The movie was one big "Huh? Why?" It didn't help that I was the oldest person in the room, and everyone else would rather have been watching the other movie we had on hand (Danny Kaye's hilarious The Court Jester). Since then I've probably seen it 7 or 8 times, each with increased enjoyment. I realized the last time I watched it that Strangelove is probably one of the few movies that I could record my own commentary track for, and easily fill up the entire film with a steady stream of trivia, history, and analysis. If I could keep from laughing, anyway. I tend to spend most of Strangelove doubled over, even now.

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Let's track back the other direction, shall we? I was 15 years old when the first Star Wars prequel came out, and it had only been 2 years since I saw the first Star Wars movie. I was still climbing toward the peak of my fanaticism for the franchise. Phantom Menace came out on May 19th in the United States, but didn't come out until late June in Guatemala. We came to Texas that summer on around June 17th . . . in other words, I had to wait a ridiculously long time to see one of the most anticipated movies ever. I had remained scrupulously spoiler-free, with the exception of about 500 viewings of the video recording I had of the trailer.

From the moment the lights went down, I was enraptured. I adored every frame of that movie. I believe it jumped immediately to the number 2 spot on my hierarchy of Star Wars movies (The Empire Strikes Back remained and remains unsurpassed). Suffice to say that Phantom has not fared so well as Empire as time goes on. By the time Attack of the Clones came out in 2002, my loyalty was shaky, and when Revenge of the Sith (which I've still only seen once) was released three years after that, I had long since fallen off the prequel bandwagon. I don't hate Episode I (all of the prequels have their moments . . . the final one is pretty good . . . and there are just too many happy memories associated with Star Wars for me to despise them), but I do hate certain portions of it, and I don't harbor any illusions about its quality.

I'm sure I could (and will) think of more movies to write about here, but I'm very tired right now and it's nearly time for me to get ready to fly to California this afternoon. Respond with your own changes of opinion, if you can think of any. I'm interested to know what you come up with.

Posted by Jared at 12:00 PM | TrackBack

December 20, 2006

The Little Grey Cells

I decided to get a few "different" Christmas movies in from Netflix this year. They were already on my queue, but I bumped them up to the top so as to have them before I left town. The first was Joyeux Noël, which we all gathered to watch on Saturday night before everyone scattered to the four winds. I loved it. We all loved it. It was one of the best Christmas movies I've ever seen, and if you have the means, make the effort to see it this Christmas yourself. I already went out and bought it.

The other one came in later than I expected, and watched it last night before bed. It was Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1995), the adaptation of one of my favorite mystery stories (alternately titled Murder for Christmas). It was nothing special (made-for-TV and all), but it was still quite charming and evoked a certain nostalgia from several years ago when I used to watch Poirot mysteries regularly with my family. The music people rather cleverly rearranged the show theme (usually heavy on the saxaphone) with pan pipes and the like, throwing in a few extra-Christmas-y flairs for good measure.

I do love me a good Poirot mystery. Barring Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot is by far my favorite fictional detective. But, when it comes to the movies, the actor behind the character is vitally important to the enjoyment. For instance, the last Poirot I watched was the 1970s Murder on the Orient Express with an all-star (and I do mean all-star) cast. Some incompetent moron cast Albert Finney (38 at the time) in the role of the 60-year old, eccentric Belgian detective. Finney was actually 3rd choice for the role, behind Sir Alec Guinness (if you can possibly imagine) and Paul Scofield.

Finney is an atrocity in the role; an absolute travesty. He brings the entire movie crashing down around him. Finney's Poirot barely seems like a human being, let alone an intelligent one. He seems to honk like a demented goose (etc.) more than he articulates human speech. It's not his fault . . . he's doing his best. He just doesn't have any business playing Hercule Poirot. The awful punchline is, Agatha Christie saw the film and declared Finney to be the nearest thing she had seen to the Poirot of her imagination. She loved him in the part. There are three reasons I don't think her opinion counts:

1) She was 84 and dying, so senility was clearly a factor. Additionally, she had been around since before the beginning of the motion picture, so she might not have been as difficult to impress as she should have been.

2) Agatha Christie didn't like the character of Poirot, anyway, and her prejudice no doubt made the extremely unlikable portrayal by Finney seem adequate.

3) She never met David Suchet.

David Suchet has played Poirot flawlessly on television since 1989 in 59 dramatizations of Christie mysteries. In a few more years (at this rate), every Poirot mystery Christie ever wrote will have been filmed with Suchet as the star. It is difficult to imagine his equal, let alone his better. David Suchet is Hercule Poirot.

For the sake of completeness, I should note that in-between Finney's Poirot of 1974 and Suchet's beginning in 1989, there was one other: Peter Ustinov. He featured in about half a dozen full-length Poirot mysteries during the 1980s; most with strong, star-studded casts. I have a certain fondness for the Ustinov Poirot. He is a talented actor playing an entertaining, likeable character. However, that character is not the Hercule Poirot of Agatha Christie's novels. He isn't even trying to be. Nevertheless, the films are in all other respects scrupulously faithful to their source material, and very well made. I particularly recommend Death on the Nile.

In 1985 (4 B.D.S.), Ustinov starred as Poirot in a film version of the Christie novel Thirteen at Dinner. Cast opposite him as the Belgian detective's complete anti-thesis, the stodgy, ultra-British, somewhat-thick Chief Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard, was David Suchet. I need to make an effort to see that. And you need to make an effort to get watch a Suchet adaptation this holiday season (try the Christmas one, it's fun). If you enjoy mysteries at all, you'll enjoy these.

Posted by Jared at 04:20 PM | TrackBack

December 19, 2006

Let's Talk About Sex

I don't know whether I'll publish this. I watched Kinsey the other night, and I'm not yet convinced that I had any business sitting through it without spending some time reflecting and writing on the subject. The movie is a biopic about the life and work of Alfred Kinsey, one of the first scientists to conduct a large-scale, in-depth study of human sexual behavior.

His findings were published in two studies: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). His work was instrumental in such major changes as the American Psychological Association's decision to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses in the 1970s. In short, for good or ill, Kinsey is an important 20th century figure.

Kinsey is, to my limited understanding, a figure very similar to Freud: a controversial pioneer in a socially-disreputable field whose findings are now suspect and possibly even obsolete, but who deserves a certain amount of recognition for the difficult task of beginning the necessary dialogue. Some people (i.e. some Christians) were and continue to be deeply threatened and offended by his ideas. Some embrace him as a champion of enlightenment in a dark time.

The film captured me during its opening hour, alienated me halfway through, and then proceeded to bounce me back and forth on a moment's notice for the duration. Reading (more-or-less) opposing reviews of it from Ebert and Focus on the Family's Plugged In didn't relieve my strong sense of ambiguity at all. This movie, much like the subject of its protagonist's studies, is not to be trifled with.

Let me try and quantify what I mean just a bit . . . and I think I shall proceed beneath the fold for good measure.

Christianity, of course, gets a pretty bad play throughout. Kinsey's father is a Methodist minister whose first scene involves a sermon on how electricity (leading to the picture show), cars ("parking" and "the joy ride"), telephones (unmarried men and women speaking to each other from their beds) and the zipper (uhhh . . .) are all modern inventions of Satan designed to lure humankind towards lustful pursuits. It is later revealed that Kinsey's father was fitted with a humiliating and painful leather strap at the age of 10 to keep him from masturbating.

One of Kinsey's fellow professors (played by the always-smarmy Tim Curry) insists on abstinence-only sex education taught as a sub-section of the university's general health course. The man is a pompous idiot and obviously unfit to teach the subject. His views and his stupidity are presumably (and unfairly) linked. There is no sympathetic opposition to Kinseyan ideas. On almost any issue you can find individuals on both sides who aren't mindless idiots, and only by addressing these can you truly strengthen your own position.

The implication in a few reviews I read was that a close-minded, silent approach to sex-ed is still the dominant Christian position. On the way to work this morning I flipped by a Christian radio program which was discussing the importance of parents being open and honest with their teens regarding sex.

Kinsey is inspired in conducting his study by two things: ignorance and misinformation. He becomes aware that people know next to nothing about sex, and a lot of what they do know is wrong. Both he and his wife are virgins when they are married, and (not to put too fine a point on it) they struggle a great deal at first in "making things work."

Kinsey eventually discovers that a lot of newly-wed couples have this problem, and he tries to help them with a college course defined by its frank and open dealing with the subject of how sex works (the course is open only to faculty, graduate students, married students, and seniors). With this unprecedented forum for discussion open before them, Kinsey's students are suddenly full of questions for which he has no answers: Does masturbation really cause blindness and insanity? Does oral sex cause problems during pregnancy?

Some of the issues raised, both here and at other points in the film, are scarcely creditable (but oddly believable). Did, for instance, turn-of-the-century scout handbooks really recommend reading the Sermon on the Mount, sitting with the testicles immersed in ice-cold water, and thinking of your mother's pure love as antidotes to masturbation? Was it truly taught that only the lower classes, and particularly Negros, had difficulty with abstinence?

Ebert points out in his review that oral sex between married heterosexuals is still nominally illegal in 9 states. Wikipedia notes that all such laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003, but still . . . as recently as that?

The presence of these questions and the fact that no one has any answers to them bothers Kinsey a great deal, and he sets out to answer some of them. His method is simple: grab a few assistants and start compiling complete sexual histories of vast cross-sections of the population in an attempt to ascertain what constitutes "normal" sexual behavior. His shocking conclusion? If "normal" is defined as "something that a large percentage of people do," then pretty much anything is normal (and therefore, he adds, acceptable) when it comes to sex.

Along the way, he engages in behavior that may be in the interest of science, or may simply be fetishistic self-indulgence. He begins by cheating on his wife with a bi-sexual male assistant. She isn't shocked or horrified, but she is deeply saddened and hurt, and they have an excellent discussion about the reasons for confining sex to marriage. However, this admirable sequence is rendered as ambiguous as anything else in the film when Mrs. Kinsey ("Mac") sleeps with the same assistant a few minutes later. This is done with the full fore-knowledge and consent of Kinsey himself. It is vaguely implied that Mac is more interested in showing Kinsey how it feels than anything else, but if he notices anything, he doesn't let on and the entire line is more-or-less let alone.

In their studies regarding the sex act, Kinsey, his wife, his assistants, and their spouses are all prime test subjects. They are encouraged to essentially mix and match with each other, and often they are filmed and studied later by the group. It's all part of the job and they are all (in the words of Plugged In) "serial adulterers." This is not without consequences, however. Soon, a few marriages are on the rocks and Kinsey's assistants are at each other's throats. One rages at Kinsey for his casual view of sex (and I paraphrase):

"[Sex] isn't just something, it's the whole thing. [Sex] is a risky game, because if you're not careful, it will cut you wide open."

You won't find any mention of the stark portrayal of the consequences of adultery and the impassioned words spoken against it in the Plugged In review. They were far too determined to smear this movie to allow too much of its positive content to creep into their assessment. But I'll come back to them in a moment.

Kinsey was particularly interested in revising laws concerning sex offenders, and in one particular scene he rather vehemently defends them. I ultimately realized that this must be referring to any adult convicted for engaging in a sexual act with another consenting adult. Still, it disturbed me both with its lack of clarity and its lack of acknowledgement of the seriousness of sexual crime.

In what is certainly the film's most troubling sequence, Kinsey and his assistant Wardell Pomeroy visit a man whom Kinsey nonjudgmentally regards as a gold mine of information which he will not be able to acquire in any other way. The man, if he actually existed, would have to be among the most sexually active and deviant human beings in history. He is a deeply twisted and disturbed individual whose goal for decades seems to have been to engage in intercourse with as many people and things as possible and make detailed measurements and recordings of the results. He claims to have had sex with 22 different species of animal and over 9500 human beings, including about 800 pre-adolescents of both genders and 17 members of his own family and extended family from 7 different generations. I could go on, but you get the idea.

At some point during the interview, Pomeroy has had enough and storms from the room. Kinsey remains, commenting on the difficulty of remaining impartial. Does he have any personal opinion about this? Do the filmmakers? If so, they are keeping it entirely to themselves. Kinsey ends rather vaguely with Kinsey stating (in response to a question) that love is an important piece of the puzzle, but impossible to quantify scientifically.

I searched rather diligently for some Plugged In equivalent on what Bill O'Reilly would call the "secular-progressive" side. Not surprisingly, non-Christian film critics largely confined themselves to assessing Kinsey's success as a film. Novel idea, that. They certainly didn't engage in the rather vehement, slanted diatribe practiced by Plugged In's Tom Neven. The Focus on the Family review also includes a few links to related articles:

Let's NOT Talk About Sex
If Kinsey didn’t start the conversation about sex, as his movie’s slogan would have us believe, what did he do?

The Truth About Kinsey
The real Alfred Kinsey was not an objective scientist, and certainly not an emotionally well man. The informational links found here are designed to help you learn the truth about Kinsey, his fraud and his crimes, and what you can do combat his influence in your community.

The second link is broken. The first opens with "I’m not going to see Kinsey and I doubt any of my friends will, either. The movie is . . ." which really automatically makes it not worth my time. To petulantly decline viewing a film and in the same breath assess it is beyond dopey. It invites me to stop taking you seriously. The author, Sam Torode, goes on to assume that there is an ideological unity in Hollywood, with a focused agenda to push, and that this film is an attempt to somehow rescue the purportedly floundering sexual revolution . . . bla bla bla.

Torode then proceeds to make the laughable claim that sexual repression has never existed in American society, so Kinsey can hardly be credited for fighting it. For evidence it cites a number of so-called "sex books" written for married couples in the 1920s. In answer I would point out, first that the 1920s were a good sight more "liberated" in many areas of the United States than the 1950s, and second that Kinsey very pointedly acknowledges the existence of these books as sources of a great deal of misinformation; ideology disguised as instruction.

It goes on like that for a good while . . . I'm not so very interested in it, simply because it is belligerently not about the movie. I'm not as interested in the man himself as I am in what the movie about his life has to say. I wish PI were capable of that distinction. And speaking of their review, let me return briefly to it. I have already noted that it is not as complete in its cataloguing as I have known that publication to be in the past. Particularly, it glosses over or ignores many of the extremely positive statements made in Kinsey. If every negative sexual attitude in Kinsey deserves such scrupulous attention, how much more should its affirmations of fidelity be noted? If you can't play fair, don't show up for the game.

The "conclusion" section of the review is one of the longest I've seen on the site, comprising a good half of the text or more. A large portion of it amounts to bogus character assassination: "Kinsey’s legacy is that he played a role in unleashing epidemic levels of sexually transmitted diseases, rampant divorce, massive numbers of out-of-wedlock births, the breakdown of the family, abortion and the destruction of marriage."

After reading it over, I was a bit shocked at the difference between the Kinsey presented there and the Kinsey of the movie. Further research revealed that many of Neven's "facts" about Alfred Kinsey are probably about as credible as the rumored cause of Catherine the Great's death (and easily as sordid). And, of course, with no citations in the review, it is unclear where Neven got his information. Neven also makes this tangentially funny statement: "writer/director Bill Condon has long been known for his advocacy for homosexual rights." (Condon is a homosexual, so his history of advocacy is hardly surprising. It's like calling Tony Blair an Anglophile.)

There is also a rather infuriating cheap shot: "(Simply judging the craft of filmmaking, however, Kinsey is fairly pedestrian.)" It is my impression that, perhaps through no fault of their own, the good folks of Plugged In have long since ceased to have any idea of what constitutes good filmmaking. Kinsey employs a unique and engaging narrative device to drive the story in a way that keeps it interesting throughout. I was quite impressed with it from the beginning. Liam Neeson and Laura Linney are both superb in their roles, and Linney's Oscar nomination was well-deserved. Chris O’Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard, John Lithgow, and Oliver Platt round out a notably stellar cast. After railing on its ideology for several paragraphs, for Neven to finish up with "And besides, it's not even that great of a movie anyway" is simply childish and obviously unreliable.

Anyway, I'm not sure that I can recommend it either, in the end. Actually, I'm not sure that I have to. If, after reading all of this, you feel that it is something you should or would like to see, then it is likely that you should. If there is any doubt in your mind, steer clear. If you do see it, though, I would be very interested in your thoughts.

Ultimately I am left wondering whether I dislike Kinsey for its refusal to take a moral position (whatever that position might be), or whether I am in awe of its scrupulous adherence to the essential ambiguity surrounding any historical figure or period. There is a certain integrity in the filmmakers' refusal to inject any sort of conclusive judgment of the man and his methods. I watch Kinsey and I see neither the hero Plugged In claims he has been made into, nor the monster they claim that he actually was, but simply a man. That smells like artistic success to me.

Posted by Jared at 07:48 PM | TrackBack

December 12, 2006

YellowJacket Apocrypha

I don't generally post material that I write for the YellowJacket, and in this case my Borat review is partially derivative of the brief remarks I made in an earlier entry. However, I was generally pleased with the review, and it wasn't printed in the YJ (I also submitted a review of Stranger Than Fiction, and they went with that one instead of both, presumably due to space considerations). I've also been a bit short on posting material for a week or so. Enjoy the review that you may avoid not enjoying the movie. I probably wouldn't hate it so much if it weren't so satisfied with itself, as though it had actually proved something.

I would also like to note my appreciation of Brett's role in allowing me to see the movie. Without him I wouldn't have found anyone to go with, and consequently I wouldn't have gone. He's a great cognoscenti of low culture, my brother. That's not necessarily an insult, mind you. Joe of "Joe Loves Crappy Movies" is also a great surveyor of the baser offerings of the entertainment industry, and he does great work.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
starring Sacha Baron Cohen & Ken Davitian
Rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language.
20th Century Fox
Written by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines and directed by Larry Charles

Summary: Borat Sagdiyev, a television celebrity from Kazakhstan, travels to New York City in order to learn from American culture to benefit his own. Seeing footage of Pamela Anderson on a rerun of "Baywatch," he resolves to find her and marry her, and sets out for California in a used ice cream truck, discovering America along the way.

1 star

Disparaging a film that is intended to be satirical can open someone up to ridicule. Perhaps, some might suggest, you have no sense of humor. Clearly, they will assert, you just didn't get it. Fear of such accusations is my only explanation for the near-unanimous critical acclaim that has greeted Sacha Baron Cohen's leap to the big screen. Certainly, satire in any given medium has a propensity to escape a large portion of its audience, but there can be no doubt that in this case the emperor has no clothes (a fact which the film seems eager to parade all too literally throughout its excruciating 84-minute runtime).

In setting out to ostensibly lampoon, parody, satirize, and otherwise ridicule American bigotry and intolerance for the amusement (presumably) of a more enlightened public, Sacha Baron Cohen has succeeded in three things.

First, he has created a character and dragged him through situations that only an audience which is either bigoted or is callously unaffected by racism and discrimination will find consistently funny. The biggest racist (and, in fact, almost the only racist) is Borat himself. This is ostensibly a tool wielded skillfully by Cohen to expose the outrageous attitudes of many Americans. Many scenes, however, are filmed in isolation from reality. Borat is alone in a room, or surrounded by a staged event, but he's still plying his schtick for self-serving laughs. We are expected to derive comedic joy from the outlandish bigotry with its offensive caricatures and hurtful misrepresentations.

This has nothing helpful to say about the realities of ridiculous prejudice because it's all a put-on, and we are supposed to find the misogyny, the homophobia and the anti-semitism (to name just a few) funny on their own merits. Meanwhile, his reprehensible characterization of people from third-world countries could very well entrench harmful stereotypes.

Second, in his search for wanton bigots (of which I'm sure there are still more than a few left in our country) Cohen has somehow managed to find almost exclusively tolerant, hospitable, genuinely nice people who go far farther out of their way than I would to tolerate "Borat's" belligerent, cruel attempts to offend them. The movie's few bigots (Which could be counted on the fingers of one hand) range from an elderly redneck to a trio of drunken frat boys. Surprise, surprise.

When he is invited to dinner at the home of some upstanding members of a southern community, Cohen begins by pretending to assume that one of his fellow guests is mentally retarded (rather than "retired"). His hosts patiently correct him. He ups the ante by paying sexual compliments to a few of the (married) ladies around the table, and insults the appearance of another. Still,everyone accepts that this must be a difference in his culture, even saying as much when he excuses himself briefly from the table. Then he returns with some of his own excrement in a sack. His hostess rises to the occasion, tactfully pulling him to the side and graciously explaining the finer points of indoor plumbing. Finally, Borat invites a prostitute into their home, and even then everyone tries to find a delicate solution. Only when Cohen sadistically continues to feign ignorance of his continued egregious behavior (and refuses to leave) do things finally turn ugly.

Third, of the few outrageous reactions that Cohen manages to wrench forcefully from his victims (because, racists or not, everyone who has scenes with Cohen are victims themselves), almost all are the result of repeated actions by "Borat" which travel far beyond the boundaries of sanity and good taste (see above). In short, he has proved that, if pushed hard enough and long enough, most people do have a breaking point. Fascinating. In short, this is not a canny and scathing satire on the dark heart of American culture, it is "Jackass Three."

Not every moment of this film is a complete failure. I can think of one scene (really only one) that succeeded rather well, when Borat visits a rodeo. After listening to a few remarks from the only genuine, sober bigot in the whole film, Borat plods out into the arena and dupes the crowd into cheering some rather outrageous statements about wiping out the population of Iraq before they catch on. It got me to laugh from time to time. But then, many of the situations are staged (all are manipulated heavily in some way) and some are not (with no differentiating between the two). The filmmakers are hardly playing fair at any point. If you can't expose, ridicule or refute something that is as big of a no-brainer as racism on a level playing field, you have already failed. And that makes this is a tacky, sloppy and ultimately cataclysmic effort.

Posted by Jared at 04:47 PM | TrackBack

November 30, 2006

The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of

Film noir (black film) is extremely difficult to categorize. People who know it and like it recognize it when they see it, but there is no single common element which is universal to all noir. A wide variety of sub-classifications exist based on time period, sub-genre and so forth. For instance, noir of the 1920s and '30s is often called "proto-noir" (movies like the chilling M). Everything between approximately 1940 and 1958 is designated "classic noir" (such as the brilliant Double Indemnity). Various films ranging from the 1970s to the present represent "neo-noir" (including throwbacks like The Man Who Wasn't There). There are also "psycho-noir" (Memento), "sci-fi noir" (Blade Runner), "teen noir" and "parody noir" (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid) floating around out there.

Whatever the sub-type, noir films are arguably most successful in their stark, cynical examinations of the human condition when they are at their most ambiguous regarding the integrity of their characters and the focus of their plots. Two examples of film noir (and, incidentally, cinematic masterpieces) that fit this bill exceptionally well are The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Chinatown (1974). The two films share a close, almost familial, thematic bond. Both are defining examples of the noir style and form during different periods.

The Maltese Falcon is probably not the first true example of film noir (although the question is of course debated by film scholars), but it is certainly the first important one. The movie is based on a 1929 novel of the same title by Dashiell Hammett (one of several important authors in the hard-boiled detective school that pre-dated and informed much of film noir). By 1940 it had already been adapted for the screen twice with little success, but screenwriter John Huston was convinced that he could do it better, and on a shoestring budget. The Maltese Falcon was his directorial debut, and it proved iconic in its popularity and influence on later films.

The story ostensibly centers around the frenzied pursuit of a priceless black statuette which numerous unsavory characters will do anything to get their hands on. The setting is San Francisco in the 1940s. Humphrey Bogart got himself typecast for the bulk of his career with his role as Sam Spade, Private Eye. Mary Astor plays the slippery femme fatale, Sydney Greenstreet (in his screen debut) is the formidable villain, and the great Peter Lorre plays his usual slimy, weasely sidekick-type. The Maltese Falcon was nominated for three Oscars, but won none. However, that same year, Mary Astor walked away with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in another film (The Great Lie). Two of the three awards ultimately went to John Ford's sentimental heart-warmer How Green Was My Valley.

Chinatown was the first film Roman Polanski directed after his wife and unborn child were murdered by the Charles Manson in 1969, and this shows most strongly in the film's ending, which was originally a far happier one. The movie is a definite throwback to the noir efforts of a few decades before: in its setting, its characters, its themes, and in the twistings and turnings of its plot. The characters from The Maltese Falcon are mirrored in Chinatown by Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, Private Investigator, Faye Dunaway as his female counterpoint, and John Huston (yes, the director of The Maltese Falcon) as the dangerous character to watch out for. Peter Lorre, sadly, proves to be irreplaceable.

Chinatown's plot explores murder, corruption and worse surrounding a water-rights scandal in 1937 Los Angeles. Nicholson's character struggles to peel back layer after layer of deception and obfuscation to discover the shocking truth of the events surrounding him. Chinatown was nominated for 11 Oscars, but only received one (for its screenplay), chiefly due to stiff competition from Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part II (certainly a far worthier opponent than John Ford's schtick three decades earlier).

Both films begin at the same point: A world-weary, wisecracking private eye is visited in his office by a weepy dame with a minor problem. In The Maltese Falcon the job is to follow a man who has eloped with the woman's sister so that she can be located and rescued. In Chinatown the woman suspects her husband of cheating and wants proof. Both women are liars and masqueraders, and their commissions lead to immediate problems for the PIs before descending into increasingly dark depths of mystery and human sinfulness.

Neither of the female leads is who she appears to be at first (or second or even third, actually). The remain ambiguous throughout the majority of the story, despite the usual romantic spark between them and their respective leading men. However, only in the closing moments of each film do we learn that final piece that completes the puzzle of each one's nature. The pictures that are revealed could not be more different from each other, but the processes by which they are constructed are almost identical.

Of the two detectives, Sam Spade seems to fare better than Jake Gittes in the difficult circumstances that surround each of them. However, Spade's apparent advantage both in worldly wisdom and in stoicism (or is it merely apathy?) may not exist. Spade holds his cards closer to his chest, offering no grand theories or speculations until his final (dead on) denoument when the case is solved. Gittes, on the other hand, continually announces a solution to the case only to realize there is yet another level he has not yet excavated. It is possible that Spade has to revise his own theories repeatedly throughout The Maltese Falcon, but we are not privvy to his inner thoughts as we are to Gittes'. Additionally, Spade emerges from his own labrynthine investigation more or less triumphant. Gittes is crushed by defeat.

The darker emotions each character is feeling are probably similar, but Gittes has the added hardship of watching the bad guys come out on top and has a harder time maintaining his composure in consequence. The two characters have far more in common than not. They are both suave (when they want to be), cynical, skeptical, free of troublesome ideals and sentimentalities, and generally difficult to rattle. Sam Spade, however, is never really out of his depth in The Maltese Falcon. Jake Gittes, on the other hand, doesn't know what he is dealing with until the final shock (although he is repeatedly warned).

At the center (and yet strangely peripheral) to all this are the title elements of both films. The Maltese falcon is almost wholly unimportant in The Maltese Falcon. It exists to drive the plot, but plays no part in the most important elements of the story. It is not mentioned by name by the characters until at least halfway through the film, and it does not actually appear until perhaps the final 10-15 minutes. In short, it seems very much to be what Alfred Hitchcock would later dub a "McGuffin" in his own films (to signify a plot device with no independent purpose beyond advancing the action of the story).

Similarly, Chinatown has seemingly little to do with Chinatown (and vice-versa). Speculation during the movie as to what role Chinatown may play in the film that bears its name might almost lead one to conclude that the whole thing has been fantastically mis-named. It is very easy to forget, during the movie's leisurely-paced 131-minute length, what the title is at all. And then, once you are no longer thinking about Chinatown at all, it suddenly appears with perhaps 5 minutes of screentime remaining.

It would seem that the men whose visions created these movies had a very specific reason for naming their films as they did. Both earlier throw-away versions of The Maltese Falcon had deviated from the title of the original novel. One was called Dangerous Female, the other Satan Met a Lady. Yet John Huston, with his enthusiasm for seeing this movie remade, went with Hammett's title. He must have seen something his predecessors did not: Namely, that the Maltese falcon represented something more important than its role in the story indicates. The same can certainly be said of Chinatown's role in Chinatown. The final lines of both movies tellingly reference these title objects.

The Maltese falcon and Chinatown are both metaphors for an insidious, consuming evil whose central importance to the whole idea of these films might elude the audience entirely without a physical representation. If film noir can be said to have a single defining characteristic (which, by all scholarly accounts, it can't), it is that all noir contains at its heart an attempt to probe the darker side of human nature.

The Maltese falcon is cold, black statue of a predatory bird that incites everyone around it to avarice and deception. The bird itself suggests the blind, hungry nature of human greed with its blank stare and cruel beak and talons. Everyone who falls under its spell has its greed and callousness grafted onto their personality, and this is what drives the interactions between the characters and decides their every move and (ultimately) their fate. In the final moments of The Maltese Falcon Ward Bond's character, Police Sergeant Polhaus, asks Sam Spade about the heavy figure: "What is it?"

"The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of," Spade replies pensively, his hand on the bird. Polhaus has no idea what this means, but the audience knows; some people will do anything to achieve a dream.

Chinatown is a place where nothing is as it seems, nothing means what you think it means, and even actions motivated by good intentions can hurt the innocent. It is an island of that which is foreign and strange in the midst of the familiar. It stands for everything we (and particularly Jake Gittes) think we understand, but don't. Evil that can be identified can be opposed, but Chinatown is where Jake gets blindsided by the evil he never saw coming.

As everything comes crashing down in the films closing scene, Gittes' partner counsels him to walk away: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown!" The nature of evil in Chinatown makes fighting it not only futile, but detrimental. The petty greed surrounding the Maltese falcon seems almost comforting in its familiarity compared to the incomprehensible vileness Jake encounters.

The noir style, concentration of symbolism, and the involvment of John Huston bridge a 33-year gap between this distinctive films, both of which stand out as masterpieces of cinema and potent examinations of the dark heart of humankind.

Posted by Jared at 12:12 PM | TrackBack

November 11, 2006

One Character in Search of an Author

"I decided if I was going to make the world a better place, I'd do it with cookies." --Ana Pascal, Stranger Than Fiction

I decided I was going to go see Stranger Than Fiction as soon as I saw the trailer a few months back. It was the latest from the director of Finding Neverland (who, irrelevantly, is directing the movie version of The Kite Runner, due out next year), it had a more-than-competent-looking cast, and (most importantly) it seemed like a great idea for a movie.

The story, as the opening voice-over informs us, is about Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). Harold works for the IRS, and there is really very little else to say about him. He gets up. He goes to work. He comes home. He goes to bed. His only hobby is counting (or, more precisely, calculating). He counts the strokes of the toothbrush on each tooth. He counts the number of steps to the bus. His coffee breaks are precisely timed. He is constantly aware of the concrete values and amounts of his environment, but he has no appreciation for cool breezes or warm cookies . . . the pleasures that cannot be measured. Harold's unique perspective is communicated visually by a clever graphical overlay which is vaguely reminscent of a cross between the mathematical epiphany scenes from A Beautiful Mind and an Excel spreadsheet.

At some point while all of this is being explained to us, the narrator breaks off abruptly and Harold glances around suspiciously. He has suddenly become aware of the narration the audience has been listening to, and he is confused. Is the voice coming from his toothbrush? Who is it? Why is it narrating (and sometimes almost controlling) his every action? Is he insane, or might there be some other explanation (since the voice keeps getting everything right)? Why does it sound so much like Emma Thompson? Okay, maybe not that last one.

At first, Harold just tries to go on as though it isn't there, even as it distracts him from his work and his change in behavior begins to be noticed by co-workers. Soon, though, it starts to affect him in other ways. For one thing, he finds himself paying more attention to Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the baker he is auditing, than he is comfortable with. And then there is the bombshell: "Little did he know that a chain of events had been set in motion which would lead to his imminent death." Harold needs help.

He gets it from Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a professor of literature at the local university who agrees to help Harold analyze the ongoing story of his life. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Meanwhile, we finally meet Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson, in top form), an eccentric British author suffering from writer's block (she can't figure out how to knock off her main character). She's taken so long to finish her latest book that her publisher has sent her an assistant (Queen Latifah) to move things along. And there's the set-up.

All of the actors are very good and very comfortable in their roles. Emma Thompson, as I already hinted, is particularly fun to watch, but Gyllenhaal is excellent as well. Hoffman's character was entertaining, but not quite right. A chuckle-worthy parody of a lit professor who doesn't quite ring true all of the time. Plus, my eagle eyes spotted a copy of Left Behind in the midst of his wall of books, and I couldn't keep away from it every time there was a scene in his office. What was that doing there? Ferrell is pretty good as well, but his character never really advances beyond straight-man for the movie's premise and supporting cast.

The film is a great collection of elements which work very well together to produce something more. It is full of nice, memorable touches: the sentient wristwatch, Eiffel's various imagined death scenes, Harold's nerdy co-worker and his "Sleep Pod 2," a hilarious montage of nature documentaries which produce unexpected tension . . . I could go on, but I don't want to give too much away.

Stranger Than Fiction is a sort of reverse Big Fish: a quirky movie that is high on life, concerning a main character who is visibly controlled by the story someone else is writing about him (as opposed to visibly controlling the story he is writing about himself). It raises questions, both serious and frivolous, about free will vs. fate, the value of artistic integrity, the proper approach to literary analysis, and the power of the creative process. It is a movie that should perhaps have ended 10 minutes sooner, but knows it and, in a charmingly self-aware sort of way, doesn't care.

Posted by Jared at 04:30 PM | TrackBack

October 11, 2006

The Hitchcockian Way

I have adored Hitchcock movies for so long, I can't even remember which one I saw first . . . probably North by Northwest. That's certainly the one I've seen the most. I've had different favorites at different times: the aforementioned North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Psycho, Rear Window . . . By this point I couldn't really name a favorite, maybe just point to a few that aren't it.

When Andy moved to Guatemala with his family in 1997, old suspense movies and radio shows were just one of many things we both enjoyed. And, of course, Hitchcock's movies and television programs figured prominently in many an evening's entertainment (along with the likes of Wait Until Dark, Dead Ringer, The Bad Seed, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and anything with Vincent Price).

I believe it was the summer of 2001, which I spent in Colorado Springs with Andy, when AFI aired their "Top 100 Movie Thrills" TV special. We ate it up, and decided on the spot to watch every single one of the top 100 (that we hadn't both already seen). 9 of those movies were Hitchcock films, and I believe Rebecca, Notorious, Stage Fright, Psycho and Vertigo were among the Hitch movies I saw for the first time that summer. Other notables included The Manchurian Candidate, Gaslight and Laura. I actually don't think we covered a lot of ground as far as that list was concerned, between one thing and another, but that is neither here nor there.

It has long been my ambition to own every movie that Hitchcock ever made, but for a long time my goal was even more basic than that. I wanted to at least watch every single Hitchcock movie. The lack of either a civilized cable service or well-stocked video stores in a third-world country made that difficult enough at the outset, and Hitchcock films have been depressingly slow to be released on DVD.

Plus, there are just so many of them, it doesn't make sense to buy them unless one is buying in bulk. And here we encounter another failing of "Hitchcock on DVD" availability: the incredibly poor selection of so-called "Essential Hitchcock" collector sets. Few if any of these since the inception of DVD has included more than one or two Hitch movies made after his first big success in 1935, and the bulk of the set is inevitably rounded out with the ones you've never heard of.

I forgot to mention earlier that somewhere along the line I saw one of Hitchcock's pre-break-out films, Sabotage, and Oh, brother! My ambition vis-a-vis Hitchcock films thinned out at that point to a desire to see/own all of his more or less well known stuff beginning (with a few notable exceptions) in the post-1940 era.

Anyhow, the point of my rambling here is this: Everyone in circulation has to take turns writing a contribution to the monthly newsletter, and I signed up for the month of October with mystery/suspense as a general topic. I probably don't even need to tell you what I decided to write about . . . my article appears beneath the fold.

Well, researching and writing about Hitchcock got me thinking again about my old desire to own more of his films, and I started hunting around on for good collections. An evening of poking and prodding revealed an offer I couldn't refuse, and (with Rachel's unexpected blessing) I bought two collections with a total of 23 Hitchcocks between them at about $5.50 a film. Score.

They are: Foreign Correspondent (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972), Family Plot (1976)

Of these 23 I have seen 13 (most only once). A quick perusal of the list reveals that there are a mere 7 remaining Hitchcock movies that I wish to own, and shall hopefully acquire at my leisure as opportunity allows: The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Rebecca (1940), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946) and To Catch a Thief (1955). Of these, I have never seen The 39 Steps or Lifeboat, but I am particularly anxious to see the latter.

Five of the above seven (not Lifeboat or To Catch a Thief) were released in a set by the Criterion Collection in 2003. They originally sold for $124.95. I'm not sure if they can still be acquired at list price or not, but as near as I can tell they cannot be purchased now for anything less than $200 . . . and prices range as high as $700. I have seen all but one of these movies and I find it hard to believe that they are so rare and hard to come by as to be worth such exorbitant amounts. Nevertheless, Criterion is the shiz when it comes to movies, and it is somewhat infuriating to see most of the remaining titles I seek packaged so neatly and priced so far out of reach . . . especially after paying so little for the other (many undoubtedly better) films.

Anyway, I'll stop rambling about that for now . . . drop beneath the fold and enjoy the article. I had a lot of fun researching and writing it, and I got to do it while I was at work, so it was just generally a good afternoon.

He was born the son of a greengrocer in London’s East End at the turn of the last century, but by the mid-1930s he was well on his way to achieving worldwide fame and popularity as one of history’s most influential film directors. Alfred Hitchcock (b. 1899 – d. 1980) revolutionized, popularized and legitimized the suspense thriller during a career in motion pictures and television that spanned more than five decades.

The best part about Hitchcock’s films is that, while they are tense, exciting, and full of surprises, they are also smart, thought-provoking, and loaded with intriguing insights into the human psyche. His movies feature a recurring motif of fractured identity. For instance, the main character of Rebecca has no name of her own. We never learn who she is at the beginning of the film, and she soon marries widower Maxim de Winter and becomes only “the Second Mrs. de Winter” for the duration of the story. In Vertigo, private detective Scottie Ferguson loses his grip on reality when his inability to face his deepest fear results in personal tragedy. Notorious has the daughter of a Nazi saboteur infiltrating a group of her father’s friends as a double agent. And in North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies and mistaken for a murderer by the police at the same time.

Deeper themes aside, Hitchcock’s movies are also just a lot of fun to watch. He once said, “Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.” Hitch (as his friends called him) had a bone-dry sense of humor (he suggested that his tombstone read “This is what we do to bad little boys.”) and a penchant for practical jokes.

The great director made brief cameo appearances in every single one of the 62 movies he made between 1927 and the end of his career in 1976. In one film, he walks out of a pet store with a few dogs. In another, he wrestles a large cello case onto a train. In yet another, he rushes up to board a bus only to have the doors slammed in his face. In a few, he appears only in photographs. Hitch always tried to insert these amusing appearances as early in the film as possible, because he knew that savvy fans would be watching for him and he didn’t want to distract too much from the story.

During his long and illustrious career he worked with some of the brightest stars in Hollywood. His leading men included Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, and Sean Connery. Among the great actresses he directed are Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Doris Day, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Vera Miles, Janet Leigh, and Julie Andrews. Gentleman or not, Hitch clearly preferred blondes.

Despite directing an Oscar-winning performance (Joan Fontaine in Suspicion) and 1940’s winner of “Best Picture” (for Rebecca, awarded to producer David O. Selznick), Hitchcock himself won almost no awards for his incredible efforts. Throughout his lifetime he was nominated for 6 Oscars, 3 awards at the Cannes Film Festival, 6 awards from the Directors Guild of America, 2 Emmys, and 2 Golden Globes. Of those, the only award he actually collected was a Golden Globe for his TV show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Nevertheless, his movies continue to startle and delight a large audience even today, more than 25 years after his death.

For more information about Hitchcock, have a look at one of our biographies about him (you’ll find him sandwiched, rather unfortunately, between Emperor Hirohito and Adolf Hitler back in the Biographies Section). Kids interested in a good mystery can read one of several books in the series endorsed and inspired by the man himself: Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, located in the Junior Series section. And, of course, be sure to check out one of the classic movies he directed (our collection is listed below). I personally recommend Rear Window and North by Northwest as perhaps the best of a good bunch. Whether you’ve seen them many times before or you’re just getting started, a Hitchcock film is sure to please.

The 39 Steps (1935) DVD, Rebecca (1940) VHS, Suspicion (1941) DVD, Notorious (1946) VHS, Rope (1948) DVD, Strangers on a Train (1951) DVD, Dial M for Murder (1954) DVD, Rear Window (1954) DVD & VHS, To Catch a Thief (1955) VHS, The Trouble with Harry (1955) DVD, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) DVD, Vertigo (1958) DVD & VHS, North by Northwest (1959) DVD & VHS, Psycho (1960) DVD & VHS, The Birds (1963) DVD, Topaz (1969) VHS

Posted by Jared at 03:06 PM | TrackBack

September 15, 2006

A Fantasy Masterpiece of British Proportions

Every so often a book comes along that just blows me away simply because it does something that I've never seen before, and does it well. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is just such a book. The first title by this author, it is a massive tome nearly 800 pages long. The story juggles an enormous but memorable cast of multi-dimensional characters and dazzlingly interweaves a dozen intriguing plot threads.

The genre, if it must be defined, is historical fantasy. The novel begins in England in 1806. Magic, once an everyday part of English life and culture, has (to all appearances) disappeared from England entirely. Modern-day magicians are gentleman-scholars who study and write books about magic and its history, but who do not possess any actual books of magic, and do not under any circumstances practice it.

Two members of the The Learned Society of York Magicians, Mr. Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot, are determined to discover why magic has fallen out of use. Their investigations bring to light the fussy, reclusive bookworm Gilbert Norrell, owner of the largest magical library in history (which no one knew existed) and the only practicing magician England has seen in over a hundred years. Mr. Norrell bursts spectacularly on the national scene when he brings the statues of York Cathedral to life before proceeding on to London to offer his services to the government in the ongoing Napoleonic Wars.

Before long a second practical magician emerges from the woodwork to become Mr. Norrell's apprentice. He is Jonathan Strange, a fiery, intelligent young man who is everything Norrell is not. Where Norrell is cautious and fearful, Strange is brave and impatient. Where Norrell's magic comes only from his books, Strange has an uncanny grasp of the basis of magical theory, and can improvise many of his own spells. And where Norrell is outspoken in his loathing for all things connected with fairy magic, Strange finds himself strangely drawn to fairy lore.

In particular, Strange is fascinated by anything to do with John Uskglass, a human child raised by fairies who emerged from Faerie to become the greatest magician in history. Uskglass established the very foundations of English magic and went on to rule northern England for 300 years during the High Middle Ages before mysteriously disappearing with the promise to one day return and reclaim his throne.

Of course, before long, Strange and Norrell's differing magical philosophies cause relations between the grow increasingly tense, while, unbeknownst to either of them, a unpredictable, sinister force has been awakened and is working mysteriously behind the scenes to ruin both of them.

The novel, however, is far from following the above summary with simply, straightforward storytelling. The entire story is peppered liberally with footnotes containing further fascinating information on the rich and convincing alternate history Clarke has created for England in the form of charming anecdotes, references to magical texts, and explanations of spells and the like.

Clarke draws on a more-than-ample heritage of all things British to create her book. Many of her characters could easily be the beloved creations of Austen, Dickens. Her humor is as dry and hilarious as anything by Shaw or Wilde. Her ability to create new worlds and the originality of her fantasy bring to mind the best of Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling. Her story is as historically grounded and engaging as anything by O'Brian (to name something set in the same period). Her social commentary is as witty, appealing, and incisive as Forster's. Her alternate history and fairy lore are drawn from a vast melting pot of some of the best elements of British folklore and fairy tales, the Arthur legends, and a few bon mots from Shakespeare and Spenser for extra flavor. Her characters encounter and influence history without severely altering it, heightening the realism, and the major historical players who have important roles in the book include figures like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron.

In short, Susanna Clarke has written a unique book and populated and enlivened it with the best and brightest that British culture, history, literature and mythology have to offer. If matters of Britain appeal to you, or you enjoy storytelling that pulls you inside another world where you can happily spend hours on end, you should probably give Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a try. If you love both, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.

And now I should really end this particular review, lest I succumb to the overpowering temptation to quote long passages. Still, perhaps just one minor quote wouldn't hurt:

A lovely young Italian girl passed by. Byron tilted his head to a very odd angle, half-closed his eyes and composed his features to suggest that he was about to expire from chronic indigestion. Dr. Greysteel could only suppose that he was treating the young woman to the Byronic profile and the Byronic expression.

Now, go forth. Read.

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July 21, 2006

The Joy of Four Plays

(This title the product of a snicker-filled brainstorming session with Randy.)

Rachel and I, along with the Scholls, Randy, and Barbour . . . and our good friend Wilson (who drove up from Austin especially for the occasion) did the Texas Shakespeare Festival last weekend. A play Friday evening, two plays on Saturday, and a play on Sunday afternoon . . . a veritable stage marathon of epic proportions. The breakdown:

Friday evening: Coriolanus

This is one of two little-read, little-performed Shakespeare plays put on by the TSF this year. He took his plot from Plutarch's Lives. The "hero" of the story (one of the least sympathetic I've encountered in Shakespeare) is a Roman general of unmatched skill on the battlefield, and unmatched disgust for the common man.

The first wins him great renown and a chance to be made consul. The second not only loses him his shot at being consul, but gets him banished from Rome, whereupon he goes straight to his worst enemy, Aufidius, the leader of the barbaric Volscians, and offers to lead his armies against Rome.

This he also fails to do when his mother comes to beg that he turn back, and for his failure, he is slain by the Volscians. The end. Coriolanus is such a moron that I found him difficult to sympathize with, but the performances were largely quite good, and the play certainly had its moments.

Saturday afternoon: The School for Husbands

One of two non-Shakespeare plays performed at the TSF, this one was written by Moliere. It was probably the most enjoyable of the four, and the best in terms of both material and execution. It was translated from the original French (obviously) and the translator largely preserved the characters' speech in rhyming couplets . . . amusing or painful, take your pick. I enjoyed it despite bad Alexander Pope flashbacks.

It is a farcical piece about two brothers who are the guardians of two sisters. Each brother raises one of the sisters as he sees fit with the intention of one day marrying them. The elder indulges his ward, allowing her to stay out late, attend balls, and shop for fashionable clothing, hoping to win her love through trust and respect. The younger keeps his ward under lock and key, never allowing her out of his sight, hoping to preserve her (loving or otherwise) by ensuring that she has no opportunity to cuckold him.

Of course, the younger brother's ward cleverly schemes and connives to trick him into letting her marry the young man across the street. There was much prancing, posing, witty banter, and slapstick for the enjoyment of all before the final curtain.

Perhaps the funniest moment of the weekend, though, was entirely unplanned. Near the end, the younger brother's mustache began to peel off, and when (in a moment of great distress) he reached up to stroke it while speaking, it came away in his hand. Staying in character, he stared at it for a moment, wide-eyed, then agitatedly plucked off his goatee as well, stared at it, then shoved it at a silent character whose only purpose was to hold a lantern saying, "Oh, take this!" and went right on. When he came out to take a bow (still sans facial hair) he smiled slightly and stroked his bare upper lip, much to our amusement.

Saturday night: Pericles, Prince of Tyre

The second Shakespeare play . . . and what a sprawling, fractured, out-of-control Arabian Nights piece it is. It begins promisingly, with Pericles arriving in a foreign land to answer a riddle posed by the king. If he gets the answer right, he gets the king's daughter (who is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter), but if he gets it wrong, he must be put to death.

The answer to the riddle happens to be the fact that the father and daughter are committing incest, and when Pericles figures it out, he naturally wants nothing to do with her. The king, enraged that his secret has been discovered, wants Pericles dead (turns out it was a lose-lose situation) and he must flee across the Mediterranean, hopping from port to port, pursued by assassins.

All sorts of wild things start happening at this point . . . there are multiple shipwrecks, the wicked king and his daughter are struck by lightning, Pericles gets married and fathers a daughter, but loses both wife and child. The wife is presumed dead, but is "resurrected" by a wise doctor (only mostly dead) and becomes a priestess in the temple of Diana. The daughter, left in the care of the king and queen of Tarsus, is nearly killed, but is suddenly rescued by pirates . . . who sell her to a brothel. But she isn't violated because every man who comes to see her is completely charmed by her virtue and goes away to follow the straight and narrow.

Time passes in great and illogical leaps, and the hapless Pericles is eventually reunited with his daughter. Then, just when it seems like the play might go on forever without resolution, Diana appears to Pericles in a dream and directs him to his wife.

Not the best of plays, for sure, but it also had its moments. Most of these moments came when the actors stopped playing the material straight and began to ham it up a bit . . . but such moments were far too few and far between, and the performance suffered for it.

Sunday afternoon: Harvey

I've always been partial to this play . . . well, particularly to the movie version starring Jimmy Stewart, and so I think my expectations caused my experience with this performance to suffer. Nevertheless, it is a charming play, and I still enjoyed myself thoroughly. The way they played some of the parts revealed a few things within the text that I'd never noticed before in the more strait-laced black and white movie . . . that was fun. Harvey was just generally a nice way to end our TSF experience and enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon.

I greatly enjoyed the theater-going experience of last weekend, and I shall certainly look forward to the productions next summer . . . Hopefully they'll choose some better Shakespeare while keeping up the quality of the non-Shakespeare selections. In any case, that's all for now. I'm off.

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April 27, 2006

A Total Reversal

In Hero Quest and the Holy Grail this week we watched a History Channel documentary called Beyond the Da Vinci Code which purported to examine the authenticity of the history behind Dan Brown's book. In terms of serious scholarship and presentation of its thesis, I found the quality of the program to be very poor. It would have been much better had it not been so obviously made with television viewers, their short attention spans, short-term memory and need for sensationalism, and frequent commercial breaks in mind.

The film was 90 minutes long, and I suspect that nearly two-thirds of that was complete fluff and reiteration. I am fairly certain that I heard explanations of things (which I only really needed to hear once) beaten into the ground seven or eight times before they were let go. The documentary also employed a number of cheap tactics designed to keep viewers watching, which I found insulting partially because they were so transparent, and partially because I had to keep watching regardless.

The program broke down more or less like this: For the first third (more or less) it seemed to be confirming a great deal of the the historical foundation beneath The Da Vinci Code. It spent a great deal of time showing that events might have transpired the way Dan Brown describes them. It also referenced Brown's direct source: a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail that was written in 1982 by three hack amateur historians in search of a sensation.

The documentary repeatedly refers to it as, basically, a non-fiction version of The Da Vinci Code. This is patently ridiculous, as its authors approached their subject with the rallying cry that their sole intention was to show that a certain sequence of events was possible, not to prove anything one way or the other. The silliness of the whole thing was underscored when one of the authors of the book appeared in the documentary looking, quite literally, like he would be more comfortable on a Harley than in a library. He sported a mullet, handlebar mustache, large sunglasses (indoors), leather jacket, and lit cigarette.

Finally paying their dues, the documentary spent its second third discrediting selected portions of The Da Vinci Code as less than accurate. Basically, they niggle at details, but leaving the overall premise mostly intact. Not until the third portion of the program did they finally bring out the big guns and essentially shred the entire foundation of the book. I was left feeling that my time had been wasted during the first two-thirds of the program while they declared that the pinnacle and middle-sections of Dan Brown's tower were intact, while knowing all the while that there was nothing holding any of it aloft.

However, I noticed one not-so-subtle impression that the documentary left behind. Near the end, one of the "experts" declared that Brown's history becomes steadily more accurate the farther back in history he goes. The same guy declared unequivocally that the person closest to Jesus in Da Vinci's The Last Supper is indeed a woman (which seems quite far from clear to me). This was left alone as conclusive in itself. During the initial portion of the program, a strong piece of evidence (considered within the context in which it was presented) was sprung upon us, seeming to confirm the program's most radical assertion, and was then left hanging.

In other words, despite eroding away most or all of the books historical facts, the documentary left one of Dan Brown's assertions almost completely alone, all but coming out and declaring it to be the probable historical truth. The fallacies they discredited are too legion and obvious to mention here, so much so that the History Channel would have looked far more intelligent had they begun by discrediting them rather than pretending their might be something to them. Nevertheless, Beyond the Da Vinci Code seems to have arrived at the conclusion that, whatever else may be true or false in the book, it is highly likely that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and fathered a daughter by her. His descendants may walk among us today.

Armed with this information, I have a pretty good idea of where the book is going now, I think. The discovery of the Grail will bring with it, not salvation, spiritual illumination, or the remembrance of Christ through the partaking of Holy Communion, but rather a repudiation of all that these things assert and stand for. The discovery of the Holy Grail will bring enlightenment, yes. But it will not be Christian enlightenment as in the Middle Ages, nor even simple areligious spiritual enlightenment as in The Fisher King. The illumination of completing a Grail quest in The Da Vinci Code has the effect of freeing the hero from the wool of historical lies that have been pulled before the eyes of humanity for the past 2000 years.

Posted by Jared at 05:57 PM | TrackBack


I am now more or less halfway through Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and I'm ready to talk some about it. Just a personal observation, the book bears out my theory that popular adult fiction is much dumber than comparably popular children's literature. Brown has a tin ear for dialogue, stereotypes pouring out of his ears, and no respect for facts. As a side note, I wouldn't have a real problem with that (this being a work of fiction and all), if he weren't so obviously trying to pretend that some of this is actually legitimate. However, I'd best move on lest I spend all my time complaining. Suffice to say that, despite its numerous flaws, my reading thus far has not been devoid of enjoyment.

The story pits agents of Opus Dei, an extremely conservative and very powerful Catholic organization with a shadowy agenda (which actually exists, but is, of course, misrepresented here), against American university professor Robert Langdon and French cryptographer Sophie Neveu in a race for the Holy Grail and the explosive 2,000-year old secrets that lie behind it. Langdon and Sophie have been thrown together when they meet at a murder scene. The curator of the Louvre has been murdered, Sophie is aiding the investigation, and Langdon is the prime suspect.

When they discover that the curator was the head of the ultra-secret ancient society known as the Priory of Sion (of which Leonardo Da Vinci was once a member), and that he left behind a trail of cryptic clues, they join forces and become fugitives of justice in the race to be the first to break the code.

So far, little to no mention has been made of any of the traditional Grail lore, and I cannot discern any obvious parallels between the characters and situations and any of the legends we have studied. I suspect that this book will ultimately be redefining everything we know about the Holy Grail, and that the ground we have already covered in class will not play much of a role in this particular Grail quest.

Actually, a great deal of what I have read already flies directly in the face of tradition. Brown is far from sympathetic to Catholicism, and whatever happens in the final denouement, I doubt it will involve a return to faith or the Church. Also, there is a great deal of emphasis on the sacred feminine and Christianity's eradication of it. We have thrown off the balance, Brown asserts, through an insistence on male dominance over equality between the sexes (an ideal state supposedly enjoyed by the ancient pagans . . . yeah, right). He makes a good point about the traditional Grail stories, though. Women don't ever come off very well in them. At best they are distractions from the goal, at worst they are devils in disguise. In The Da Vinci Code, of course, one of the primary seekers after the Grail is a woman.

The key question is, what will the discovery of the Grail bring with it for Sophie and Langdon? What will they get out of it, and how will that be different from what those who have completed the quest received in the rest of the literature?

Posted by Jared at 04:07 PM | TrackBack

The Mystery of the Godless Grail Quest

The Fisher King is a movie I'd never heard of before I took Hero Quest and the Holy Grail. I find this surprising on the one hand, because it's actually a very good movie. But on the other hand, some of the content, and the general weirdness of various scenes remind me that it is certainly not a movie for everyone. Nevertheless, it takes a very intriguing concept and setting and melds it with the general milieu of the Grail legends to produce a thought-provoking, moving movie experience. As a side-note, though, I wouldn't have believed last semester that a course about the Holy Grail would involve watching two movies starring Robin Williams, but no Monty Python (although this film was directed by Terry Gilliam).

The film is about a radio shock jock, Jack, (played by Jeff Bridges) who unintentionally encourages one of his listeners to go on a shooting spree in an expensive restaurant. His career falls apart around him, and he becomes depressed and suicidal, moving in with a girlfriend who lives in New York City in a small apartment above the tiny video rental store she owns. Driven to the brink of suicide one night, he is attacked by a couple of thugs and rescued by an insane homeless man named Parry (Robin Williams). Parry, it turns out, is a former college professor who lost his grip on reality when his wife was killed by the shooter in the restaurant.

The remainder of the movie is about Jack's attempts to redeem himself by helping Parry, and Parry's consuming quest to locate the Holy Grail (which he believes is being kept by a reclusive billionaire within a castle in NYC). Both men require healing, and both learn a lot along the way. Jack hooks Parry up with the girl of his dreams, Parry helps Jack see the value of his own relationships, and so forth.

The direct parallels with "The Story of the Grail" are even more overt here than in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Parry is very clearly a shortened form of the name "Perceval" and the character bears this out with his extremely simply outlook on life. His fixation is on the Holy Grail. Everytime he encounters some sort of psychological trigger to his past life, he is traumatized by terrifying visions of a red knight coming for him. When Jack first dresses him up a bit to make him look presentable, he keeps his trashy street clothes on underneath (just as the other Perceval puts his first set of armor on over his normal clothing, refusing to take it off).

When I first saw Jack wandering the streets of New York City, I thought to myself, "urban wasteland." The rural wasteland of the original Grail stories has been replaced with a bleak cityscape full of cold asphalt and concrete and littered with garbage and graffiti. Significantly, in the closing moments of the movie, Jack and Parry are seen lying out in the midst of a green field in Central Park, almost as though they have restored the grime around them to beauty and fertility once again.

As for the role of the Fisher King himself, there are many potential candidates to fill the spot. Parry and Jack are both emotionally wounded and need healing that they cannot seem to find anywhere else. Jack believes he is cured before he actually is (before he finds the Grail) and it takes a remission from Parry to galvanize him into completing the quest all the way. Once he has found the Grail he realizes that he cannot simply return to his old life as if nothing had happened to him in the interim. His wound was deeper and stretched farther back than the incident with the shooter. There was something fundamentally wrong with his worldview that must be fixed, and Jack is a better person for it.

Parry's wound is of a much more obviously crippling kind, as reflected by his comatose state before Jack seeks out the Grail. Jack thought that he could simply fix a few of the superficial problems in Parry's life in order to fix all of it, but only the drastic failure of this strategy convinces him that he must seek out the Holy Grail, however silly he thinks it is.

Finally, almost as though by accident, the billionaire seems to be a sort of Fisher King figure as well. He sits in his castle, hidden from the world, and when Jack breaks in he finds him dying with no one around to save him. Jack sets off the alarm and brings help, saving the man's life. He is a third figure (and perhaps the closest to a literal Fisher King) that can stand in for that character, healed by the successful completion of the Grail quest.

With very little imaginative effort on the part of the viewer, this movie conforms very closely to the Grail tradition in its basic elements, reimagining things just enough to keep it all interesting. But the most fundamental question that I am learning to ask of any Grail story is: What is the nature of the reward given for successful completion of a Grail quest?

In this case, there is certainly an element of spiritual healing, but it is also emotional and psychological healing (two elements which wouldn't have received a great deal of attention in the Middle Ages). Also, the healing and restoration that the Grail brings with it is really no longer attached to Christianity at all, except very vaguely. It certainly is no longer connected to the taking of communion in any way, and in fact, the Grail itself in the movie is not the literal Holy Grail, but an unrelated trophy of no real value. It is merely the idea of the Grail that brings healing, because the real, physical object presumably no longer exists, and has no inherent worth even if it did. The spirituality surrounding the Grail is still present, but it now lacks a source or a purpose. What will be the next step in this chain?

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April 25, 2006

Galahad in the 20th Century

So, obviously I've seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a number of times, like everyone else in the world (except, it seems, about three people in my Grail Quest class). This, the third and final Indy flick (until they make the fourth sometime next year), has Indy racing Nazis for the Holy Grail, with his father (whose passion is Grail lore) in tow. It's a great thrill ride, with a fantastic balance of action and comedy and a very solid story holding everything together, and until I took this class, I didn't really see a lot more to it than that.

History, "Indiana Jones" style, might not bear up under close scrutiny, but it generally sounds good on-screen. This is an impressive feat in itself, and I've always liked that about these movies. However, after studying the actual history and legends surrounding the Holy Grail, I figuring something out that I probably should have known automatically. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade isn't about exploring pseudohistory to trace a believable real-world location for the protagonists to discover the Holy Grail at all. It's about reimagining the actual legend of the Grail quest, but setting it in the 1930s.

Once one starts looking for parallels, they begin to sprout like weeds. From the beginning, Indiana Jones himself is being groomed for knighthood. He goes on quests, some of which take years (the successful acquisition of the Cross of Coronado at the beginning). He rescues damsels (sort of). He invades a castle. He jousts (from a motorcycle, no less). He slays a fire-breathing dragon (well, a tank with a really big gun).

And, of course, he achieves the Holy Grail after successfully passing through ordeals which test his humility, his knowledge, and especially his faith. Of course, the story has now entered the 20th century, and it would seem that chastity is no longer required of a knight who seeks the Grail. It's rather a pity, as that, too, would have made a nice parallel. Nevertheless, the point is well-made.

Indy's companions are significant players, as well. Four of them reach the ultimate objective together. There is Sallah, the average guy (Sir Bors), Brody, the simpleton (Sir Perceval), Dr. Henry Jones, the father who is denied entrance to the Grail chamber (Sir Lancelot), and Indy, the son who actually achieves the Grail (Sir Galahad). Interestingly, Brody's character seems much more intelligent in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is possible that his character was deliberately changed to fit the Perceval mold (and, of course, provide some extra comic relief). Once again, though, that sexual impurity thing is really bothering me. The whole thing would fit so much more neatly if Indy hadn't made it with Dr. Schneider, and the movie would just have wound up short a couple of jokes. It just subverts the entire basis of the Galahad character in some ways. In any case, it still seems to fit together very neatly.

Some other connections might include the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword as the various monks and other helpers who appear during the original quest to explain things or point the heroes in a particular direction. Dr. Elsa Schneider is like a conglomeration of all of the women from the Grail legends: she is sexually alluring, but she only serves as a distraction from the Quest. And at worst, she may be a satanic fiend in disguise. Finally, of course, Indy's ultimate immediate purpose for retrieving the Grail is to heal a wound. Dr. Jones becomes the Fisher King at this point, with a deep wound located near the center of his body (though, most likely for the ratings and general sensitivity, not in the loins).

Most importantly, though, is the ultimate reward of the quest. It certainly isn't the Grail (you don't get to keep that), so what do the heroes take away from their experience? Well, it would appear that they achieve the same thing that all of their predecessors have. Not a physical reward, but (as Dr. Henry Jones puts it), "Illumination." Throughout centuries of telling and retelling, that seems to be one of the universal constants. The Grail is simply a tangible metaphor for something else that we cannot actually see, only feel.

One final thought about this particular Grail story: As the story finally enters the 20th century, one very important thing seems to be changing. Dr. Jones gets "illumination" out of discovering the Grail, but (despite the many Christian references in the movie) his newfound knowledge is no longer directly connected to a communion/salvation experience. The beginnings of a paradigm shift are further evident in what is no longer required of knights on the quest: purity. Where will it all lead?

Posted by Jared at 11:38 PM | TrackBack

April 23, 2006

More Things Than Are Dreamt of in Your Philosophy

What Dreams May Come is a somewhat insipid story combining Robin Williams, melodrama, and a great deal of very beautiful art direction to create a curious vision of the afterlife. It is about a man named Chris who meets a woman named Annie and falls in love with her. They get married, have two kids, and lose both kids in a car accident when they are teenagers. Annie begins to suffer from depression. Then, Chris is killed in a car accident and is whisked away to heaven where he meets Albert, an old friend, who will guide him in his new life after life. Meanwhile, back on earth, Annie becomes too depressed to cope with life and kills herself, which is a one-way ticket to hell.

Chris has himself a quest: To journey from heaven to hell, rescue his wife from the dark prison of her own mind, and return. His journey falls squarely into the pattern of the monomyth, or hero cycle, outlined by Joseph Campbell. The "call to adventure" comes when Chris hears that his wife is in hell. Albert and The Tracker become his helpers along the way. He crosses the threshold of adventure in a "night-sea journey," taking a boat to hell over stormy waters. There are various tests along the way: Chris makes some startling discoveries, then he has to actually locate Annie, and once he has found her he must make her recognize him and her own situation. The climax of his endeavors results in success, whether we call it an apotheosis, sacred marriage, or elixir theft (with Annie being the elixir), and Annie and Chris fly back across the threshold to heaven.

It is here, I would say, that the monomyth within the movie, and the movie itself, breaks down. Chris has returned to heaven where his adventure began, but he has gained something (his wife . . . actually his whole family) along the way. This is exactly as it should be. However, Chris and Annie then decide to go back and live their lives on earth over again, and the entire movie (which had been operating at times on a very grand, epic, and noteworthy level) devolves into a trite Hallmark moment as the lovers meet as children in New Jersey (of all places). The cuteness is positively cringe-worthy and totally unnecessary.

The movie also never gets its pacing quite right, breaking up the action of the quest far too often with extremely weighty flashbacks that tend to drag. Sometimes these flashbacks provide valuable information and character development, but they still seem out of place, inspiring frustration rather than heightening tension. The movie's philosophy is rather a sad affair, full of warm-fuzzies but with little real substance. But then, perhaps that's not the point here.

Aside from obvious comparisons with Dante's Divine Comedy, the film's perspective on hell bears some strange parallels that I have noted previously with the work of C.S. Lewis and George Bernard Shaw. All three suggest (Lewis in The Great Divorce and Shaw in Man and Superman) that the barrier between heaven and hell, and those who go to one place or the other, may not be a physically insuperable one.

In What Dreams May Come, hell is a place for those who do not know they are dead, who refuse to acknowledge reality. In Shaw's play, the difference between the people in heaven and those in hell is a question of temperament. Philosophers (rational thinkers) go to heaven and artists (passionate feelers) go to hell. Both are happy with their surroundings. In Lewis's book, the inhabitants of hell are not physically barred from heaven at all, at least the outer edges of it, and may visit as often as they like. But they hate it, and it seems a hostile environment to them. Although they could decide at any time to stay (up to a point), they won't because they are too proud or self-centered.

All three works show people who were in hell deciding for heaven instead, but the similarities end there. The movie's philosophy is all about the power of human love to transcend all barriers. That's all very well, I suppose, but it (and the movie itself) seems more than a little empty when it's left standing on its own.

Posted by Jared at 12:17 PM | TrackBack

February 19, 2006

A Discrepancy? Where?

This is my fourth encounter with The Lion in Winter, and until now each one has been different. The first version I saw was the 2003 made-for-TV movie starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close. This one is actually still my favorite, a fact which continues to surprise me.

My second encounter was with the 1968 movie version starring Peter O'Toole, Katherine Hepburn, and Anthony Hopkins. Shockingly, I did not like this version nearly as much as the later one. It lacks the energy, emotion, and playfulness of the newer version, seeming somewhat dry and boring in comparison.

Then, about a year and a half ago, I grabbed as many copies of the play as I could get my hands on and performed it with the SC Players. I played Phillip, and enjoyed the unique opportunity to really get inside the story and see it as one of the characters.

Now we have come full circle, and I have seen the newer version of the movie for the second time. This time, too, has been different, however. Now I am seeing the movie as the historical backdrop of the period in which Chrétien de Troyes was writing his courtly romances. The historical reality as presented by The Lion in Winter forms a very interesting contrast to the idealized chivalric stories of the period as presented by Tristan + Isolde.

As the movie begins, Eleanor of Aquitaine (former wife of the King of France) and her two eldest sons, Richard and Geoffrey, have just been defeated in their attempt to overthrow Eleanor's current husband, King Henry II of England. Eleanor is imprisoned, her sons slink back to rule their respective territories, and Henry begins to raise his youngest son, John, to be the next king.

Time passes, and during the winter of 1183, Henry convenes his Christmas court at Chinon. Eleanor is temporarily freed to visit and whole family gathers to celebrate the holidays while trying to gain an edge in the squabble over who will be the next king. Henry is set on John, Eleanor on Richard, and Geoffrey on . . . well, himself. Into the midst of this comes Phillip II of France (son of Eleanor's first husband) who is demanding that Henry honor his treaty with France whereby Phillip's sister Alais was to marry the next king of England in exchange for Henry's acquisition of the Vexen (a large tract of French land). The only hitch is that Alais is still not married, partly because no one knows yet who will be the next king, but mostly because Henry is sleeping with her.

Things get more complicated from there, and emotional outbursts and devious machinations fly in all directions as our "heroes" maneuver furiously to acquire whatever it is they happen to be after. Henry wants the kingdom he has built to stay united under the rule of his favorite son, without having to give Alais to him or give up the land from France. Eleanor wants her favorite son on the throne, her freedom, her former lands back in her possession (the Aquitaine), and Henry. All three sons want the throne. Phillip wants to destroy the man who humiliated his father. Alais wants love. And on and on it goes for over two and a half hours.

Possibly the most entertaining aspect of The Lion in Winter aside from the hilarious dialogue and rapid plot reversals, is the exercise of attempting to discover just which part of the main characters is genuine, and which is a show put on to get their way. By the final scene one is tempted to believe that, either we haven't seen a single real emotion during the entire display, or these people are all certifiably insane, possibly both.

This, then, was the generation that invented chivalry. And a fine bunch of dysfunctionial backstabbers, manipulators, and nitwits they are, too. It almost begins to make the chivalric code look like more like a Machiavellian public relations maneuver than a sincere collection of virtuous guidelines. The ultimate question that this contrast brings me to ask myself is this: Are the realities of the 12th century less important to its legacy than the fictions (artistic and literary) which it produced? Or, on an even more basic level: Which has a greater impact on us today, the actualities of history or the dominant perceptions our forebears leave behind?

My over-simplified answer: Our perceptions have the greater impact, but it is very important that we retain an awareness of the reality in order to maintain a properly balanced view of history.

Posted by Jared at 02:53 PM | TrackBack

February 16, 2006

Chrétien Lives!

I walked into Tristan + Isolde not expecting to enjoy it very much. From the trailers it appeared entirely too much like a page out of the same book as Romeo + Juliet, right down to the stupid "+" in the title. Nevertheless, the demands of Hero Quest and the Holy Grail required my attendance, so I settled comfortably into my seat, determined to see what it was all about and give it a fair hearing. And the results were not nearly so bad as I had led myself to believe.

The story proceeds thusly: The various tribes of Ancient Britain are in a bad way. All of them, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and so forth, are being oppressed by the powerful Irish across the sea. Together they would have little difficulty keeping the Irish at bay, but the King of Ireland (a crafty son of a gun) is fairly good at keeping things fragmented.

As the movie begins, the leaders of the various tribes have gathered in secret to finally form an alliance under the leadership of the best of them: Lord Mark. However, a traitor has tipped off the Irish, and they arrive in force to break things up. In the process, they also kill the parents of young Tristan and Lord Mark's pregnant wife. Mark himself loses a hand saving Tristan's life, then takes him home and adopts him.

Years pass, the Irish maintain their position, and Tristan grows into a knight of considerable prowess. Finally, the Irish send out one raid too many after Mark's womenfolk, and Tristan leads a bold assault on the Irish forces. The Celtic tribes win, but Tristan is poisoned and presumed dead. His grief-stricken comrades drop him in a boat and shove him out into the sea. He floats to Ireland, is discovered by Isolde, daughter of the Irish king, and is nursed back to health. Meanwhile, they (of course) fall madly in love and she deceives him about her identity, claiming to be a mere servant.

Tristan returns from the dead just in time to participate in a tournament that the king of Ireland is holding in hopes of keeping the various tribal leaders at each other's throats while he rebuilds his forces. The prize is a sizable chunk of land and the king's daughter . . . and Tristan enters the tournament in the name of Mark, not knowing whose hand he is actually fighting for.

The rest is fairly easy to predict (more or less). Isolde has no choice but to marry Mark, and Tristan has no choice but to let her. They struggle with their feelings for each other, and finally succumb to the lure of adultery. The traitor and the Irish king find out about the affair and use it to break Mark's newfound unifying power over the other tribes, "stumbling" upon the couple's final tryst with Mark and the other leaders. Finally, Tristan chooses his loyalty to Mark over his love for Isolde and sacrifices himself to undo the damage they have caused, and all of the main characters live unhappily ever after so that everyone else can live happily ever after.

Despite some decidedly angsty performances, particularly from Tristan, the movie worked quite well as a tragedy of courtly romance in the tradition of Chrétien de Troyes and other royal troubadours of the 10th to 12th centuries. I have only recently been introduced to their works, but already I could see the connections between the movie and the medieval romances. There is a strong sense of inevitable doom hovering over the characters and events thanks to an excellent use of foreshadowing.

When Tristan finally buys the farm, we realize that it had to happen that way. Adulterous couples don't tend to end well in the medieval tradition. Additionally, the movie employed some striking symbolism, most notably with the relationship between Tristan and Mark. Mark loses his right hand to save Tristan's life, and Tristan becomes his strong right hand as he grows up.

My group presented on "The Knight of the Cart" (of the four Arthurian Romances by de Troyes that we read for class). This story probably bears the strongest resemblance to the story of the movie because it is the only one which glorifies an adulterous relationship rather than marital fidelity (namely, the Lancelot and Guinevere connection). The two stories employ many of the same elements in approaching the relationship. The Mark-Isolde-Tristan triangle is an exact parallel of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle. Both Tristan and Lancelot perform great and daring feats of arms, inspired by their love. Both couples wrestle with the morality of what they are doing, but are unable to stop. In terms of the essentials, both movie and book are telling the same story.

Studying Chrétien de Troyes and the courtly romance genre definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the movie several-fold. By itself it's nothing special, just a halfway decent popcorn flick, but with a bit of understanding of the long history behind its story, it became the latest incarnation of a centuries-old literary tradition. And that was a perspective which simply couldn't fail to fascinate me.

Posted by Jared at 12:43 PM | TrackBack

January 12, 2006

Business As Usual

My Schedule for Spring '06:


Library (10:15-12:15)

Introduction to Political Science - Dr. Johnson (12:25-1:20)


Introduction to Fine Arts - Dr. Watson (12:00-1:20)

Independent Study in Southern History - Dr. Johnson (Exact Time in Flux)


Library (10:15-12:15)

Poli. Sci. (12:25-1:20)

Library (1:30-2:30)


Fine Arts (12:00-1:20)

Hero Quest & the Holy Grail - Dr. Watson (6:00-9:00)


Library (10:15-12:15)

Poli. Sci. (12:25-1:20)

Library (1:30-3:00)


Library (1:00-6:00)

I'll be sure to post more about my classes when I have a bit more time to evaluate them (Southern History hasn't met yet, for one).

Top Ten Movies of the Fall Semester and Christmas Break:

-The Decalogue

-Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

-The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

-Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

-A Streetcar Named Desire


-The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

-Pride and Prejudice


-Ocean's Eleven

This list is slightly unusual because I didn't watch as many movies last semester as I normally do. As a result, I had a much smaller pool to choose from, and there are a few movies on this list that wouldn't normally have made the cut. Nevertheless, there are some true all-time favorites up there, and I hope to see some really good stuff in the days ahead as well. Meanwhile, to make up for it, check this out. It's the sequel to Dogville, and I can't wait to see it (there's a trailer up here).

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

December 13, 2005

Biblical Unity Revealed: The Great Code by Northrop Frye

Our final two weeks in "Reading the Bible as Literature" were devoted to The Great Code by Northrop Frye, the famous literary critic. His book is devoted to an examination of the biblical material from a literary perspective. The title comes from William Blake: "The Bible is the great code of art and literature."

I absolutely loved the book, but almost no one else did. Gallagher was my only fellow Frye fan. The response of others in the class ranged from "I haven't read it" to "I don't understand it" to "This guy is retarded." The first two were almost forgivable . . . the book was not short, nor was it an easy read, but . . . Northrop Frye is a genius. I was astounded by Frye's ability, writing as a secular figure, to achieve such balance and sensitivity to the material in his critique of the Bible. Anyway, in honor of my classmates, here is my explanation of the book (as produced for my final exam in the class):

In The Great Code, Northrop Frye begins by outlining his general purpose in the introduction. He will discuss in his book the idea that the Bible is a literary unity and is the most important book in Western history and culture. He will do this by describing general factors under the headings of Language, Myth, Metaphor, and Typology in Part I. In Part II he will apply these factors more specifically within the Bible, returning backwards through them and giving the book a chiasmic structure.

In Language I, Frye notes that Christianity, unlike either Judaism or Islam, has relied primarily on translations for its religious texts since the very beginning of its history. First there was the Greek Septuagint of the early church, followed by the Latin Vulgate in the Middle Ages. Around the time of the Protestant Reformation, translations in English and Germany gained prominence. And today there is a concerted movement to see the entire Bible translated into every language known to mankind.

In examining, in particular, the language of the Bible, Frye describes the three phases of history posited by Giambattista Vico: the Age of Gods, the Age of Kings, and the Age of Men. He also discusses the difference between langue (or different languages like French, English, and German) and langage (or the common experience of living on earth which gives all languages equivalent terms and the ability to be translated into each other). Frye notes that there is a history of langage which moves through three distinct phases. Vico calls them poetic, heroic (or noble), and vulgar. Frye describes them as hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. However, for most of the chapter, he refers to them as metaphor, metonymy, and descriptive.

In the metaphorical phase of language, words carry a great deal of power with them, for they invoke their objects when they are used. A word is the object which it refers to, and all concepts (even those we might consider abstract today) are concrete and real. Thus we see in the Bible how God speaks and Creation begins, how Jepthah’s vow must be kept, how the Hebrew people never say or write out the name of God, etc. At the center of the metaphorical phase is the concept of the “god” of nature and the world. A sentient personality is given to virtually everything, and from this we have a sun-god, rain-god, war-god, and so on.

In the metonymic phase of language, words shift from a state of “this is that” to a state of “this is put for that.” The language becomes capable of sustaining abstract concepts, and the idea of a transcendent “God” (who is outside of and over all things) moves to the center of the language. In metonymy, what was once literal is now much more poetic in nature.

In the descriptive phase of language, words arise out of the need to describe that which we see before us. In this phase, “God” no longer has any linguistic function because the concept cannot be sensed physically or in any way tested or measured empirically. Therefore, in the third phase of language God is said to be dead. However, Frye points out that God “may not be so much dead as entombed in a dead language.”

Once he has described these three phases, Frye states that the Bible does not fall squarely into any of them. The Bible contains metaphorical language, metonymic concepts, and descriptive writing, but it is actually something else altogether. The Bible makes use of a kind of rhetorical oratory which claims to bring revelation from a time outside of time. The Bible, then, is what Frye calls kerygma, or proclaiming rhetoric. Kerygma, he says, is the vehicle of the Bible’s revelation. In turn, the linguistic vehicle of kerygma is myth.

Myth, Frye says (in Myth I), serves to “draw a circumference around a human community.” Myth is communicated in story form, and it delineates the things which a society needs to know about itself. Myth is differentiated from other forms of story in two ways. First, it is part of a larger canon, or a Mythology. Second, it serves to set a particular society or culture apart from all others by forming the basis of a cultural history.

There are two types of history: Weltgeschichte and Heilsgeschichte. Weltgeschichte is authentic, accurate history which recounts events as they actually happened. Heilsgeschichte explains the importance of and meaning behind those historical events. The Bible, Frye asserts, is the latter type of history, and accurate history is usually secondary (and even irrelevant) to the biblical message. The myth of the Bible serves to redeem history by explaining its purpose and meaning.

In Metaphor I, Frye explains that the Bible, in accomplishing the construction of a mythology, uses a great deal of poetic imagery, despite the absence of a literary purpose as such. The reason for that is because of the value a verbal structure has in constructing a corresponding material structure. Frye notes that, when any verbal structure of words is created, it artificially links disparate material elements into a material structure. These material elements are only a minute part of all material reality, and may be totally unrelated without the presence of the linking verbal structure.

The purpose of this sort of structuralization in the Bible is to draw together the various events of the past in the construction of a unified, purposeful history. The Bible at its core consists of a universalized structure which remains open to a variety of theological interpretations. The history of the Bible presents a natural cycle of events which recurs over time, moving us towards a final denouement, or judgment, in which all creatures are divided between paradise and hell. Although Frye states that the Bible cannot be reduced to a single “metaphor cluster,” the guiding purpose throughout this historical movement is embodied in the word of God. The word of God can refer to both the Bible itself and to Jesus Christ.

In Typology I, Frye reveals that the Bible is able to carry its purpose (to account for the forces guiding all of human history) because it possesses a typology. A typology is essentially a theory of historical process which holds that there is a meaning and a purpose behind all events which transpire. Every event which occurs is a type, pointing to some event in the future which will remain clouded and unknowable until it actually takes place, thus revealing both itself and the manner in which it was concealed in the preceding event. This future event is the antitype of the type that came before.

Frye shows that the Bible consists of Old Testament and New Testament, which are type and antitype of each other, forming a “double mirror” in which each reflects the other but not the world outside. However, not only are the Old and New Testaments type and antitype, but every event in the Bible is in some way the type of what is to come and the antitype of what has already been. In this way, Frye believes, the Bible moves inexorably from beginning to end, carrying a single purpose forward throughout.

In Typology II, Frye discusses the seven specific “Phases of Revelation” which make up the totality of the Bible: five in the Old Testament, two in the New Testament. These phases in order are: Creation, Revolution (the Exodus), Law, Wisdom, Prophecy, Gospel, and Apocalypse. Each of the seven is, as previously discussed, the type of the phase after it and the antitype of the phase before it. Frye carries the reader through each of these phases, describing them and their links with each other. These descriptions serve largely as review material for anyone who possesses previous familiarity with the text.

In Metaphor II, Frye discusses the unity of biblical images. Imagery in the Bible is of two kinds: either Apocalyptic (good), or Demonic (evil). Each of these kinds is further divided, Apocalyptic into Group and Individual, and Demonic into Manifest and Parody. Parody only exists within the Demonic type because everything within Parody is a perversion of something good. Good does not pervert evil, so there is no Apocalyptic Parody. Parody itself is further divided into Group and Individual.

Once the images have been placed beneath one of the above headings, they are further divided into one of seven categories: Divine, Angelic (or Spiritual), Paradisal, Human, Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral. All biblical imagery fits somehow into this scheme, presenting the reader with a unified picture of the world where everything is part of the positive picture or the negative picture, all the way from the divine down to inanimate objects on earth.

In Myth II, Frye discusses the unity of the biblical narrative. He describes the entirety of the Bible as a rising and falling cycle of high points and low points tracing their way throughout history towards a final, ultimate high point. The narrative goes something like this: Garden of Eden, Sin/Wilderness/Cain’s City/Ur, Promised Land I (Pastoral), Sea/Wilderness/Pharaoh, Promised Land II (Agrarian), Philistines, etc., Jerusalem/Zion, Captivity/Babylon/Nebuchadnezzar, Rebuilt Temple, Antiochus Epiphanes, Purified Temple (Maccabees), Rome/Nero, Jesus’ Spiritual Kingdom.

Within this narrative, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Antiochus, and Nero are all spiritually the same oppressor, and Egypt, Babylon, and Rome are the same place. Furthermore, the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land, Zion, and Jesus’ Spiritual Kingdom are all metaphors for the same place, and Moses, David, Joshua, etc. are all pointing towards the coming Messiah.

In Language II, Frye first addresses the question of the biblical canon which has formed this unity of imagery and narrative that he has just discussed. He believes that it has been formed around the book of Deuteronomy. The other books in the Pentateuch were re-written to conform to it. Earlier prophecy was interpreted according to it. Histories were written in light of it. And, finally, the New Testament books were selected according to their conformity with, and illustration of, Deuteronomy 6:5.

While some might see the question of authorship as integral to the selection of the canon, Frye states that this is not the case. In fact, authorship and the question of inspiration are fairly irrelevant. If inspiration is to be believed, then we must also believe in the inspiration of editors, translators, compilers, and so forth.

As for authorship, Frye states that the Bible was largely composed during a transitional phase between oral tradition (wherein the author is anonymous) and writing tradition (as in modern times, where the author is named). In this transitional phrase we have a great deal of pseudonymous writing, in which the actual authors will attach the name of some famous or important person in order to show the legitimacy of their writings. Frye supplies us with the example of II Peter.

Frye further describes the unity of the Bible as being largely built out of innumerable smaller units, or kernels. Examples of these include the proverbs or aphorisms of Wisdom literature, the oracles of Prophecy, the commandments of the Torah, and the pericope of the Gospels.

Proceeding forward, he discusses the importance of the Bible as a piece of objective (rather than subjective) art. Objective art by Frye’s reckoning consists of works which form an integral part of a society’s cultural history. In our case, this might mean such things as the writing of Shakespeare, Dickens, and, of course, the Bible.

Objective art, he states, has achieved “resonance” with its audience. In other words, particular phrases have achieved their own power and significance within a culture, even when separated entirely from their context within the original text. The example he gives is the phrase “Grapes of Wrath” from Isaiah 63, which has become a famous line in a culturally significant song as well as the title of an important piece of literature.

Next he describes Dante’s ideas of finding multiple meanings within a single passage. Dante classifies these meanings as: Literal, Allegorical, Moral, and Anagogical. Literal is the obvious meaning of the actual words. Allegorical is how the words form a picture or symbol of our salvation from a fallen state. Moral is how the words form a picture or symbol of our movement from a sinful to a virtuous life. And Anagogical is how the words form a picture or symbol of our glorification from base, human, earth-bound existence to an existence in the divine presence of God. Frye is careful to note that these varying meanings do not conflict with each other, but rather operate on various levels and are all, in some sense, true.

There are two cautionary notes which Frye provides to the application of Dante’s theory of polysemous meaning, however. First, it assumes the validity of a single worldview through which we interpret (in Dante’s case, Medieval Catholic Christianity). Second, it assumes that the words themselves are not important, but rather some higher meaning which exists behind the words.

However, Frye states that what Dante is trying to accomplish in the search for polysemous (but unified) meaning in a religious or spiritual sense is very near to what Frye is advocating in the application of polysemous (but unified) interpretation in a literary sense. He states that this approach is the most useful in any consideration of the Bible as literature. It must be considered as a unity of narrative and imagery, a product of composition which sought to account for a purpose behind history, and a self-contained work of proclaimed revelation in order to allow for the most useful study of its text in literary terms.

I found that Frye had a great deal of value to communicate in The Great Code. His approach to the Bible was both profound and meaningful. At times his writing could be quite difficult to follow and understand, yet this was not a failing of that writing, for once I understood what it was communicating I could think of no better way to explain whatever he was trying to say. In other words, I found the reading of the book to be a very rewarding and stretching experience. Frye challenged my beliefs without belittling, demeaning, or dismissing them, and I think I came away from the book ultimately strengthened in those beliefs.

Nevertheless, it is a marvel to me that a man with Frye’s obviously intimidating intelligence should be capable of conducting so thorough and knowledgeable a study of the meaning and value of the biblical text without himself believing in the truths espoused within that text. There were times in The Great Code where I felt that he was very close to believing just that, times when he seemed puzzled because something did not quite add up between his own assumptions and the actual situation he found, yet somehow he does not seem to have been capable of making that last leap to faith.

Even towards the end of the book when he is describing the nature of faith so well, there does not seem to be the least spark of any such knowledge or sentiments on his part. This both astounds and saddens me. However, Frye’s lack of faith in the Bible does not in any way affect the importance of what he has to say about it in his book. The Great Code was of considerable value to me in giving me perspective on what exactly the Bible is that I had never before heard or considered on my own.

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December 10, 2005

Narnia, Awake!

Well, I've seen it, and have pronounced it RAVE-WORTHY. I've half a mind to see it again before I skip town now that I've heard that the gayness that is Guatemala's movie distributor won't be releasing this masterpiece until January 6th. Boneheads. Anyway, this is supposed to be a movie review about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, not a rant about foolish Guatemalans.

In general terms, the movie absolutely drips gorgeous ambience. The music is absolutely enchanting. The cinematography is decadent. The actors are, for the most part, beautifully-cast in their roles (particularly Tumnus, Edmund, Lucy, Professor Kirk, Mrs. MacReady, and most especially the White Witch . . . Tilda Swinton is brilliant). The movie's effects are top-notch, and it does not overindulge in unnecessary glitz until the final battle sequence, during which they are almost forgivable (but for a more than passing resemblance to similar scenes in Lord of the Rings . . . WETA really ripped themselves off big-time, but at least they ripped off something good).

In terms of quality of adaptation, the movie succeeded beyond my hopes. Consider, if you will, the following line from the first description the book provides of the room where the wardrobe is: "There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead blue-bottle on the window-sill."

They put the blue-bottle in the movie.

Now, with attention to detail like that, I wondered later on why the plot felt it had to deviate in other areas . . . nevertheless, most of the essentials are there. My one big gripe in this regard is that the Beavers don't tell the children that Aslan is a lion, and it is not revealed anywhere else by anyone else until he emerges from the tent. I'm sure this was done in an extremely misguided attempt to surprise us all at the appearance of a lion instead of a man or something. That's just dandy except that anyone who has read the book knows what's coming, and for anyone who hasn't Aslan's head takes the dominant spot front and center on every freaking movie poster that is splashed around the entire freaking theater.

I'm especially bitter about this change because there are a lot of really great lines spoken about Aslan by the Beavers which get cut in order not to "ruin the surprise" later on. And, just a few scenes after the Beaver's Dam, when Edmund is wandering around the White Witch's castle, he draws glasses and a moustache on the stone lion he finds, but now it doesn't mean jack anything anymore because he hasn't heard that Aslan is a lion. It's just something random he does on a whim. He doesn't even say anything . . . just draws his little whatsit and chuckles to himself and moves on. *sigh*

So, because of a few extremely retarded moves like that, I didn't give it a perfect score. They did keep a lot of things that lesser directors might have cut . . . like Father Christmas. *cough*Bombadil!*cough* I do have to note that any adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia ought to have a big leg-up in this regard, because the books on which they are based aren't as thick as bricks. Therefore there won't be the necessity to make a marathon movie as with Lord of the Rings, or to slice-and-dice as with the mutilated slop we got in the last Harry Potter movie.

A lot of people I talked to found Aslan's portrayal underwhelming, but that didn't bother me overmuch. The emotional impact of the scenes at the Stone Table was rock solid . . . truly the centerpiece of the movie (as they should be) and that was what counted for me. Honestly (and I feel a little funny admitting this), these scenes moved me more deeply than the entirety of The Passion. Perhaps it was the context supplied by Narnia (and not supplied by The Passion) which showed just what Aslan dies for and what the effects of it are. Perhaps it was the fact that I wasn't totally desensitized to violence and gore by the time the actual death took place. I don't know. That's just what I observed.

The other complaint I heard was about the battle scene. Virtually everyone in it was dual-wielding (two swords). Everything in it, I heard some say, was straight out of either Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Well, maybe it did get to be a bit much . . . but it was pretty cool at the same time! There were gryphons divebombing the baddies with big rocks, for instance. On the one hand, that's totally LotR territory. But on the other hand, it provided an excellent visual link to the Germans-bombing-the-crap-out-of-London scene that the movie began with. So . . . pros and cons, pros and cons.

That reminds me, though. Many of the changes were very positive. For instance, as I thought about it afterwards I realized that the four children in the original book are rather flat as characters. In the movie they were much better developed, on the whole. We felt emotionally attached to them, for a variety of reasons. We see that Edmund is feeling the absence of his father more than the other children, thus fueling his resentment of Peter's authority. We see that Peter has been specially charged by his mother to look after his siblings when the children are separated from her (an especially heart-rending scene). And I don't remember so much attention being paid to the development of family love and loyalty between the four children in the book. I was blown away to find the movie version of a C. S. Lewis book devoting even more time to positive, Christian themes than Lewis himself!

Oh, I mustn't end without mentioning the elderly black ladies who were sitting behind me. They seemed to think they were at a Baptist church service, getting steadily louder until I wanted to knock their heads together by the end of the movie. I'm thinking, "It's on an inanimate screen! You don't interact with it!" They're sitting back there going:

Lady 1: Oh, there he is.

Lady 2: Uhhhh-huh.

Lady 1: Looks like they've killed him.

Lady 2: Mmm-hmm

Lady 1: He won't stay dead for long, though.

Lady 2: No, sir!

Me: AHHHHHHHHHHHHH! !#@%!%#!#$!!@#!@!#

Anyway, I shall end the review with a little piece of advice (and this goes for all movies, not just this one). Do yourself a big favor. Stay put for the freaking credits.

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December 09, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part X


The Man Who Was Thursday (G. K. Chesterton) - There are seven members of the radical Central Anarchist Council who, for security purposes, name themselves after the days of the week - Sunday, Monday, etc. However, the turn of events soon cast doubt upon their true identities, for the man who was Thursday is not the impassioned young poet he pretends to be, but rather a member of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad of secret detectives. Who and what are the true identities of the other days of the week? Chesterton unwinds the mysterious entanglements in his own inventive and lively way and then escalates the mounting nightmare of paradox and surprise, culminating in a shocking revelation. He probes the mysteries of behavior and belief in an all too human world.

Chesterton wrote a whole lot of great stuff. I adore the Father Brown Mysteries. and Wilson's got his own little (very little, I guess) Orthodoxy cult going on. Last Christmas break, I camped out in Barnes & Noble over the course of a few days and read (among other things) The Ball and the Cross and The Man Who Was Thursday. They were both good, but the latter was magnificent . . . a thrilling, convoluted, suspenseful, and shocking story of intrigue on a global scale. Chesterton piles on the plot twists until the reader doesn't know what to believe anymore, finally taking the whole plot in a wholly unexpected direction, full of powerful Christian symbolism, at the very end.


The Inimitable Jeeves (P. G. Wodehouse) - Bertie Wooster's friend Bingo falls in love with every woman he meets, from Mabel, the waitress at the bun shop, to the Amazonian Honoria Glossop (whom Aunt Agatha has earmarked for Bertie). Naturally there are obstacles to be overcome - the matter of allowances, class prejudices and a lack of revolutionary tendencies. Rely on Jeeves, the consumate gentleman's gentleman, to apply his superb brain-power in emancipating Bertie and Bingo from the tightest of corners in plenty of time for tea.

I don't remember when I first heard of P. G. Wodehouse, but Watson and his three shelves of Wodehouse books probably had something to do with it. I got a collection of three Jeeves books for Christmas a year or two back, and worked my way through them at my leisure. I distinctly recall needing to read them alone because I created a significant disturbance whenever there were other people around. The adventures of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster are so funny, I just couldn't help it. This particular book had a great overarching plot with loads of deliciously humorous supporting stories that built towards its conclusion. Wodehouse is definitely one of the more fun (and funny) reads I've experienced in recent years.


Everything That Rises Must Converge (Flannery O'Connor) - Collection of nine short stories by Flannery O'connor, published posthumously in 1965. The flawed characters of each story are fully revealed in apocalyptic moments of conflict and violence that are presented with comic detachment. The title story is a tragicomedy about social pride, racial bigotry, generational conflict, false liberalism, and filial dependence. Similarly, "The Comforts of Home" is about an intellectual son with an Oedipus complex. Driven by the voice of his dead father, the son accidentally kills his sentimental mother in an attempt to murder a harlot. The other stories are "A View of the Woods," "Parker's Back," "The Enduring Chill," "Greenleaf," "The Lame Shall Enter First," "Revelation," and "Judgment Day."

I like Flannery O'Connor so much that it makes Rachel jealous. She gets tired of hearing "Flannery O'Connor this" and "Flannery O'Connor that" . . . is it my fault that O'Connor is handy when you need paper or presentation topics in a pinch? Well, maybe I have been a tad bit insufferable since I got a copy of her Collected Works. I have read (and probably raved about) all of the short stories and essays already, but I have not yet ventured into the novels. Maybe this Christmas Break . . .

Anyway, I love all of her short stories, and it was difficult to choose between A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Both are excellent. However, ultimately I decided that the latter was the superior collection. Her earlier stories are a bit more heavy-handed in their symbolism, a bit more obviously grotesque in their technique. The later stories, on the other hand, are much more subtle and less fantastical and seem largely to possess greater depth as a result.

I have read that O'Connor obsessively groomed, touched-up, and edited her stories until she thought they were perfect . . . and it shows. And, of course, the powerful Christian themes she addresses have lost none of their spiritual relevance in the forty years since she died. She is one of the supreme masters of her craft.


Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov) - Humbert Humbert is a European intellectual adrift in America, haunted by memories of a lost adolescent love. When he meets his ideal nymphet in the shape of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, he constructs an elaborate plot to seduce her, but first he must get rid of her mother. In spite of his diabolical wit, reality proves to be more slippery than Humbert's feverish fantasies, and Lolita refuses to conform to his image of the perfect lover.

Surprised? You probably should have seen this coming when I praised Nabokov's prose so highly while talking about Mervyn Peake. I've read Lolita twice now, seen the movie version twice, and written two sizable (roughly ten-page) papers. Nabokov's grasp of the English language, and the ease with which he manipulates and shapes it, astounds me. Nabokov is a true literary artist, and Lolita is a true work of literary art. The prose is as exquisite as it is impenetrable, with its maze of hints, riddles, and allusions. This, however, only serves to make the work a good deal richer with each successive reading. The plot is tense, the characters are tragic, and the moral and emotional impact (at least for me) is high. Lolita is certainly not for everyone, but then . . . few books are.


As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner) - At the heart of this 1930 novel is the Bundren family's bizarre journey to Jefferson to bury Addie, the family matriarch. Speaking in no less than sixteen distinct voices, Faulkner lets each family member, including Addie, and others along the way tell their private responses to Addie's life through the brilliant flow of stream-of-consciousness prose.

I just read this about halfway through the semester. It is only the second book I have read by Faulkner, but I was floored by it. As I Lay Dying is a good deal more accessible than The Sound and the Fury, but it still doesn't hand everything to the reader on a plate. Faulkner masterfully and believeably weaves together over a dozen totally different voices to create a story which could only be set in the deep South. I decided not long after finishing The Sound and the Fury that I was a definite fan of stream-of-consciousness. I enjoy the unique challenge it presents to the reader and the writing skill required on the part of the author (when, as with Faulkner, it is well-done).

In this book, the characters are very alive and very real, and their situation inspires a great deal of empathy on the part of the reader, partly because they are so movingly described and their struggles so memorably portrayed. It is not a long book, but, as the narrative slowly unwound and drew to a close, I felt as if I had been with the characters for quite some time.

And so ends my "Top Fifty" list, at last. I started it nearly a month ago believing that it was practically ready to post. Little did I suspect how much more time it would take me to put it together properly . . . or how little time I would have to do so. Now that it's over, I will return to regular posting . . . in fact, I've almost got a bit of a pile-up already what with all sorts of eventfulness going on here and there. Before I bring this whole thing to a close, though, I'm going to go ahead and toss out a quick list (in no particular order) of two dozen books that were in the running for the "Top Fifty," but didn't quite make the cut . . . just for kicks and giggles. Some of these were very difficult to remove, some not nearly so much . . .

By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls
Redwall by Brian Jacques
The Firm by John Grisham
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Homer Price by Robert McCloskey
Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy
The Twenty-One Balloons by William Péne DuBois
God's Smuggler by Brother Andrew
Jackaroo by Cynthia Voight
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
The High King by Lloyd Alexander
Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit
Christy by Catherine Marshall
The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald
Escape from Warsaw Ian Seraillier
The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré

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December 08, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part IX


Master and Commander (Patrick O'Brian) - This, the first in the splendid series of Jack Aubrey novels, establishes the friendship between Captain Aubrey, Royal Navy, and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and intelligence agent, against the thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of life aboard a man-of-war in Nelson's navy are faultlessly rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as great ships close in battle.

Fry loaned me this book when I went back to Guatemala for Christmas two years ago, and I read it over the break. I had already seen the movie by this point, it had met with my approval, but little did I suspect the vast depth the books add to the characters of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. In addition to the dazzlingly captivating characters in the book, I was drawn in by a narrative style that reminded me very much of Jane Austen (as both the second and third books in the series have continued to do). Master and Commander is a supremely magnificent historical read. Aubrey, master tactician on the water, and Maturin, master spy on the land, are a literary pair on a level with the likes of Holmes and Watson, and certainly worthy of an entire series to chronicle their adventures.


The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde) - Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gewndolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack’s ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack’s country home on the same weekend—the "rivals" to fight for Ernest’s undivided attention and the "Ernests" to claim their beloveds—pandemonium breaks loose.

Few plays, if any, are more fun to read (particularly in a theatrical setting) than this one. The SC Players have done it twice in the past, and both times I played my favorite character, Algernon. I have also read through the play on my own a few times. I remember once in British Lit II when I, sitting in the back of the room, randomly opened to it in our textbook and began to read, only just managing to stifle my laughter (which is so much more difficult the harder you try).

Wilde in this play is simply so recklessly frivolous and trivial, and it seems as though every singly line of dialogue states the facts of life in a manner which is both precisely the opposite of the truth and (at the same time) more true than we might care to believe. In this case, as well, I happen to own the movie version (which I believe I actually saw before I had ever read the play) and I haul it out and watch it every so often as well. The play is a short, light read with gut-bustingly hilarious dialogue and a wickedly convoluted (but easy to follow) plot which provides the audience with a shocking twist and an excruciating pun all rolled into one at play's end.


The Gormenghast Novels (Mervyn Peake) - A doomed lord, an emergent hero, and a dazzling array of bizarre creatures inhabit the magical world of these novels. At the center of it all is the darkly humorous, stunningly complex tale of the life of Titus, heir to Lord Sepulchrave. He stands to inherit the miles of rambling stone and mortar that form Gormenghast Castle and its kingdom, where all events are predetermined by a complex ritual whose origins are lost in history, understood only by Sourdust, Lord of the Library. Titus will one day rule as the seventy-seventh Earl unless the conniving Steerpike, who is determined to rise above his menial position and control the House of Groan, has his way. The Gormenghast royal family, the castle's decidedly eccentric staff, and the peasant artisans living around the dreary, crumbling structure make up the cast of characters in this engrossing story. Peake's command of language and unique style set the tone and shape of an intricate, slow-moving world of ritual and stasis where all is like a dream--lush, fantastical, and vivid.

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Novels astound me on two levels. First, they are unbelievably good. Peake's prose remains virtually unmatched in my mind by anyone except perhaps Vladimir Nabokov. His story, characters, and world are deep, rich, and full of surprises and symbolism. He defies classification . . . the books are generally classified as fantasy for sheer convenience, for they do not fall into any known category. Second, at times it seems as though no one has ever heard of Gormenghast, much less read the books. How can writing and storytelling of this caliber fly practically under the radar for over half a century?

The first two books are totally enthralling and nearly flawless, the third less so. Peake envisioned a truly epic series which would follow his hero, Titus Groan, from birth to old age. The pace he expected to maintain is evident when we have reached page 100 or so of Titus Groan and our hero has only just emerged from the wound. Sadly, Peake became mentally diseased after beginning the third book, during which Titus is supposed to be in his early twenties, more or less, and died just a few scribbled pages into book four. Titus Alone, while still brilliant in a unique way, shows the sad effects of Peake's decline. The story is often confusing and disjointed and lacks some of the perfection of the earlier works. Nevertheless, it is an excellent read, and the first two books stand alone very effectively.

As a brief preview of coming attractions, I've been absolutely itching to begin producing a body of literary analysis of the works from a variety of perspectives (there are certainly plenty of angles of approach). Soon, my friends, soon . . .


Man and Superman (George Bernard Shaw) - John Tanner is horrified to discover that he is the object of Ann Whitefield's ambitions in her search for a satisfactory husband. For Tanner, political pamphleteer and independent mind, escape is the only option. But Ann is grimly resigned to society's expectations and ready for the chase. A protracted, allegorical detour through Hell in the third act features a mind-numbing, but fascinating debate between supernatural figures and reveals the startling philosophical thesis of the play before the final denoument. In this caustic satire on romantic conventions, Shaw casts his net wide across European culture to draw on works by Mozart, Nietzsche, and Conan Doyle for his re-telling of the Don Juan myth. Haled as "the first great twentieth-century English play," this remains a classic exposé of the eternal struggle between the sexes.

I believe this is the third and final playwright to make my list. Shaw, much like his character Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, is not in the least afraid of offending everyone equally. His plays are radically and courageously anti-establishment in a way that I find it difficult not to admire. In addition to his pointed and often disturbing philosophical agendas, Shaw has a devastating and hilarious wit which he employs to brilliant effect in his plays. This is my favorite of his plays due in large part to a ponderous third act (of four) which outlines a starkly pragmatic philosophy of life (the "Life-Force" Philosophy, in fact) from within a wicked vision of the afterlife that (in his day) only Shaw would dare to dream up and put on the stage.

Besides this third act, which is a dream sequence that lasts longer than the other three acts combined and contributes next to nothing to the plot while slipping in nearly everything regarding the point that Shaw is attempting to put across, Man and Superman is a cute and funny romantic comedy filled with quite a number of truly humorous characters and situations.


A Room With a View (E. M. Forster) - This Edwardian social comedy explores love and prim propriety among an eccentric cast of characters assembled in an Italian pensione and in a corner of Surrey, England. A charming young English woman, Lucy Honeychurch, faints into the arms of a fellow Britisher when she witnesses a murder in a Florentine piazza. Attracted to this man, George Emerson--who is entirely unsuitable and whose father just may be a Socialist--Lucy is soon at war with the snobbery of her class and her own conflicting desires. Back in England she is courted by a more acceptable, if stifling, suitor, and soon realizes she must make a startling decision that will decide the course of her future: she is forced to choose between convention and passion.

The process by which E. M. Forster has become one of my favorite authors is singularly bizarre . . . no less so as this is the only book of his which I have read. I first encountered him in British Literature II during the spring of my sophomore year, in which we read a chapter of A Passage to India and watched the 1984 movie version. The movie instantly became one of my favorites and I have since watched it at least three times. Sometime during the following fall semester I got the movie versions of both Howard's End (featuring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson) and A Room With a View (with Helena Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith) from the library and loved them both. By now I had enjoyed three movies based on the works of Forster without once having read one of his books. Unacceptable.

Returning to the library, I arbitrarily settled on A Room With a View as Christmas Break reading and loved it. The book is hilarious, a fantastic read from its period. It skewers both Romantics and Aesthetics, and generally has a great deal of fun at the expense of the British upper-middle class. I'm already planning to squeeze A Passage to India in sometime this Christmas Break. We shall see.

To be continued . . .

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December 06, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part VIII


Paradise Lost (John Milton) - This is the quintessential epic English poem. Penned by Milton in the 1600s, it relates the story of Lucifer's revenge on God after he has been cast out of Heaven. Bursting from the confines of Hell he blazes a trail to Earth, bent on corrupting God's pristine masterwork in any way he can. Little does he know that even his success in destroying Man's innocence and introducing Sin into the world will lead to God's ultimate victory with mankind's redemption and salvation. In the poem's final section, an angel reveals God's plan for mankind's history to Adam in its entirety, giving him hope for the future even as he is cast forth from the Garden of Eden forever. Beautifully written and vividly described, the real strength of Paradise Lost lies in its characters and in its source material: The Bible.

Oh, look at me! I'm such a poser (again)! I have Milton and Shakespeare on my list! Well, this is a book which I have written about before, it just so happens. I stayed up all night to finish Paradise Lost one Christmas break because I couldn't put it down, and I was so excited about it that I got up and started writing a post that shows definite effects of sleepiness. That aside, I guess Milton probably isn't for everyone, and I've heard a lot of complaints about his theology (however relevant that may be to a literary work). But whether he gets it right or wrong in the end, Milton did give me a startling new perspective on the story of Creation and Fall which, while it probably didn't shed much valuable light on the story itself, gave me a lot to think about with respect to almost everything else. And, in the end, isn't that the essential point of a retelling anyway?


Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J. K. Rowling) - The pivotal fourth novel in the seven part tale of Harry Potter's training as a wizard and his coming of age. Fourteen-year-old Harry gets away from the pernicious Dursleys and goes to the Quidditch World Cup with Hermione, Ron, and the Weasleys. He then begins his fourth year at Hogwarts Academy where he is mysteriously entered in an unusual contest that challenges his wizarding skills, friendships and character. The event involves two other rival schools of magic, and a competition that hasn't happened in a hundred years. Amid signs that an old enemy is growing stronger, all he wants is to be a normal, fourteen year old wizard. Unfortunately for Harry Potter, he's not normal - even by wizarding standards.

The Harry Potter series (idiot controversy aside) is one of the supreme children's literature creations of all time. Sadly, as of this writing, it is still one book shy of completion. Nevertheless, the series thus far is an incredible joy to read. My personal favorite thus far (by a nose) is Goblet of Fire, as the central book on which everything else hinges. This is, of course, yet another case of a book in a series that might not be on the list without the support of other books which are not.

Despite the publication of the first book in 1997, I was not allowed to begin reading the series while still living at home. This was a subject of much contention for years (you may find my definitive final word on the subject here), and ultimately I did not begin the first book until I moved out of the house during the summer after I graduated from high school (2002). It was probably, in fact, one of the first things I did. At the time, the fourth book was just coming out in paperback, but I only bought the first one to read and discover what all the fuss was about to see if I would want to continue the series.

To make a long story short, I did, and I rapidly acquired the remaining three. I read most of book two during the trip from Lubbock to Longview when I moved in at LeTourneau my freshman year. I read book three during Thanksgiving Break my freshman year. And I read book four during Spring Break my freshman year (at least the final half of it one sitting). Book five came out that summer, and a generous aunt (one of the few relatives I have who will tolerate the series . . . and, incidentally, who has actually bothered to read it) loaned me a copy. I finished it in three sittings while on vacation travelling about the state with my family. And, of course, book six came out just this summer, and just as I was casting about for the means to get my hands on it, my wonderful girlfriend informed me that she had bought it as my early birthday present. When it arrived I finished it in two sittings.

All that I need add to complete this brief history of myself and the Harry Potter series is that I have arrived on opening night to showings of the last two HP movies (the third was the best of the series, the fourth perhaps the worst). Trust me, people should be reading these books, but if they don't or won't . . . well, their loss.


The Great Train Robbery (Michael Crichton) - Lavish wealth and appalling poverty - and Edward Pierce easily navigates both worlds. Rich, handsome, and ingenious, he charms the city's most prominent citizens even as he plots the crime of the century - the daring theft of a fortune of gold. But even Pierce could not predict the consequences of an extraordinary robbery that targets the pride of England's industrial era: the mighty steam locomotive.

To the best of my recollection, I read this book in its entirety during one night in the lounge of Andy's suite at John Brown University. I had finished my first spring semester at LeTourneau, and I was spending a week at JBU with Andy while he took his finals in order to return to Colorado Springs with him. I got a lot read that week . . .

It is not uncommon for me to read large portions of Michael Crichton books at a single go. I recall reading hundreds of pages of Sphere without moving a muscle, and when I finally finished the book, one of my arms and both of my legs were asleep. The Great Train Robbery is quite simply the best "caper" story I've ever encountered, and it paints a very vivid and memorable picture of the seedy underbelly of Victorian London. I can't say for certain how much of the story is actual historical fact, but I know that a great deal of it is, and while I was reading it I certainly felt as though every word was true.


Arthur (Stephen R. Lawhead) - They called him unfit to rule, a lowborn, callow boy, Uther's bastard. But his coming bad been foretold in the songs of the bard Taliesin. And be had learned powerful secrets at the knee of the mystical sage Merlin. He was Arthur -- Pendragon of the Island of the Mighty -- who would rise to legendary greatness in a Britain torn by violence, greed, and war; who would usher in a glorious reign of peace and prosperity; and who would fall in a desperate attempt to save the one he loved more than life.

Well, well, another version of the Arthur legend has appeared on my list. Now there's a shock. I felt that Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle (an attempt at a more or less historically based retelling of the myth) got off to rather a slow start with Taliesin, the story of Merlin's father. The second book, Merlin, was considerably better, but still not perfect. The third book, though, totally blew me away. It's use of multiple first-person narrators to tell the story of Arthur's exciting reign is quite riveting. You might think that, with that opinion of book three I might have moved on to book four, Pendragon, by now. But I haven't due to a busy reading schedule. Also, I've heard that it's not as good as the others in the series . . . maybe I'm afraid that's true.


Many Dimensions (Charles Williams) - The book turns on the discovery of the magical Stone of Solomon, infinitely divisible, and through which one can move at will through space, time, and thought. Those who think they can manipulate the stone to serve their own ends, however, find to their horror that, as Jesus once ironically said, "they have their reward." While the story clearly deals with the extraordinary, through his humorous and loving depiction of his British characters Williams more deeply shows us the spiritual reality that lies inside the ordinary.

Charles Williams is the third and final Inkling on my list, and only with great difficulty would I be able to convince myself that he isn't the best. I feel that both Lewis and Tolkien themselves would agree with that assessment. I was introduced to Williams in the Inklings Only class I took during the fall semester of my sophomore year. We bought a collection of three of his novels in a single volume and were required to choose two to read. Of course, many of us read all three. Of those three, while I know that Wilson prefers the depth and profundity of Descent into Hell and perhaps others might prefer the epic good vs. evil themes of War in Heaven, my favorite is Many Dimensions, with a little of both of the above and an extremely exciting concept to boot.

To be continued . . .

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December 05, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part VII


The Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov) - Asimov's epic of Empire and the ebb and flow of history covers a span of several hundred years in the history of an ideal universal ruling organization. When the Galactic Empire began to decay and crumble, Hari Seldon and his band of psychohistorians planted a colony, the Foundation, on a remote border planet. The Foundation would incubate art, science, and technology, and form the nucleus of the Second Empire, thus shortening the Dark Age between empires from 10,000 years to only 1,000. The first section, Foundation traces the Foundation's embryonic development and the beginnings of its rise to power. In Foundation and Empire, a period of disruption transpires amid the death throes of the Galactic Empire, followed almost immediately by the sudden appearance of a powerful mutant force, known as "The Mule," that not even Hari Seldon could have predicted. Second Foundation describes the climactic search for Seldon's hidden Second Foundation undertaken separately by both The Mule and the desperate, reeling First Foundation.

I graduated from fantasy to science fiction, and hence to Asimov, somewhat late considering my predilection for the former. It was probably Star Wars that did it when I saw the trilogy for the first time in 1997, but I no longer remember. In any case, Asimov is certainly one of my favorite authors, and one of my most read. There is not a great deal of action in his novels . . . in fact, almost nothing seems to happen in some of them, despite their length. Nevertheless, I was always fascinated by them from start to finish.

Asimov is a master of plotting on a grand scale, and many of his books demonstrate this on three levels. Each book contains elements that are part of itself (obviously), elements which connect with the larger series (often trilogy) of which they are a part, and elements which fit into the grand scheme of "Asimov time" which spans something like 20,000 years of human history. His Foundation trilogy is a perfect example of this, and it employs a classic Asimov device. Each part is neatly divided into sub-parts so that really the entire massive saga seems like a collection of novellas more than anything else.

My favorite part of the trilogy is probably the third book, but it could hardly be a favorite without the context of the preceding two. That, plus the facts that the previous two are excellent books and the trilogy is available in a single-volume form made it a necessity to add to the list. The Foundation trilogy is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of sci-fi literature (although if you find that term to be an oxymoron, you might want to avoid it).


A Midsummer Night's Dream (William Shakespeare) - Three members of a love triangle (and a fourth who wants in) along with a troupe of rustic tradesmen with thespian delusions stumble into an enchanted forest on the eve of the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and become the playthings of a group of mischievous, feuding fairies. Of course, love conquers all by the end, but some very strange events transpire along the way.

Shakespeare is another of my most read authors, and that made it extremely difficult to decide which of his plays ought to go on his list. I feel like such a poser to begin with by putting anything by Shakespeare at all, but I assure you that I do genuinely love the works of Shakespeare. I have read 25 of his plays, and over a dozen of those at least twice, and I'm looking earnestly for the time to complete the remaining 13.

My immediate problem was really whether to choose a comedy or a tragedy. Both are so different from each other that I had legitimate favorites in both camps that almost defied comparison. In the end, however, I decided that none of Shakespeare's plays has given me more joy than A Midsummer Night's Dream. I've probably read it at least five times, more than one of those aloud in a "reader's theater" setting. I also own the charming recent movie version, and have watched and enjoyed it several times (one of the few instances where a drastic change from Shakespeare's original setting, from Ancient Greece to 19th century Italy, genuinely works).

My favorite character to act, incidentally, is undoubtedly Bottom the Weaver, whose flamboyant, good-natured chutzpah make him one of the most endearing characters in all Shakespeare. On the one hand, he is obnoxiously proud and self-centered, but on the other, he is so charitable and guileless about it (not to mention comical) that he is almost impossible not to like.


The Eye of the World (Robert Jordan) - The peaceful villagers of Emond's Field pay little heed to rumors of war in the western lands until a savage attack by troll-like minions of the Dark One forces three young men to flee their home in the company of an Aes Sedai (a powerful female mage) as the Dark One's evil armies pursue. While a series of life-threatening encounters keep them constantly on the move, they are visited by terrible dreams that hint that they must soon confront a destiny which has its origins in the time known as The Breaking of the World.

Some may think this a strange choice, being disgusted with the the way Jordan has stretched out his saga to cover eleven massive books without yet being done. Personally, I am currently stalled out on book six, searching for a chance to proceed, and still enjoying the series for what it is. In any case, regardless of what some people may think about this series, they probably only think it because they liked it enough at the beginning to keep reading later. After all, if the first book had sucked, why would they have picked up the second? No matter how much later portions of the series may have jumped the shark (and I'm still enjoying it immensely at book six, personally), book one is an excellent read.

I'm noticing that I have given fantasy a great deal of space on this list, which should indicate how fond of it I have been in the past. The Eye of the World provides solid high fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien, and Jordan's world is enormous. I found his writing to contain an excellent mix of borrowed elements common to all fantasy and his own highly-original ideas. This series contains some fascinating elements which lead to exciting developments from the beginning of the first book. The Eye of the World, despite its length, is a very absorbing read, full of suspense, action, and some very unexpected twists. It is both satisfying by itself and an excellent primer for the later books.


City Boy (Herman Wouk) - This work about a "Bronx Tom Sawyer" spins the hilarious and often touching tale of Herbie Bookbinder, an urban kid, and his adventures, misadventures and wild escapades on the street, in school, in the countryside, always in pursuit of Lucille, a heartless redhead personifying all the girls who torment and fascinate pubescent lads of eleven.

I read City Boy twice in a single summer, directly after I had graduated from high school, and was highly entertained both times. Herbie's story is by turns nostalgically poignant, side-splittingly hilarious, and painfully suspenseful. And through it all, I was captivated by the rise and fall of Herbie's fortunes, participating vicariously in his adventures and misadventures. It's no wonder this book won the Pulitzer Prize. The grand money-making scheme he devises while at summer camp, the manner in which he carries it out (which occupies a significant portion of the story), and the ultimate result of the whole experience had me in stitches and on pins and needles at the same time. That may not sound very pleasant, but I assure you it was.


The Princess Bride (William Goldman) - Westley, handsome farm boy who risks death and much, much worse for the woman he loves; Inigo, the Spanish swordsman who lives only to avenge his father's death; Fezzik, the Turk, the gentlest giant ever to have uprooted a tree with his bare hands; Vizzini, the evil Sicilian, with a mind so keen he's foiled by his own perfect logic; Prince Humperdinck, the eviler ruler of Guilder, who has an insatiable thirst for war; Count Rugen, the evilest man of all, who thrives on the excruciating pain of others; Miracle Max, who can raise the dead (kind of); The Dread Pirate Roberts, supreme looter and plunderer of the high seas; and, of course, Buttercup, the princess bride, the most perfect, beautiful woman in the history of the world. From the Cliffs of Insanity through the Fire Swamp and down into the Zoo of Death, this incredible journey and brilliant tale is peppered with strange beasties monstrous and gentle, and memorable surprises both terrible and sublime.

Everyone's seen the movie, not so many have read the book. Yet I can assure everyone that the book is every bit as worthwhile (and in some ways more so) as its cinematic counterpart. The characters and situations of The Princess Bride are unforgettable, and hardly need explaining here. However, the most amazing aspect of the book is the way in which it operates as both the ultimate fairy tale and as a satire on all other fairy tales.

The author, William Goldman, pretends that the book is a condensation, a "good-parts version," of a much longer work by a fictional author named S. Morgenstern. Goldman constructs a very elaborate autobiographical portrait of the books impact on his own life (in much the same way I have done with some of these books, but longer and more developed) and maintains his fiction so thoroughly that I was completely taken in until I had finished the entire thing. The story is written in a charmingly tongue-in-cheek style, and Goldman interjects frequently with explanations and justifications regarding what portions of the unabridged version of the story he has removed and why he chose to remove them (interrupting the flow much as the grandfather and grandson do in the movie version). The total effect produces one of the most original and memorable reading experiences that I have run across.

To be continued . . .

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December 03, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part VI


Till We Have Faces (C. S. Lewis) - This is the timeless tale of two mortal princesses — one beautiful and one unattractive — and of the struggle between sacred and profane love. A reworking of the classical Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, it is the story of Orual, Psyche's embittered and ugly older sister, who possessively and harmfully loves Psyche. Much to Orual's frustrations, Psyche is loved by Cupid, the god of love himself, setting the troubled Orual on a path of moral development. Set against the backdrop of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian world, Orual's struggles are illuminated as she learns that we cannot understand the intent of the gods "till we have faces" and sincerity in our souls and selves.

C. S. Lewis wrote a lot of great books, and of course The Chronicles of Narnia were the favorites of my younger days and still rank very highly. Nevertheless, I consider this to be the best book Lewis ever wrote. It has a level of depth and maturity that his other fiction doesn't, and there is the added bonus of an extremely absorbing narrative which is naturally absent from his nonfiction theological works.

I've read this book three times now, always for a class, but always with great pleasure: first in about 9th grade (I think), second for the Inklings course I took during the fall of my sophomore year at LeTourneau, and most recently for a presentation and paper for my C. S. Lewis class. Each reading has provided me with a new angle of approach, and I am sure that they are many left to discover. Orual's story in part one is as exciting and suspenseful as anyone could wish for, and her epiphany in part two is one of Lewis's most emotionally and spiritually impacting passages, no matter how many times you've already read it.


Mila 18 (Leon Uris) - It was a time of crisis, a time of tragedy--and a time of transcendent courage and determination. This novel is set in the midst of the uprising that defied Nazi tyranny, as the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto boldly met Wehrmacht tanks with homemade weapons and bare fists in a heroic effort to counter continued deportations to death camps.

I first discovered Leon Uris when I read Exodus, his novel of the tumultuous founding of the nation of Israel. After that I couldn't get enough of his historical fiction for awhile. I read Armageddon (The Berlin Airlift), Mitla Pass (The Six-Day War), QB VII (A British court case related to Nazi war crimes), and Mila 18 (The Warsaw Ghetto during World War II). Uris has a fascinating manner of making his fictional characters completely genuine by not only developing their personalities and personal histories, but giving them a fleshed-out past that goes back for generations. It is not uncommon for the story to digress for 50 to 100 pages while we get a fascinating and compelling account of the lives of the main characters' parents and grandparents. This is particularly important because his best work is centered around the Jews, where heritage is crucial. Leon Uris, even before Fiddler on the Roof introduced me to Jewish life in tsarist Russia, pogroms and all.

Mila 18 is an astoundingly moving read, where we know from the outset that most or all of the characters are doomed. It may be morbid of me (although I don't think that's it), but I never get tired of stories which treat on the contrasting depravity of Nazi Germany and the courage and fortitude of their victims during the Holocaust.


The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury) - In these connected, chronological short stories are recorded the chronicles of Earth's settlement of the fourth world from the sun. Mars is a place of hope, dreams and metaphor - of crystal pillars and fossil seas - where a fine dust settles on the great, empty cities of a silently destroyed civilization. It is here the invaders have come to despoil and commercialize, to grow and to learn - first a trickle, then a torrent, rushing from a world with no future toward a promise of tomorrow. The Earthman conquers Mars . . . and then is conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.

Who cares if Bradbury writes of breathable air on Mars, an enormous and ancient telepathic civilization, or colonizing another planet beginning before the year 2000? That The Martian Chronicles has left the realm of science fiction and entered the realm of pure fantasy after several decades does not detract from the rich, deep quality of Bradbury's prose, or the power and fascination of his short stories. Fahrenheit 451 is the Bradbury book that everyone reads, but his best work, I think, is in his collections of short stories, most notably this one, The October Country and The Illustrated Man (not to ignore his beautiful novel Something Wicked This Way Comes).

Anyway, returning to the work at hand, the stories in this book embrace a broad range. There are funny stories, tragic stories, mystery and suspense stories, just plain weird stories . . . etc. The total effect produces a very satisfying and memorable experience, and I have revisited and even retold individual favorites from the collection a number of times.


A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. LeGuin) - Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. Sparrowhawk becomes apprentice to a Master Wizard; but impatience to learn faster takes him far from home to Roke Island, where he enters the School for Wizards. As a student of magic, Sparrowhawk exceeds his years in accomplishment, but pride and jealousy drive the boy to try certain dangerous powers too soon. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death's threshold to restore the balance.

I am quoted as having once said: "There are women who can write [high fantasy] and I'm sure I can think of one if I sit here long enough." The quote arose from a discussion of a particularly horrible fantasy short story I had been reading, by a female author, in which the main character (among other things) wandered around firing a longbow "from the hip." That's still one of the most asinine things I've ever seen in print, but it doesn't forgive the fact that I sat there for quite some time and didn't immediately come up with Ursula K. LeGuin, a shining beacon of the genre.

I snagged A Wizard of Earthsea on a whim from a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore in Antigua, Guatemala for Q19 (slightly less than $3 at the time), and proceeded to devour it that afternoon. The style and flow of LeGuin's writing is indescribably serene and beautiful. The world of her Earthsea series is a fascinating one, consisting of the Archipelago, hundreds of islands of all sizes scattered across thousands of miles and populated by all manner of peoples and cultures (and some dragons). There are no epic journeys by land in Earthsea, for there are no land masses large enough. Virtually all travel is by sea.

The plot of A Wizard of Earthsea also captivated me. I was often frustrated during The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings because Gandalf appears out of nowhere with no background or history, and often wanders away on dark and mysterious errands which the reader isn't allowed to know about. LeGuin's book is the exact opposite of this. The entire story follows the wizard character through his early life and training and on to his first great quest: to track and defeat the shadow he himself unleashed.

And this is only the first of six Earthsea books (although two had not yet been published when I discovered the series). LeGuin's other work is worth checking out as well, although I haven't read nearly all of it. Some of her books can be a bit hard to find, and others I just haven't gotten around to reading yet. Her science fiction is excellent, and her book Rocannon's World is a close second behind A Wizard of Earthsea.


The Icarus Hunt (Timothy Zahn) - Independent space shipper (smuggler) Jordan McKell accepts a contract to deliver a sealed cargo to Earth aboard a ship of unknown origin and dubious quality. After the suspicious death of a crew member and several attempts to "acquire" his cargo, McKell realizes that he has become the center of a conspiracy that pits him against the powerful race of aliens who control galactic trade and aspire to much more. With everyone in the galaxy looking for the Icarus, and an unknown saboteur amongst the crew, McKell begins to suspect that whatever he is caring may have the power to change the course of human history.

The Icarus Hunt is my self-indulgent (okay, who am I kidding? the whole list is self-indulgent) nod in the direction of pulpy, action-packed, contemporary science fiction. I read it during the first summer (of two) that I spent in Colorado Springs with my good friend Andy Winger . . . in fact, we read it concurrently, a chunk at a time, and had a grand time trying to figure out all of its twists and turns along the way.

Timothy Zahn is a fantastic author, and I first discovered him through the Star Wars books he had written (five at the time, if memory serves). I have since read eight or nine of his non-Star Wars books, with a few more waiting in the wings. No other sci-fi author that I have encountered has come up with more different original ideas than Zahn has. Almost every one of his books begins from scratch with a new vision of the galaxy. Once it was a world where all humans had extraordinary telekinetic powers . . . until the age of 12. Another time it was a black hole which emitted quantum particles that compel people to act ethically. A third book has humans as the late-comers to interstellar travel relegated to colonizing the few low-resource planets left . . . only to find themselves in possession of one that contains priceless ancient technologies buried beneath its surface.

But I digress. The Icarus Hunt is by far my favorite of Zahn's books, obviously, and I've made a number of people read it since I first completed it. Intricate plot twists fly successively thicker and faster as the story builds to a fever pitch, culminating in a climax which does not disappoint. With all this going for it, plus excellent characters and fun writing, this book was a must for my list.

To be continued . . .

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December 01, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part V


Cheaper by the Dozen (Ernestine G. Carey & Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.) - No growing pains have ever been more hilarious than those suffered loudly by the riotous Gilbreth clan. First, there are a dozen red-haired, freckle-faced kids to contend with. Then there's Dad, a famous efficiency expert who believes a family can be run just like a factory. And there's Mother, his partner in everything except discipline. How they all survive such escapades as forgetting Frank, Jr., in a roadside restaurant, going on a first date with Dad in the backseat, or having their tonsils removed en masse will keep you in stitches.

Seriously, this book will make you laugh. It's hilarious. Before there was the crappy movie starring Steve Martin and Hillary Duff and a crappy sequel to said crappy movie, there was the great original. This book provides another example of my affinity for anecdotal-type stories . . . especially true ones (although so long as its a good story, I don't really care about veracity so much). I honestly can't say whether members of large families would find it humorous or not, but I know that I (not having an enormous family, but being familiar with several) do. And, to the best of my knowledge this is an accurate portrayal of the environment surrounding such . . . ummm . . . units. I'm trying to be tactful here, because I am marrying into a large family. Suffice to say, some of the stories in this book are reminiscent of stories my fiancée has related from her youth. However, let me assure the world that it is no insult to anyone to be compared to the charming Gilbreths.


The Flames of Rome (Paul L. Maier) - The sensuality and excesses of first-century Rome, the treacherous and deadly ploys of imperial politics, the shocking persecution of early Christians by a power-mad emperor - Maier faithfully reconstructs the dramatic conflicts preceding and following the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64 through the experiences of a family of Roman nobility caught up in the political and religious clashes of the world's capital. The family of Flavius Sabinus, mayor of Rome under Nero, was among the first crucial converts to Christianity, and this novel recounts "the rest of the story" following the book of Acts.

This is probably the only book on my list that might fall into the category of "contemporary Christian fiction," and I am hesitant to call it that because of all of the negative connotations associated with that genre. In other words, I don't like to say that that is what this is, because this actually doesn't suck. I really need to go back and reread it in light of some of my Bible classes (most notably "Social Backgrounds of the New Testament") and in light of Historiography, but to the best of my rememberance it does not fall prey to any of the glaring fallacies often common to religious historical fiction.

Even if it does, and I just don't remember, it is so compellingly written that it easily falls into the realm of perennial classics like Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis . . . and I actually prefer it to both of those, personally. This was probably the book that first truly interested me in the history of the Roman Empire, and it gave me a solid grasp on the details of Nero's reign. It is both exciting and moving, and I highly recommend it.


Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) - An epic, romanticized story about the American Civil War from the point of view of the Confederacy. In particular it is the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a headstrong Southern belle who survives the hardships of the war and afterwards manages to establish a successful business by capitalizing on the struggle to rebuild the South. Throughout the book she is motivated by her unfulfilled love for Ashley Wilkes, an honorable man who is happily married. More than this, though, it is a sweeping story of tangled passions and the rare courage of a group of people in Atlanta during and after the Civil War.

Speaking of Historiography, Gone With the Wind is not a book that I enjoy because it's good or accurate history (it's not), but because it's a good story, well-written, and a cultural icon. Gone With the Wind may not be solid history, but it is very solid myth. Granted, I didn't realize this when I first read it, but I think it was for that reason that it resonated with me. I would probably hesitate to call it literature per se, but it is definitely a classic work of the South and well worth reading by any who enjoy things from that region.

For me, Gone With the Wind (more than any of the other highly romanticized Southern works of its type) transcends the petty prejudices and jaundiced perspectives of history that skew lesser works beyond the tolerance of a modern audience. This is because it is about a particular character that can be identified with universally. Scarlett O'Hara is not a lost vision of perfection from the past, but strong survivor in the present who maintains a hope for the future right up until the final lines of the book. For that reason, I think the novel has survived and will continue to survive as a classic favorite in a way that a work like, say, The Clansman could never hope to match.


Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) - Orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead, subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school, Jane Eyre none the less emerges unbroken in spirit and integrity. How she takes up the post of governess at Thornfield Hall, meets and loves Mr Rochester and discovers the impediment to their lawful marriage are elements in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman's passionate search for a wider and richer life than that traditionally accorded to her sex in Victorian society.

Almost the only kind of romance novel (of the love story type) that I read and enjoy is the kind which has the word "Gothic" in front of it as a modifier. Jane Eyre is enthralling and creepy in a way peculiar to the great Victorian authors, with their familiarity with death, insanity, and cruelty. Sometimes they seem melancholy even when they and their characters are most happy and at peace. Jane herself is among the most endearing narrators in literature, and her story is almost impossible to stop reading. I read both this and the next book for school during the same year, and I remember both of them providing me with hours of quiet bliss over the course of entire afternoons and evenings during which I barely shifted from my bed or the couch.


David Copperfield (Charles Dickens) - Fervently embraces the comic delights, tender warmth, and tragic horrors of childhood, it is a classic tale of growing up, the enchanting story of an orphan discovering life and love in an indifferent adult world. Persecuted by his wrathful stepfather, Mr. Murdstone; deceived by his boyhood idol, the callous, charming Steerforth; driven into mortal combat with the sniveling clerk Uriah Heep; and hurled, pell-mell, into a blizzard of infatuation with the adorably dim-witted Dora, he survives the worst--and the best--with inimitable style, his bafflement turning to self-awareness and his heart growing ever more disciplined and true.

Speaking of great Victorian works and endearing narrators, David Copperfield is my favorite Dickens book. It is very long, and I very much wished (when I read it) that it was a good deal longer. I was completely drawn in by the experiences of the main character . . . indeed by all of the characters. Dickens, of course, has a special flair for creating iconic and memorable personalities to populate his thick novels. Like Jane Eyre, and a few of the other books I have discussed, I have a soft spot for David Copperfield partially because it is a coming-of-age story. And its length makes it something I can really sink my teeth into (as with three of the other four books I just discussed). Long can be bad . . . but often it's really good.

To be continued . . .

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November 28, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part IV


Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) - Meet the March sisters: talented and tomboyish Jo, beautiful Meg, shy Beth, and temperamental Amy . . . This book presents a lively portrait of their joys, hardships, and adventures as they grow up in Civil War New England, separated by the war from their father and beloved mother, "Marmee." Jo searches for her writer's voice . . . Meg prepares for marriage and a family . . . Beth reaches out to the less fortunate, tragically . . . and Amy travels to Europe to become a painter.

Yeah, yeah . . . I know what you're probably thinking. At least, I know what certain other people have said when I have mentioned off-hand that this is one of my favorite books. It's been quite some time since I last read it, and I daresay it's probably very sappy indeed in some way. But that doesn't change the fact that I enjoyed the book, its characters, its anecdotal nature, and overarching plot . . . And the autobiographical element of the thing always fascinated me. It's a good, long, uplifting sort of a read. And it's not as though I put up with things that attempt to shove gratuitous warm fuzzies off on one. This is a good book, regardless.


The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) - There are 60 mysteries starring the legendary Sherlock Holmes, arguably the world's best-known detective, all chronicled by the unassuming Dr. John Watson, former military surgeon. Watson is introduced to Holmes's eccentricities as well as his uncanny ability to deduce information about his fellow beings and a lifelong literary friendship is born. Residing together at 221B Baker Street, they collaborate in solving and recording mystery after mystery in Victorian London.

I hardly know where to begin with Sherlock Holmes . . . absolutely one of my favorite literary idols of all time. I vividly remember the first Holmes story I ever heard: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, which was read aloud to me in 4th grade at CAG by Mr. Ulrich. That story stills sends chills up and down my spine. It was sometime later, after I had read several more of his adventures here and there, that I stumbled across an enormous red tome in the CAG library, with a faded "Complete Sherlock Holmes" inscribed on the tattered spine. I took it home with me and stayed up most of the night reading A Study in Scarlet, but it was the short stories I liked (and still like) best.

I can remember lots of them . . . and there are many more I can't remember. That's grand, as far as I'm concerned, since it means that I can go back and reread them someday. Most of my favorites are in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, where so many unique things happen: vampires, a case told in the third-person, and the only case related by Holmes himself. But His Last Bow, with Holmes as a spy during World War I, is grand as well. And, of course, I still love all of the earlier collections that set up the character, kill him off, and bring him back again: The Adventures, The Memoirs (with the climactic "Final Problem"), and The Return.

It would be impossible to pick a single Sherlock Holmes story or collection . . . it has to be the whole thing: every word ever written about the character by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is a magnificent body of work.


The Once and Future King (T. H. White) - The Once and Future King defies classification, encompassing poetry and farce, comedy and tragedy -and sudden flights of schoolboy humor. White's "footnote to Malory" (his own phrase) resulted in the last major retelling of the Arthurian cycle of legends. This is the magical epic of King Arthur and his shining Camelot, of Merlyn and Guinevere, of beasts who talk and men who fly, of wizardry and war. It is the book of all things lost and wonderful and sad.

I was initially sucked into the work by the laugh-out-loud look at medieval Britain in The Sword in the Stone, quite on par with, or better than, Connecticut Yankee. But, more than just the humor, the really captivating element of what I consider to be the quintessential version of the Arthur legend (this is it for me), is the tragic, bittersweet failure of Arthur's dream. The Once and Future King, despite its often tongue-in-cheek style captures the humanity of its characters in a way the dry prose of Malory, or high, cold verse of Tennyson never could. What makes the tragedy of Arthur's fate (along with Guinevere, Lancelot, and the rest) is that the story didn't have to turn out that way but for a series of very slight, very understandable, very human errors. And we sit and read and watch disaster unfold before us . . . but not without the hope of ultimate redemption, too. It is masterfully, beautifully done.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith) - From 1902 until 1919 the Nolans live in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn. Francie Nolan, avid reader, penny-candy connoisseur, and adroit observer of human nature, has much to ponder in colorful, turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. She grows up with a sweet, tragic father, a severely realistic mother, and an aunt who gives her love too freely--to men, and to a brother who will always be the favored child. Francie learns early the meaning of hunger and the value of a penny. She is her father's child--romantic and hungry for beauty. But she is her mother's child, too--deeply practical and in constant need of truth. Like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, resourceful Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive.

I guess I'm just a sucker for coming-of-age stories . . . in fact, I know I am. Here's another book that I remember reading largely in the space of a long night (or perhaps two). I remember just enough about it to want to read it again to refresh my memory. Francie Nolan, as I recall, is a hero the reader can really root for with no trouble, and her story (and that of her family) fascinated me. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn provides one of those rare, very clear glimpses into a world that is completely different from any that I've experienced, and it also provided me with an early glimpse of what it is like to look back on childhood at the cusp of adulthood. For that reason alone, I ought to reread it very soon.


The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper) -
"When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back,
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone."

With these mysterious words, Will Stanton discovers on his 11th birthday that he is no mere boy. He is the Sign-Seeker, last of the immortal Old Ones, destined to battle the powers of evil that trouble the land. His task is monumental: he must find and guard the six great Signs of the Light, which, when joined, will create a force strong enough to match and perhaps overcome that of the Dark. Embarking on this endeavor is dangerous as well as deeply rewarding; Will must work within a continuum of time and space much broader than he ever imagined.

The Dark is Rising is actuall book two of a five-book series, but it mostly stands alone. It introduces a completely different set of characters from book one, and the two sets join forces in book three and proceed from there. The series draws very heavily on Welsh and Celtic elements, and takes place almost entirely in that small area of Great Britain. This was, obviously, my favorite of the five (but they're all pretty good). The material Cooper draws on is rich and satisfying, and she knows how to spin a real nail-biter . . . excellent writing. I'll admit that the book loses a little if one doesn't read the others in the series, but rules are rules, and I could only pick one of them. It's still a compelling read.

To be continued . . .

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November 22, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part III


Watership Down (Richard Adams) - Set in the once idyllic rural landscape of the south of England, this is a powerful saga of courage, leadership, and survival. An epic tale of a hardy band of Berkshire rabbits forced to flee the destruction of their fragile community. Led by the doughty Hazel and his oracular friend Fiver, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing dangers posed by predators, hostile warrens, and worse, to a mysterious promised land known to them only as Watership Down. From their travails, they forge a more perfect society, made stronger by the vision that drives them.

When I was (I think) 13, almost 14, I heard of this book and decided to read it, but didn't find a copy handy right away. That summer we visited an old lady friend of my parents' who lived in Waco, and stayed in her large, ancient house. It was rather a creepy house, deathly silent but for the creaking noises made by the wooden floor when we walked around in it. It was the sort of house I could spend a great deal of time carefully exploring, and still be certain of missing some secret panel or passageway, but the almost total lack of air conditioning made one too lethargic for exploring.

In one of the guest bedrooms, however, I discovered a copy of Watership Down: a bulky, hardcover version without the dust jacket. Everyone thought I was reading a book about submarines as I carted it around with me to restaurants, church potlucks, and the like. My parents always have a lot of visiting to get done in Waco, and it has always been my philosophy to bring along a hefty chunk of "boredom insurance" in the hopes of finding a quiet corner to tuck myself into.

Well, as immersed as I was in the story of Watership Down (which offers an unforgettable portrait of Adams's made-up rabbit culture, including a language and complex folklore, in addition to page-turning excitement), between one thing and another I didn't quite finish the book before we had to leave. I was terribly disappointed, but I received a shiny new paperback copy for my birthday not long after, and all was well. When the sequel, an anthology entitled Tales from Watership Down, came out a few years later, I snapped it up and devoured it, too. These books are not to be missed.


The Rescuers (Margery Sharp) - The Prisoners' Aid Society, run entirely by mice, strives to help cheer and aid a variety of human prisoners held around the world. When the society learns that a Norwegian poet has been wrongly imprisoned in the legendary (and much feared) Black Castle, home to a number of terrible dangers (including the dreaded Mameluke, a monstrous cat belonging to the prison warden), the mice waste no time in formulating a plan for his release. Bernard, a stolid brown mouse, is dispatched to enlist the aid of Miss Bianca, a white mouse who has always lived in the lap of luxury. If Bernard can convince Miss Bianca to locate a brave Norwegian rodent for their cause, the prisoner may stand a chance. Being a bit of a spoiled pet, Miss Bianca initially shies away from Bernard's pleas, but his good heart and her better nature prevail and soon she too is involved in the world of intrigue and heroic rescues.

The Rescuers and its eight sequels are, much to my dismay, long out of print, and I had a heck of a time even finding a picture of the cover. For all I know, they may have already been out of print when I first checked them out from the CAG library and read them years ago. This is a shame because any one of the first three (which are the only ones our library had, and are still the only ones I've read) could eviscerate either Disney animated version in a fair fight. The first book remains my favorite for a variety of reasons. The mission undertaken by Bernard, Miss Bianca, and Nils is just so ridiculously impossible at the outset that their ultimate success is all the more exhilerating in the end.


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Mark Twain) - Vibrates with slapstick comedy and serious social commentary. While Hank Morgan, Twain's time-displaced Yankee traveler, keeps up a steady stream of flippancies, founding the first tabloid, the Camelot Weekly Hosannah and Literary Volcano, and organizing a game of baseball between armor-clad knights, he also keeps up a steady commentary on the social mores of King Arthur's court, criticizing the hereditary social classes and state church still strong in the Victorian England of Twain's own day, and championing women's suffrage and union labor organization.

This may seem like a bit of an odd pick to some, considering Twain's other great works. Huck Finn is, of course, widely regarded as his best (and by some as the best) novel. Personally, my difficulty was more in deciding between this one and Tom Sawyer, and in the end I may not be able to adequately justify why, with my love of the South and Southern literature, I picked a book about a Yankee set in legendary Arthurian Britain. My fascination with Arthurian legend aside, it probably boils down to the fact that my favorite element of Twain is his humor, and this is (in my opinion) by far his funniest book. Connecticut Yankee made me laugh. A lot. And at this point I'd probably have to re-read it in order to make my analysis any deeper than that.


And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie) - Ten complete strangers, apparently with nothing in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon. Once there, all of them are accused of murder and sentenced to die. One by one the members of the party are killed off, and tension mounts as, cut off from the mainland, the dwindling survivors realize that the killer must be one of them.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've actually read more books by Agatha Christie than by any other single author (a fact which quite surprised me when I discovered it). I never got into any of her detectives except Hercule Poirot, and I read everyone of his mysteries I could lay my hands on. I remember burrowing my way through a thick tome of five Poirot mysteries at a fairly young age, lugging it around everywhere I went.

Christie has the uncanny ability of throwing me so totally off the scent in her mysteries that, not only is the killer not the most likely suspect, they are not even the least likely suspect. With almost no exceptions, Christie reveals the killer to have been the one character who was not a suspect at all, who hadn't even entered into your reckoning when you formed your list. I remember one mystery where the murderer was the policeman investigating the case, and another where the murderer was the person narrating the story.

Neither of those refers to this particular book, which is one of perhaps three non-Poirot Christie's that I have read. It does not feature any of her regular detective characters, or any detective at all for that matter. Relying more on suspense than investigation to keep the reader glued, the ending is, of course, a complete surprise. I've seen a couple of movie versions and have been thoroughly disgusted both times with the adaptation. Moviemakers can be such weenies sometimes, and in this case seem thoroughly incapable of following the original plot through to reach Christie's brilliant, dark ending.


King Solomon's Mines (H. Rider Haggard) - Three men trek to the remote African interior in search of a lost friend. At the end of a perilous journey they reach an unknown land cut off from the world and inhabited by a lost civilization which stands on the brink of savage civil war, where terrible dangers threaten anyone who dares to venture near the spectacular diamond mines of King Solomon.

King Solomon's Mines stands out in my mind as the most action-packed, adrenaline-pumping, rip-roaring adventure novel I have ever read. I bought it on a whim from a tiny bookstore in a mall in Guatemala and devoured it shortly thereafter. This is the quintessential African adventure of the British Imperialist period. It has pretty much everything: danger, suspense, men being ripped in half by stampeding elephants, bizarre encounters with the natives, an epic, day-long battle with tens of thousands of warriors savaging each other in hand-to-hand combat, our mighty, larger-than-life heroes emerging victorious, bathed in blood, wealth beyond measure surrounded by booby-traps . . . I'm telling you, it's all in here. Just thinking about that battle scene makes me want to go read the whole thing again.

To be continued . . .

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November 19, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part II


Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O'Brian) - There's something very strange about the rats living under the rosebush at the Fitzgibbon farm. But Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with a sick child, is in dire straits and must turn to these exceptional creatures for assistance. Soon she finds herself flying on the back of a crow, slipping sleeping powder into a ferocious cat's dinner dish, and helping 108 brilliant, laboratory-enhanced rats escape to a utopian civilization of their own design, no longer to live "on the edge of somebody else's, like fleas on a dog's back."

Genius lab rats who plot and scheme and build utopias . . . this concept is so much fun! This was one of the first books I read where the story kept intriguing details hidden from the reader for a time while dropping tantalizing hints about them. Sometimes the revelation doesn't happen (a nearly unforgivable sin, if done improperly), and sometimes it's just underwhelming (which is even worse). In this case, though, I loved the backstory of the rats of NIMH. The rest of the book generated a good deal of tension and suspense as well, and I remember it being a very exciting read. My most vivid memory is of an escape through air ducts, and of the horror of uncertainty as to the fate of those who were swept away by the rush of blowing air. Air ducts . . . brrr . . .


Matilda (Roald Dahl) - At age five-and-a-half, Matilda is knocking off double-digit multiplication problems and blitz-reading Dickens. Once she begins school, her classmates love her even though she's a super-nerd and the teacher's pet. But everything is not perfect in Matilda's world. For starters she has two of the most idiotic, self-centered parents who ever lived. Then there's the school principal, Mrs. ("The") Trunchbull, a former hammer-throwing monster of a woman who now flings children instead. Fortunately for Matilda, she has the inner resources to deal with such annoyances: astonishing intelligence, saintly patience, and an innate predilection for revenge.

To my thinking, it would simply be a crime not to have a book by Roald Dahl on this list. All of his books are an absolute joy to read. I have fond memories, for instance, of the time when I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aloud to my brothers in a single sitting because they didn't want me to stop. There was a bit of a struggle as to which one to pick . . . I love so many of his (especially the second half of his autobiography, entitled Going Solo).

In the end, though, I picked the book about a bookworm who scores some sweet, sweet revenge on the Philistines in her life. It just doesn't get any better than that. I received this book as a present for my 13th birthday, a very memorable occasion which also netted me a week-long trip State-side (beginning and ending the journey with a plane ride was only part of the joy of the experience, at the time). There are lots of memorable parts in Matilda, most involving The Trunchbull and her punishment system. I recall a small girl whirled about by her hair and flung a few hundred yards . . . A small boy forced to eat an entire enormous chocolate cake in front of the whole school until he nearly splits open . . . And, of course, the hilarity that results from a pitcher of water, telekinesis, and a common garden newt.


The Land I Lost (Huynh Quang Nhuong) - "The land I love was lost to me forever. These stories are my memories." Huynh Quang Nhuong grew up in the highlands of Vietnam, next to the jungle teeming with wildlife. Encounters with tigers, wild hogs, and deadly snakes were as much a part of his life as tending the rice fields while on the back of his pet water buffalo, Tank. Here are fifteen tales that will transport you into a world of lush beauty and terrible danger -- and a way of life that is gone forever.

I can't for the life of me remember why this book affected me as much as it did. The stories are fascinating, often involving strange and dangerous encounters with the jungle. Some are funny, some are intense, some are tragic, but all are quite poignant. The cumulative effect is both moving and lasting. I can only clearly remember fragments about snakes, monkeys, crocodiles, and water buffalo, as well as snatches about the devastating effects of war. As I consider further, I think it was the bittersweet quality of the book which touched me the most. It is an excellent read, all the more so because the stories are true.


To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) - An enrapturing coming-of-age story told from the point of view of six-year-old Scout Finch. Growing up in pre-Civil Rights Movement Alabama, Scout and her older brother, Jem, witness the transformations that take place in their small town during a controversial trial in which her lawyer father, Atticus, agrees to defend a black man who is wrongly accused of raping a white woman. To Kill a Mockingbird captures small-town Southern life in the middle of the twentieth century, and so much of what makes up a Southern childhood, without over-glorifying them.

This is one of those few books that I can (and do) pick up at random and read from cover to cover just because I happen to spot it sitting on the shelf. If I had to pick a single favorite, it would be a very strong contender. I think I first read it in sixth grade, and I've re-read it in whole or in part several dozen times since then (one of very few books I've re-read at all). I have also, through sheer force of will, browbeaten several people into picking it up and reading it.

Because it has been so ubiquitous for several years, I'd have a hard time attaching specific memories to it. And almost every scene in the book is memorable . . . I couldn't pick just a few. I am, however, fairly certain of one thing: To Kill a Mockingbird is the most prominent factor in my affinity for Southern history, literature, and culture. That makes it also responsible for my paper topic in Intellectual History and for my specially requested independent study in Southern History next semester. It is responsible for a few other books on this list, as well. And, in all likelihood, it will one day have been responsible for what I study in graduate school. How's that for influential?


The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) - When shy Mole climbs out of his hole and into the fresh spring air, he meets Ratty. The two set off for a day on the river, and thus begins this classic tale of deep friendship and adventure as Mole, Rat, and Badger try to reform their rather wild friend, Mr. Toad (of Toad Hall). When Toad's obssession with motor cars and reckless driving land him in prison, Toad Hall is taken over by fiendish weasels and the four friends face the complications of a daring prison break and a climactic battle for the mansion in the most thrilling adventure of all.

The Wind in the Willows glows with a special luminescence all its own. Its characters are sheer magic, and their various adventures are enchanting as well as entertaining. I have many emotions connected to specific scenes: the relief of Mole stumbling into Badger's den when he is lost in the forest, the excitement of Toad's wild escape from prison, the serenity of a day on the river with Rat, and the sheer exhiliration of the storming of Toad Hall. None of these scenes, however, equal the transcendent awe of Mole and Rat's unexplained encounter with the pipe-playing, God-like being they meet one night. This powerful scene, perhaps even more than anything in C. S. Lewis, is the strongest and most lasting image I possess of an encounter with Deity. I have re-read that one portion of the book more times than I remember.

To be continued . . .

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November 16, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part I


The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien) - In ancient times Sauron, The Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was lost, and fell, by chance, into the hands of the hobbit, Frodo Baggins. The Lord of the Rings tells of the great quest undertaken by Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring: Gandalf the Wizard, Merry, Pippin, and Sam, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, Boromir of Gondor, and a tall, mysterious stranger called Strider. Together they will journey across Middle-earth, deep into the shadow of the Dark Lord, and destroy the Ring by casting it into the Cracks of Doom

I discovered the trilogy as a 4th grader in late '93. Already a fan of Narnia since '88 or '89, I reached Fellowship through The Hobbit, based on the awed recommendations of a few classmates. The latter I re-read over a dozen times (several of them nearly consecutively), to the point where my mother asked whether I shouldn't try something new for a change. It was, in some small part, that encouragement not to re-read the same few books over and over again that prompted me to begin keeping a record, and I do not often re-read entire books these days.

As for the trilogy, its impact on me was profound for many years, as it fueled and drove my search for fantasy and science fiction that could equal the joy I derived from reading it. Narnia alone probably could not have sustained my interest in fantasy, but the discovery of Middle Earth made my continued interest a certainty. I have very vivid memories of reading those frightening opening chapters aloud to my younger brothers by the dim glow of a flickering nightlight as we shivered in the bottom bunk, cut off from the rest of the room by walls of blankets draped over the top bunk. I remember reading an enormous chunk of the trilogy perched in various trees, and ignoring cries of "Un mono! (A monkey!)" from below. Additionally, the first time I read The Return of the King, I listened to a George Gershwin CD over and over and over. "Rhapsody in Blue" now forever brings to mind the spectacle of Frodo and Sam toiling wearily up the slopes of Mount Doom.

When word of a new movie version began to circulate, I was, of course, very excited. But by then the full peak of my Hobbitmania had come and gone, and it was my younger brother Micah who got caught up in the magic of the thing most violently. I have experiencing vicariously his enthusiasm for the subject in addition to my own. I am quite pleased that Lord of the Rings was the first of these that appears on my Booklist, because this gives me the chance to get it out of the way up front. Yes, it is on my list. Moving on . . .


The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster) - This ingenious fantasy centers around Milo, a chronically bored ten-year-old who comes home one afternoon to find a large toy tollbooth sitting in his room. Driving through the tollbooth's gates in his toy car, Milo journeys into The Lands Beyond with the companions he finds along the way: the watchdog, Tock, and the foolish but lovable Humbug. Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked "Which," gives Milo the impossible mission of rescuing the lost princesses, Rhyme and Reason, from the Castle in the Air in the midst of the dreaded Mountains of Ignorance and restoring them to the Kingdom of Wisdom. With his faithful companions in tow, he sets out to accomplish the task, visiting places like the Word Market in Dictionopolis, and encountering colorful characters like King Azaz the Unabridged along the way.

For sheer fun and frivolity, Tollbooth is hard to beat. This book was not directly responsible for my love of learning, perhaps, but it certainly shows how much cooler knowledge is than ignorance, low culture theory notwithstanding. Tollbooth is a surefire cure for boredom, and contains quite a few good laughs as well. The characters and situations are unforgettable (my favorite scene was always Milo's encounter with the Mathemagician, but really, it's all pretty great). Everyone should have this read once before they hit middle school, again before high school, before college, and at least once after.


A Wrinkle in Time (Madeline L'Engle) - World-renowned physicist Dr. Murray is experimenting with tesseracts (fifth-dimension travel) when he mysteriously disappears without a trace. Several months later, his children - warm, awkward Meg and gifted, eccentric Charles Wallace - have still had no news of their father. Then, quite suddenly, they and their neighbor, Calvin O`Keefe, embark on a perilous quest to other worlds to find their father. Guided by three celestial beings - Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which - they must survive a myriad of unexpected dangers to reunite their family.

A bit of an oddity, this one. It baffled and intrigued me when I was younger, trying to wrap my brain around fifth dimensions and travel by tesseract. This book may well have laid a few foundations of my anti-Utopian cynicism. Or maybe not. The story isn't strictly science fiction, but it is not fantasy either. This particular blend of the two is unique (as far as I know) to L'Engle and Ursula K. Leguin. However, what really stand out in my memory are the characters: Mrs. Whatsit, Charles Wallace, Meg . . . very special, and with a life of their own.

I remember especially images of a planet where everyone is identical, performing the same actions at the same time . . . children bouncing balls in unison, mothers making identical dinners, etc. I also remember the frustrating sensation of feeling so very close to knowing just how tesseracts work, but not quite getting it. Wrinkle is the first in a series of four stand-alones: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly-Tilting Planet, and Many Waters. That last stars the least developed characters in the series, the blonde Murray twins, rather than the usual cast, as they wind up in the days of the antedeluvian patriarchs after messing with one of their mother's experiments.


The Gammage Cup (Carol Kendall) - Muggles is an ordinary Minnipin living in Slipper-on-the-Water as generations of Minnipins have ever since their great leader Gammage led them to this valley. But one morning, Muggles awakes to fires on the distant mountains and knows that her life is about to change dramatically. The only people who believe Muggles' story are Gummy the poet, Walter the Earl, Curley Green and Mingy, all outcasts themselves. They are not like other Minnipins--they speak their mind, they wear different colors, and they question rules. When they try to convince the rest of the town that danger is lurking, they are banished from the village. In a peaceful knoll up the river, the unlikely friends rejoice in their newfound freedom and begin a new life. But the presence of the ancient enemy of Minnipins cannot be ignored, and this group of exiles must fight to protect the very people who cast them out.

In addition to feeding the aforementioned appetite for good fantasy with a fun plot, great characters and situations, plenty of action, and a very satisfying conclusion, The Gammage Cup undoubtedly appealed to my disgust with conformity to mindless societal conventions. Like the heroes of the story, I prefer to express myself however I please, and I hate falling in line just because "it's the way things work." If something doesn't make sense to me, I openly disagree, or just try to ignore it. Of course, ridicule is usually the best outcome I can hope for in such cases. All that aside, this is a fantastic book.

There are almost too many memories to describe: the fun use of colors, the pretentious town leaders who share a common ancestry with a ridiculously lucky buffoon, the nail-biting, eerie tension of the climax, and the exhiliration of restoration to a better community . . . The only tangible memory, however, that I seem to be able to call forth in relation to my reading of it, is an auditory one: "WEEK WEEK WEEK!" (as a cry of fear and retreat).


The Second Mrs. Giaconda (E.L. Konigsburg) - Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest artist of his time . . . Salai, a wayward apprentice with a larcenous heart and an aversion to the truth . . . Beatrice d'Este, the young wife of the Duke of Milan, whose plain face belies her beautiful soul; could the complex ways these three lives intertwine hold the clue to the most famous -- and puzzling -- painting of all time? Why did da Vinci lavish three years on a painting of the second wife of an unimportant merchant when all the nobles of Europe were begging for a portrait by his hand?

I love historical fiction . . . probably more than I love actual history. And this story about (partially) the life of Leonardo da Vinci affected me very deeply for some reason. I was moved by it, and I'm really not sure why. It wasn't the first book to have done so by any means. Black Beauty caused me to weep at the tender age of . . . probably seven or so. Where the Red Fern Grows has brought me to tears on multiple occasions (blasted animal stories . . . they always suffer and die in the end, you know). Anyway, Mrs. Giaconda inspired me to a brief fascination with da Vinci, although an actual biography which I read shortly thereafter bored me terribly after the inspiration of this (partially) fictional work.

I prescribe this book as the cure for anyone who has been subjected to How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci . . . because, really you shouldn't be hating the great Leonardo. He really was an incredible genius, you know. This book is the first, but not the last, of these that I read as part of a school assignment. That was during the glorious days of Sonlight homeschool curriculum, which I used for 7th through 10th grade (beginning shortly after I began the Booklist). Sonlight is a literature-based curriculum, and it had me reading upwards of 70 books a year (most of the highest caliber) as I studied literature and history. Their catalogue, which I devoured every year as it came out, read almost like a glowing combination of my favorites and my to-reads.

To be continued . . .

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November 15, 2005

Reflections on 1000 Books

Tonight is something of a momentous occasion for me. It is a night that I have been anticipating for over nine years, and that I originally expected to arrive four or five years ago. On July 1st, 1996, when I was 12 years old (nearly two months shy of 13) and about to enter 7th grade, I set out for the umpteenth time to see how quickly I could read The Chronicles of Narnia all the way through.

Before I was even halfway done with them, I had already decided to see how many fantasy books in general I could read over the course of one month. And shortly after that, I just decided that I'd keep a record of every book I read, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, from then until the end of time. I've kept a "Booklist" in a Microsoft Excel or Works spreadsheet ever since (okay, actually I started in Word, but my dad recommended the switch, then helped me make it, before the first year was out).

For the past nine years I've celebrated the New Year twice. As January 1st approaches, I enjoy the Christmas holiday, consider what I have accomplished in the past year, and think about what the next 365 days will bring. As July 1st approaches, I begin to read furiously (I can generally do that in the midst of the summer with no trouble) so that I will have as many books as possible "logged" for that year of reading. I take a look at my reading progress for the past year, and resolve to read even more next year. Usually I have my eye on a number of books that I'd like to have read by then, as well. The tradition changes the way my entire midsummer works.

Tonight, November 15th, 2005, at age 22 and well into my senior year of college, I completed The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, which is the thousandth book on my list (specially selected from half a dozen candidates to fill that particular role). I have a vague idea that this was the number I was aiming at back in '96. I have no idea what I intended to do once I'd reached it . . . I think I just wanted to see how fast I could get there. Well, now I know. But I've been reading fewer books every year, and so presumably I couldn't do it that fast again.

Anyway, I know what to do with it now: Tuck it away and set out for the second thousand. Maybe I'll see how long it takes me to catch up to the present year AD or something. Then, at least, I'd have some kind of representation in terms of reading material for every year since the time of Christ. Because if there's one thing I've realized with the completion of every book I've ever read, it's the fact of how many I haven't. No one warned me, at the tender age of four when I first began to read, or at any point after that, that reading is a Lernean hydra. You can't read a book without having thirty you haven't read thrust rudely into your conscious awareness.

This may come as a nasty shock to Rachel, who earlier wondered aloud whether, perhaps, I might be able to "stop" now, but as far as I'm concerned, I'll never be well-read, but I'll always be trying to be.

Meanwhile, now that I have reached the magic number 1000, and found it to be (as I have suspected for quite some time now) inadequate even as a bare beginning, I can at least launch a special project here on my blog which I have been planning ever since the arrival of the thousandth book became a tangible reality rather than a mere concept. Beginning very soon and continuing over the course of the next few weeks, I will post a listing of my 50 favorite books (the top 5%) off of my Booklist in small, bite-size chunks.

The list has been mostly assembled (though, of course, always subject to change) for some time now, after I had reflected extensively on how best to compile and present such a list. First, I had to decide which books belonged on the list.

Of course, my Booklist itself is by no means populated exclusively by "good literature." For example, over 5% of the list is made up of Hardy Boys mysteries. Star Wars novels comprise nearly 10% of the list. However, the top five most represented authors (not counting Franklin W. Dixon, of course, as that is a pen name used by numerous authors), are as follows: Agatha Christie (32), William Shakespeare (25), Beverly Cleary (20), Sigmund Brouwer (18), and Isaac Asimov and C. S. Lewis (both 17).

My Booklist records a work's title, author, and the rating (out of 100) that I gave it. The ratings have shifted so drastically over the years, and were so totally bizzare to begin with, that they are now meaningless to everyone except (sometimes) me. I soon realized that, out of the 38 books I have given a perfect score, only a little over half of them would make it to my top 50. More deserving books have been given lower ratings in the past. Also, I realized that over 25% of all books I have read have received a rating of 90 or higher. This is clearly ridiculous. I mean, I get a great deal of pleasure out of the simple act of reading, and that is certainly a factor, but come on . . .

Then I wondered about order. At first I had them ranked from least to most favorite, but I played with them and played with them and finally realized that it was silly to try that. In the end, I dropped them all into a spreadsheet, categorized them every which way from Tuesday, and sorted them to see what worked best. I decided that I would present them in chronological order, as I read them. I think it shows best how my tastes have changed, along with how what I'm reading has changed, but also what has remained the same.

All that to say, I had a fun time of it selecting my 50 favorite books of all time and listing them off. There are four things to keep in mind as I post them in the days ahead:

-I limited myself to only one work per author on the list. This allows the list to reflect more of the authors I enjoy reading, so that it is implied that some of their other works are among my favorites as well, and I can keep the list more diverse. It also really helped me wittle down the candidates.

-In a few very special cases, I have counted books which were published seperately as a single work. I have tried not to let this get out of control, and only used it with the works that are available in a single-volume edition. There were certain cases where I truly felt that either a single, favorite book could not be separated from others without losing part of what makes it a favorite, or that the books must be taken together to be complete. In a few cases, I felt that a single volume was, perhaps, not a favorite, but that the whole definitely was. That's just the way it is sometimes, and my list reflects that.

-This is not a list of The Best Books I Have Ever Read. I wouldn't presume to judge that . . . I wouldn't dare. These are simply the books that I have gotten the most pleasure from reading over the years, and which I most heartily recommend to others or enjoy discussing with fellow fans. I would like to think that, in a sense, there is at least one book or author on this list for everyone. In other words, I would hope that everyone might find at least one of their own favorite authors on this list (if not their most favorite), or that (if they haven't read them all) there is at least one book or author which would number among their favorites.

-In the spirit of that last observation, I would very much relish any commentary from my audience regarding my list. Congratulate me for including a particular book. Tell me I'm crazy for including a particular book. Shake your fist at me for not including a particular book, or (as it is quite possible that I haven't read it) recommend that I go find myself a copy. But, most importantly, say something. I've had a great time pulling this together, and it exists for me, chiefly, but I love talking about this stuff with others. Let me know what you think.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

October 05, 2005

An American Education

For Intellectual History this week I was required to finish reading The Education of Henry Adams, the lengthy autobiography of a historical figure I had never before encountered. Great-grandson of our second president, grandson of our sixth president, and son of the Union's ambassador to England during the Civil War, Henry Adams is rather a curious figure. At least, I am led to conclude that he was after completing the book. Perhaps the best place to start in a discussion of his ideas is with a summary.

Henry Adams was born in Boston in 1838 and spent most of the first sixteen years of his life there before attending Harvard College. This was followed by two or three years of unprofitable wanderings through Europe, chiefly Germany and Italy, under the guise of studying law. Then, throughout the Civil War and beyond, he served as his father's private secretary in England, returning to the United States in 1868.

For the next few years he drifted, trying to find a place for himself, particularly around Washington D. C. He tried writing for the press, particularly about political matters, and would have likely become involved in politics under a certain kind of president. U. S. Grant, however, dashed those hopes, and in 1871 he reluctantly took a teaching position in the history department at Harvard and also served as editor of the North American Review. He would remain there until 1877.

However, at this point the narrative skips about two decades, resuming in 1892. During the intervening period he married, and, after the death of his wife's father in 1885, she killed herself. This portion of his life is ignored completely. Adams died in 1918, and this book was written in 1907. The latter half, after the twenty-year break, is chiefly concerned with ideas rather than experiences. Adams travels all over the United States and Europe, visiting the Chicago and St. Louis World Fairs and the Great Exposition in Paris, studying stained glass windows in medieval cathedrals, and developing and expounding upon his own theory of the movement and direction of history.

During his life, Adams rubbed shoulders with some of the great names of his age: poets and authors like A. C. Swinburne, Rudyard Kipling, and Henry James, famous statesmen like Charles Sumner, John Hay, and William Gladstone, and no less than twelve United States presidents. His areas of study and interest were broad and far-reaching, extending through history, art, geology, diplomacy, politics, journalism, etc. The life he led, to my mind, was almost an ideal 19th century existence. Here we have a man who, while he was not particularly famous himself, either then or now, was often intimate with men who were, and who experienced history firsthand in a way that few others did. Henry Adams witnessed history without significantly influencing it, a historian's dream.

And yet he was pleased with very little of what he got out of life. His obsession with education, and failure to become educated to his own satisfaction, interfered with contentment. Paige observed in class that his search for an education seems to have been a search for purpose, not only for himself but for humanity and its very existence. Adams's search could also be viewed as a search for unity, the hope to discover a Theory of Everything. And in both of these searches he seems to have failed.

Having said that he failed to find purpose, it is hardly necessary to point out that Adams was an atheist. He spends very little time discussing his personal view of God, but when his sister dies painfully and horribly of tetanus over the course of ten days in 1870, he strongly rejects the possibility of God's existence. It's the old problem of the loving God who allows suffering and evil in the world.

However, I hope it is not to awful to say that, had he been a Christian, it is doubtful that he would have produced a work of any use to a historian. It was his inability to find either unity or purpose that drove him to continue the search and, however unsatisfactory the results may have been to him, they yield some interesting material for us. As straight history, Henry Adams often seems to have little to tell us. He is unabashedly biased in much of his writing, and so concerned with his own journey of self-discovery that he frequently ignores major historical events which are transpiring under his very nose.

Adams's chief concern, and his great use to us, is his interest in the minds of his time. He has a great deal to show with regard to intellectual history . . . not surprising considering the nature of the course I am reading this for. Adams's investigations into, and expirements with, the various disciplines he dabbled in are fascinating. His interests are often informed by some of the great minds and events of his time, such as his research on Darwinism and his investigations into the scandals of the Grant Administration.

Additionally, he discusses at great length his own "18th Century" mind and the contrast it presents with the American minds around him. America after the extremely transitional Civil War was a veritable beehive of activity for over a quarter of a century. Americans were industrializing rapidly, taming the West, dealing with an increasingly enormous influx of immigrants, and, in short, marching rapidly to the beat of progress. Adams, though unable to keep up, stands back and watches in fascination, allowing us to watch with him. It is from these observations, and his attempt to unify everything, that his grand theory of history comes.

This theory is laid out in two of the final three chapters of the book: "A Dynamic Theory of History" and "A Law of Acceleration." Adams's theory "defines Progress as the development and economy of Forces" and "defines force as anything that does, or helps to do work" (474). Further, the movement of force throughout history has produced a certain amount of inertia, causing an ever-faster acceleration of progress. Things are moving forward with increasing speed, and they cannot be stopped.

Adams postulates that, for instance, the increase in the amount of energy at man's disposal between 1840 and 1900 accelerated at an exponential rate. Further, if one were to map out the values of the energy man has been capable of harvesting throughout history, it would be possible to show a fixed ratio of accelerating force going back to at least the year 1400. What this amounts to in his mind is a leap forward during the next hundred years (between 1900 and 2000) of a magnitude which the mind of 1900 can scarcely imagine or fathom.

His examples are quite fascinating, particularly his perspective on the power of the Cross as a symbol and a driving force after 300 AD. His observations about the leap which he foresees in just a few short years are indeed perceptive. My mind goes immediately to air and space travel, nuclear power and weapons, computers, satellite communications . . . the list could extend almost indefinitely.

I was following very closely his conclusions, as much about the past as about the future, and nodding in agreement. That was probably why it was such a shock to see him observe that, in 1905 and within two pages of the end of the book, "For the first time in fifteen hundred years a true Roman pax [is] in sight . . ." (503). And, on the final page, "Perhaps some day -- say 1938, their centenary -- they might be allowed to return . . . and perhaps then, for the first time since man began . . . they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder" (505).

To find that Henry Adams was, once again, so totally wrong in his assertions, even unto the end, left me discouraged for his sake. He spent his entire life trying to figure the world out, and having his dearest theories turned upside down. However, even in his final, false prediction he leaves us with one final bit of education for ourselves. Adams's hopeful outlook towards the future was a common product of the time he lived in, one more valuable glimpse into the minds of the past. As for his attempt to find unity in multiplicity, we of the year 2005 are still searching. Whether we shall be any more successful than Henry Adams remains to be seen.

Posted by Jared at 10:26 PM | TrackBack

September 25, 2005

Written with the Finger of God

"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them.'" -Exodus 24:12

I have just finished viewing a masterpiece: Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog, a miniseries which appeared on Polish television in 1989. In English the title is The Decalogue: ten stand-alone one-hour episodes based on the Ten Commandments and the moral code they imply. Each episode by itself is a pleasure to watch, a brilliant work of art. Collectively they are nothing short of sublime.

Wilson insisted early on that it would be silly to seriously try to map each episode directly to a commandment, yet we more or less managed to do just that for the first seven . . . after that it became hazy. However, while most episodes might have been addressing one more-or-less dominant commandment, all of them at least partially involved two or more. For instance, seven of the episodes dealt with sexual sin in some way (even if only tangentially).

Each of the episodes was set in Warsaw and centered around an occupant of the same ugly apartment building. Various characters made appearances in multiple episodes, but were only major players in one. Of particular interest was the enigmatic figure who appeared in eight of the ten episodes, but never had a line of dialogue. His role generally consisted of appearing in the background, observing whatever event was taking place, often with a saddened or disapproving look on his face. We eventually decided that this character, if he represented anything specific, was meant to be the face of Morality itself. However, even the director seemed to not have a definite concept in mind to attach to this symbol.

Without giving anything important away, here is a brief synopsis of the concept behind each episode:

Decalogue One - A young boy is ideologically torn between the rationalistic atheism of his father and the compassionate faith of his aunt. Father and son share an intense interest in computers, relying on the father's computer to calculate whether a nearby pond has frozen over sufficiently to make it safe for the boy to skate on.

Decalogue Two - A woman whose husband is dying of cancer approaches the doctor in charge of the case. She and her husband have never been able to conceive, and she is now carrying the child of another man. She wants the baby, but if her husband is going to live, she will get an abortion. She wants to know the doctor's opinion on the state of her husband's health, and is determined to base her decision on his prognosis.

Decalogue Three - On Christmas Eve, a woman comes to visit the man she had an affair with years before because her husband has gone missing and she doesn't know who else to turn to. He leaves his own family and sets out across the city with her, following a trail of enigmatic clues . . . but before long it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems.

Decalogue Four - An aspiring actress still living at home with her father stumbles upon an envelope in their apartment labelled "To Be Opened After My Death." With her father away on a business trip, she peeks inside and discovers a secret she had never suspected concerning him and her dead mother.

Decalogue Five - Quite probably the most beautifully-made episode of the ten, this story involves three totally separate plotlines about a lecherous taxi driver, a small-time crook/sociopath, and an idealistic young public defender about to try his first capital murder case. By the end, all three stories have become inextricably intertwined in a powerful way.

Decalogue Six - A 19-year old, introverted employee of the Post Office becomes, first obsessed, then enamored with the promiscuous woman who lives in the apartment across from his building. No longer satisfied with spying on her through his telescope, he decides to reveal his feelings to her.

Decalogue Seven - A 16-year old girl has an affair with a teacher at the school where her mother is headmistress. Her mother becomes official guardian of the child, a girl, when it is born, and six years later she is still in a winning competition with her daughter over who will play the role of the little girl's mother. Driven to distraction, the girl, now a young woman, steals her daughter, planning to run away to Canada, but a brief stop at the house of the little girl's father brings introspection for all involved.

Decalogue Eight - In 1943 a young Jewish girl is turned away from the home of the Catholic couple who had promised to shelter her on the grounds that they cannot bring themselves to break the commandment against "bearing false witness." Decades later, the Catholic woman is an ethics professor at a university in Warsaw, and the Jewish girl, now in her forties, comes to visit her from America to question her about the events surrounding that fateful time.

Decalogue Nine - A happily-married man discovers that he is no longer able to have intercourse with his wife, and he gives her the option to divorce him or seek attention from other men should she so desire. She refuses to do either, declaring that she will stay by him no matter what, but he soon begins to suspect that she is, in fact, having an affair behind his back, becoming successively more paranoid as he investigates.

Decalogue Ten - Two brothers, one the lead singer of a heathen rock band, the other a white-collar office worker, reunite to settle their recently-deceased father's estate only to discover that he has left behind a priceless stamp collection. Overcoming their initial urge to profit from their father's life-long obsession, they quickly become enthusiastic philatelists, going to ever-more extreme measures to hoarde and protect their treasure and acquire even more rare stamps.

Most of the episodes did not involve a great deal of dialogue or action. In fact, a casual observer might go so far as to say that nothing at all really happened over the course of an episode, yet I was totally enthralled during each and every one. During a few I barely moved a muscle. Half the fun of watching them was the presence of a group of friends (Wilson and I, after watching the first few alone, were joined by Martinez, Rachel, and Paige for every episode after number four).

Each episode began with preliminary guesses from the viewers about the dominant commandment to be addressed, and proceeded with a good deal of speculation about what might be going on or what the outcome might be. Finally, once the end credits had stopped rolling by and the spell was broken, we looked around at each other and tried to figure out what lessons had just played themselves out on the screen. Most of the endings were extremely open-ended, providing little or no closure and leaving the fates of the main characters wide-open to speculation.

In fact, most episodes began like a puzzle or a mystery as well, leaving a large burden on the viewer rather than on expositional dialogue to put together the circumstances surrounding the plot and characters. Speaking for myself, this sucked me right into the middle of whatever was going on. It seemed like we were simply watching a portion of someone's actual life, like the voyeur from episode six, rather than being directly entertained or instructed by a story.

While all of them were excellent, I would have to say that my favorites were three, five, and ten. A little research online revealed that Roger Ebert actually once taught a college course over the series, and it occurs to me that this would be positively decadent fare for a group of Honors students under the tutelage of Dr. Watson (who, I discovered, happens to own the miniseries). But I digress. I just wanted to let my small group of readers in on this well-kept secret . . . highly recommended viewing!

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

July 25, 2005

Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: Hollywood and the Cold War in 1964

Oscar Wilde once famously said that “Life imitates art more than art imitates life.” It is fortunate indeed that this is not true of the dozens of movies about nuclear warfare produced by Hollywood during the decades of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

When President Truman, hoping to force Japan’s rapid capitulation in the Pacific theater, ordered that atomic bombs be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, he changed, irreversibly and forever, the face of the world we live in. For the next four and a half decades, civilian populations around the globe would live beneath the shadowy specter of possible nuclear holocaust. And throughout the era of the Cold War, America’s movie industry was hard at work cranking out a continuous stream of films concerning every conceivable angle of the global ideological struggle.

Movies reflecting the harsh realities of the atomic age were hardly limited to a single genre, either: serious human dramas, tense suspense-thrillers, hilarious and bitingly-satirical comedies, low-budget science fiction; all of these made use of impending nuclear warfare as a plot device.

The early years of the Cold War were marked by a slowly evolving, though precarious, balance of nuclear power between the USA and the USSR, and by a very distinct period in American culture which was very much reflected by the cinema of the era. It was a time of almost paradoxical innocence, of strong anti-communist sentiment backing strong anti-communist policy, and of adjustment to the relatively new fear that mankind might have finally worked out a sure-fire method of self-annihilation.

In many ways, 1964 was the year that bridged the gap between those early years of the Cold War and everything that would come after. Two movies were released in 1964 which employ the same subject matter in very different ways. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a dark and satirical comedy, was released early in the year, and was followed several months later by the tense drama, Fail-Safe. Both movies addressed the question of what might transpire if a nuclear war were begun by mistake.

The enormous box-office success of, and critical response to, Dr. Strangelove shows how large a role such questions were playing in the minds of ordinary Americans at the time. Both films also present a fascinating picture of the nuclear systems that were in place at that time. An informed study of these movies reveals a great deal about America and its love-hate relationship with its own nuclear arsenal during the early years of the Cold War.

By 1964, nuclear weapons had long since become an integrated part of our armed forces. Truman had helped to establish the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) through the passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which placed production, maintenance, and distribution of nuclear weapons in civilian hands. Transfer of these weapons to the military was possible only with presidential authorization.

At that time, the Soviet Union did not yet possess nuclear capabilities, and it was uncertain as to whether Truman would authorize the use of atomic weapons even in the event of another war. Although Truman vastly increased the production of nuclear material in 1949, and authorized the development of the hydrogen bomb shortly after the Soviets detonated their first successful nuclear device, control of the nuclear arsenal was kept out of military hands throughout his presidency.

President Eisenhower wasted little time in reversing Truman’s nuclear policies after he took office in 1953. The AEC was ordered almost immediately to transfer custody of nuclear stockpiles to the military, which then dispersed the weapons to its forces around the world. Additionally, a single sentence from NSC 162/1, a National Security Council document, made the new role of nuclear weapons in military conflicts very clear. It stated very simply that: "In the event of hostilities, the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions."

Furthermore, Eisenhower’s policy of “massive retaliation” (first outlined by his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, in early 1954) demonstrated his willingness to threaten a nuclear response to Soviet aggression, or as Dulles put it, "to blow [the] hell out of them in a hurry if they start anything." This policy would remain essentially unmodified until the Kennedy administration began to formulate a policy of "flexible response" which left open the possibility of delaying the use of nuclear weapons should any conflict flash suddenly into existence.

Essentially, flexible response finally made nuclear devices a special, rather than regular, part of the American arsenal once again. However, this policy was still not formally implemented by NATO until sometime in 1968. In the meantime, the Kennedy team pushed for a state of "mutual deterrence" or "assured destruction" in the American nuclear arsenal. It would soon become known by the acronym "MAD," for "mutually-assured destruction." As outlined in a speech by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1962:

The point is that a potential aggressor must believe that our assured-destruction capability is in fact actual, and that our will to use it in retaliation to an attack is in fact unwavering. The conclusion, then, is clear: if the United States is to deter a nuclear attack in itself or its allies, it must possess an actual and a credible assured-destruction capability.

The first few years of the 1960s had seen tensions heightened by such events as the raising of the Berlin Wall, the escalation of the Space Race, and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. In late 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the world closer to nuclear war than it had ever been before, or ever would be again. And the entire nation had been stunned by the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

Still, we had not yet committed fully to the quagmire of Vietnam, and so preserved a sterling track-record of successful anti-communist interventions in the Third World which included operations of various magnitudes in Iran, Guatemala, and Korea. The effort to promote a policy of détente had also not yet been fully realized. President Kennedy, in an address to the nation during the summer of 1963, had described the aftereffects of nuclear war in horrifying detail:

A war today or tomorrow, if it led to nuclear war, would not be like any war in history. A full-scale nuclear exchange, lasting less than 60 minutes, with the weapons now in existence, could wipe out more than 300 million Americans, Europeans, and Russians, as well as untold numbers elsewhere. And the survivors, as Chairman Khrushchev warned the Communist Chinese, "the survivors would envy the dead." For they would inherit a world so devastated by explosions and poison and fire that today we cannot even conceive of its horrors.

It was in this atmosphere of extreme uncertainty, tension, and danger that two directors began to work independently to bring adaptations of two different works of fiction to the silver screen. Sidney Lumet was beginning work on Fail-Safe, a movie based on a 1962 novel of the same title by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.

The story involved frantic and fruitless attempts to recall a squadron of B-58 bombers which had been ordered to drop their nuclear payloads on Moscow due to an electrical malfunction in the fault indicator of the Strategic Air Command. The movie is taut with suspense and deadly serious from the opening scene to the unthinkably shocking conclusion.

Meanwhile, Stanley Kubrick, along with screenwriter Terry Southern, had been collaborating with novelist Peter George on a screenplay version of his 1958 novel, Red Alert, aka Two Hours to Doom. The novel very seriously considered the implications of an unexpected failure in the chain of command which might result in a disastrous pre-emptive strike being launched by the US against Russia.

Kubrick, having been "struck by people’s virtually listless acquiescence in the possibility—in fact, in the increasing probability—of nuclear war, by either design or accident," became increasingly aware that the script, which would become Dr. Strangelove, worked far better as black comedy than it did when played straight. And, much to George’s dismay and the public’s delight, this was how it was eventually translated onto film.

A rogue air force base commander, ironically named Jack D. Ripper, orders the bombers under his command to attack their military targets inside Russia, and then seals the base off from the outside world with himself and the secret bomber recall codes inside. The President and his top advisors must decide whether to cooperate with the Soviets in bringing the bombers down, or commit themselves to an all-out nuclear strike against the USSR. The characters are neurotic and quirky, and the situation is largely played for laughs. At the time of its release, the New York Times reviewer called it "beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across."

Both movies were distributed by Columbia Pictures, which required the films to be accompanied by disclaimers assuring movie-goers that nothing like this could ever conceivably happen. The government also immediately dismissed both scenarios as impossible upon the movies’ respective releases. However, interestingly enough, the scene Dr. Strangelove where Captain Mandrake cannot reach the Pentagon because he lacks change for the pay phone was shown at a session of Congress. It was said to raise legitimate questions about whether such crucial communications would be possible in the midst of a nuclear crisis.

Banished to the realms of science fiction and fantasy by the United States government or not, Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe certainly appealed to audiences’ imaginations, although Fail-Safe was less successful financially. This was possibly due to its having been released in the shadow of Dr. Strangelove and to what many viewers might have regarded as an unacceptable outcome of the story. The film ends with Henry Fonda, as the President of the United States, ordering a nuclear strike on New York City in order to avert total nuclear war with the USSR after the combined efforts of both nations have failed to prevent the annihilation of Moscow.

Dr. Strangelove, in particular, was very relevant for American audiences at the time, in some ways eerily so. It was originally slated for release in late 1963, but the release was postponed for a number of months after Kennedy was assassinated. Additionally, Slim Pickens’ statement in the movie that "A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff" originally read "Dallas," not "Vegas." It was redubbed before the film’s release, also because of the Kennedy assassination. Further, Kubrick had originally planned to end the film with a custard pie fight in the War Room. President Muffley was to have been hit, with General Turgidson loudly exclaiming that "Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!" If it had remained in the script, this too would almost certainly have been cut after Kennedy’s death.

As shown in both movies, American nuclear strategy for several years consisted of a force of nuclear-equipped bombers remaining airborne outside Russian airspace at all times. By late 1959, a full two years ahead of the Soviet Union, the United States arsenal had incorporated its first inter-continental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and from that time the bomber strategy began to be phased out slowly. However, it is difficult to ascertain how much information about such a relatively new weapon would have been available to the general public, and it is to be expected that the movies’ portrayals would feature nuclear strategies that were a few years out of date.

Other issues raised by the movies would have been pulled directly from contemporary events as well. Less than a year before the release of Dr. Strangelove, the US and the USSR signed an agreement to install a "hot line" between Moscow and Washington D. C., in order to fascilitate communication between the nations' leaders should any mishaps actually occur.

Charges that the fluoridation of water in the United States was part of a communist conspiracy to poison America had circulated since the days of McCarthy hysteria many years earlier. In fact, all of the trappings of paranoia regarding Soviets and communists which are present in Dr. Strangelove were certainly quite present in American culture.

"Red scares" had been occurring with some regularity in the United States since at least the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. General Turgidson’s dismay at the Russian ambassador’s presence inside the War Room ("He'll see the Big Board!") and Colonel Bat Guano’s dark mutterings about communist "preversions" might have brought a chuckle from liberal members of the audience and a grimace from conservatives, but everyone would have recognized the accuracy of the images.

Both movies also show the potential consequences of relying too much on fallible automated systems and machines. Technology was moving ever more swiftly in the direction of automation, producing results which would have been both exciting and chilling at the same time. After all, if humans are fallible, how much more so are the machines they create?

Finally, one cannot discount the relevance of the important roles played by Walter Matthau as Prof. Groeteschele and Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove. Both men, portraying slightly deranged and coldly logical intellectuals who pull the strings as advisors at the highest levels of government, based their performances to some degree on existing public figures. Dr. Strangelove himself is generally agreed to be a rough composite of four such men:

-Werner Von Braun, a German pioneer of rocket technology and a Nazi scientist who was brought to the United States after World War II to head the development of American rockets.

-Herman Kahn, a nuclear strategist made famous by his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War. Kahn was also the man who half-jokingly put forward the idea of a "doomsday machine" (a concept that plays an important role in the plot of Dr. Strangelove) which would make America’s response to a nuclear strike fully automated.

-Henry Kissinger, another former citizen of Germany and strategist who would later become the Secretary of State. Kissinger was also the architect of Nixon's efforts at détente.

-Edward Teller, a scientist born in Hungary who made his name as the father of the H-bomb and as a nuclear strategist who advised and opposed presidents. Teller walked with an obvious limp, the only one of the four who had a physical handicap, as Strangelove does. In fact, Teller for one was extremely sensitive regarding any comparison between himself and the Dr. Strangelove of Kubrick's movie. Throughout his long life, interviewers who broached the subject might be asked curtly to leave.

The cold, machine-like thinking of Strangelove combined with his creepy foreign accent and habits, though played for laughs, would have struck a particular chord with American moviegoers who might have felt increasingly less in control of their fate and of the direction their country was taking.

Whether or not life imitates art with any regularity, as Wilde asserted, it is an absolute certainty that art often imitates life. This is especially true of the classics of American cinema. Hollywood and The Movies have been an important part of our culture and heritage almost since they were first introduced. They possess the incredible capability of freezing our lives, our hopes, our fears, and our dreams onto a strip of celluloid, of capturing one fascinating aspect of America at an exact (and, in the case of Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, unique and defining) moment in history and preserving it for future generations to examine and participate in.

The great films of the Cold War, while they may not be the best source of historical fact, are an infallible source of cultural enlightenment, able to transport us temporarily back into that time of uncertainty and promise. America’s greatest movies are an important part of the cultural heritage we bring with us out of the 20th Century, and it is in this light that we should always attempt to view and enjoy them.


Selected Bibliography

Crowther, Bosley. "Kubrick Film Presents Sellers in 3 Roles." The New York Times 30 Jan 1964.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Sterling Hayden. Columbia Pictures, 1964.

Eisenhower, Dwight. "'Atoms for Peace' Speech." Atomic Archive. 8 Dec 1953.

Fail-Safe. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, and Dan O’Herlihy. Columbia Pictures, 1964.

Glikman, Andrew Yale. "Herman Kahn's Doomsday Machine."

Goodchild, Peter. Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Halperin, Morton H. Nuclear Fallacy: Dispelling the Myth of Nuclear Strategy. Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1987.

Kennedy, John F. "Address to the American People on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty." Atomic Archive. 26 Jul 1963. JFK_LTBTreaty.shtml.

McNamara, Robert. "'Mutual Deterrence' Speech." Atomic Archive. 1962

"Memorandum of Understanding Between The United States of America and The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link." U.S. Department of State. 20 Jun 1963.

Powaski, Ronald E. The Cold War. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

The Internet Movie Database. "Information on Fail-Safe." 1990-2005.

The Internet Movie Database. "Information on Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." 1990-2005.

"Timeline of the Nuclear Age." Atomic Archive. AJ Software & Multimedia. 24 Jul.

Walker, Alexander, Sybil Taylor, and Ulrich Ruchti. Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis. Revised and Expanded ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Posted by Jared at 08:00 AM | TrackBack

July 04, 2005

No Work and All Plays

Yeah, the title is a sly and totally non-bitter reference to the fact that I hate looking for a job . . . but I hate not finding one even more. But that's not what this post is about. This post is about the fantastic time we all had attending the annual Texas Shakespeare Festival in Kilgore. (Be sure to also refer to the words of Wilson and of Gallagher on the subject . . . and Anna has a few relevant pictures up, as well.)

Saturday night was A Midsummer Night's Dream, easily my favorite Shakespeare comedy ever, and an excellent play in its own right. I've read it at least six times, a few of those with different groups of people, and seen the newer movie version (own it, in fact) . . . but this interpretation was creative enough to bring in ideas I had never seen or considered. Also, the casting emphasized some interesting parallels. Theseus and Oberon were played by the same actor, Hippolyta and Titania by the same actress, Philostrate and Puck by the same actor . . . additionally, Theseus and Hippolyta begin the play in a conflict no less violent than the one between the Fairy King and Queen. I thought it worked very nicely, establishing tension across the board and making the happy ending all the more joyous by contrast.

The sets were great, particularly the Grecian interiors. They had a number of very convincing columns made of some sort of creased cloth with carved wooden tops and bottoms which folded and unfolded from the ceiling quickly, silently, and smoothly between scenes. One of our favorite effects in the play involved Bottom and company traversing the stage en route somewhere (into the woods or to the palace) between scenes. The only light came from behind the painted night sky at the very back of the stage, showing the rustics silhouetted very clearly against it. As Wilson pointed out afterwards, their costumes were made so as to give each a distinct shape and personality which fit their trade, and both times it happened it was an excellent scene transition.

Speaking of the costumes, I thought they were all . . . Okay, I won't lie. When you're on the 2nd row and there are guys in very short skirts falling hither and thither with their legs sprawling wide . . . that's not cool. But aside from that, the costumes were quite good. The fairies all wore headgear that was full of small lights and when they skipped through the darkened theater the effect was quite ethereal. The rich green colors worn at the wedding banquet were particularly pleasing to the eye.

The acting was top-notch were it counted (and here I refer to my personal favorite character, Bottom the Weaver). He was great. In fact, all of the rustic craftsmen were extremely good and every one of their scenes had the audience absolutely rolling in the aisles. Puck got to do fun things with leaping through trapdoors . . . and of course he always has his moments. The various songs and dances were quite passable . . . in fact, I thought the music as a whole was very nice.

One slapstick device deserves special mention. It occurred at the point where mud wrestling was inserted into the movie (if you've seen it). It occurs at the absolute height of the mix-up, where both Demetrius and Lysander attempt to shove each other and Hermia out of the way in order to get at Helena while Hermia and Helena engage in a catfight. At one point, all four characters were stretched out across the front of the stage, each clinging desperately onto the leg of the person in front of them, attempting to haul them backwards, while hopping on a single leg of their own . . . and continuing to say their lines. Absolutely classic.

And no description of the acting could be complete without a brief mention of the guy who played Mustardseed. He was quite gay. Nope. He was happy, too, but I meant the other one. He was also wearing very short boxer briefs. *shudders* Typecasting fairies . . .

At any rate, as expected, it was quite a memorable experience, and one which I would be tempted to repeat again next week were it not for the prohibitively large cost combined with a lack of ready and steady income. Ah, well . . . memory alone will have to serve.

Sunday night was a good deal more somber, with a performance of Macbeth. It was the fourth play I have attended there, but the first tragedy, and I was interested to see how they would handle it. The set was quite sparse, being almost entirely black with one large, red sun (made me think of Charn from The Magician's Nephew) painted on the right side of the backdrop. More difficult to notice at the beginning was that the center of the stage was covered with an enormous black circle (difficult to spot because the rest of the stage was black as well).

However, with each successive murder during the play's first half (those being only two, Duncan and Banquo) the black circle fractured further, revealing a large reddish orange circle of a similair shade to the sun underneath. Very cool, and very effective. Because the sets were so sparse, a good deal was accomplished with the lighting and smoke. They had some very striking effects up their sleeves, particularly when Lady Macbeth was onstage alone.

The costumes were quite good here, as well. I'm not sure how . . . well, Scottish they were, exactly, but they were easy on the eyes. And I don't remember seeing any guys in short skirts (ironically, since we were further back for this play). Also, the copious amounts of fake blood splashed here and there on various people was realistic and gruesome enough to pass measure.

I thought the acting was quite good, really. Macbeth and Macduff were both excellent. The Weird Sisters were creepy (dressed like Celtic druids, basically). Lady Macbeth had some excellent scenes, but I thought she overdid it a bit here and there (this actress has had the leading female role in every play I have seen there, but her tendency to overact slightly is less noticeable in a comedy). The final fight scene between Macbeth and Macduff was fairly well coreographed . . . by which I mean it was pretty to look at, with lots of spinning and very little actual contact. I'm not hard to please.

As I observed at least twice at various points last night, tragedies are very long. But this one did manage to avoid tedium almost entirely, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself the second night as well. I shouldn't fail to mention, though, Gallagher and I were a bit concerned at the beginning. The guy who always announces the beginning of the play did the most retarded thing . . . he said "Macbeth" right there out loud. Everyone heard it. Glancing about nervously, we couldn't help but notice we were seated directly under the sound booth . . . and barring that I kept expecting there to be an actor taking an unexpected tumble through a trapdoor or a rogue Shakespeare hater within the audience opening fire with the small arsenal under their long, black trenchcoat. Thankfully, the performance came off without any consequences from the announcer's foolish tempting of the Fates, and I hope that every subsequent performance of "The Scottish Play" proceeds as smoothly.

And that was my weekend with Bill Shakespeare.

Posted by Jared at 11:32 PM | TrackBack

June 21, 2005

Gazing Into the Abyss: Is Our Media Too Liberal?

Well, first of all, many kudos to the esteemed Dr. Johnson for his compelling extra-credit assignment in Fed, State, and Local Government. The reading was so compelling, in fact, that though I had no intention of doing the assignment to begin with, I'll be danged if I didn't just go and do it anyway. Secondly, wave goodbye to my two-week sabbatical from blogging. More on that in an upcoming post.

I highly recommend reading at least the first two of the following selections . . . Hey, I had to read all three! I also recommend reading them in the following order:

Bias, Slander, and BS by Eric Altman

High Bias: ’Mainstream’ reporters aren't just liberal--they're fanatical by Orson Scott Card (yes, the sci-fi author)

A Measure of Media Bias by Tim Groseclose & Jeff Milyo

There's nothing brand-new here, all three pieces are fairly old. And, incidentally, I believe that I actually have them arranged in chronological order above. They represent, respectively, the mainstream liberal, conservative, and statistical views on the existence of that decades-old cliché, the liberal bias in American media. So . . . what do they have to say?

The Altman piece is actually the introduction to his book What Liberal Media?, and it has some very interesting things to say about the "liberal media" which, if it doesn't flip-flop your perspective entirely, will at least give you something to chew on. The chief weakness of this piece, I believe, is the amount of attention it devotes to slamming Ann Coulter. This is certainly a praiseworthy and laudable cause if ever there was one, but c'mon . . . All sane people know that Coulter is a loudmouthed idiot who defines the very essence of knee-jerk conservatism. She is an embarrassment and a liability to whichever group she is currently supporting, whether that group be Republicans, Christians, or the entire United States.

So, while I was entertained by his firm refutation of her fictional rants, I didn't need that section to go on quite as long as it did. Ditto the segment on Bernard Goldberg (although he is certainly no Ann Coulter). Nevertheless, his various points in this section struck home quite effectively. He quotes Republicans who publicly decry the liberal bias in the media and later admit the mere rhetorical usefulness of the phrase in private. He notes the immense popularity of both Coulter and Goldberg among the so-called liberal media organizations (citing their frequent TV appearances and positive national exposure). He reveals what he perceives to be the real liberal media, and compares them to a far more powerful conservative media . . . with the bulk of media sources still falling somewhere in the middle.

And he indirectly raises a question in my mind: If the media is that biased towards the left, and that anxious to cover it up, why in God's name do they constantly say so? I guarantee I'd never have heard the term "liberal media" were it not for the media themselves, and from them I seem to hear it almost constantly in some form or another. If, as conservative pundits would have it, the media is overwhelmingly dominated by a bias which they go to great lengths to deny and keep quiet, how did I ever hear about it in the first place?

The most important and valid point raised by Altman is near the end of his introduction, and is summed up nicely in the following quote: "The media make up a vast and unruly herd of independent beasts. Given their number and variety, it can be difficult for anyone to speak accurately about all of them simultaneously . . . The medium is only the message if you're not paying close attention." If you agree with no other point made in his introduction (and I happen to agree with a number of them, myself) I think we can all agree on that, at least. "The Media" is not a hive mind, it is a title applied to an enormous collection of smaller organizations, all violently competing with each other for our attention. I'll come back to that in a moment.

It is difficult to know where to begin with Card's assessment of the "liberal media" phenomenon. I suppose we could start with the title . . . 'Cuz gee, that's not biased. I was intensely frustrated with Card as I read his article. It was the sort of frustration I usually feel when I watch someone presenting an argument that I might generally agree with on principle, then attempt to prove it by demolishing a series of irrelevant straw men from the opponent's side. In short, it was like reading a transcript of a Rush Limbaugh rant.

For instance, he points out a prominent mention of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (an event that dominated the news at the time he was writing) in an article about a speech given by Donald Rumsfeld at the West Point graduation. (Exact quote: "Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, making no mention of the prisoner abuse scandal that has led to calls for his ouster . . .") He then goes on to call this evidence of a liberal bias, since you would never hear a reference to the decades-old cattle futures scandal in an article about a speech by Hillary Clinton (i.e. "Senator Hillary Clinton, making no mention of the $100,000 she once made by trading cattle futures with astonishing perfection . . ."). The comparison is asinine and obtuse. I contend that you would hear the connection, and in fact did at the time when the various Clinton scandals first began to receive national attention over a decade ago. I was only 10 or 11 years old at the time and even I remember that.

The point here is that the media is all about selling news, and the public has a notoriously short attention span, but they love a sensation. When a scandal as big as Abu Ghraib hits the fan and becomes attached to someone we all recognize, like the secretary of defense (for example) it is only natural to see the connection beaten to death over the course of a few months every time a story surfaces that includes his name. That's just how this works.

A quick scan of major internet news sources reveals that the public has moved on, and the media with them. Donald Rumsfeld and Abu Ghraib are no longer peanut butter and jelly . . . duh. Au contraire, an extremely brief perusal of reveals this gem leading off a top story: "President Bush, who is pushing for democratic reform around the globe . . ." Not even the article on was that nice. This is a liberal slant? Gevalt!

Furthermore, Card short-circuits his own examples by contradicting himself. In one example he points to a creeping liberal "politically correct message" bias in an article that presents three different perspectives on an issue. The problem here is that the one supporting the liberal agenda of the author is placed at the end of the story where it will leave a lasting impression before the reader moves on to the funny pages. Makes sense, right?

Sure, until you read his next example . . . In this one, he accuses the liberally-biased media of "burying" the truth deep towards the end of the story, and placing the material they want to get across prominently at the beginning of the article where it will leave a lasting impression on the reader before they quit reading and move on to the funny pages. Jiminy Christmas! What will those sneaky liberals think of next?

One wonders how he would judge my own ordering of the of articles I read, but I digress . . .

He ends the article on what I consider to be the most insidious and offensive note . . . a perspective on objectivity which I have long abhorred: It's okay to be as biased as you want to be, so long as you're "honest" about it (Fox News, anyone?) and you're biased for the right side (in this case, the United States). Objectivity is impossible, so we shouldn't even try. This quote in particular left a foul taste in my mouth: "Fox News Channel, on the other hand, claims to have only one bias--it is definitely pro-American--and it presents all the facts and every viewpoint and leaves the decision up to the viewer."

This comic, I think, presents a far more accurate view of that particular news source.

Finally, let's spend a little time on the folks who, presumably, can bring some balance to this debate with cold, hard statistical data. Don't hold your breath . . . Statistics are iffy at the best of times, and this particular batch of crunched numbers purports to numerically map the answers to such questions as “Is the average article in the New York Times more liberal than the average speech by Tom Daschle?” and “Is the average story on Fox News more conservative than the average speech by Bill Frist?” Helpful, no?

Nope, not really.

The report is long and fairly technical and, in my opinion, ultimately of little practical use. They make some good observations near the beginning, correctly stating that much of the driving evidence behind the "liberal media" perspective is anecdotal in nature. They go on to discuss the various ways these things have been measured in the past, explain the unique way in which they propose to slap an empirical value on the bias of a particular news agency, then wriggle quickly out of any chance of making the report relevant by redefining "bias" in such a way as to avoid resolving the debate no matter what the findings may be. Mathematical formulae follow, for those who are interested . . . I wasn't, particularly.

At this point, just when you think you're going to get some actual data, our happy statisticians start tossing in digressions and data adjustments. Ultimately, the entire report seems to collapse under the weight of technobabble (or worse, leaderspeak) and watered-down findings. It's true, statistics really can show whatever you want them to . . . In this case, the authors made the surprising and unusual choice of having the statistics show nothing at all. If you want a neater answer than that, what the report seems to indicate is that all media really falls a lot closer to the center than anyone might expect.

And this brings me to my final point before I rush off to another exciting Johnson class . . . The media can and do take on a plethora of shifting forms and "biases" at any given point in time, partially because it really is an incredibly diverse body, but more importantly because it exists to make money, and you can't make money unless you're selling something that people want to buy.

I do not believe that an overwhelming liberal bias exists in the media at this time . . . if anything I'd call it the other way around. But any bias that does exist is not a reflection of the biases of an unethical, elitist, and slanted group of individuals, it is ultimately a reflection of the biases endorsed by all of us . . . the American people . . . the consumers.

Posted by Jared at 06:28 AM | TrackBack

June 07, 2005

A (Student) Night at the Opera

Opera Longview puts on one production every year here in town, and I was given to understand that it was not to be missed if I could possibly attend. Well, a bit of research revealed that ticket prices ranged from $25 to $50 and, while I was still trying to reconcile my conscience and my pocketbook with this figure, a bit of further research revealed the availability of free tickets to a performance on "student night," two days before opening. Essentially, what we attended was the full dress rehearsal of Pirates of Penzance . . . and we even still, we were all quite impressed.

I don't know where or how Longview managed to dig up these people, but a number of the cast and crew members had rather impressive resumes. The soprano who played Mabel, for instance, performed the role of Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. The sets and lighting were fun, in keeping with the general atmosphere of the thing. The music was great, the lyrics were hilarious . . . there was a bit of trouble with the supertitles during the first half of the first act, but we could mostly understand what was being said anyway. It's not as though it were in Italian or German.

I had never seen Pirates of Penzance before, nor heard any of the music except (of course) "Modern Major General." I've read through it a bit in Wilson's Complete Gilbert & Sullivan, but I wasn't particularly with familiar with the plot or anything. In short . . . I was delighted by the entirety, save one slight caveat.

During the final notes of the final song, a British flag was unfurled in the midst of the assembled cast . . . and then it was rotated to reveal the Texas flag on the other side! Agh! They desecrated the Union Jack! How could they?! Oh, well. I guess (as Anna said) it was kinda cute. Whatever. Anyway, Scholl and I both agreed that it was by far the highest quality production we have ever attended in East Texas, and we went away happy.

Additionally, I would like to point the reader's attention to a relatively new link on the sidebar, "Mi Sociedad." It is the blog of Alpha Eta Mu, our LeTourneau chapter of the English Honor Society, set up to include contributions from the four officers (who are, at present, also the only members . . . we're working on that) and Dr. Solganick, our slightly off-center faculty sponsor (I employ these adjectives of vague warning in case you should happen to wander by his blogger profile and begin to wonder. He's harmless, really). Anyway, I am in the midst of posting a series of literary journals, some of which are recycled but modified from my blog, and some of which are entirely new. Wilson, too, has already contributed some very excellent material, and hopefully Martinez and Charissa will not be far behind. I encourage you all to troop over, take a look, add it to your links, and read and comment regularly . . . This is how desperate I am to generate interest.

Anyway, commercial over . . . and blogpost over as well.

Posted by Jared at 10:51 PM | TrackBack

May 19, 2005

Hitchhiking the Galaxy, One Last Time

It was around Monday afternoon when I decided it might be a good idea to go get tickets to see Episode III if I wanted to get in on opening day . . . and I did want to. I know what you're thinking (possibly) . . . I had to hear it from a few different people already when I mentioned my plan.

Well, I enjoy Star Wars, and until fairly recently I was something of a fanatic. But I've never been on an opening day. Return of the Jedi came out almost exactly three months before I was born. I didn't even see Star Wars for the first time until some months after the Special Editions were released in theaters. The Phantom Menace was released here while I was in Guatemala (I guess that would have been the summer after 9th grade), and it was released in Guatemala shortly after I came to the US for the duration of the summer. I was faced with the same problem when Attack of the Clones came out the year I graduated from high school. Revenge of the Sith was my first and last chance to watch a brand-new Star Wars movie along with the rest of the world, and I took it.

I was pretty big into Star Wars for about a five year period, as detailed here, and I am still on the fringes of that, in many ways. Sure, I'm way too much of a film and literature geek now to have much in the way of interest or resources left over for Star Wars anymore. However, at the very least, you don't just watch five movies out of a series of six and ignore the middle chapter that ties them all together.

Anyway, I drove by Hollywood 9 on Monday to grab the tickets for self, Rachel, Ashley, Audra, and Randy, and spotted Longview's lone fanatic (a heavyset, twenty-something female complete with Jedi padawan costume, tent, various and sundry creature comforts, and a few proud relatives snapping pictures before leaving her there until the Thursday morning release). That's one depth I've never really sunk to, although I have vague memories of once wearing a bathrobe that had a toy lightsaber attached to the belt when I had an all-day Star Wars marathon at home.

But I digress . . . Let's skip to the movie before I get further off-track. 'Ware the evil spoilers ahead. I saw it Thursday evening, and I think it was the first Star Wars movie which I've been able to watch with some sort of objectivity since I saw the very first one eight years ago. Speaking of which, the following is my attempt to rate all six movies, having finally seen the sixth.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace - 71% C-
Episode II: Attack of the Clones - 77% C+
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith - 89% B+
Episode IV: A New Hope - 95% A
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back - 97% A+
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi - 91% A-

RotS was a giant step in the direction of the feel and quality of the original trilogy, but the chasm between the two trilogies was, ultimately, just a teensy bit too wide. Overall, I really liked the movie, but a number of details just stuck in my craw. Lucas had literally painted himself into a corner by the end of AotC, and it really showed here. The inconsistencies and leaps of logic flew thick and fast, almost (but not quite) smothering the plot. The reason they do not is because Episode III, pretty much by default, is granted the happy circumstance of transcending plot entirely.

In ANH we find Artoo and Threepio aboard the Tantive IV in the employ of Captain Antilles. Obi-Wan is a hermit on Tatooine. Leia Organa is a princess of Alderaan and Luke lives with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine. Emperor Palpatine has been the leader of the Galactic Empire for some time and has just dissolved the Senate. Darth Vader is his widely-feared enforcer. We discover Yoda in exile on Dagobah in TESB, and there do not seem to be anymore Jedi anywhere. Padme is apparently dead. When Obi-Wan and Vader square off on board the Death Star (a fight which makes them both seem geriatric compared to the lava-leaping madness in RotS) we know this is not their first showdown. And, although it is not described anywhere in the original trilogy, Star Wars fans have somehow known for decades that Obi-Wan fought with Anakin over some sort of lava pit and burned his body horribly when he won. The list goes on and on . . .

But AotC ends a looooong way from the beginning ANH, how on earth did the characters get from point A to point B? Why didn't Threepio remember having been on Tatooine? How and why did the Skywalker family split in all directions? How could Palpatine have stepped into absolute power and eliminated practically all of the Jedi? RotS is a movie which exists primarily to bridge a gap and tie up all of the loose ends. And although it doesn't entirely succeed, as we watch it we don't notice as much that the plot is unlikely and inconsistent because almost every scene manages to explain something that fans have been wondering about since 1977 (or whenever they first saw ANH).

Palpatine is deformed by his own force lightning in a showdown with Mace Windu. Threepio has his memory wiped so he'll keep quiet (something he would never do otherwise). The twins are split up in order to be less noticeable (presumably in the Force). Hundreds of thousands of clone troopers who are genetically hardwired to obey receive the order to eliminate their Jedi officers. And when that crucial lava fight appears on the screen after so many years of speculation, we are completely lost in the spectacle.

And so, I think the movie works beautifully in a way that pleases fans. The biggest weakness of the prequels thus far has been in their atmosphere. The original Star Wars movies suffered from cheesy dialogue, bad effects, and even wooden acting from time to time, but they had heart, and somehow they managed a seamless, timeless escapism. Made during two of the decades most notorious for churning out tacky pop culture, the original movies emerged almost unscathed. Not so, the prequels . . . from fast-talking sports announcers to fifties diners, somewhere along the way I lost the feeling that I was watching something "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." If that sports announcer had one less head, or that diner owner had two fewer arms, they would be stereotypes that we know all too well.

RotS minimalized this and other problems to enough of a degree that I felt like I was watching a true Star Wars movie again. It isn't perfect, but if TPM had been at this level and the trilogy had worked up from here, imagine what a trilogy we'd have! My only complaints about the movie as a fan are fairly minor ones . . . like R2-D2. Why does he suddenly become Inspector Gadget for one movie only? I mean, I love Artoo, and that stuff was really awesome, but . . . internal consistency, George? And what's with him taking out two super battle droids single-handed? It's one thing to wonder about the quality of battle droids when the Jedi slice through approximately 37.2 a second, but when Artoo (as cool as the little bugger is) can take out two of the big ones with very little effort, we begin to wonder how the Separatists can even still be in the war. Little inconsistencies like that mar an otherwise enjoyable movie.

The time element borders on ridiculous. Without any way to really tell for sure, the movie seems to be taking place over the course of (at most) two weeks . . . But somehow Padme flies through several months of pregnancy during the interim. Maybe I just need to watch more closely a second time. Additionally, the planet of Mustafar is said to exist in the Outer Rim, while Coruscant is very near the center of the galaxy. In the books, a journey from one to the other would take days, possibly even weeks. Even from within the movies we know that a journey of that magnitude would take a bit of time . . . but Palpatine seems to make it there in about five minutes once he figures out that Anakin is in trouble. Suspension of disbelief for the purposes of stream-lining the plot is one thing, but all too often Lucas plays fast and loose with the rules so he can make something "work."

On the other hand, it's obvious that Lucas saw the big sign as he approached the screenplay for this movie: "Last Chance for Merchandising Here." In the original trilogy there are a fixed number of planets, aliens, droids, vehicles, and so forth which every Star Wars fan is quite familiar with. They have been picked apart, hashed, rehashed, and analyzed for every possible piece of information they might reveal about the SW galaxy. The first two prequels did their fair share in expanding that galaxy, but I would say that RotS alone just about doubled it. Lucas and his concept artists really went wild on this one, unleashing a barrage of new concepts which serve to make the galaxy that much larger. Star Wars fans will have plenty to talk about for years to come. From the odd Quetzalcoatl-type creature that Obi-Wan chases General Grievous on, to the strange planet covered in giant tropical flowers where Aayla Secura (the blue, Twi'lek Jedi) dies, to those crazy dragonfly helicopters that Wookiees fly around in, I loved what I was seeing. Those, among other things, were really cool ideas, and I was quite pleased on that level.

From the beginning, the movie was moving too fast. It lacked focus, and the plausibility suffered because there was just so much to get done. The scenes between Padme and Anakin are still, as a rule, the worst written in the movie by far. I continue to assert that no actor could save those lines. However, the closer the movie gets to the end, as things become clear and the pool of characters narrows, things begin to come together. I couldn't help noticing during some of my favorite scenes (Yoda squaring off against the Emperor, the birth of the twins juxtaposed with the construction of Vader's suit) that there is still some genuine movie-making talent behind these productions. George Lucas is a competent director (although he makes a better producer) . . . It's just too bad he doesn't realize he's such an absolutely abysmal screenwriter.

There's a lot more I could address, but this review is already directionless enough. I thought the movie ended on just the right note, and I had a good time watching it. Everyone should know better than to expect more than that out of a Star Wars movie.

I think I'll go see it again.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

May 15, 2005

My O'Connor Still Isn't Here

The first week of summer is over now, and what a week it has been . . . Funny how much it has been defined by the status of a spontaneous purchase. Anyway, I haven't really got the energy to chronicle it fully right now, but I'll hit a few of the high points.

My O'Connor still isn't here, as noted above, but the other two are . . . and fortunately it didn't arrive on Saturday or I would have been frustrated indeed. I checked my mail after hours on Friday, noting a small sign which said something to the effect of "We have changed the locks on some of the CPOs. You may pick up your new key on Monday." I noted the strange shininess of my own CPOs lock, and my suspicions were confirmed when my key didn't work. That's two Netflix and a book of Flannery O'Connor goodness I won't be receiving this weekend . . .

My Korean roommates have been difficult to get a lock on. They have moved in slowly, moved back out, had different people moved in, tried to move me out, and relegated me to a small corner of the apartment. Despite the apparent complaining in those last few sentences, I've had no real trouble with them. There are between one and five of them sleeping here each night, but it's rather difficult to track since they stay up late (like, 4:30 am late) every night watching movies on the TV which sits right next to the place I used to sleep.

This TV is hooked up to a desktop computer and is never turned off, even when they aren't here (which happens regularly from about 5-11 pm every evening thus far). There was some minor trouble a few days ago when they randomly decided to move one of the couches out onto the porch between 4:30 and 8 am. I asked them to move it back in and they did, apologizing and saying they didn't know it was mine. I'd like to know who the hell else it could belong to . . . But nevermind. I have been allowed to keep to the office and am virtually never bothered back here, so here is where I spend my time quite happily during the few hours of the day when I am actually at home and not asleep.

Wednesday was my first day in Intro to Philosophy with a certain professor who will remain unnamed for the duration. His name in a Google search already ranks my site uncomfortably high, and I have never had anything but the most uncomplimentary things to say about his teaching . . . For those of you who have followed my blog long enough, he taught my Shakespeare class in Spring '04. For those of you who haven't, I direct you to the archives at the right.

The first hour of Philosophy brought all of my horrible memories of his "teaching" rushing back to me and by our first break I was already fuming. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that during break every day I walk right by Dr. Watson's film class, which I took last summer and which ranks as one of the finest courses offered at this university. It's almost unendurable.

Ashley, who is in the class with me, did her usual bit in defense of the teacher when I went off during the break, but by the time we were halfway through the first worksheet for homework, she was far less than pleased. This simply is not a real course . . . let alone a college-level one. I've had poor examples of teaching and much busywork in classes before, but I think what makes this grate so badly is the fact that our teacher is so consistently and vociferously convinced that he is offering excellent material which will fire our creativity and sharpen our critical thinking skills.

He couldn't be more wrong about this if he suggested that copying and pasting the table of contents of our textbook from the book's website onto a worksheet is comparable in learning value to discussing controversial metaphysical questions which are actually related to philosophy. Wait. That's exactly what he's doing. No lie. I wish I were joking.

Anyway, I'm sure you'll hear more from me on the subject as the month-long course progresses. I keep telling myself that one month is significantly less than one semester, so it's all worth it in the end . . . *sigh*

Meanwhile, in the last five days alone I have seen three movies which have a shot at the summer top ten: White Oleander with 97%, Rebecca with 98%, and Judgment at Nuremberg with 99%. The strength of the first lies in the superb acting talent it employs as well as some excellent storytelling through character development. The second is some of Hitchcock's best work, with an excellent balance between romance and suspense (sort of a Jane Eyre meets . . . well, okay, it's a lot like Jane Eyre, but there's more to it than just that) and his only film to win a Best Picture Oscar.

As for the final film, I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially to History majors. The film is a masterpiece on a number of levels, and I kept thinking throughout that I wished I had seen it last summer. At that time I saw and wrote about two movies in particular which kept coming to mind as I watched this one. One was Schindler's List, the other was a very short (32 min.) French documentary called Night and Fog. The movie finally provided the closure I needed after watching the two Holocaust films and should serve to bring any truly honest train of thought on the subject to its logical conclusion. This film echoed some of the thoughts I had about the documentary in particular last year (post linked above), but of course it was both more thorough and more eloquent, and provided a number of additional things for me to ponder carefully.

Judgment at Nuremberg came out in 1961 and is set in 1948, recounting the story of a trial of "lesser" Nazi war criminals: high-ranking judges from the court system. It paints an interesting picture, both of Germans and Americans at the time. In particular, I was captivated by the vision of an uncertain America on the brink of serious trouble with Soviet Russia. The Berlin airlift is in progress and the American people are focused almost all of their energy on Stalin's alarming power plays. Yet there still remains the question of what to do with these horrible, horrible Germans who murdered millions of people in cold blood. Some want to prosecute the entire race, others simply want to quietly forget, and still others are deeply concerned with putting the past behind them so that the German people can be enlisted in the intense ideological conflict which is building between democracy and communism.

Into the middle of this arrives a quiet, district court judge played by Spencer Tracy who must try to clear the muddied waters of a world that is trying to move on in order to arrive at a just verdict. Other compelling roles are filled by Burt Lancaster as one of the defendants, Richard Widmark as the prosecuting (or is it persecuting?) attorney, and Marlene Dietrich as a upper-class German woman who befriends Tracy's character . . . all members of a formidable ensemble cast which also includes William Shatner, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift and Werner Klemperer (Col. Klink from Hogan's Heroes . . . !!! . . . also playing a minor role was the actor who played Major Hochstetter in the same series).

I had to save special mention for Maximilian Schell, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his incredible portrayal of the German lawyer who has been assigned to defend the Nazis. He is not exactly pleased with the job, but he is committed to giving them the best defense that he can, and before the end we begin to wonder whether he can keep form becoming sympathetic to their positions in the midst of his impassioned defense.

There is some excellent technical work in the movie. I was awed by the scene where Tracy walks through a massive arena where enormous Nazi rallies took place (one such rally appearing in the famous propoganda film Triumph of the Will). The entire place is deserted save for this one, lone figure trodding past the massive, empty construction of stone steps, pillars and platforms before which row upon row of identically-uniformed Nazis stood before der Furher. As Tracy walks along, we hear the Nazi anthem playing loud and clear, and as he glances over the spot, high above, where Hitler once stood and addressed hundreds of thousands, we hear his voice, piercing and insistent, haunting the place forever.

The movie brings powerful arguments to bear and asks many uncomfortable questions. It shows us, over and over, that the German people are just that . . . people. It blurs the lines between right and wrong, duty to country and duty to humanity, personal accountibility and responsibilty and loyalty and obedience, introducing large gray areas. And then, it brings them all back into sharp, hard focus at the end, with a searing indictment of the entire human race, including the viewer.

The movie (made, as I said, in 1961) is a brilliant and eloquent warning to an America emerging from the volatile atmosphere of the McCarthy years, but still very much in the midst of a stand-off with the Soviet Union. And as Spencer Tracy trudges out of a prison, formerly controlled by the Nazis, now lined with dozens of American MPs, to the tune of the Nazi national anthem, we know that the movie is saying that a single moment's inattention could take our own nation to the very brink of an incredible evil in the name of national security and the protection of our people and our ideals, if it hasn't already. Without getting too overtly political here (it's getting late and I need sleep) let me just say that the movie seems just as relevant now (or more) as it must have over forty years ago.

America, beware.

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May 05, 2005

The Academic Year in Movies

Well, we have hit the end of the spring semester, my junior year of college, and we're a week away from the end of one full year of my record-keeping on movies watched. You can see the count (not counting quite a number of movies re-watched in that period) on the right. Ahhh . . . movies are so great.

I realized about month ago that I should have done this around the beginning of the year, but I didn't so I decided to just do a double list at the end of the spring. Hence you will find below my "Top Ten" lists for Fall semester/Christmas break and Spring semester. In no particular order:



-12 Angry Men

-Garden State

-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


-Waking Ned Devine

-The Shawshank Redemption

-The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

-The Godfather

-Fiddler on the Roof

Four of these were movies I had never seen before last summer.



-Wonder Boys

-A Beautiful Mind

-The Joy Luck Club

-The Phantom of the Opera

-Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

-Babette's Feast

-Finding Neverland

-The Great Train Robbery


Eight of these were movies I had never seen before last summer.

The Spring list seems very odd in comparison to the fall and summer lists in that it seems to have a lot more movies on it that few people might have seen. I can't really account for this in any way that leaps immediately to mind . . . but they were all really good movies that I enjoyed a great deal. I recommend some of them to everyone, and a few of them to almost no one. Don't miss my "token" foreign language films (one in each list), but be sure to check the ratings before you go rent any of them (if you care about such things). Well over half are rated PG-13 or R for good reason.

Anyway, I look forward to a great summer of movie-watching and book-reading (but also plenty of coursework and cashflow). I have a rather interesting and eclectic mix of summer movies lined up on Netflix, and a whole crate of summer reading parked next to my desk. On with the summer!

Posted by Jared at 01:21 AM | TrackBack

May 01, 2005

May's Featured Books

5/26 - Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (o o o o o)

Dr. Azar Nafisi taught English Literature for nearly 20 years (from the time of the revolution in 1979 until her departure in 1997) in the intellectually restrictive climate of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and the almost equally strict regime which followed. During that time, she and her students studied the controversial works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen, and (of course) Vladimir Nabokov, first in a public university classroom, and later in the secret privacy of her own home. Part soul-searching autobiography, part historical exposé, and part witty and insightful literary criticism, this is an incredible story told by an equally incredible narrator about free thought in an atmosphere of unimaginable repression and fear.

5/16 - The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason (o o o o)

Billed as an "intellectual suspense" novel, this book follows a few days in the lives of four Princeton roommates as their senior year comes to an end. In the midst of all the usual end-of-semester madness two of them, Tom and Paul, are close to cracking a fiendishly difficult code and unlocking the startling secrets of a 15th Century Renaissance text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a real-life work which has stumped literary types for centuries. But these two are not the only ones who are obsessed with solving the text, or enjoying the academic prestige it will bring, and events begin to spin out of control as Paul gets closer to the final answer.

The book largely does an excellent job of juggling discoveries in the Hypnerotomachia with outside complications and only rarely does it feel as though these intrusions are interfering with the important portion of the story. The extensive asides about the history and traditions of Princeton are almost as fascinating as the insights into Renaissance lore . . . all worked seamlessly into the plot. The book's gradual revelations of its secrets seemed almost perfectly paced, as well . . . coming out ever so slowly, but not too slowly, and serving to slowly develop the characters and their histories as well.

What set this book apart from the standard academic treasure hunting pot-boiler for me was the excellent writing (filled with vivid, engaging metaphors, profound philosophical ruminations, and literary allusions both obscure and well-known), and the deeply human element. The book spoke to me on a number of levels, and I identified very closely with the main character. He and his friends remind me of me and my friends at a time of the year when I'm beginning to miss them all.

I don't know for sure whether it is simply because I feel myself to be in his position in many ways, but the book's treatment of the serious college student's choice between dedicated academic pursuits versus career-and-family rang especially true. The meaningful way in which Tom works through the loss of his father by becoming involved with his father's peculiar lifelong obsession is also a large part of what makes this story worthwhile. Overall, the story and the writing have a great deal to offer even a casual reader, and, although the story flags at times, I would recommend it quite highly to anyone interested in literature and/or history, especially if they are within a stone's throw of their college years.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (o o o o o)

Dr. Azar Nafisi taught English Literature for nearly 20 years (from the time of the revolution in 1979 until her departure in 1997) in the intellectually restrictive climate of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and the almost equally strict regime which followed. During that time, she and her students studied the controversial works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen, and (of course) Vladimir Nabokov, first in a public university classroom, and later in the secret privacy of her own home. Part soul-searching autobiography, part historical exposé, and part witty and insightful literary criticism, this is an incredible story told by an equally incredible narrator about free thought in an atmosphere of unimaginable repression and fear. [Read More]
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April 30, 2005

Banjo Was Flaming!

Saturday was a grand evening for all in attendance at the Longview Community Theater for the final performance of The Man Who Came to Dinner. I had early apprehensions about acting quality . . . the minor characters were pretty much abysmal and their accents were positively dreadful. In particular, the guy playing Mr. Stanley was as stiff as a board.

But the really cool characters were perfectly cast and performed beautifully . . . Lorraine Sheldon, Beverly Carlton (played by LeTourneau's own Dr. Mays), Banjo (who actually did all sides of the character justice), and (best of all) Sheridan Whiteside.

The prop department and set builders did their usual great job, and all of the other technical elements came off quite well. It was without a doubt the best non-musical I have seen them put on, and a very fitting end to the 2004-2005 season.

And really that's all I have to say.

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April 27, 2005

That'll Be the Day

I really don't like Westerns, as a movie genre. I think they're hopelessly mired in cliché, all but a few are poorly made, and as for any semblance of historical accuracy . . . Don't get me started. From a purely artistic standpoint, an overwhelming percentage of Westerns are useless things.

Now, before any Western lover out there get all up in arms, I'll be the first to concede their immense cultural value. After the American frontier was declared to be effectively closed in the census of 1890, a historian named Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. This paper stated the famous "Frontier Thesis:" that the frontier was what had given the American people their unique individuality and vitality . . . their very identity, really. The frontier was effectively the source of American freedom.

There can be no doubt that our country was largely shaped in its formative years by westward expansion, or that our cultural identity is closely tied to this same movement. Westerns are so important to the American spirit that they own their own genres in American literature, and (much to my frequent annoyance) American film. Westerns were dominant box office contenders for decades. With the passage of time, subgenres have even been spawned . . . and I'm not sure which is worse sometimes, the "classic" or "revisionist/enlightened" Western.

Tonight I watched The Searchers (a classic Western), which I had not seen for many years. This is not a terrible movie by any means . . . and yet by Western standards it is considered to be one of the genuine greats. I found it to be a quality grab bag. It made me want to love it and hate it at the same time.

John Wayne stars, John Ford directs, and the supporting cast includes names like Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, and Ford-regular Ward Bond. The story begins in Texas in 1868. Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, the Confederate who never surrendered, returns suddenly to his brother's home with no real explanation of where he has been since the Civil War ended three years earlier. Some initial groundwork for the story is laid when Ethan produces a large quantity of Yankee money which may or may not have been stolen, and reveals a very strong prejudice against Indians when the adopted son of the house (Martin, a foundling rescued by Ethan many years earlier) enters and we discover that he is one-eighth Comanche.

The next day, a group of local men ride up and recruit Ethan and Martin to go out after cattle rustlers, but this proves to be a Comanche feint meant to draw the men away from their homesteads. The Indians attack the Edwards' home, killing everyone but the two daughters, Lucy (probably 16) and Debbie (9). Thus begins an epic search to recover the two girls which will last five years and cover not only Texas, but parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico as well. (Incidentally, none of the movie was actually filmed in any of those places.) Within weeks of the beginning of the search, Lucy is found dead, and only Debbie remains to be saved. Martin and Ethan form an uneasy alliance (although Ethan's authority is never really in question) in pursuit of their mutual goal.

I say mutual . . . Martin wants to rescue Debbie, but before many of the years have passed, Ethan's mission is to kill her. To him she has ceased to be his niece, and has become only the "leavings of a Comanche buck." Thus, even though the two men have the same destination, they have very contradictory ideas of what they will do when they finally get to it.

As the search drags from months into years, further random subplots wind their goofy ways into the main story. Martin has a sweetheart, Laurie, the sister of Brad, who was in love with Lucy and was killed in a mad, vengeful suicide charge at the Comanche camp after her body was discovered. Laurie is, incidentally, also the daughter of the man whose cattle were originally . . . errr, "rustled," thereby spawning this whole thing. Laurie loves Marty, but he isn't the only suitor. A triangle is formed when he just won't stay put and ultra-hayseed Charlie comes a-courtin'.

Meanwhile, random happenings on the trail try to provide comic relief and advance the plot. Martin accidentally gets himself an Indian wife when he doesn't understand what he's trading for. Her name is "Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky" (that's "Look" for short), and she runs away when she finds out that they are searching for Chief Scar, the Comanche who perpetrated the raid and stole Debbie. (I have very strong feelings about the consequences to the screenwriter who perpetrated that name . . . is he a Texas Comanche, a Chicago crime boss or a Pirate of the Caribbean?) Anyway, Look leaves an obvious trail behind her which eventually leads them to an abandoned camp where Scar was attacked by the US Cavalry. Talk about a Wild Goose chase.

Get it? I didn't until after the movie was over. Ow.

I'll summarize the climax for you briefly now . . . sorry if I leave a few characters in the dust. Martin and Ethan, having failed to either rescue or kill Debbie once they find her, arrive back at "base" just in time to interfere with Laurie and Charlie's wedding. The resulting brawl between Marty and Charlie is interfered with in turn by the arrival of a Yankee cavalryman who wants the local Texas Rangers and all other able-bodied men marshalled for an attack on the Comanche encampment where Debbie is being held. Ethan and Marty join the group as scouts . . . and, of course, with their own respective agendas.

They find the Indian camp at night, and decide to charge at dawn. Marty goes in alone to attempt a daring rescue (I should note that I was quite shocked to discover that this sequence was ripped off wholesale, visuals and all, by George Lucas for Episode II . . . just add lightsabers). The cavalry charges in, but Marty has already killed Scar. The American troops are victorious, Ethan spots Marty and Debbie running for it and chases them down on his horse. Marty tries unsuccessfully to stop him and he chases a panicked Debbie over a hill and down the other side where she collapses, cowering before him. He leaps from his horse to stand in front of her . . . then reaches down, scoops her up in his arms, and utters those touching and immortal words (which I've heard in at least 378 other movies) "Let's go home."

The Searchers, like all John Ford movies, makes fantastic use of Western scenery. The locations are gorgeous and shown to their full advantage. Ford does some really great things with cinematography. I love the way the movie is bookended by almost identical opening and closing shots. After the credits finish at the beginning, we see a view of the rugged frontier through the doorway of a humble homestead, and Ethan's silhouette approaches from the distance before the woman of the house spots him as she appears in front of the open door. In the final shot of the movie, the various characters re-enter the house, again with the camera aimed out through the darkened doorway onto the bright Western terrain, before Ethan (left alone outside) moves slowly away.

But I hated some things, too. The addle-brained Mose Harper baffled me (which is probably why I haven't really discussed him). Is he a half-wit because he is a half-breed? How can he be so shrewd and so scattered at the same time? Is he in the movie purely for comic relief, and if so, why? The scene that disturbed and annoyed me most, however, was when Ethan and Marty inspect a number of women captives that the cavalry has rescued from the Indians. All of them have been driven completely out of their minds . . . one begins to scream uncontrollably when the men enter before subsiding and returning to her crooning and rocking back and forth. Two fourteen-year old girls with red paint smeared across their foreheads simply stand and stare at the men with empty eyes opened unnaturally wide and immense, frozen smiles.

I have read quite a number of Indian captive stories, both fictional and nonfictional, and I know of no historical precedent for this madness produced by living with "savage" Indians. Yet the movie implies that every woman who was captured was either raped and killed or has gone totally insane. Whether from blacks or Indians, perceived threats to the "womenfolk" have always been the fastest way to get a red-blooded Southern white male up in arms . . . The movie plays off of this to manipulate its audience far more than I would like.

The main plot is tense and full of pathos . . . You are drawn into the struggles of the characters on the frontier, and you wonder how the tension between racial prejudice and familial love will finally play out.

Herein, however, lies the movie's greatest problem: Ethan is totally unapologetic in his attitude about Indians, and the Indians themselves are stereotyped brutally in the movie. Strange, ultra-subtle half-hints are dropped here and there throughout the production to indicate that perhaps the movie does not hold the same beliefs as its characters, but when that final moment comes and Ethan takes Debbie in his arms instead of coldly plugging her between the eyes, can it hope to counterbalance nearly two hours of violent slanting? Can anyone really cite a John Wayne movie where he disappears into a character? I can't think of one. For the viewer, this is not Ethan Edwards, a fictional character, who believes that all Indians are brutal savages, this is John Wayne himself.

The Searchers is a movie which captures fragments of the frontier spirit, culture, and strife, but its perspective is so completely one-sided that it cannot convey a historically-balanced view of the West. Nor, for that matter, should it be required to do so. I certainly wouldn't plop, say, a Russian citizen down in front of this movie if I wanted him to know what life in the United States was like 150 years ago. But I would use it in an upper-level course about the history of the West in showing how the stories of our life on the frontier came to be told, particularly during the 1940s and 1950s.

Roger Ebert's review of the movie, which I found to be very insightful, suggests that The Searchers was made at a time when Ford was struggling to pull his Westerns out of the "classical" mode and into a more holistic view of the various historical factors that made relations between settlers and Native Americans what they were. That his product is ultimately deeply-flawed does not mean it is not a valuable, influential piece of American culture and cinema, but I don't necessarily have to like it.

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February 27, 2005

The Epic Duet of Good and Evil

No, that isn't a typo. A few of us who have been known to try and pass for artsy types went to see the Longview Community Theater's latest production on Saturday night - Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical.

In most black-vs.-white narratives, be they epics or morality plays or something else, good and evil eventually clash in some spectacular and highly visible form. Sometimes there is an enormous battle involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Sometimes there is a showdown on a dusty street. On a smaller, but no less vital, scale sometimes we simply see a battle of the conscience. Rarely, however, does one witness good and evil embroiled in a sing-off.

I didn't crank out this review nearly as soon as I meant to, so I am forced to be fairly brief. This is the 4th production I have attended at the Longview Community Theater, and the 2nd musical, and I have decided that the production value and general quality of their musicals is undoubtedly higher than regular plays. The performers they find have a lot of vocal talent, and this goes a long way towards making up for the inevitable minor gripes one will have with the imperfections of theatrical productions in a town of limited artistic resources.

There are a number of other very definite strengths that I have pinpointed. LCT does very well with costuming, and their prop department does a fantastic job of coming up with just the right things. The lighting is largely excellent, as are the musicians in the orchestra pit. The singing I have already praised, but it would not hurt to do so again. Unfortunately, the acoustics of the building and the lack of a sound system make solos very difficult to hear at times over the roar of the orchestra. However, all of the numbers involving half a dozen to twenty+ people were phenomenal.

The acting varies widely, but the leads are always at least competent. In this case I was slightly disappointed at first due to the lack of any significant physical transformation between Jekyll and Hyde (the actor wore his long hair in a ponytail as Jekyll, and let it fall loose as Hyde). However, by the time I heard the song where Jekyll and Hyde sing alternating lines (as the lighting shifted appropriately) I was satisfied both that this was all they were reasonably able to do, and that the actor playing the part was doing a wonderfully convincing job of changing his voice, manner, and personality as rapidly as could possibly be necessary.

If I hadn't been to see The King and I, I might have tried to gripe about accents, but really there was nothing wrong with them. No one was blatantly Texan, and I ask for very little more than that. The attempts at being Oriental were just painful, the attempts at being British were not. The plot left a bit to be desired, and of course it deviated a good bit from the original work, but . . . I'm not quite sure how to put this:

The last five minutes or so scared the bejeezes out of me because it was tracking heavily in the direction of maudlin Victorian melodrama. The words of Lady Bracknell kept floating through my head: "a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality." However, they pulled out hard in the end, and I was ultimately satisfied.

Scholl and I, sitting next to each other, made a number of fun connections from Watson's Brit Lit II class during the course of the play. This was only right, considering that the man himself was sitting directly behind us. As the lights came up, we turned and explained one of the more humorous connections that had been made (related to a line from Frankenstein). He was amused.

All in all, yet another enjoyable evening wiled away at the Longview Community Theater, and I look forward with great anticipation to their upcoming production of The Man Who Came to Dinner.

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January 14, 2005


This evening I saw Finding Neverland for the second time in a week, and I felt that I would like to write something about it, because I enjoyed it so very much. (Warning: Very mild spoilers are contained in this review.) This movie is fairly unique in two respects in particular.

First, it is a recent release, it is a serious drama, it is an award-winner with (I would say) a good chance at multiple Oscars (I would not be surprised to see nominations for best picture, director, actor, screenplay, and original score), and . . . with a PG rating it is pretty much squeaky clean. This is totally unprecedented in my experience. None of the movies on my list which are this appropriate (and have ratings even nearly comparable to the one I gave this) were produced after about 1970. One simply doesn't find high-caliber, thought-provoking movies that one can safely watch with literally anyone (at least, not anymore) . . . but there it is.

Second, this movie makes me cry, and that's fine. I don't cry while watching movies . . . ever. Rarely am I even choked up. It's not that I'm not a "softie" or that I'm trying to be macho. There are a number of books that have brought me to tears (Where the Red Fern Grows and Black Beauty leap immediately to mind). It's just that movies have a hard time suspending my disbelief to the point where I actually connect what is on the screen with reality. I'm too good at "seeing the invisible wires" . . . even when the dialogue or acting don't suck horribly (as they so often do in the midst of a "sappy" scene). But at various points during Finding Neverland, even while watching it a second time, I found myself strangely moved by the characters' emotions.

With the former as one cause and latter as one effect, this movie is seriously excellent. It tells the story of J. M. Barrie's friendship with the four recently-fatherless Llewelyn Davies boys (George, John, Peter, and Michael) and how it inspired the creation of his stage opus, Peter Pan. Along the way he provides just what the boys need in the way of a father figure and a playmate, helping them through the grieving process and teaching them to use their imaginations and . . . all that good stuff.

Johnny Depp, as Barrie, is magnificent as always. Freddy Highmore, who plays Peter, is a child actor of immense talent, and he really makes this movie work. Kate Winslet (as the boys' mother) is quite good. Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie in relatively minor roles are both very fun to watch, and everyone else in the movie is competent at the very least.

The music is wonderful, and much of it is actually being played by stage orchestras in the movie (which is always cool). The cinematography is very nice . . . one shot in particular sends the camera sweeping freely in wild loops around a packed Victorian theater as the characters onstage take off and begin to fly. Art direction and costumes and so on are enchanting . . . lush, rich, beautiful colors are everywhere, but especially when we enter the world of Barrie's imagination.

One of my favorite moments is near the beginning when Barrie bids his wife good night and they enter their separate bedrooms. They both open their doors, and through his doorway we see a bright, green meadow with grass and flowers blowing in the breeze. Throughout the movie, in fact, the transitions between Barrie's imagination and the real world are delightful to watch . . . I was reminded very much of Big Fish (another favorite of mine).

Some of the best scenes involve the various points where the audience actually sees the sources of Barrie's inspiration. When the boys' grandmother is lecturing them while she waves a coat hanger about we see Barrie's mind suddenly shift her hand into a hook. As the boys jump up and down on their beds while their mother tries to get them to go to sleep, Barrie suddenly imagines them all taking off and flying right out the open window into the night sky. Even Barrie's dog, Porthos, bears a striking resemblance to the fictional dog, Nanny.

I think my absolute favorite part, however, is when the 25 orphans (for whom Barrie has saved a scattering of seats on opening night) join the stuffy, upper-class, theater-going crowd. There are disgusted looks, raised eyebrows, and general grumblings at first ("Looks like we got one of the better dressed ones," comments one theater-goer as Peter takes his seat). And, as the play begins and the children begin to laugh and gasp and respond (starry-eyed) to what is going on onstage, the adults glare . . . But before long, they too are caught up in the magic of the story, and by the end of the production they seem to have made friends with the youngsters, and are acting decades younger themselves.

But anyway, I needn't give away any more of the movie. You should go see it. I would simply like to note that I was fascinated to observe some fairly obvious parallels between this movie (which, by the way, is based on a play: The Man Who Was Peter Pan) and the movie/play Shadowlands about the life of C. S. Lewis . . . even down to a common element in their titles. Both are certainly excellent, and I suppose I should endorse the message of the latter over that of the former (unless you're paying close attention, you'll think it's preaching pure escapism . . . and at various points, it is). However, I think I prefer Finding Neverland when all is said and done. I'm not knocking Shadowlands . . . it has a very different aim, that's all. Somehow, Neverland manages to leave me feeling better at the end, and it possesses a certain element that Shadowlands had in fairly short supply. As Peter says of Barrie's play in Neverland, "It's magical."

Posted by Jared at 12:13 AM | TrackBack

December 19, 2004

Someone Else's Home Sweet Someone Else's Home

This post finds me ensconced as comfortably as can be expected at the Plainview Furlough Crash Zone, ready to endure my 3-week vacation.

I miss the Ice Cave already. And its denizens. And its regular visitors. But nevermind that. I'll try my best to supress the sour grapes . . .
If I didn't have my computer here to type this on I would be climbing the nearest wall even now. And don't say it. It's not that it's *gasp* my computer, it's that it's the only machine in this house that isn't seven years old or a Mac.

However, we shall say no more lest I wind up in a truly foul humour. I think that a brief synopsis of my day is in order. Uncle Doug and I woke up at the ungodly hour of about 5:35 this morning and were on our way out of Longview (a bit behind schedule) by 6:30. We enjoyed a pleasant drive to Dallas . . . although once we actually arrived and Doug missed a turn or two he was far too agitated about possibly missing his flight for there to be much further enjoyment of the ride. That's right, Moore, I guess I wasn't navigating very well. Anyway, I hope he made it . . . Maybe he'll comment or e-mail soon.

Depositing him at DFW at about 9:15, I made my way out of Dallas by a different route than normal. My dad had suggested I shave an hour off of the journey (since I traveled to a town an hour north of Lubbock rather than one half an hour south of it like I usually do) by taking 114 to 287 to 70 . . . In terms of place names, this took me through such thriving metropoli as Wichita Falls, Vernon, Matador, and Floydada.

The new scenery was a nice change, and as I drove I listened to a few things I had picked up from the library before leaving Longview. I finished the BBC dramatization of Man and Superman starring Ralph Fiennes as John Tanner (love that play!), and listened to roughly 1/3 of A Room With a View. Meanwhile, I passed through, not one, not two, but at least five different iterations of the small town from The Last Picture Show. That was scary.

And then, when I passed a pickup going the other way and received the West Texas Salute from the driver (consisting of raising two or more fingers of the left hand off of the steering wheel in a perfunctory wave) I knew I had finally and truly arrived in that portion of the state. There was no going back.

I arrived safely at "home" by around 2:15 and stuff happened for awhile until we went to the theater after supper. There was a split in the family and my dad wandered off with Ian and Brett to see Ocean's Twelve while I accompanied Micah and my mom to Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. This sort of divide is fairly typical.

I, as many of you know, happen to be an enormous fan of the books upon which the latter movie is based. I've read the first ten and I can't wait to get ahold of the eleventh . . . They are marvelously written. Snicket's style is distinctly similar to that of Roald Dahl, but the tone goes from a good deal darker (like, Edgar Allen Poe dark) to a good deal lighter (like, P. G. Wodehouse light), and characters and situations vascillate from harsh realism (think Charles Dickens) to clever fantasy (think Norton Juster and The Phantom Tollbooth). The series is consistently surprising, witty, and original. And just as the books seem as though they might be dropping into an episodic, formulaic rut, the over-arching plot begins to take on a definite shape and things get really interesting.

What I love most about the movie and the book series is that it is essentially about three exceptional, perceptive children who must make their own way through incredible (albeit sometimes intentionally cartoonish) hardships in a world of mediocre, boorish, and even disfunctional adults. They are forced to save themselves time and time again because they are consistently ignored or not believed (when they aren't being outright persecuted) by everyone over the age of 21.

Lemony Snicket himself (his real name is Daniel . . . something, but you'll only find that information online) was involved in the writing of the screenplay. It consists of adapting the first three books in the series (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window . . . yes, Snicket has a thing for alliterative names which is not confined simply to book titles) into a single movie.

The second and third books are severely condensed, and are sandwiched in-between the first and second halves of the third book. Thrown in are a number of details involving The Big Plot which do not appear until book seven and after, although everything is extremely simplified.

I thoroughly enjoyed most of the movie. It worked on a variety of levels and for a variety of reasons for well over an hour. Jim Carrey was superb almost across the board. All of the other actors (including a number of unexpected cameos) fit their roles well. The children were all excellent. Sunny, the infant, was particularly hilarious to watch. The subtitling of her baby-talk dialogue was a charming and ingenious way around handling her character as the book did. The sets were pure eye candy, with a unique blend of styles that produced a very distinctive look. The CG was pretty good where it was used, although it was clearly CG, but that fit artistically with the general appearance of the thing.

And so it was all fairly brilliant until . . . Well, as soon as book three was officially over and the second half of book one began (with the wedding play) the movie lost it. Completely. It was so very sad . . . There were a few amusing things left, but I've never seen a movie fall off quite so incongruously as this one did during the final fifteen minutes or so.

It simply ceased to be amusing and became sappy. Perhaps I am slightly prejudiced . . . in fact, I'm sure I am . . . from having read and enjoyed the books. However, the climax was abrupt and improbable (even for this movie) and the final denoument was far too neat and sweet for a movie that had done such an amazing job of staying away from the formulaic and saccharine elements of the typical family film.

Most of my friends would be amused by the frequent, cynical, and thoroughly open mockery of happy endings and shallow, happy stories in general that the movie indulges in. But then they went and did it themselves during the final scene! I could have cried! This sloppy change in tone leads me to believe that Snicket was forced to rewrite the ending to make it more audience-friendly . . . I saw no hint of anything of this kind during the rest of the movie, nor, indeed, during the ten books I have read thus far.

Nevertheless, I still recommend that you see it for yourself. And if you enjoy the majority of it, look into reading the series this Christmas. Out loud, if possible. I can finish one of the books in under three hours . . . they're all quick reads. I would be tempted to advise you simply to sit through the movie until the point when the children are out of danger, and then leave during the closing scenes, were it not for the end credits. They are some of the best I have seen in recent memory, and the music (throughout the movie as well) was just great (it was composed by Thomas Newman, who also did Road to Perdition).

And now I'm off to bed . . . I'll be in touch.

Posted by Jared at 12:53 AM | TrackBack

December 01, 2004

December's Featured Books

12/22 - The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois (o o o o o)

Professor William Waterman Sherman sets out from San Francisco in a hot air balloon in the summer of 1883, hoping to make the first flight across the Pacific. Three weeks later he is picked up in the Atlantic, surrounded by the wreckage of, not one, but twenty balloons. How did this come to be? Herein lies the tale of his fantastic visit to Krakatoa, a remote volcanic island whose European inhabitants have become fabulously wealthy from the Krakatoan diamond mines. These people have created a Utopian society centered around a "gourmet government" and a dazzling array of marvelous inventions, many of which involve hot air balloons.

During Sherman's brief stay on Krakatoa, in the few weeks before the small civilization is shattered forever by a cataclysmic eruption, he learns everything there is to know about the island and its people. And the reader is along for the highly enjoyable ride. This book is a cleverly written and hilariously conceived tongue-in-cheek look at what a little ingenuity and a whole lot of money can accomplish in an island paradise. It had me sold on the concept of "gourmet government" when I first read it at age 13, and I still think it's a brilliant idea. Check this book out . . . it's quick and fun.

12/16 - The Tower of Geburah by John White (o o o o o)

First in a five-book series (although third chronologically), this abnormally-thick children's fantasy novel attempted to put a new spin on an old idea: Christian allegory thinly disguised as engaging entertainment. As I recall, it generally succeeds, in spite of being rather derivative.

I first read this book sometime after completing The Chronicles of Narnia (pre-1st grade) and before I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (4th grade), although I don't remember precisely when. At the time I thought it was the greatest book ever (it would be replaced in 4th grade, see above).

The story begins with Wesley, Lisa, and Kurt discovering four magical television sets in their uncle's attic. These TVs suck them into the magical land of Anthropos, separating Lisa from the boys, and the adventure is on. They are sent on a quest to fulfill a prophecy and restore the imprisoned king of Anthropos to the throne by retrieving a number of magical items that have lain for centuries in the enchanted Tower of Geburah.

Yes, White shamelessly rips off Narnia in a big way. Duh. But does he do it well?

I would say that he does in this case, especially considering in particular the age group in question. I have read three of the six books in the series (The Iron Scepter and The Sword Bearer), the third being vastly inferior to the first two. Judging from the excerpts and synopses I've read of the others, the remaining books go into something of a quality tailspin . . . but this first one entertained me. It doesn't do anything radically new, but maybe you can find a younger sibling to read it to.

Posted by Jared at 12:01 AM | TrackBack

November 20, 2004

Bustiers, Bohemians, Ballads, & Bordellos

There was much SC movie-watching goodness last night, my friends. After a few of us had toyed with the idea for a few weeks, all of the movies finally came together at the right time and in the right place and we had a Burlesque Marathon.

Chicago, Cabaret, and Moulin Rouge . . . three very special musicals in one very special evening.

I happen to own Chicago and it's a favorite of mine. The only thing is, every time I see it again with people who have never seen it before I suddenly remember how racy it is. It's most annoying, because otherwise I really don't notice at all.

Cabaret was borrowed on VHS (bleah!) from the local library, and I had never seen it before. I kind of knew some of what to expect, but . . . Well, there's some really great stuff in there, but . . . See, it's just that . . . Wow. And having Liza Minelli as the leading lady doesn't do anyone any favors.

Anna had Moulin Rouge, which was by far the happiest and least cynical of the three (despite the ending). The unbelievably frantic pace of (in particular) the entire first half of that movie walks a very fine line between artistic brilliance and chaotic nonsense . . . but somehow it just works, and provides a good deal of amusement and entertainment besides. Absinthe and Bohemians! Yay!

Anyway, the resulting aftermath of all this is that I have the most random, bizarre, and disturbing hodgepodge of songs riding around and around in my head like so many wooden horses on a demonic carousel.

Oh, well . . . I'll figure out how to focus somehow.

Posted by Jared at 03:21 PM | TrackBack

November 11, 2004

Transfiguring the Tradition

Fiddler on the Roof and I go way back, deep into the murky, lugubrious mists of my formative years. I don't believe that I was any older than five when I saw it for the first time. I remember two scenes from that viewing: "If I Were a Rich Man" (which I love . . . although I couldn't pick a favorite song) and "Miracle of Miracles" (which is the only song in the movie that I loathe). And unless I am very much mistaken, I was unceremoniously put to bed before the end of the movie. Such is the plight of the five-year old.

It was not until I was beginning my senior year in high school, in fact, that I rediscovered this delightful cinematic opus. My grandparents had given my family a two-video VHS copy and, being bored late one night, I popped it into the player.

Three hours and two minutes later I had nearly talked myself into rewinding it and playing it again.

Although I settled for a good night's sleep in the end, I watched it at least three or four more times that year, and I hadn't been at LeTourneau for even a full semester when I had the irresistable urge to get my hands on another copy.

I had talked Bryan (my roommate at the time) into going to Blockbuster with me where we had acquired and made use of a membership card, and it was there that I turned in my hour of need for a shiny DVD copy of Fiddler on the Roof.

In addition to having Bryan (who had never seen it) with me, I somehow also managed to collar Wilson and Uncle Doug (neither of them had seen it either), and the four of us enjoyed ourselves enormously.

I purposed then and there to ask for my own DVD copy for Christmas, and it was duly given unto me. With that, I assumed the mantle of the proud office of "Keeper of the Fiddler" . . . and I have worn it ever since.

That spring I watched it with Martinez (who also had not seen it before) and half a dozen or so of the Penn 2 guys. The following fall I watched it with Anna and Moore (they hadn't seen it) plus Wilson, Sharon, Scholl, etc. Last spring, we regulars were joined at the screening by Gallagher (who had seen it) and . . . Well, in short, it has become accepted practice to have a showing of Fiddler on the Roof during every semester I am at college.

And this semester was no exception. Quite far from it, in fact. I am currently taking "World Literature Through Film" as an Honors, junior-level lit elective, and the class requires students to form groups. This is in order that the entire last half of the semester may be spent showing movies based on works of world literature and presenting a comparison/contrast on the original work to the class.

After promptly forming a partnership with my close associates, Wilson and Martinez, we began to rack our brains for an appropriate selection. My initial tentative suggestion (Lolita) was shot down by Dr. Solganick (although he did it reluctantly, I must say), but it wasn't long before Fiddler came to mind. In the end, I'm rather shocked it wasn't the first thing that popped into my head.

The long and short of all this is that our presentation took place Thursday night, and was quite as successful as any presentation I have given before or could hope to give in future. And there was the added benefit of having nearly 20 people there for this semester's showing of the movie. I don't remember who exactly, but there were at least five there who hadn't seen the movie before.

What follows below the fold is the paper that Wilson, Martinez, and I wrote to go with the movie. Martinez wrote the beginning (on the book), Wilson wrote the middle (on the author and historical context), and I wrote the end (on the movie itself) . . . with Martinez fitting the three portions together and covering introduction and conclusion. This was followed by polishing and re-polishing and . . . blah blah blah. I'm rambling.

Read the paper if you have the time. And if you find yourself in the area, be sure to join us next semester for Fiddler on the Roof!

Translating Tevye: Tradition, Community, Faith, and Doubt
in Two Visions of the Dairyman

Sholem Aleichem’s novel Tevye the Dairyman is a classic piece of Yiddish literature. Fiddler on the Roof, the film based on Aleichem’s work, is likewise a beloved masterpiece. Many of the characters and plots overlap between the two versions; their ultimate theme is also the same, but it is expressed in slightly different ways and in a different tone. Although the film is based on the book, its approach to difficult questions of faith is significantly more playful.

Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman is a collection of short stories about a man who argues with God. Tevye, the main character, leads a difficult life and cannot understand why he is so poor while other Jews are so rich. Tevye struggles to reconcile the injustice of the world with the character of his God. The later stories tell of Tevye’s problems in marrying off his daughters; each one reveals a perspective on the Jewish tradition. Despite constant and recurring problems, Tevye remains true to his faith in God, which gives him courage to endure difficult times.

The early stories, particularly “Tevye Strikes it Rich” and "Tevye Blows a Small Fortune,” have a lighthearted tone. Tevye makes many amusing comments, such as the observation his horse is “only human too […] or else why would God have made him a horse,” or that an event “took place exactly a dog’s age ago, nine or ten years to the day, if not a bit more or less” (Aleichem 3). Such verbal acrobatics are entertaining to the audience, and they take some of the edge off of the otherwise-depressing subject of poverty. This lightness for the reader is reflected in Tevye’s nearly carefree attitude. He grumbles and complains about his lot in life, but he accepts that things “were meant to be” the way they are (13). He has faith in God and believes that He knows best. This faith provides the foundation for everything Tevye does; it gives him an anchor in times of difficulty.

The later stories, however, are not as lighthearted. All of Tevye’s daughters give him troubles, some more depressing than others. The sequence in which Tevye concocts a dream to cover Tzeitel’s marriage to the tailor Motl Komzoyl is amusing, but the family’s parting with Hodl is tinged with sadness, and Chava’s elopement leaves Tevye bitter throughout the remainder of the book. Later, Shprintze commits suicide after her failed engagement, and Beilke ends up living in poverty in America after driving Tevye mad with worry. Tevye describes his daughters as “too smart for their own good,” but he loves them all dearly, as he shows in dealing with their marriage problems (52).

But Tevye’s troubles do not end with his daughters. At the beginning of “Tevye Leaves for the Land of Israel,” Tevye tells of losing his wife, Golde (99). Then, Motl Komzoyl, Tevye’s son-in-law and Tzeitel’s husband, dies between that story and “Lekh-Lekho,” leaving Tevye responsible for his eldest daughter and her children (118). To round out his troubles, the village policeman tells Tevye that he (along with all the other Jews) must leave his home and move to another town.

In these later trials, Tevye’s faith begins to wobble. His conversations with God become more accusatory, and his rants against the injustice of life become more bitter. His problems with his daughters seem to harden his heart somewhat, so that by the end of the book he does not know whether God is really listening. At times, Tevye’s faith is little more than the mortar holding him together with his fellow Jews.

But there are two rays of hope in the darkness of Tevye’s life. First, Chava returns and reconciles with Tevye. Second, and more importantly, Tevye clings to his faith in God, shaky though it may be. The book ends with Tevye encouraging Jews everywhere “not to worry: the old God of Israel still lives” (131). The community of Jews still exists. But despite the positive elements, the ending carries overtones of bitterness and confusion as Tevye struggles with his faith.

The parting message from Tevye to his people indicates Aleichem’s preoccupation with the concept of community. In typical Jewish literary fashion, all of the Tevye stories show a profound attention to history and the fellowship of faith. The reader may gain a much more thorough appreciation for Aleichem’s work through a study of its literary and historical context.

According to Hillel Halkin’s introduction to the book, Tevye the Dairyman is “perhaps the only [novel] ever written in real time, that is, according to a scale on which time for the author and time for his characters are absolutely equivalent” (xxi). Because the novel was written over twenty years as a series of short stories, and is set within Aleichem’s own surroundings, the reader can follow a remarkable progression in the author’s thinking. The writing unfolds against the background of late Tsarist Russia, a time of growing persecution for Jews. This historical context provides a sense of urgency to the narratives; Tevye’s growing doubt is driven by the isolation and disenfranchisement of his people, which suggest a breakdown in the promises of their faith. Aleichem thus makes a strong statement about the condition of the Jewish people in his lifetime.

Sholem Aleichem shielded himself from scrutiny not only by using Tevye as a mouthpiece, but also by crafting a new persona for himself as the author; the writer Sholem Aleichem was actually the rabbi Shalom Rabinovich. The author used these fictional mediators to pose difficult questions to his readers. Joseph Sherman observes that Tevye the Dairyman often transfers familiar religious formulae to new situations, creating paradoxes of faith. He notes, for example, that “every time Tevye quotes from the Hallel [a prayer of praise], the effect of his quotation is to challenge the existence of the mercies that it celebrates in the everyday experience of ordinary folk like himself” (10).

David Booth explains further: “Tevye has no sense of the clear cause-effect nature of God’s will as evoked in earlier Jewish responses to catastrophe. In this strange new world, all that he can count on is his family and his community.” God is silent during Tevye’s troubles; at the end of the book, hope seems to come not from the fact that “God still lives” (since He has not been generous with deliverance) as much as from the fact that there is still a community of believing Jewish brethren scattered across the globe. In Booth’s view, Tevye has taken his questions so far that “the affirmation becomes more important than what is affirmed, the storyteller more important than the story” (302). This existential tone marks Tevye the Dairyman as a vital part of the modern Jewish literary tradition, a tradition preoccupied with the challenges posed by philosophical rationalism as well as human suffering.

In 1894, Jewish identity papers in Russia were marked with the word “Jew;” in this year, Sholem Aleichem wrote the first Tevye story. In 1905, Aleichem witnessed a pogrom in Kiev and subsequently left Russia; this is the date of “Chava,” the first truly tragic story in the series. In 1914, the flood of Jewish emigration from Russia was cut off by World War I; this year saw the end of the series with “Lekh-Lekho,” in which Tevye, although denied his dream of living in the Holy Land, is separated from his home forever (Halkin xiv-xv).

But the saga of Tevye did not end with “Lekh-Lekho;” Tevye the Dairyman was adapted into a stage play, which was later adapted into a film. The plot of the film is drawn entirely from the book, specifically following the plots of “Today’s Children,” “Hodl,” and “Chava” and including elements from “Tevye Strikes it Rich” and “Tevye Blows a Small Fortune.” The later, more depressing stories are absent, except for the common ending, in which Tevye is forced from his home.

One of the most important things to note about the adaptations is that both are musicals. The use of music is the primary distinction between the novel and the film; the poetic features of Aleichem’s prose are adapted to the screen in song form. The movie uses music to capture the feel of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. However, the reasons for the selection of this particular artistic medium run a bit deeper than that, and the decision to tell the stories of Sholem Aleichem through music works beautifully.

Music can overcome the barriers of language and culture in order to communicate directly to the heart and soul of the listener. In fact, we see this in the movie during the song “To Life,” as the Russians and Jews set aside their differences for a time of celebration. The music acts as an emotional unifier. It brings the characters in the movie together as they sing, and it draws the viewer in with them as well. This echoes the theme of community that is so prevalent in Tevye the Dairyman; the musical element in the film subtly reinforces this theme for the viewer.

Music is used effectively in a number of different ways throughout Fiddler on the Roof. Most of the songs fall into more than one of the following categories. First, music cultivates and reveals deeper connections between characters in a number of instances (e.g. “To Life,” “Miracle of Miracles,” and “Do You Love Me?”). Some of the songs, such as “Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man,” give added depth to the characters. The forming of connections extends beyond individuals to the cultural level; a number of the songs draw deeply on Jewish culture, bringing out the importance of various Jewish beliefs and traditions. This is perhaps most apparent in the song “Sabbath Prayer,” a montage of Jewish families celebrating the Sabbath together in different homes throughout the village. The influence of Jewish customs can also be seen in dance during the “Wedding Celebration” number.

Another function of the songs is to emphasize a point or theme beyond what could be accomplished with normal dialogue. “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Far From the Home I Love,” “Tradition,” and “Anatevka” all fit into this category. In fact, “Tradition” sums up the major theme of the film: Jewish traditions form the foundation of Jewish identity. In “Anatevka,” furthermore, it becomes clear that this Jewish community consists of something much deeper and more lasting than the few dilapidated houses that make up the small Russian village. A bond far stronger than mere location binds these characters to one another.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, some songs are heavily symbolic. The best example of this in Fiddler is the “Chava Ballet Sequence.” The sequence is one of the linchpins of the movie, using music and dance to summarize the progression of the story to that point. As instrumental music plays, Golde silently teaches Chava to dance, after which Chava walks out to join her older sisters. The three dance together to the tune of the Fiddler (more will be said about this enigmatic character later), until the two eldest are joined by their respective spouses and dance away from their sister. Chava is left dancing alone until she feels the luring call of Fyedka. There is a brief struggle as the Fiddler tries to hold her back, but in the end Chava runs (but does not dance) to join Fyedka. Symbolically, this represents how the girls have been taught to “dance” to the tune of tradition by their mother, and how the first two have been joined in the dance by their husbands. Chava, on the other hand, has abandoned the dance completely; she has broken with tradition and community, leaving behind everything and everyone she has ever known, as her heartbroken father watches.

The musical numbers are not the only important elements at work within Fiddler on the Roof, however. The title character, who ties everything together as the movie’s chief metaphor, is quite musical in nature. He could effectively symbolize a number of different things, but the most significant is shown by what Tevye says at the beginning of the film: “A fiddler on the roof. Here [. . .] you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. You may ask [. . .] how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!” The Fiddler represents both tradition and the spirit of Jewish community.

The Fiddler appears several times during the movie, each one a key point in the plot or in the changing of Tevye’s fortunes. The first such appearance is in the opening credits, after Tevye has introduced the concept of tradition to the audience. After this, the Fiddler does not return until Tevye hears news of the pogrom, after an evening of carousing with Lazar Wolf. Here he moves from an emotional high to an emotional low, and this is one of several points in the movie where he questions God. It is here that the Fiddler appears to pull him back out of despair and lead him home.

The Fiddler’s role in the vital ballet sequence has already been mentioned. His fourth and final appearance in the movie comes just a few moments before the closing credits begin to roll. Tevye and his family have just left behind their home, and are slogging slowly through the half-frozen mud of a road in the middle of nowhere. They, like countless Jews before them, have been cast adrift in the world, and Tevye seems despondent. Then he hears the quiet playing of the Fiddler behind him. Turning, he spots the musician, who stares back with a mischievous glint in his eye. Tevye motions him to follow with his head, and then, as the Fiddler follows and plays joyfully behind him, strides purposefully onward with his head held high. The message seems to be that so long as the Jewish people keep their traditions with them, their fellowship with God and each other will remain intact, and they will have nothing to fear.

Here we see a significant departure from the message of Tevye the Dairyman. Both the novel and the film grow more serious as they progress, but the book has moments of utter sadness (e.g. the deaths of Shprintze and Golde), while the film remains relatively optimistic. In the book, the hope expressed at the end of the last story is almost half-hearted after Tevye’s recent expression of doubt. In contrast, the film ends with the lilting, happy strains of the Fiddler’s music, which accompanies Tevye and his family (which includes Golde, who is still alive in the film) as they travel. The film’s ending is almost happy; it certainly celebrates the stoic resolve of the Jewish people.

In short, the novel Tevye the Dairyman carries an almost bitter tone as it reflects on what seems to be God’s abandonment of the Jews. At the same time, it maintains that faith in God is necessary, if for no other reason than for the community it gives the Jews. The film Fiddler on the Roof has a similar focus on community, but its happier tone reflects a more hopeful outlook and faith in God.

Works Consulted

Aleichem, Sholem. Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories. Trans. Hillel Halkin. Schocken Books, 1987.

Booth, David. “The Role of the Storyteller—Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel.” Judaism 42.3 (1993): 298-312.

Fiddler on the Roof. Screenplay by Sholom Aleichem and Joseph Stein. Dir. Norman Jewison. MGM/UA Home Entertainment, 1971.

Halkin, Hillel. Introduction. Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories. By Sholem Aleichem. Trans. Halkin. Schocken Books, 1987.

Sherman, Joseph. “Holding Fast to Integrity: Shalom Rabinovich, Sholem Aleichem and Tevye the Dairyman.” Judaism 43.1 (1994): 6-18.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

October 19, 2004

Freedom Costs a Buck-Oh-Five . . .

. . . And a ticket to see the matinee showing of Team America: World Police on opening day costs $5. Go figure.

I know this because I was at that showing (beginning 4:20 PM last Friday afternoon) with a few local patriotic types. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, in a subversive sort of way, but I'm not sure that the process of keeping things quiet and concocting multiple outlandish tales to further muddy the waters wasn't even more fun than going to the movie itself.

My personal rating of the feature was a 62%. I kinda hate makng value judgments on things like this because I can't help feeling that maybe it ought to be a good bit higher or (more likely) considerably lower. But this pretty much works. The humor was over-the-top, and largely low-brow . . . but it was entertaining. And, after months of listening to hardcore conservative schtick . . . I needed it.

Not that the jabs at liberals weren't vastly entertaining as well, but it isn't the frothy-mouthed liberal wackos that I have to put up with all the time, so it was less of a release.

I can't really recommend this movie to many people. I thought it was funny a lot more often than it was stupid. In addition to poking timely fun at all political extremes, there was much wry skewering of the action flick genre. They also made excellent (and unexpected) use of music. A good portion of the best laughs came from the songs, and it would not be far off to classify this movie as a musical (of sorts). My personal favorite was the parody of patriotic country-western sludge (the title of this post comes from that song), but there were plenty of great numbers. However . . .

If you aren't easily offended . . . no, scratch that. If you're very nearly impossible to offend, and you are sick unto death of the rhetoric of one or both political parties, or just of election news in general . . . go see this movie. Otherwise, stay far away. Really. (That goes for you, too, Anna . . . I know you're sick of election crap, but . . . don't.)

And . . . There it is. Mystery solved. I sneaked off campus and watched a movie that most of LeTourneau would not approve of, for one reason or another, and was generally entertained by my small corner of subversion and by messing with peoples' heads.

Ha ha ha.

P. S. Keep this little incident in mind when we watch Rashomon in a few weeks. That is all.

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September 29, 2004

"Life isn't fair. It's just fairer than death, that's all."

--William Goldman, The Princess Bride

I'm feeling particularly contemplative this evening, despite the distressing absence of my good health, the bothersome lateness of the hour, and the very unwelcome presence of three or four boatloads of homework.

I haven't posted lately for a number of reasons (unfortunately none of those reasons has anything to do with a lack of material). During the past week or so I have spent a sizable chunk of time when I could have been blogging watching the complete first season of Dead Like Me. That'd be about 11 hours . . . but I watched a few episodes twice. You can blame Randy for this one.

In trying to think of something to compare the show to, I kept coming back to the same thing over and over: It's basically what Touched by an Angel would be if it were smart, cynical, and macabre instead of cute, banal, and *shudders* "inspiring."

The basic premise goes something like this: Georgia Lass (George) is a morose eighteen-year old college drop-out whose only direction in life is supplied by her irascible, embittered mother's repeated and insistent attempts to push her out of the nest. Standing outside during lunch break on her first day in a mind-numbing, dead-end job . . . she is hit by a flaming toilet seat that plummets from space as Mir comes apart in orbit. (If you think that's bizarre, know that the writers of the show regularly outdo themselves when it comes to unusual or unexpected ways for people to die.) And that's where the fun begins.

George must join the ranks of the Grim Reapers, replacing the guy who took her soul just before she died. It's a thankless, and more importantly, wageless, job that she will perform for an undisclosed length of time (decades, at least), dwelling among and mingling with the living, before passing the mantle to someone else and moving on.

Her four co-workers in the district, randomly selected like her, are a grab-bag of interesting types . . . but I'll just stop describing the show in detail now, lest I sit here all night. I could easily come up with a blogpost out of every single episode . . . But you should be watching it yourself anyway.

From the show's upbeat, unconventional intro (jazzy music, people wearing "reaper-esque" black robes and hoods and carrying wicked-looking scythes around while walking dogs in the park, standing by the water cooler at work, playing basketball, and doing their laundry in a laundromat) it's not hard to tell that you aren't dealing with the average sitcom or TV drama. What we have instead is a brilliant tragicomedy, well written and well acted, that is satisfying both visually and intellectually.

But "Dead Like Me" isn't about soul-reaping anymore than Harry Potter is about magic. The show uses its engaging plot device, not just to entertain, but to explore deeper questions about life and death. Surprisingly, the show is much more about the former than about the latter. Each episode deals sensitively with questions about how people deal with grief, the importance of relationships and community, living life to the fullest, and avoiding regrets (just to name a few).

The series stays well-balanced as it walks a very fine line between the hilarious and the poignant. Somehow it manages never to descend to the level of the silly or the trite. You're almost constantly either laughing loudly or swallowing a sudden lump in your throat. I don't recommend attempting to eat anything while watching the show.

I must point out that the series does not by any means operate within the framework of a Christian worldview. Characters do not have any problem with "swearing" or sexual promiscuity, and morality is often ambiguous at best. I'm not quite sure what I would call its philosophy (it smacks of a number of things). I wouldn't call the series unbiblical or antibiblical, but it is nonbiblical and/or extrabiblical. (Just think about it for a sec . . . I actually didn't contradict myself there.) I am very glad that this is the case, for a few reasons.

First, it definitely takes the focus completely away from the afterlife, to the degree that it is practically ignored . . . which also allows the series to avoid neat, easy, shallow answers to deep, practical, tangible questions.

Second, I like to be challenged, both intellectually and spiritually. Strictly Christian entertainment can often help you grow in various ways, or reinforce an old principle, but rarely does it cause me to reevaluate and strengthen any core beliefs, or just sit back in my chair and go, "Huh."

Anyway, aside from a great entertainment experience, and loads of food for thought, I came away from the first season with an increased zest for life, a greater sense of the value of family and friends, an impression of the importance of both our purpose and our legacy, and a realization that everything you do, especially in relation to others, is important. It all comes down to a series of questions: If you were to die today, what would you have accomplished? How would people remember you? What would you leave undone or unsaid? How would it affect the people you care about? . . . etc., etc., etc.

I must have Season Two! I must have Season Two forthwith!

Posted by Jared at 10:33 PM | TrackBack

August 31, 2004

The Big Summer Movie Project

As you all probably know by now, this summer bore witness to a large-scale project which involved kicking back in the nearest piece of comfortable furniture and watching loads and loads of movies, keeping a detailed record and carefully calculating an appropriate rating for each and every one of them. And now it's time for the old statistics game to come into play.

I have watched 137 different movies this summer (there have probably been at least a dozen repeats).

-6 of these movies were rated G.
-38 were rated PG.
-30 were rated PG-13.
-43 were rated R.
-20 were UnRated.

This was pretty much the focus of the summer . . . The amount of time spent (counting reruns) boils down to nearly two weeks of solid 24/7 movie watching (approximately one and a quarter movies per day at almost exactly two hours per movie).

In addition to this, I did manage to squeeze in a full-time job, a two-week summer course worth three credit hours, and a couple dozen books plus two visits to West Texas and copious amounts of quality time with our much esteemed "HNRS" SC Seniors during this, their final summer of college life. I remember sleeping, too. Definitely plenty of sleeping.

(Brief sidenote: As to that next-to-last item, I was particularly glad to be able to spend the extra time with the all-too-soon-to-be graduates. Just thought I'd mention that.)

Anyway, I contemplated listing the worst movies I saw this summer, but there seemed to be very little point. There were exactly ten movies that got 50% or less on the rating scale, but that was because I chose to watch good movies fairly consistently . . . plus I didn't necessarily loathe the experience of watching most of these and the following listing seems much more relevant.

The Top Ten Movies I Saw This Summer (in order as watched):

-Schindler's List

-The Seventh Seal

-Rear Window



-A Passage to India

-The Last Emperor

-To Kill a Mockingbird

-The Graduate

-Road to Perdition

Only four of those were first-time views for me, but I have watched an additional four of them for the first time within the last year . . . Only "Rear Window" and "Road to Perdition" are (relatively) long-time favorites.

The movielist isn't going away, but due to the sudden and particularly uninvited arrival of the fall semester the summer project is forced to draw to a close. I'll be sad to see it, and the summer in general, go . . . But I look forward to just about everything that comes with the beginning of a new semester. I won't be watching quite so many movies now (or maybe I will), but the record-keeping and attempts at quality selection will continue.

After all, if I continue at anything like the present rate I'll have caught up with Roger Ebert in a mere 20 years . . .

Posted by Jared at 12:14 PM | TrackBack

August 06, 2004

Anna and the King and I and Anna

Well, I just returned from an encore performance of "The King and I" put on by the Longview Community Theatre. I went, and Anna went. Some bums stayed at home. Some are wandering the world. We are displeased, but it's their loss, not ours . . . And it gave me the once-in-a-lifetime chance to use that title for this post.

Anyway, I rather enjoyed myself. We quickly found our seats, and we were soon joined on all sides by many eager patrons of the arts. The female sitting next to me was of advanced years, and was wearing enough pungent old-lady perfume to drown newborn puppies in. Fortunately I got used to the smell and stopped noticing fairly quickly. As we waited for the musical to begin, Anna happened to notice a few familiar faces in the row behind us. That was when we discovered that we would be sharing this experience with the Hon. Dr. Watson and spouse (more on that later).

In ordering my thoughts for some sort of review (both during the performance and now) I find that I am a bit at sea in some respects. I'm kinda missing the other half of the team with whom to play "Good Critic, Bad Critic." But whatever, I know what Scholl would say if he were here. He would say, "Bah, Texans!" and that would suffice to condemn the entirety of the thing. I, on the other hand, will merely relate the pertinent facts of the matter as they relate to that particular aspect of the production, then set them aside and proceed to judge from a more rational and objective standpoint.

Let us proceed to do just that:

I must say, first, that for a small East Texas city to attempt a production of "The King and I" is a bit overambitious to begin with. Why? Because it requires Asians. Lots and lots of Asians. Like that scene in The Matrix where he says, "Guns. Lots of guns," and two endless racks appear . . . That many Asians. Almost.

Problem #1: I believe I mentioned that we are in East Texas. That geographically informative adjective in front of "Texas" is the only eastern part about it. We haven't got that many Asians.

Problem #2: Said Asians are required to speak with convincing accents originating in their native region. Also there are a handful of Brits in the thing. This is, as I have mentioned a few times already, Texas. Trying to sound like you aren't from around here when you really are is like hoping nobody's going to taste all that horseradish you accidentally dropped into the cheese souffle you were making . . .

Problem #3: Said Asians do not have the same physical appearance as your average WASP. Looking through the pictures of the actors who would be playing Siamese characters, I couldn't help but say to myself, "Self, is there enough make-up in all East Texas (that isn't already in use by Southern Baptist ladies, like the ones sitting all around me) to turn these distinctly European specimens into convincing Orientals? I think not . . ." *dramatic chord*

My concerns were, I fear, at least partially well founded. In the area of make-up, the main characters were "acceptable" but amongst the horde of little urchins, particularly, there was some definite lacking going on. The illusion was not upheld in that respect, but I was prepared to forgive.

In the area of accents, I was pleasantly surprised (although my fears weren't entirely unfounded in this area either). In the matter of speech, the worst offenders were the Prime Minister of Siam (played by our own Dr. Mays) and Sir Edward Ramsay. Princess Ying Yaowlak also had issues, but she was, like, eight, and had all of three lines or something. Mrs. Anna herself alternated so often between British schoolteacher and Southern belle (there were certain words and vowel sounds that consistently tripped her up) that I stopped noticing or caring when it happened, and so passed on with relative ease. Aside from these rather paltry complaints, I was quite impressed.

The costumes were largely excellent . . . and they even managed four or five different outfits for each of the main characters. The props and sets were artistic, creative, and easy on the eyes. They successfully avoided glaring anachronisms (with the possible exception of some suspicious, and large, tattoos on one of the Buddhist monks), which is always a pleasant surprise.

The acting, barring the already noted exceptions, was superb, especially the singing. All of the singers had very fine voices. Anna, the King, Tuptim, the King's #1 wife, and the Heir Apparent were all very talented.

The music was divine.

Regarding the musical numbers as a whole . . . Largely quite wonderful, especially when they involved dancing, as the following: "The March of the Siamese Children" (nightmarish to choreograph and organize, I'm sure . . . someone has my pity), "Getting to Know You" (again, kudos to whoever got stuck organizing that one), "The Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet" (I think I actually liked this part even better than the movie, very notably discharged), "Shall We Dance?" (well done considering, in particular, the cramped stage . . . this was particularly apparent to me having seen the wide-ranging sweeping and whirling that takes place in the movie version). I also really liked "A Puzzlement" (The King's big solo number), "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You" (Anna's big solo number), and "I Have Dreamed" (Tuptim and Lun Tha's big . . . umm . . . duo number).

And that was the musical experience. Highly enjoyable. I would like to take this opportunity to note the rest of the LCT season schedule:

-late September, early October: Dearly Departed (quirky southern comedy)

-mid-November: Wait Until Dark (taut suspense thriller . . . the movie version of this, starring Audrey Hepburn, is my favorite movie of its genre)

-late February: Jekyll & Hyde (the musical . . . yes, musical)

-late April: The Man Who Came to Dinner (an excellent comedy which I am particularly anxious to see)

All of the above would cost $10/ticket, (save the musical, which would be $15). SC social outing, anyone?

And speaking of musicals, Watson wandered over to speak with us in the lobby during the intermission, and pitched a most intriguing idea to us. He has his own idea for an elaborate stage production: "R. G.: The Musical." We were both immediately sold. Anna seemed anxious to see this at Hootenanny (I don't know that it would get past the censors, myself), but Watson seemed to have his sights set on something a bit nearer to, say, Broadway.

Whatever . . . he had loads of ideas. All of them were pricelessly funny. Dr. Watson has had far too much free time this summer . . . it's time for him to get back to school and put that warped and twisted mind of his back to its proper work corrupting students. Anyway, I can't and shan't reproduce all of his excellent ideas here, for obvious reasons, but I simply must share his idea for the big, show-stopping musical number: A LeTourneau University Alma Mater Chorus Line. He even gave us a brief demonstration of what it might look like, right there in the middle of the crowded lobby. We were in stitches.

As we went back inside at the end of the intermission, he leaned in and murmured, "Auditions begin soon, if you're interested."

Anna: "Be sure you call us first."

A job for the SC Players, anyone?

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

August 03, 2004

The Lord of Ten Thousand Years

The Last Emperor is one of the purest historical epics I have ever seen. It is a brilliant spectacle, an incredible story.

It follows the life of Pu Yi, who was crowned emperor of China in 1908 at the age of three. Four years later he was forced to abdicate as ruler of the Chinese, but he continued to live in the Forbidden City as a sort of figurehead until 1924 when he was forced to leave and eventually returned to his birthplace in Manchuria.

Seven years after this, of course, Manchuria was invaded by the Japanese. In 1934, the Japanese set Pu Yi up as the puppet emperor of Manchuria, a position he retained until he was captured by the Russians at the end of WWII. He was returned to the Chinese in 1950 and spent the next 10 years in prison, being "re-educated" by the Communists to live as an "ordinary citizen." When he was finally released, he became a gardener. He often visited the Forbidden City as an ordinary citizen, and finally died in 1967.

That is the bare-bones account of the amazing life of the last emperor of China . . . the movie version is quite a bit more engaging and moving. The movie jumps back and forth between its "present time" in the 1950s and flashbacks to Pu Yi's life as emperor and figurehead.

It won 9 well-deserved Oscars in 1987 (Best Writing, Sound, Picture, Director, Music, Editing, Costumes, Cinematography, and Art Direction/Set Decoration). Of particular note are the gorgeous costumes and locations . . . it was the first feature film that China allowed to be filmed in the Forbidden City, and it takes full advantage of this privilege. The historical, cultural, and geographical atmospheres are, as a result, flawlessly immersive throughout the 60 years of Chinese history that the movie spans. The wonderful music is a welcome element as well.

The acting is also excellent . . . I particularly enjoyed the performance of the boy who plays the child emperor at age three. Peter O'Toole as Reginald Johnston, the emperor's Scottish tutor, is superb, as always.

There is a great scene near the very beginning where, shortly after Pu Yi's coronation, the little boy becomes bored with a droning ceremony and starts to squirm. Then he stands and begins to jump up and down on his throne. His horrified "advisors" try to shush him, but he climbs down and runs giggling outside . . . to be greeted by the staggering sight of thousands of his subjects bowing before him. He toddles aimlessly among them, and you see that he hasn't even noticed the spectacle. He is searching for the cricket that he can hear chirping somewhere in the crowd . . .

In the next scene, his imperial majesty decides that he no longer likes baths. He yells this loudly over and over as he crashes like Godzilla through a small model of the Forbidden City . . . The royal retainers finally convince him to get in the tub, and as his back is scrubbed he asks, "Is it true I can do anything I want?"

"Of course, your majesty . . . anything you want. You are the Lord of Ten Thousand Years."

The response? He starts splashing water on the four men who are trying to bathe him. He stands up in the small tub and starts kicking water at them, loudly crying, "I'm the seventh heaven! I'm the seventh heaven!"

This sets the tone for most of the rest of his life, and sets up the personality and attitudes that the Communist guards are doing their best to get out of his system during his time in prison.

What I particularly liked was how the movie stayed focused on Pu Yi's life and on the chief issue of whether he can overcome his imperial background and accept his new, lowly place in China. Can Pu Yi finally escape the consequences of a seemingly predetermined sequence of events that have trapped him into the life he leads?

It didn't go out of its way to judge any particular regime or side or set of traditions (and believe me, there are plenty to choose from during this period). Moviemakers as a rule seem to find it nearly impossible to avoid tossing in their two cents on such things, but by the end of this movie, I simply felt that I understood the intricacies of the facts of the period and of the main character's life better . . . not that I had been manipulated by someone's interpretation of history. This is, perhaps, merely a sign of more artful manipulation, but if so . . . Well, good for them.

The final scene is both poignant and perfect . . . the last sequence of scenes, in fact (featuring, in particular, a fascinating peek at the Cultural Revolution). The freeing of the cricket . . . That's all I'll say. You need to watch it.

And yes, I watched the 220 minute extended version. I wasn't bored once . . . Be sure that this is the version that you see . . . the theatrical release was a full hour shorter, and I don't know how this movie could possibly lose an hour. This is the right way to make a crazy long movie, let me tell you this!

Posted by Jared at 10:10 PM | TrackBack

July 31, 2004

"For I Have Tasted the Fruit"

Well, today was the last day of July, and I spent 11 hours of it playing a game of Alpha Centauri. Don't worry, it wasn't all in one sitting . . . No, indeed. I played from 12:30-4:30 AM and then 12:30-7:30 PM. It was fun. I never get tired of this game.

The plot: In 2060, Earth launches the United Nations Spaceship Unity, bound for a habitable planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor (Alpha Centauri). The colonists on board are supposed to spend the 40-year voyage in cryostasis, but a reactor malfunction followed by the assassination of the captain at the hands of an unknown assailant throws everything into disarray and chaos. The travelers split into seven factions, uniting behind the seven most charismatic and influential figures on board, and each group boards a separate pod to the surface of Planet.

Upon arrival, they all set up primary bases and attempt to build an empire (through exploration, scientific discovery, conquest, economy, etc.) capable of securing the dominance of their own particular ideology. Almost immediately, they come into violent contact with the native flora and fauna, and as time goes on the faction leaders begin to experience the tentative mental advances of an awakening planetary consciousness. The planet they have colonized is in the process of achieving sentience, and whether its attitude towards the interlopers is hostile or friendly remains to be seen . . .

It's fairly standard science fiction material skillfully woven into an addictive turn-based strategy game (and sequel to Civilization II . . . another of my favorites).

As always, I played as Academician Prokhor Zakharov (formerly of the Russian Commonwealth), Provost of the "University of Planet" faction. For my money, you just can't beat technology bonuses . . .

All of the options, however, are fairly entertaining in their own way. The game features reasonably talented voice acting and a large collection of well-written key quotes from each leader which really lend personality to the key players. Each character has a reasonably extensive background biography and a collection of three or four published works which serve as the main source for the quotes. The title of this post is from one of Zakharov's books.

The rest of the cast:

-Lady Deirdre Skye (formerly of Free Scotland, author of "Planet Dreams" and "Our Secret War"), leader of Gaia's Stepdaughters (the "environmentalist wacko" faction, color green).

-Chairman Sheng-ji Yang (author of "Essays on Mind and Matter" and "Ethics for Tomorrow"), ruler of the Human Hive (an atheistic police state, loaded down with population and social bonuses, color blue).

-CEO Nwabudike Morgan (author of "The Ethics of Greed" and "The Centauri Monopoly"), head of Morgan Industries (ahhh, the capitalist pigs, color yellow).

-Colonel Corazon Santiago (author of "Planet: A Survivalist's Guide" and " The Spartan Battle Manual"), commander of the Spartan Federation (these people are nuts!, color black).

-Sister Miriam Godwinson (formerly of the Christian States of America, author of "The Blessed Struggle," "But for the Grace of God" and "We Must Dissent"), guider of the Lord's Believers (uhhh . . . yeah, I'd love to know who decided on a "crazy fundie" faction, color orange).

-Commissioner Pravin Lal (author of "The Science of Our Fathers" and "Our Next Journey"), in charge of the Peacekeeping Forces (I hate this guy . . . he's the humanitarian UN flunky, obviously, color purple).

There are four ways to win a game of Alpha Centauri. In a diplomatic victory, you finagle 3/4 of the Planetary Council to unite behind you as Supreme Leader. You can vote for yourself, and number of votes is decided by total size of each factions' bases. Late in the game I had something like 3300 votes as compared to 70 or 80 votes for each of my competitors, but I've never cared for the diplomatic route.

You can achieve economic victory by cornering the Global Energy Market. In order to do this you must accumulate enough money to mind control every single remaining base on the planet. I have never even tried this.

A conquest victory is fairly self-explanatory, and is by far the most satisfying. I usually go for this in combination with the fourth type of victory: transcendence victory. This last is achieved by advancing as rapidly as possible along the tech tree until you have the ability to complete the Ascent to Transcendence project. By this route, your faction is the first to advance to the next stage of sentient evolution, joining with the fully-developed planetary consciousness in "ageless immortality."

In other words, I prefer to win the game by crushing all opposition while evolving into a immortal, semi-omniscient superbeing.

Along the way it's always fun to watch how the technology develops. You can research temporal mechanics, frictionless surfaces, self-aware machines, industrial nanorobotics, and . . . ethical calculus? Yup. Ethical calculus.

These techs in turn lead to advances in weaponry and base facilities . . . and they enable you to work on "secret projects" which grant even more benefits. These are particularly fun (only one can be built of each, so you have to beat the other players to the punch, and they come with an in-game movie as each one is completed). They include things like The Theory of Everything, The Cloning Vats, Clinical Immortality, The Space Elevator, and The Bulk Matter Transmitter.

It is my usual practice to name my bases after Star Wars planets, and today was no exception. I had nearly 100 bases by the end (micromanagement gets to be a real pain at that level) and I was having a very difficult time coming up with names I hadn't already used. The Peacekeepers and the Morganites were wiped out before I ever even came into contact with them, and I destroyed the Spartans fairly early in the game. It's not a good idea to let the Spartans build up when they're sitting right next to you. I made some sort of eternal alliance with the Gaians, but they dropped it suddenly when we were close to eliminating the final two factions. I was most displeased . . . so I took out all three of them. I achieved transcendence just before I had conquered the map, but I played on for a few turns just to have the satisfaction of controlling every last base.

One of my favorite features at the end shows a time-lapse animation of the development of the game using a color-coded map that plots each factions' territorial progression through the game. The colors moved rapidly around the board for quite a while, but then there was a sudden outbreak of "University of Planet White" in three or four places all over the map which grew outwards fairly rapidly to consume the entirety of Planet . . . *sigh*

Time to find something else to do now . . .

Posted by Jared at 11:38 PM | TrackBack

July 26, 2004

Verily y'all missed a goodly sport . . .

'twas indeed a big weekend for the SC Skeleton Crew, here holding down the fort in our remote East Texas outpost for the entirety of the summer. We had tickets for the "Texas Shakespeare Festival" this weekend, and Gallagher came to town.


We saw a performance of The Tempest on Friday night, and The Merchant of Venice on Saturday night. I had suggested on Thursday that we attend both performances decked out in full Elizabethan garb (thinking, of course, that if people can go see Episode I dressed up like Qui-Gon Jinn, there's no reason I shouldn't be able to attend "The Merchant of Venice" in Shylockian attire). The suggestion was not met with a good deal of enthusiasm, and to tell the truth, I was certain that it would involve far too much effort on my part anyway.

When we arrived at the theater in Kilgore, however, Anna noticed two women (who looked to be in their forties or fifties) who had stolen my idea. That is to say, they would have been able to blend in seamlessly at a Ren Faire. We were highly amused.

Tempest isn't exactly the best comedy ever, but I was fairly entertained throughout. The acting wasn't as strong as in Merchant, but obviously I didn't know that at the time. Some of the costumes were rather special . . . (I shall simply point out that a few of the cast members could have used codpieces and leave it at that). Ariel's costume practically wasn't, so to speak (although her problem had nothing to do with the lack of a codpiece, naturally).

I didn't care for Prospero's costume in particular . . . it just didn't say "all-powerful uber-sorceror" somehow. Scholl thought they were going for the "Greek oracle" look. Maybe. I also didn't care for the attire of the random spirits. Their outfits said something like "I am an orange hospital orderly dual-wielding Mexican piñatas."

This notwithstanding, the strongest acting in Tempest came from Caliban (a hideous monster who unwillingly serves Prospero . . . he was quite excellent), the two drunken sailors (Stephano and Trinculo, they provide the bulk of the comic relief when Caliban switches his allegience to them and their "celestial liquor"), and the elderly counselor, Gonzalo (a very Polonius-like character).

I'm not a huge fan of love stories that involve naive girls falling in love with the first men they've ever seen aside from their fathers (and, in this case, Caliban), but aside from that the plot is entertaining. The King of Naples was fairly wooden in his role, and Ariel was giving off a heavy weirdness vibe with her constant swaying and arm waving (as if she were a lighter-than-air floating spirit . . . or possibly both drunk and high). Prospero, Miranda, and Ferdinand were solid enough.

The general atmosphere of the entire thing, particularly in the stage decoration and lighting, produced a very surreal effect . . . on purpose I'm sure. The bizarre designs and lighting were a bit distracting to the eye, but all things considered, 'twas good enough.

Merchant came off quite a bit better when we went the next night. It was the final performance, and I should note that all of the actors from Tempest were in Merchant except the guy who played Prospero. Almost all of them seemed a good deal more comfortable in their Merchant roles with the exception of Antonio (The Merchant himself) who had played Trinculo. He was okay. So were Bassanio (Sebastian), Jessica (Ariel), and Lorenzo (Ferdinand).

Shylock, played by the same guy who played the King of Naples, was magnificent in all respects, thank goodness. Portia (Miranda) and Nerissa had excellent rapport. Launcelot Gobbo was loads of fun to watch. Gratiano (Stephano) and Salerio (Caliban) were hilarious. Tubal (Gonzalo), though a small part, was solidly delivered.

Particularly noteworthy, if only because of what it required of the actor involved, were the Duke of Venice, Prince of Morocco, and Prince of Arragon . . . all played by the same guy. I thought that was funny because, as I recall, Martinez played all three of those same parts (in addition to playing Lorenzo, Stephano, and Leonardo) in our version.

All three parts were very notably discharged . . . even Arragon (who was flagrantly gay . . . as gay as Paris in the spring, as it were . . . I'm still not sure quite why he was wife-hunting).

The costumes were largely late 19th century (fairly standard thing to do, I suppose). Gratiano and Lorenzo wore blinding shades of pink/peach and cream that would put even Dr. Roden to shame, but most of the other costumes were reasonably conservative in comparison. Anna complained that Jessica was obviously wearing a wig, but I wouldn't have known that this was the case had I not seen her real hair the night before. Morocco had the usual white robe, fez, and . . . large scimitar. Arragon . . . all black and silver, excessively tight pants, shirt with a severely ruffled collar and wrists and sharply plunging neckline to mid-chest or so. Scary.

The stage design worked a lot better for this one, I thought. Nice, shiny, marble-looking floor . . . a few (three, I think) columns off to the left . . . large, ornate, arched facade off to the right, with a few shallow, rounded steps leading up to it . . . equally large, flat circle hanging in back to fill in the empty space (the lighting changed its color each time we changed locations). Simple, easy on the eyes, not intrusive . . . All in all, an exceedingly enjoyable production.

And that is my first (and probably only, for awhile) attempt at being a dramatic critic. I'll end this little piece by tossing in this shamelessly arbitrary, and all but totally irrelevent, but still reasonably amusing paragraph on William Shakespeare that I stumbled across today while reading my latest Lemony Snicket book.

There is another writer I know, who, like myself, is thought by a great deal of people to be dead. His name is William Shakespeare, and he has written four kinds of plays: comedies, romances, histories, and tragedies. Comedies, of course, are stories in which people tell jokes and trip over things, and romances are stories in which people fall in love and probably get married. Histories are retellings of things that actually happened, like my history of the Baudelaire orphans, and tragedies are stories that usually begin fairly happily and then steadily go downhill, until all of the characters are dead, wounded, or otherwise inconvenienced. It is usually not much fun to watch a tragedy, whether you are in the audience or one of the characters, and out of all Shakespeare's tragedies possibly the least fun example is King Lear, which tells the story of a king who goes mad while his daughters plot to murder one another and other people who are getting on their nerves. Toward the end of the play, one of William Shakespeare's characters remarks that "Humanity must perforce prey upon itself, like monsters of the deep," a sentence which here means "How sad it is that people end up hurting one another as if they were ferocious sea monsters," and when the character utters those unhappy words, the people in Shakespeare's audience often weep, or sigh, or remind themselves to see a comedy next time.
Posted by Jared at 04:43 PM | TrackBack

July 23, 2004

Vaecordia Confiteor

It is a time for reflection, I suppose. They say that confession is good for the soul. They say that the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. Of course, they are also largely idiots, but . . . Well, we'll see where this takes me. Check out the following list.

Star Wars: The New Jedi Order

1. Vector Prime by R.A. Salvatore - 100%
2. Dark Tide: Onslaught by Michael A. Stackpole - 82%
3. Dark Tide: Ruin by Michael A. Stackpole - 88%
4. Agents of Chaos: Hero's Trial by James Luceno - 86%
5. Agents of Chaos: Jedi Eclipse by James Luceno - 84%
6. Balance Point by Kathy Tyers - 70%
7. Edge of Victory: Conquest by Greg Keyes - 85%
8. Edge of Victory: Rebirth by Greg Keyes - 91%
9. Star by Star by Troy Denning - 93%
10. Dark Journey by Elaine Cunningham - 83%
11. Enemy Lines: Rebel Dream by Aaron Allston - 94%
12. Enemy Lines: Rebel Stand by Aaron Allston 96%
13. Traitor by Matthew Stover - 100%
14. Destiny's Way by Walter Jon Williams - 92%
15. Force Heretic: Remnant by Sean Williams & Shane Dix - 88%
16. Force Heretic: Refugee by Sean Williams & Shane Dix - 82%
17. Force Heretic: Reunion by Sean Williams & Shane Dix - 76%
18. The Final Prophecy by Greg Keyes - 61%
19. The Unifying Force by James Luceno - 89%

(Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that my rating system for books is so arbitrary, it makes amoebas juggling gelatin look reasonable. Really the only reliable judging factor for the percentages above is as a measure of how good the books were in relation to each other.)

I started the first book in the list way back in late 1999, and yesterday evening I finished the last book on the list. So . . . where do I start in on this, anyway?

This is by far the longest series (to date) which I have read in its entirety. It took me five years . . . and I've only been alive for twenty. The series itself actually covers five years of "Star Wars time," by the way. I was in 10th grade when I started reading The New Jedi Order series. I lived on an orphanage in a suburb of the capital of Guatemala. I was being homeschooled. I had never heard of LeTourneau University, or even Longview. I barely had a driver's license, and I certainly couldn't fathom the concept of graduating from high school. I really don't remember for certain what I thought I might major in. I'm pretty sure that both the archaeology and vague "some branch of science" phases were over. I wasn't anywhere near engineering yet. I was probably thinking "teacher" . . . or maybe just "missionary."

I finished the book while riding in a car with three other people whose existence I was unaware of five years ago. It is the summer before my third year of college. I am double majoring in English and History/Political Science. I am living in East Texas.

In short, I am not particularly staggered by having completed a 19-book series, which totalled 6,974 pages in length, I just can't believe how much water went under the bridge while I was following the epic account of Luke Skywalker and company in their struggle against the Yuuzhan Vong. I find that one of the few things I can confidently say that I still have in common with that other self is that we both enjoy picking up a Star Wars book from time to time.

If you're already rolling your eyes, take care. They might unscrew from their sockets and go rolling away over the course of the next few paragraphs . . .

At latest count, there are 96 Star Wars books on my booklist . . . that's out of 922 total books. 1 in 10 of the books I have read over the course of the last eight years has been a Star Wars book. The only meaningful figures that really even approach that are Hardy Boys books (at 1 in 20, much to my chagrin), and those books that have "Favorite of All Time" status (1 in 30).

I own 77 of these books, plus two of the trade paperbacks (comics). My copy of the Episode II novelization is autographed by the author. On my computer I have 33 MB of reference material in Word documents, including an encyclopedia and a timeline/summary of all published material (together they are over 5,000 pages long, single-spaced). I have 150+ Star Wars pictures in a file, mostly for use as wallpaper. I have written two completed works of "fan fiction" (they are saved in Word), one is 10 pages long and the other is 40, and a half finished work which sat at 20 pages the last time I did anything with it nearly three years ago (all three are single-spaced). (As a brief side note, I didn't use any of the established main characters . . . merely borrowed the universe.) There are nine and a half hours of music from the Star Wars movies on my computer. And, still speaking of computers, I have at various times both owned and played through Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, Mysteries of the Sith, Jedi Knight II, TIE Fighter, X-Wing, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, X-Wing Alliance, Rogue Squadron, Galactic Battlegrounds, Force Commander, Starfighter, and Episode I Racer. I can hardly wait to get my hands on Knights of the Old Republic. In other words, I've flown a dozen kinds of starfighters in combat, raced pods on dozens of planets, commanded large complements of both Imperial and Rebel troops in land and space battles, and killed more stormtroopers than you can shake a stick at with everything from lightsabers to turbolasers. I own the Original Trilogy (Special Editions) and Episode I on VHS, Episode II on DVD. Since I don't own a TV or VCR, the full versions of the Original Trilogy (also Special Editions) take up an additional 2 GB of space on my computer. I have a small collection of Star Wars Micro Machines. I own Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. I own a Star Wars beach towel (it features pod racing).

Ballpark figures: I could probably name over 80 Star Wars planets before I really had to stop and think and tell you something about each of them. I might even be able to place about 1/4 of them on a galactic map. (I know the galactic coordinates of Coruscant, why it is named Coruscant, and two alternate names for Coruscant from when it was renamed by invaders.) I could name and describe at least that many alien species and identify their homeworld, if any. (I know about the Vors' Concert of the Winds on Vortex and the floating cities inhabited by Ithorians.) I could probably name over 300 characters, both major and minor, and give you whatever comprehensive biography exists for half of them. (I can name Chewbacca's wife, father, son, nephew, and former arch-rival from his homeworld of Kashyyyk. I can name half a dozen people who have held the position of Director of New Republic Intelligence, and half a dozen Imperial Warlords.) I know the names and a few technical specs (sizes, capabilities, functions, manufacturers) for nearly 200 types of Star Wars vehicles, weapons, and droids. (I know the color of Anakin Solo's lightsaber blade, why the Errant Venture is the only red Star Destroyer in the galaxy, and the function of the YVH 1 droid.) I don't remember the exact number of published Star Wars books, but there are nearly 140. I could put them in chronological order simply by referring to a list of titles. In fact, I might not even need a list . . . I could just list them for you. I could tell you who wrote them, and probably a few other things that they've written. I know who designed the cover art. I could tell you when they were published to within a year (maybe two in some cases) and by what company. I could list and explain the major events from over 55 years of Star Wars "history." I know who the commander of Rogue Squadron was 12 years after Return of the Jedi. I know the particulars of the Wookiee "coming-of-age" ceremonies. I know who killed Grand Admiral Thrawn and why. I can quote the movies, verbatim. I know who played who and what else they've been in. I know that Dennis Lawson (who played Wedge Antilles in the OT) is the real-life uncle of Ewan McGregor (who plays Obi-Wan Kenobi in the prequels). I know that Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker) is from Sweden. I know names of directors, producers, cameramen, stuntpeople, make-up artists, special effects wizards, puppeteers and sound editors. I know that Yoda's eyes are modelled after Albert Einstein's. I know that they used model battleship kits to construct the miniature of the first Death Star trench. I could simultaneously Force-choke three assailants to death before they could take two steps.

Well, okay, maybe not that . . . I could, however, beat Leatherwood at any game of Star Wars trivia. Probably in my sleep. (This is not a point of pride.) I could go on . . . a lot. But I won't. I just . . . won't.

In conclusion, I don't really need to try and defend myself. It wouldn't work. I merely lay the facts before you. Perhaps you can at least understand why I might enjoy reading Star Wars books. I know these characters better than I know my children . . . errr . . . so to speak. It is comfortable to slide into a familiar universe, and it is fun to see what goes on there as the years go by.

To conclude in as choppy a fashion as possible, let me just say this: May the Fluff be with you, for the Fuzz will be with you, always.

I will now go read the Star Wars version of this, this, and this. And yes, that does mean that I just started Star Wars book #97.

And you will all mock me now. Copiously. And for anyone who wants to know, the correct spelling is L-O-S-E-R.

Thank you very much.

Posted by Jared at 04:32 PM | TrackBack

July 13, 2004

A Wilde Shot in the Dark

As you can see on the right, we watched Wilde last night. It was fairly disturbing . . . and I thought movies had stopped disturbing me awhile ago. I do not recommend it to . . . well, anyone, really.

But I wouldn't have minded nearly so much if they hadn't been so disgustingly incorrect in their characterization of Oscar Wilde. It's positively criminal . . . like the screenwriter penned a movie on the great author without reading anything he'd written. They actually did quote him at length in the movie, of course, but it's as if they weren't paying attention to what they were reading while selecting the quotes and so forth . . . Gross negligence!

I suppose I was also more than a little distraught by all of the familiar faces involved (the movie had a ridiculous number of famous actor types) . . . and what those faces were . . . ah . . . doing. You can get a full cast list for yourself if you want it . . . I will simply mention in passing that this was Orlando Bloom's film debut.

Now, on to the main point:

Wilde's character was reduced to that of your average quiet, sardonic wit . . . no flavor or flamboyance, no spring in the step, no gaiety. Well, okay, there was gaiety all right, it just wasn't the kind I'm talking about. If you're going to be gay, dammit, be gay!

Whatever. I sense that I am straying slightly from my original aim. The chief problem with the movie was this: It turned Oscar Wilde into a victim, not only of his society, but of other young men. He is seduced, to begin with, by a man younger than himself, and he proceeds to be swept into affair after affair as if he doesn't want to be involved at all, really.

Always he is the too-quiet voice of reason and propriety and moderation and discretion, simply unable to assert himself in the face of his lover's belligerence. Did any of them actually read all of De Profundis? (I have previously quoted pertinent portions of this letter, written to Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas on this blog.)

Wilde wants to do the right thing, or, failing that, he wants to be discrete about doing the wrong thing, but he is unable to get past the beautiful vision he seems to have of so-called "ideal love" as he believes it existed in Ancient Greece between master and disciple.

Meh. Again, whatever. All this and more I could have accepted as potentially believable, (or at least acceptable), twists on the actual character, but then they went and blew the moral of the story, and a movie with great potential for a powerful illustration of redemption becomes a self-righteous (and rather late) sermon for gay rights.

Oh, yes . . . Wilde found a moral. Well, fine, the movie found a moral as well, it just wasn't a moral moral. Or, rather, it was amoral moral. Uhhh . . . yeah. I just hope you aren't reading this out loud to someone for whatever reason.

Anyway, the point is, as the excerpt from De Profundis and the following excerpt from the poem he composed while he was in prison clearly show, Wilde was getting it. He spent the last few years of his life getting it, becoming a Catholic on his deathbed. He certainly didn't spend that time with Bosie.

From "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (The "he" referred to repeatedly is a murderer, recently hanged)

And thus we rust Life's iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house
With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
His soul of his soul's strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
Became Christ's snow-white seal.

Posted by Jared at 11:31 PM | TrackBack

June 23, 2004

Family Values

Well, I was going to spend more time tonight working on the Harry Potter post, but as you can see on the right, a fourth movie has rated as high as a movie can rate on my list.

Brilliantly filmed, poignantly acted, and masterfully compiled and edited into an eye-opening, thought-provoking look at the Drug War on any number of levels . . . Well, let's just say that I am quite convinced that this movie deserves its rating.

It is time (as always these days, it seems) for me to go to bed, but I just wanted to comment briefly on a single aspect of Traffic's message that struck me.

I thought, as I watched the movie, that it had a very defeatist tone concerning the current state of affairs with narcotics (and rightly so). The Drug War, the way it is being fought, is both unwinnable and counter-productive. The movie brings this home time and time again until the involved viewer almost begins to despair . . . And then, in the next to last scene, I realized what the movie was actually trying to say:

Judge Wakefield resigns his position as the man in charge of running the United States' War on Drugs, and returns to his home to support and care for his teenage daughter as she tries to break her own various addictions.

This is not a war that our government can win for us. This is a war that we have to win for ourselves, on the level of the family unit. How many problems in America, right now, are a result of the widespread breakdown of traditional families and households that has been taking place for the past four decades? What would be the impact on the country right now if as many children grew up in the care of loving, responsible guardians who are actually present as did 60 years ago?

Anyway, I'd love to wax a little more eloquent about this movie, but I'm having a hard time concentrating on anything besides my bed (a mere three and a half feet away!). So . . . I will go to bed now.

And, when I get up tomorrow, I will keep watching good movies, thinking idealistic thoughts, and writing whatever I can manage about them late at night (i.e. the usual muddled, sappy sort of stuff I've been turning out lately . . . *sigh*).

Posted by Jared at 11:08 PM | TrackBack

June 18, 2004

Grace and Forgiveness! Arg!

Tonight I watched the most graphic and moving film on the Holocaust I have ever seen. A mere 32 minutes long, it is a French documentary that was filmed in 1955.

It was very difficult to watch. The only comforting factor is that I have proved to myself that I am still not desensitized to a point where I can no longer be distraught by the power of on-screen images.

The documentary did an excellent job on various levels. One of these was in bringing home the fact that, no matter how much of this we take in, we don't know what it was like and we can't know what it was like. We weren't there, and just seeing it on your TV while you're settled on a soft couch surrounded by good friends in a free country can't put us there. I'm rather glad of that, of course . . .

Another thing that struck me with particular (i.e. more than usual) force was the fact that the Nazis were a bunch of Goddamned, bloody bastards. We turn them into cartoon villains, and laugh about their salutes and their "Sieg heils" and their silly goosestepping. It isn't really that funny. They aren't funny at all. And people should also think twice before they accuse other people of being like the Nazis. That's a pretty serious matter, and it gets tossed around in an awfully flippant manner these days.

In a recent post I quoted someone as saying, "The world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think," (or something along those lines). I generally prefer to spend my time thinking because I think everything comes off better that way, but it doesn't hurt to feel every now and again.

So, yeah, I was seething on the inside as I watched this . . . Shocked, horrified, and disgusted yet again by what took place, and I had decided to post something along the lines of the first sentence from two paragraphs ago, and simply leave it at that. I am terribly distressed that I can't . . . because I started thinking again.

Without God's grace I am every bit as guilty and evil and damned as Himmler or Eichmann. I hate having to quantify like that, and admit that we're all in the same league when it comes to sin, but it has to be done . . . (John 8:7 says so). There is no 9th Hell for the uber-sinners, they all go to the same place. And we all deserve it. Equally.

Anyway, condemnation isn't really my specialty, and self-condemnation even less so. Reflection of this nature isn't really my thing either. But, as I said, as much as I wanted to just climb on here and remind you all that Nazi-hating is still a really good idea, I felt that it wouldn't carry any significant weight, in the end, even if no one else noticed.

I remembered the account of Corrie Ten Boom's encounter with a former guard at Ravensbruck from the end of "The Hiding Place." That is still the most powerful story of human forgiveness that I have come across, and I still have a long way to go towards understanding what it takes to make that possible . . . not to mention beginning to practice it myself.

I guess this is all a bit disjointed, and no wonder. It's late, I'm tired, and I'm writing on emotion. What I'm really getting at is this:

Take all evil (past, present and future) seriously.

Remember that "There but for the grace of God . . ." You've got nothing to feel superior about.

Consider that if you think forgiveness is easy, you've probably just never been wronged badly enough. Be prepared for when you are.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

May 24, 2004

A Slipshod, Slapdash Freudian Analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo

If you thought the last entry was a stretch . . . well, this one is just pure sleaze. I don't think that anyone will seriously deny that a lot of this is in the movie, though. Alfred Hitchcock was a big fan of Sigmund Freud. Consider yourself warned.

Oh, yes . . . and of course there will be some spoilers in here. I've tried to keep them to a minimum, but . . . You know.

Vertigo is basically the wild ride of a textbook cynic who gives in to sentimentalism and has two (technically three) relationships destroyed by his dysfunctional emotions and obsessions. And, of course, there is the title character, Scottie’s phobia, waiting in the wings to lend a hand if Scottie’s life looks like it might be stabilizing at any point in the movie. Anyway, I decided I wanted to take a closer look at some of the ideas we were playing around with after class with Watson and the Hitch Lady, so this is a look at the movie using what I understand of Freudian psychology, plus some entertaining input from the Vengeful Cynic. (We disagree about the way the movie ends, but I went with his view because Freud would disagree with me as well.)

At the very beginning of the movie, we see Scottie vaulting across rooftops, struggling to keep up with the policeman ahead of him as he realizes that he is afraid of heights. He is, of course, suffering from castration anxiety. The ability to chase down criminals is important to his work, which is tied directly to his role as a male, providing for himself (he is not married . . . I'm getting to that). If he is unable to perform adequately, it will signify that he is impotent. When he fails to save the life of the policeman who is trying to save him, he is effectively castrated.

There is, at this point, one woman in his life, and soon there will be a second. The first, Midge, threatens his already repressed sexuality, but her relationship with him also conflicts with that threat. She often attempts to operate as a mother figure (later in the movie she will come directly out and identify herself as such: "Mother is here."), but she is also very much the liberated woman in the story. She is self-sufficient, supporting herself from her own work and even, in many ways, more able to cope with life than Scottie. She was also the one to break off their engagement when they were in college (even though she wants to pick up the pieces now), and perhaps he has never gotten past the effects of that rejection. She doesn’t have any real “issues,” and even as I watched the movie I couldn’t help but think that she is the only well-adjusted character in the movie. Unless, of course, someone wants to make the usual case for penis envy. Personally, I'm leaving Freud's theories about women alone.

Then Madeleine enters the scene. Scottie is asked to follow her and protect her from the very beginning of the relationship, long before they ever meet face to face. Far from threatening his sexuality, Madeline gives him another chance to make up for his “castration” experience. An important part of the job is, at first, to maintain distance between them. This makes him feel safe. The availability of this second chance to perform his task becomes more and more apparent to him as he sees how much help she needs, culminating in her throwing herself into San Francisco Bay. Here is something that Scottie can deal with, and he does. He feels that he has taken a step towards redeeming himself and regaining his virility through the rescue of this lovely, helpless young woman. And now he has undressed her and placed her in his bed. Is it any wonder that his sexuality, and even his sanity, becomes tied directly to her very existence? Or that he becomes totally enamored of her?

But she isn’t safe yet, and he isn’t fully redeemed yet, either. He must continue to protect her as the attraction grows and he becomes more obsessed with finding out what is causing her madness. Then, disaster strikes. Before he is ready to confront the act of regaining the full measure of his sexuality, she dashes ahead of him, running up the bell tower. And, yes, the tower is tall and thin and otherwise generally phallic in nature. Duh. He is unable to follow her all the way to the top and she plummets to her death. He is now totally devastated, and the slimy guy presiding over the inquest into her death (or whatever it is) certainly doesn’t help his perceptions of himself.

And so, he finds himself in an asylum, shutting the entire world out. Midge certainly can’t break through the barrier and she sees that he is still "in love" with Madeleine. It takes an indeterminate amount of time for him to slowly come out of his depression. As he slowly revisits the places where he had previously encountered Madeline, he begins to strongly manifest the classic symptoms of a phallic fixation (some symbolically, some literally). Then he meets Judy, immediately notes the resemblance, and the fixation becomes dominant. He is so obsessed and desperate to work through his repression and regain his lost virility that he treats Judy like an object, ignoring her feelings in order to “do her up” like Madeleine.

And when he is shocked to discover that this actually is Madeleine, he firmly and instantly takes the initiative this time. He drives her out to the bell tower and roughly forces her to the top (against her will), where there is a brief but intense burst of passion between them. Then she is scared off of the pinnacle by the arrival of a nun (symbol of female chastity) and plummets to her death. He moves to the edge, now unafraid of the terrible height and not threatened by the presence of the chaste woman behind him, exhausted in every way, but satisfied as the bells toll behind him. As the movie ends he is finally able to stand triumphant high above his conquest.

Aw, crap. I'm never going to be able to watch a Hitchcock movie the same way again. That really bites . . .

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

The "Milk" of Orson Welles: Citizen Kane As Shakespearean Tragedy

That title is just for you, Gallagher. You're welcome.

I believe I may have mentioned this concept before, but it bears repeating. Never let it be said that I pulled nothing useful from Dr. Batts's Shakespeare class . . . and one of the many tidbits of Shakespeare-related trivia that I had beaten into me repeatedly was a list of five things that make a classic Shakespearean tragic hero.

As I watched Citizen Kane for my second time, I couldn’t help but notice how closely he conformed to the list. I also couldn't help but remember that Orson Welles was reading Shakespeare when he was, like, four years old or so. And he was producing Shakespeare plays in new and original ways with his troupe in the Mercury Theater as a young adult. So, I started running through the movie in my head later on and comparing it to the five characteristics on the Batts worksheet (which I went to all the trouble of climbing into the attic to retrieve from the box of textbooks and papers I didn't expect to use this summer). The following is what I came up with.

The first element is that the character has “noble status.” That is, that the character is ranked among the nobility. Kane, although he is born in humble surroundings, has indeed attained that status early in life. This, of course, is part of the “American Dream.” Anyone can “grow up to be president,” as it were. Or, in this case, anyone can grow up to be wealthy and important.

In this case, Kane’s achievement of noble status is even more traditional in nature, as he comes into that great sum of money through no personal merit or hard work of his own. Like Hamlet, Kane is thrust into his high position without really having any choice in the matter.

Second, the tragic hero will be cursed with a tragic flaw which will ultimately lead to their downfall. In looking for Kane’s tragic flaw, I was very much reminded of King Lear. Both Kane and Lear are men who desperately need to be loved, and to be shown that they are loved by tangible signs of affection, but both men are unable to show meaningful love in return. The only way they know how to return the visible signs of love are by showering their friends or lovers with material things. And the only way they can deal with a perceived lack of love is to completely shut out the person who “didn’t love them enough.”

The third characteristic is that the downfall of the hero is not entirely deserved. There are greater forces at work, whether those forces can be attributed to the workings of Fate, or merely the machinations of a villain. While I could cite Kane’s dysfunctional childhood, resulting in his inability to love, I will leave that to one side as the cause of his tragic flaw rather than the direct cause of his downfall. The more direct cause is Kane’s relationship with Susan Alexander, and Boss Gettys’s underhanded political tactics which lead to the publicizing of the fact.

I am reminded of how Mark Antony forgets his political and military duties as a triumvir in charge of the Roman Empire while he has an affair with Cleopatra, and how he eventually ignores a marriage made for political reasons in order to be with Cleopatra. It also brings to mind Iago’s manipulation of Othello’s love for Desdemona which leads to the Moor's downfall. (I was interested to see that Welles actually directed, produced and starred in a movie version of Othello later in his career. Yeah, we'll be watching that this summer.)

Fourth, the tragic hero gains an increase in awareness, a sort of epiphany, before the end, realizing where they went wrong, or learning an important lesson from the situation. When Kane is throwing his temper tantrum in Susan’s room after she has left him, his gaze falls on a snow globe with a little log cabin in it which sends his memory back to where his life went wrong in the first place. Ultimately, it is obvious that this is what has been the most prevalent thought in his mind when he uttered his final word, “Rosebud.” I’m not talking just about his ruined childhood, either. While his life wouldn’t have gone wrong in the same way if he had been able to stay and play his childhood games on his sled, I think he is remembering something else.

When he first meets Susan Alexander, he has been on his way to examine some things from his old home. Rosebud is no doubt among these things. When, instead of continuing down memory lane and coming to terms with his past in order to continue into the future, he abandons the original purpose of his errand and follows Susan back to her rooms, the seeds are sown for the ultimate disaster. Kane realizes this, and he dies knowing it.

Finally, the tragic hero always dies. Duh. Well, all right. So everyone always dies, but in the case of the tragic hero, the story or play or movie about them always ends with their death. We aren’t always shown other characters ending up dead. Now, Kane’s story begins with his death, which is certainly not the traditional way to go about things. But aside from a bit of creative work with the order in which the story is told, we still end up with a dead Kane when “The End” flashes up on the screen. The real difference here is that Kane’s death seems to be of natural causes, while most (if not all) tragic heroes are cut down (almost always violently, often by their own hand) before their time. Kane’s tragedy is not that he died before “his time,” but that he wasted any chance he might have had at happiness because he didn’t realize where he was wrong. In Citizen Kane it is not a life cut short, but a life badly misused that is the real tragedy.

In the end, it isn’t a perfect fit. But then, none of Shakespeare’s tragedies fully conformed to the traditional conventions either. It is possible, however, to see some very clear Shakespearean influences throughout the movie. Considering the background of the man who essentially was this movie, that is only to be expected.

Posted by Jared at 01:48 PM | TrackBack

May 22, 2004

Schindler, Goeth, and Stern: Individual vs. Community in Schindler's List

So, I watched Schindler's List again yesterday, and now I've got to talk about it. Wonderful. The first real question is, where do you even think about starting? It is, in my opinion, a very powerful movie. I'm glad I was able to see it twice, because I think I needed that second viewing before I could really start processing anything.

In spite of this, a comprehensive review is out. Now, when you read this, you'll think that that is just exactly what I tried to do . . . Trust me, it isn't. The movie is over three hours long . . . there's a ton that I left out.

What I tried to pay particular attention to the second time through was the development of Oskar Schindler himself. Who is he made out to be from the beginning? How are we shown this, over and over, in the opening hour or so? What key events lead him to a change of heart, and how do we see that manifesting itself? What is the real difference in his personality, if any, by the end of the movie?

In trying to catalogue this while I watched, a few other things intrigued me. First, there were the many parallels between Schindler and Amon Goeth . . . I wondered what it was that made them so different. Second, I was struck particularly by the character of Itzhak Stern. What is the key contrast between him and the other two?

This is going to be long . . . just so you know.

Oskar Schindler is a great lover of life, particularly his own. He loves money. He loves wine. He loves women. He loves parties. He loves being at the center of attention. With no head for business and more charm than anyone ought to be allotted, he was born to be one of the social elite. He is almost totally self-absorbed. In one of the opening scenes he enters a restaurant alone and sits down at a small table by himself, but by the end of the evening everyone in the restaurant has joined his impromptu party. And everyone is enjoying themselves immensely. But this isn't about them having a good time, it's about him being noticed and loved by everyone. We see this time and time again as his selfish nature is repeatedly illustrated during the first hour or so of the movie.

When all of the Jews are hustled out of their homes and herded into the ghetto, Schindler doesn't waste a second, moving into better lodgings immediately. There is the great contrast here of shots cutting back and forth between Schindler relaxing on a nice soft bed with lacy sheets, and the wealthy Jewish family that used to live there moving into a bare, cold, concrete room with a dozen other people they don't know.

When setting up his business, he just can't decide which gorgeous young lady should be his secretary ("They're all so . . . qualified!" he exclaims to Stern), so he chooses them all and wanders the factory floor with a gaggle of young women in tow. I don't know how many of them he then proceeds to sleep with, but there is clearly a steady flow of mistresses moving through his lodgings.

When his wife shows up on his doorstep and one of them answers the door, he is totally insensitive, not thinking about her feelings at all. "You know what? You'll like her," he tells his wife. When the two of them go out dancing, the doorman assumes that this woman is another of Schindler's lovers, calling her "miss." Schindler sheepishly corrects the man, shrugs, and moves on. As he dances, he trades significant glances with another woman while his wife isn't paying attention.

One day as he tries to eat his lunch, Stern shows in a one-armed man who wishes to express his gratitude to Schindler for saving his life and allowing him to work. Schindler, of course, knows nothing about it, and he is furious with Stern for interrupting his lunch.

Soon after this he is forced to rescue Stern from the train because he has forgotten his papers. But lest anyone in the audience be uncertain as to how Schindler feels about Stern, we have this line: "What if I had gotten here five minutes later? Then where would I be?" It is perhaps the single most revealing statement of Schindler's character during the first half of the movie. He is the epitome of absolute selfishness.

It isn't possible to point to one event or scene in the movie where you can say, "That right there is where Schindler has a change of heart." His transformation is a process with various steps. Among the first of these steps, as far as we can tell, is the random murder of his one-armed employee. Shortly after this, Schindler witnesses the brutal, senseless massacre which takes place during the liquidation of the ghetto, and is horrified from a distance.

We first notice that there is a chink in his armor when he meets with Stern, (who is now working for Goeth), and tries to get the important details of running the business from him. Some of us just don't have a head for business, but Schindler shrugs off his inability to retain what he is being told. After all, he can come by and talk to Stern every week. As Stern returns to the prison camp, we see an affectionate half-smile flicker across Schindler's face. Stern has become a human face among the mass of Jews and Schindler cannot help but open up now that this friendship has formed. As Schindler grows closer to Stern, he will be increasingly unable to distance himself from the horrors of the Holocaust as he was able to do when the ghetto was liquidated (merely turning his horse around and riding away).

It is here that he begins to supply bribes to get people out of the labor camp at the express request of Stern. He's doing it for his friend. It gives him pleasure to do this, and that is all. It is apparent that we are still dealing with the same old Schindler in most respects when a woman comes to beg him to help her parents. Schindler flies into a rage and scares her out of his office before storming over to yell at Stern. ("People die! That's life!")

Stern quietly relates a story of Goeth's barbaric homicidal tendencies. "What do you want me to do about it?!" asks Schindler. "Nothing, nothing. That's just talking," Stern calmly replies. Schindler, obviously affected by the story, silently hands his watch over as a bribe and leaves.

The following scene shows us a very different picture of Schindler than we have seen thus far. He descends into Goeth's wine cellar and finds Helen Hirsch, Goeth's maid. He is obviously attracted to her, and in typical Schindler fashion he begins to flirt with her. The next thing we know, she is sitting under a bright, swinging light bulb and he is pacing the floor in a circle around her as she talks. It looks suspiciously like an interrogation as she finally breaks down and allows herself to release some of the tension of living (literally) under Goeth's gun. Schindler kneels before her. He speaks softly to her. He comforts her. He leans in to kiss her, and for a brief second, her expression changes. The viewer immediately recognizes what he is doing . . . It is completely in character.

Then: "Don't worry," he says. "It's not that kind of kiss." And he moves up and softly kisses her forehead. It seems wrong somehow. This is Oskar Schindler, the supreme womanizer, alone with a beautiful woman. He has her isolated and vulnerable, right where he wants her, and he doesn't use his charm to take advantage of the situation? Something is different.

Lest there be any doubt in the viewer's mind, Schindler has not just suddenly shifted 180 degrees, as we soon find out. During his birthday celebration he takes advantage of an "opportunity," forcing a very long kiss on the pretty Jewish woman who brings him a cake "from the workers." This is, of course, quite thoughtless of him and will lead to his arrest. Only some fast talking from his friends in high places will save him from prison.

Before all of that, however, we see him stick his neck out and look more than a little ridiculous in front of Goeth and his underlings. At his request, Goeth allows fire hoses to be brought to hose down the railway cars full of Jewish prisoners as they sit out in the blazing sun. It may seem like a small gesture, but it is simply one more indication of an increasing sensitivity for the needs of others.

And then the order comes down that all of the Jews must be sent to Auschwitz. Obviously Schindler's first thought is something along the lines of, "Well, it's all over then. I'll try and see that they take care of my friend Stern, and then I'll go home with all of my hard-earned money." It is only as he paces his room late that night, (with yet another conquest lying in the bed), that he seems to be realizing that he might put that money to some other use. It's like a completely new idea to him, and it is no wonder that it didn’t occur right away.

And now, of course, he throws himself completely into the work of saving "his people." Schindler, it seems to me, is a man of extremes. He devotes his energies just as thoroughly to getting all of his money spent as he did in making the money in the first place. Clearly I don't need to spend much time on all the details of how this plays out as he composes his list, barters for Helen's life, journeys into the maw of death itself (Auschwitz) to get his people out, etc.

I will (finally) wrap up Schindler with a look at his two speeches at the end of the movie. First, his speech to the guards and factory workers at the end of the war:

After six long years of murder, victims are being mourned throughout the world. We've survived. Many of you have come up to me and thanked me. Thank yourselves. Thank your fearless Stern, and others among you who worried about you and faced death at every moment. I am a member of the Nazi Party. I'm a munitions manufacturer. I'm a profiteer of slave labor. I am . . . a criminal. At midnight, you'll be free and I'll be hunted. I shall remain with you until five minutes after midnight, after which time - and I hope you'll forgive me - I have to flee.

He actually doesn't sound completely selfish in this speech, a testament to his growth as a character. But naturally he is still a bit egocentric. Some things don't change . . . Note how much time in this speech is given to others and how much is spent on his own situation. I don't think he is consciously trying to win sympathy and pity, but . . . Anyway, he now turns to address the German guards.

I know you have received orders from our commandant, which he has received from his superiors, to dispose of the population of this camp. Now would be the time to do it. Here they are; they're all here. This is your opportunity.

*short pause which feels very long*

Or you could leave, and return to your families as men instead of murderers.

And, of course, as every Jew in the building holds his or her breath, the guards turn and file out one by one. As Stern begins to relax a bit, Schindler catches his eye and tosses him a wink. Does Schindler still think this is all just a game?

Anyway, on to his final exchange with Stern, the last words we hear from him:

Schindler: I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don't know. If I'd just . . . I could have got more.

Stern: Oskar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.

Schindler: If I'd made more money . . . I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I'd just . . .

Stern: There will be generations because of what you did.

Schindler: I didn't do enough!

Stern: You did so much.

Schindler: This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person . . . and I didn't! And I . . . I didn't!

It is rather a gutwrenching scene, and one of my favorites. It is very moving, well acted, etc. That's not the point. The point is, does Schindler have a good reason to beat himself up over this? No, he doesn't. Then why does he?

I suspect that, subconsciously, this is still the same old Schindler, swinging to extremes, pulling at everyone's attention and sympathy, playing to the crowd, drawing people to himself. And it works . . . there is a surging forward for a large group hug. Schindler makes his exit . . .

He is a good man in spite of his moral failures. He is a great man in spite of his character flaws. But he is still a selfish man who can't help thinking of himself first.

Amon Goeth is a lot like Schindler. Except that Schindler isn't a psychotic . . . However, the similarities are definitely there. We first see Goeth being driven through the ghetto as he is briefed on various details of the living conditions of Jews and so forth. Asked if he has any questions, he has only one . . . Why the top of the convertible is down. He's cold.

Note also his behavior surrounding the liquidation of the ghetto. He begins, early in the morning, with this speech to rally his troops:

Today is history. Today will be remembered. Years from now, the young will ask with wonder about this day. Today is history and you are part of it. Six hundred years ago, when elsewhere they were footing the blame for the Black Death, Kazimierz the Great, so called, told the Jews they could come to Krakow. They came. They trundled their belongings into the city. They settled, they took hold, they prospered. In business, science, education, the arts, they came here with nothing. Nothing. And they flourished. For six centuries, there has been a Jewish Krakow. Think about that. By this evening, those six centuries are a rumor. They never happened. Today is history.

He sounds like a good Nazi patriot, and he spends the day (from what we see) running enthusiastically through the streets with his dogs, hunting people. But then, once the day's "fun" is over, we see him sitting outside in the dark, surrounded by officers, mopping sweat off of his face while the messy and tedious work of finding the hidden Jews in the buildings goes on. He seems to feel a bit differently about the historic nature of the event now, revealing his frustration with an emphatic "I wish this f--king night were over!"

Like Schindler, Goeth only appears to be a good loyal member of the Nazi party. Where Schindler is a Nazi for profit (and a bit of pleasure on the side), Goeth is a Nazi for pleasure (and a bit of profit on the side).

The next morning (or perhaps a few days later) Goeth is awake bright and early. He walks slowly out onto his balcony, overlooking the prison camp, and stretches luxuriously before picking up a high-powered rifle for some early morning target practice. Peering through the scope he selects a random Jew who isn't working, pauses to carefully place his cigarette on the railing of the balcony, and fires, scoring a direct hit. He coolly picks up his cigarette and places it between his lips before finding another target and shooting it directly through the chest. This is his idea of a really great time. This is why he got into the business.

At the same point in the movie where we begin to see Schindler discovering that he has a more human side and that he cannot simply stand by and watch all of this go on around him, Goeth experiences his own major turning point. Schindler manages to convince him that true power (which is what appeals to Goeth) is not found in the ability to kill people arbitrarily, but rather in the ability to pardon them arbitrarily. The truly powerful are merciful, not murderous.

Goeth has a lot of respect for Schindler, and while appearing to be amused, he takes this advice to heart. The next day we see him struggling to rein in his temper for an entire morning as he pardons Jews for committing minor offenses rather than shooting them dead. In the end, the strain is too much. He stops for a moment to examine himself in the mirror after pardoning Lisiek's failure to clean out his bathtub and he just can't seem to make his new image fit. He appears to be undecided for a brief moment, firing upon Lisiek with his rifle and hitting on either side of the boy twice (we know from the earlier scene that he is a crack shot). Perhaps he is trying to calm his temper without murdering . . . But the third shot kills.

As I mentioned earlier, Stern became for Schindler the human face of the Jewish people and this was what allowed him to open up and later attempt to save as many Jews as he could. For Goeth, Helen Hirsch is that "human Jew." His final shot at redemption is seen in the dialogue he has with Helen in the wine cellar. And he blows it big time.

I say dialogue, it's actually a monologue with him answering for her in his mind. She is too frightened to say anything.

I came to tell you that you really are a wonderful cook and a well-trained servant. I mean it. If you need a reference after the war, I'd be happy to give you one.

It's kind of lonely down here, it seems, with everyone upstairs having such a good time. Does it?

You can answer.

'Ah, but what is the right answer?' That's-that's what you're thinking. 'What does he want to hear?'

The truth, Helen, is always the right answer.

Yes, you're right. Sometimes we're both lonely. Yes, I mean, I would like, so much, to reach out and touch you in your loneliness. What would that be like, I wonder? I mean, what would be wrong with that? I realize that you're not a person in the strictest sense of the word. Maybe you're right about that too. You know, maybe what's wrong isn't - it's not us - it's this. I mean, when they compare you to vermin and to rodents and to lice, I just, uh . . . You make a good point, a very good point. Is this the face of a rat? Are these the eyes of a rat? Has not a Jew eyes? I feel for you, Helen.

No, I don't think so. You Jewish b--ch! You nearly talked me into it, didn't you?

Jews aren't human, he believes . . . and he will go on believing that. His chance to change is past, any soft spot he may have had has hardened. And he can't imagine that anyone else would feel any differently about it. That is why, when Schindler approaches him later to buy the Jews who would otherwise be shipped to Auschwitz, Goeth is absolutely certain that there must be a huge profit in it. He has completely missed Schindler's transformation. "What's a person worth to you?" Schindler asks. "No, no, no, no. What's one worth to you?" Goeth laughingly replies. These aren't people to Goeth. They are worthless. To Schindler they are priceless. I wonder how the negotiations played out . . .

Goeth's (almost) final scene is when Schindler comes to him and offers to play a card game for Helen's life. At first Goeth seems reluctant to do so, claiming that he should be doing the "merciful" thing and taking her out in the woods to shoot her. Then the massive amount of money that Schindler has offered appears to reach his brain . . . Helen gets on the list.

Amon Goeth winds up in a sanatorium before the war is even over, a sick man even by Nazi standards. He dies saluting Hitler, the man who made his two-year psychotic killing spree a patriotic duty. Earlier in the movie, Schindler rather naively attempts to explain Goeth like this:

You have to understand, Goeth is under enormous pressure. You have to think of it in his situation. He's got this whole place to run, he's responsible for everything that goes on here, all these people - he's got a lot of things to worry about. And he's got the war, which brings out the worst in people. Never the good, always the bad. Always the bad. But in normal circumstances, he wouldn't be like this. He'd be all right. There'd just be the good aspects of him.

Goeth is a sick bastard, and I expect he'd have been a sick bastard even without the Nazi party to throw gasoline on the fire, but I wonder . . . How much did that actually contribute to the way Goeth turned out, in the end? There are indications that lead us to believe that Goeth might simply be a terribly misguided, immature young man. Without hearing Goeth's story, which this movie doesn't tell, there's no way to know for sure what sort of man he might have become under different circumstances.

And finally we come to Itzhak Stern . . . He won't take long, I just want to make a few general remarks about him. To me, Stern is the real hero of this movie. At least, he is my hero. From the beginning, he takes responsibility for saving his people.

At first he doesn't seem interested in helping Schindler get his factory started, once the Jews are moved into the ghetto I think he realizes the potential he has to do good, and he finds Schindler men who can put up the money.

When the factory finally is getting started he spends days working through the long lines of people, not looking for the skilled workers, but finding people who will otherwise be considered useless and getting them forged papers, walking them past the officials, coaching them. He works tirelessly, snatching people from certain death as fast as he can.

Later on when he is in the prison camp and can't attend to these things himself he pushes his luck even further and begins to exploit his friendship with Schindler, convincing him to bring certain select people over. It is through Stern's actions that Schindler first begins to acquire his reputation among the Jews, and it is through Stern's quiet reasoning that Schindler himself begins to accept the role of savior.

The character of Oskar Schindler, both within the movie and from history, is clearly the most complex of the three, and it is the most difficult to pin down. This is, I think, precisely what made him able to do what he did. He was, ultimately, the consummate conman and it is often difficult to tell precisely why he might be behaving a certain way. Is he sincere, or merely trying to throw you off? Even in the movie, where we are able to witness his behavior during some of his most vulnerable moments, the answer to this question remains unclear. As I said earlier, I believe that Schindler is a good man, but a selfish man. As a result of this, he is inherently conflicted and often cannot decide whether his virtue should take precedence over his self-seeking motives.

Schindler is very much an individual. As Goeth says to Stern, "He wants his independence." You could almost say he is handicapped in that he has a hard time realizing that there are other people who have other needs and desires and that those people are just as important as he is, that their lives are as valuable as his. By the end of the movie, he has outwardly accepted the importance of human life and the community, but (as I explained above) I don't see him quite growing past his selfish nature. He has simply learned to supress it.

Amon Goeth is also an individual type. And, like Schindler, he is an individual who pretends to be a member of the dominant community in order to serve his own interests. There is clearly something wrong with him, but as I said earlier, I wonder how much of his psychological development was twisted by his environment. I may be totally off in assuming that he is fairly young, but I get the impression that he was probably in the Hitler Youth and has been swallowing Nazi propaganda ever since his formative years. He is a lot more impressionable than Schindler is, and it simply seems that a bad influence got to him first.

Itzhak Stern, unlike the other two, almost is the Jewish community. He is almost totally selfless. He never does anything for himself, never has any thought for himself. In direct contrast to Schindler's constant references to "me" and "I" and "myself" and "mine," Stern almost never refers to himself in the first person at all. We don't ever see him eating or drinking (except when he finally agrees to share a drink with Schindler, late in the movie). We see in the Epilogue that he was married, but we never see his wife (perhaps he married after the war?). The overall impression is that we have here a man who has no personal life. His life is living for his community.

For the entire first half of the movie (and even after this, to some extent), whenever we see him around Schindler he is very reserved, quiet. His movements seem almost robotic. Note the contrast between this and when we see him among his own people. He talks and gestures emphatically. He laughs and interacts with them.

The man who seems to be able to keep every detail regarding the running of the factory safe in his head . . . who is clever enough to crumple up and spill coffee on a newly forged document to age it . . . who is constantly struggling to exploit his position to save as many Jews as he can . . . This man forgets his own work permit one day and is nearly sent away to goodness knows where on one of the trains. He simply wasn't thinking of himself at all.

This is the contrast that I see in the three main characters of Schindler's List. Schindler is a strong individualist who learns to become sensitive to community needs through a slowly developed awareness of human worth. Goeth is a weak individualist who is unable to overcome his own twisted nature and the years of negative "programming" he has no doubt been subjected to, no matter how hard he may or may not be trying. Stern is a strong personality who is part of his community and his every action has the greater good of that community in mind, even when it places his own individual well-being in jeopardy.

In a movie which proposes to examine a time in history when one man’s strength of character meant the difference between life and death for over a thousand people, it is very fitting that a closer study of the movie’s main characters can yield such a rich look at the depth of human nature which is so often revealed in the midst of the most unimaginable adversity. I think that it is this element, even more than the incredible skill with which the movie was created on a technical level, which makes it truly worthwhile to spend 194 minutes watching it.

Posted by Jared at 06:45 PM

April 26, 2004

Oscar Wilde & The Hedonistic Obsession

While there was never any doubt that I'd be doing an entry on Oscar Wilde, I was briefly at a loss as to whether I ought to do The Importance of Being Earnest, (which we actually read), or The Picture of Dorian Gray, (which we merely watched). I finally settled on the latter because I think it has a lot more to do with who Wilde was as a person than Earnest does. However, I am at a slight disadvantage. I have never (yet) read The Picture of Dorian Gray. I'm getting there, but there are a lot of freaking books in the world.

Anyway, I don't feel quite right about diving directly into the movie without a few words from Wilde himself. The first item in my lovely Appendix (extended entry) is the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. It's short, cracking good stuff, and you'll get a good idea of his philosophy from it.

To sum it up with the short short version, this is: "Art for art's sake." That's the key here. And now, on to the novel . . . err . . . movie.

In brief, (and I do mean brief . . . I hope), Dorian Gray is a gentleman living in London in the late 19th century. He is the very picture of unspoiled youth and innocence . . . So much so that his friend Basil Hallward, (an artist), is painting his portrait, and already more than half-believing that it will be his masterpiece. As Dorian poses for the portrait as it is completed, he makes the acquaintance of another of the artist's friends, Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry, from what little I’ve read, is the classic Wilde character: indolent, casual, and given to constant, penetrating, and quietly hilarious observations on the world around him. I think I can more or less sum this guy up with two of his quotes:

"If I could get back my youth, I'd do anything in the world except get up early, take exercise or be respectable."

"There's only one way to get rid of temptation, and that's to yield to it."

He lounges in the studio and languidly touts his life philosophy of living for pleasure and only for pleasure. Basil completes the picture and it is indeed a masterpiece . . . the sight of himself preserved forever at the peak of perfection, and the power of Lord Henry's words move Dorian to wish that he could remain forever as he is, and that the portrait should age instead. *camera zooms in significantly on an Egyptian deity, a cat goddess, which sits imperiously on a nearby table, stoically observing the proceedings*

Of course, the wish is granted, and Dorian discovers this as he gets to know Lord Henry better and begins to live out the life philosophy that Lord Henry is always talking about (more on that in a moment). His excesses lead him deeper and deeper into the worst kind of vice and sin imaginable (for the most part this is only vaguely hinted at in the movie through dim shots of the locales he frequents and the persistent, general rumors that float around). Eventually his past comes back to haunt him. The painting is stored away where no one can see it, of course, and it is aged and disfigured past all recognition. One man in particular nearly succeeds in killing him to avenge a female relative that Dorian has . . . wronged.

The key scene, reminiscent of Dr. Faustus, comes when Basil discovers the truth and begs Dorian to repent and pray for forgiveness. Dorian doesn't think this is possible, and he ends up killing Basil. Finally, at the end, Dorian decides that he must destroy the painting, but in stabbing it, he kills himself. The painting suddenly looks as it did originally, and the hideous appearance is transferred to the Dorian's dead body.

You should know by now that I absolutely detest summarizing . . . that may or may not be why I'm so bad at it, but the point is that I hate it. However, I can't exactly upload the movie, or assume that everyone has seen it, or paste in a script, or . . . andthing like that, so I do what I can. That's the gist. Now, what does the movie mean? What's the point?

Personally, I think it is best examined as a parallel to the life of Wilde himself. With this in mind, I include two more things in the Appendix below. One is an excerpt from De Profundis, which will require a bit of explanation, I suppose. In 1895, not long after the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two years hard labor. See, he was having this affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, a "handsome young poet" who happened to be the son of the marquis of Queensbury. So Wilde went up the river, Douglas did not.

In prison he was allowed one sheet of paper at a time to write letters on, and De Profundis is the letter he wrote to his . . . ummm . . . to Douglas. I think it is fairly easy to see how his life more or less parallels Dorian's from what he says of it here. In any case, it is an interesting read.

So, if you took the time to read it (and it takes a little time, I confess), you can see, at least, what he thinks happened to his life. He (quite modestly) claims to have been the king of his world, more or less, if not the world (symbolically speaking), and talks of "eternal youth" and so forth . . . And then look where he goes. He starts living entirely for pleasure . . . but not the usual kind of pleasure necessarily. He plunges into the depths, perversity is mentioned, as is desire.

He has totally pulled a Dorian, as it were. And society doesn't notice, apparently, because he is still hailed far and wide . . . he's still got it all. Earneast is a huge success when it comes out, but as soon as everything hit the fan it dropped out of production for several years.

After Wilde was released from prison he, of course, left England (there's no way he could have stayed) and lived out the very short remainder of his life (three years . . . prison completely ruined his health) mooching off of friends in France under an assumed name.

"E Tenebris," the other item I have included, was written 14 years before all this, and it is . . . a little strange. I wonder what he was thinking when he wrote it and what happened to that thought process once it was written. He's grasping at something here, but did he miss? It almost sounds like Cowper's The Castaway . . . but for the ending.

(Side note: I hurt for that guy. I really do. I get depressed whenever I think about him.)

Basically, here's the big question . . . I read (or watch . . . whatever, shut up) Dorian Gray and Earnest which are, obviously, madly different, and I read De Profundis and it seems like Wilde got it . . . and then he didn't. And I read about his life and what he did with it, and I just have one question. What was this guy's deal?! He was a freakin' genius and he chucked it for . . . *gags*

Did he ever really get it, in the end? A verse I keep thinking up in connection with all this (I think it may have cropped up somewhere in all the compulsive reading I've been doing on the subject): "For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" You almost think he has in De Profundis but there's this strange lack . . . he talks as if he will be his own salvation, as if he knows he was off, but he's got it figured out now, and all he's got to do is kill the old self and take in all the experience that he has attained from the bad times, becoming something new.

Somehow, it sounds suspiciously like Dorian's scheme to stab his portrait . . . Perhaps the cause of Wilde's death, coming so close on the heels of his release from prison, was more poetic than the rational mind might at first be led to believe . . .



Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim.

The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.

Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.

From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type.

All art is at once surface and symbol.

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.

When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

From De Profundis

I must say to myself that neither you nor your father, multiplied a thousand times over, could possibly have ruined a man like me, that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand. I am quite ready to do so. I am trying to do so, though you may not think it at the present moment. If I have brought this pitiless indictment against you, think what an indictment I bring without pity against myself. Terrible as what you did to me was, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.

I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realized this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realize it afterwards. Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged. It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away. With me it was different. I felt it myself, and made others feel it. Byron was a symbolic figure, but his relations were to the passion of his age and its weariness of passion. Mine were to something more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger scope.

The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring. I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art. I altered the minds of men and the colors of things. There was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder. I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet, at the same time that I widened its range and enriched its characterization. Drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty. To truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction. I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me. I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.

Along with these things, I had things that were different. I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensations. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be Lord over myself. I was no longer the Captain of my Soul, and did not know it. I allowed you to dominate me, and your father to frighten me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute Humility. Just as there is only one thing for you, absolute Humility also. You had better come down into the dust and learn it beside me.

I have lain in prison for nearly two years. Out of my nature has come wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb. I have passed through every possible mood of suffering. Better than Wordsworth himself I know what Wordsworth meant when he said -

'Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark
And has the nature of infinity.'

But while there were times when I rejoiced in the idea that my sufferings were to be endless, I could not bear them to be without meaning. Now I find hidden somewhere away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all. That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is Humility.

It is the last thing left in me, and the best: the ultimate discovery at which I have arrived, the starting-point for a fresh development. It has come to me right out of myself, so I know that it has come at the proper time. It could not have come before, nor later. Had any one told me of it, I would have rejected it. Had it been brought to me, I would have refused it. As I found it, I want to keep it. I must do so. It is the one thing that has in it the elements of life, of a new life, Vita Nuova for me. Of all things it is the strangest. One cannot acquire it, except by surrendering everything that one has. It is only when one has lost all things that one knows that one possesses it.

I want to get to the point when I shall be able to say quite simply, and without affectation that the two great turning-points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison. I will not say that prison is the best thing that could have happened to me: for that phrase would savour of too great bitterness towards myself. I would sooner say, or hear it said of me, that I was so typical a child of my age, that in my perversity, and for that perversity's sake, I turned the good things of my life to evil, and the evil things of my life to good.

What is said, however, by myself or by others, matters little. The important thing, the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, if the brief remainder of my days is not to be maimed, marred, and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear, or reluctance. The supreme vice is shallowness. Whatever is realized is right.

"E Tenebris"

Come down, O Christ, and help me! reach Thy hand,

For I am drowning in a stormier sea

Than Simon on Thy lake of Galilee:

The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,

My heart is as some famine-murdered land

Whence all good things have perished utterly,

And well I know my soul in Hell must lie

If I this night before God's throne should stand.

'He sleeps perchance, or rideth to the chase,

Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name

From morn to noon on Carmel's smitten height.'

Nay, peace, I shall behold, before the night,

The feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,

The wounded hands, the weary human face.

Posted by Jared at 06:28 AM | TrackBack

April 02, 2004

Wheeler's Conference Epic

Right. So I'm still blogging, obviously. Congratulations. You're all frigging geniuses. Except for those of you that clearly aren't. Clearly, Mr. Fry has me pegged. I am completely addicted to publishing myself on a regular basis. In a brief aside before we move on, I hope you all played The Worm Game that was linked in that last post of mine.

I would also like to note an incident that occured in English Lit II on Wednesday. Dr. Watson was sitting in Mr. Payton's office, yakking about Conference stuff, when the bell rang for class. I decided to hang about the door so I could just happen to run into him when he came out a few seconds later. He proceeded to sign me up for a time to do volunteer work on Friday, and then I asked him if he would be attending class. He would.

I followed him down to his office, and informed that the day's topic of discussion was Joseph Conrad when he asked. Then we went to class. Power Point wasn't working, he was having a little trouble pronouncing certain words, and he had brought the wrong textbook. He sent someone to get the right one, and looked out at the rest of us.

Dr. Watson: After the Conference this weekend, I'll get my life back, and then things will be better.

Myself (Yeah, like I'm gonna let that go by . . .): *respectfully raises hand*

Dr. Watson: Yes, sir?

Myself (in an eager and curious tone): When do we get our lives back?

Anyway, I wanted to record that because opportunities to even attempt something that resembles a *zing* don't surface around Dr. Watson on anything like a regular basis.

And now it's time to talk about . . .

The 7th Annual C. S. Lewis and the Inklings Conference

I had a lot of fun. This was an amazing experience, and I am very bitter that we don't get this kind of thing more often. I essentially got to spend an entire day talking shop with several dozen hardcore and intelligent Inklings nerds, (as opposed to the average garden-variety one finds wandering at large amongst the general student body), not to mention scholars. It was a long day, yes. I had to wake up at 6:30 to get ready to attend. And I had to get myself all dressed up and wear a tie, which I am not particularly fond of doing (for various reasons . . . most of them attached to laziness and an aversion to discomfort). But I really didn't care about all that.

I met Scholl coming out of SAGA and sent him off to put on something that wasn't shorts and sandals before meeting Ardith inside the Education building. In due time, Anna came along, and Scholl eventually returned. Wilson showed up after the opening general session, and we were all there for the entirety of the day.

I shall now attempt to record the portion of the conference that I attended as briefly as possible.

8:00- Dr. Woodring addresses everyone together, giving a 15-minute devotion on the subject of "Who is Jesus?" He quoted both Dorothy Sayers and C. S. Lewis extensively. He clearly started off on the right foot . . . with a jab at the SC members present. "I'll go ahead and start now, and everyone else can come in late and sit down. I'll just feel like it's another one of my classes . . . Yeah, I see some of the same people, in fact." *pointed look at us* You think I just have some kind of persecution complex? His first response upon seeing me walk into the building ten minutes before was not a pleasant "good morning" but a bitterly humorous expression of amazement that I had managed to get up and look so awake when I slept through so many of his Bib Lit classes last semester.

8:15- Bruce Edwards of Bowling Green State University, our keynote speaker, talked for about an hour on "Re-enchanting the Christian Imagination: C. S. Lewis and the Inklings." I quite enjoyed his talk. He was a good speaker, and his address was essentially a quick recap of the most important themes we covered in last semester's Inklings class. He used a lot of the same quotes that Dr. Woodring would read regularly, and generally discussed things like the Inklings' aversion to allegory and preference for "Religious Myth," as well as their vanguard action (as it were) in bringing fantasy and science-fiction out into the light of respectability amongst mainstream Christians.

9:25- Four sessions to choose from . . . AGH! There will be 12 papers presented during the next hour and twenty minutes, and I can only hear three of them. Scholl and I choose Section D. Anna, Ardith and Wilson decide to go attend Section C (which looked, and apparently was, quite excellent . . . perhaps one of them will post on the stuff they got to hear that I missed).

-Paper #1: Pam Jordan of Taylor University (specialty, Victorian Lit) presented "Reflections on Hamlet from the Inklings." Very interesting, for the most part. She actually looked at criticism written by Lewis, Williams, MacDonald, and Chesterton . . . Not all of them are Inklings, but they all have legitimate business being there. Her paper was a bit ambitious . . . clearly she could have written as much as she had just from the criticism of one of those authors. As it was, hers was the longest paper in the session, and she said she had cut a number of chunks out of it. In any case, it was interesting to note where the four men agreed and disagreed. All of them were very similair in their ideas, especially concerning the question of Hamlet's hesitation, (they all seemed to agree with the theory that Hamlet does not, in fact, hesitate at all, but acts when he needs to, and just as he wants to), but each had quite unique and fascinating reasons to back up those ideas.

Paper #2- E. B. Hawkins of Lamar State University (specialty, Old and Middle English Lit) presented "What About the Heroes? -- Tolkien's Answer." This was a very fun paper, providing an in-depth examination of how Tolkien treats the subjects of immortality and an afterlife for the various species in Middle Earth . . . especially the manner in which he rewards the main heroes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. She noted that, while there is some sort of hope of an afterlife implied indirectly, Tolkien absolutely refused to spell out the answer to those questions. Instead, he grants extended lifespans and other rewards to his main characters as more tangible positive benefits for their heroic actions . . . but they all still die. I was somewhat amused in the discussion afterwards when it became quite evident that Dr. Hawkins was rather bitter about the lack of a confirmed happily-ever-after ending to the trilogy. She obviously had that passion for the work that I am always pleased to discover in a new acquaintance.

Paper #3- Sheba Kulothungan of Southwestern Assemblies of God University (specialty, Early American Lit) presented "Allegory and Symbolism in Lewis' Poems: His Definitions, His Display, His Dynamism." In terms of the overall balance between presentation, choice of topic, and excellent analysis, this was the most enjoyable paper I heard today. Dr. Kulothungan contrasted Lewis' poetry with the poetry of the American Puritan writers and of Emily Dickinson. She noted particularly that both Lewis and the Puritans wrote about "mere" Christianity, but she was curious to discover what precisely Lewis was doing that made his writing so much more profound, accessible, and alive than the writings of the Puritans. She referred to the Puritans as "scaling the mountain of an unknown God with the pitons of symbolism and allegory." Lewis, on the other hand, "scaled the mountain of symbolism and allegory using the pitons of the truths about God that he recognized intrinsically." She drew attention to the fact that, while the Puritans regarded the spiritual realm as incorporeal and ethereal in comparison to the solid, concrete "real world," Lewis saw the "real world" as merely a dim, dirty shadow of the reality of the spiritual world. Very cool stuff, and I just can't get enough of it . . . There was a lot of other cool stuff, as well, but I don't remember it in such detail. Scholl was exceptionally pleased when Dr. Kulothungan, as he put it, ripped into Emily Dickinson, but I digress.

10:45- Break time . . . We all gather in the hallway to confer and generally agree that this is really awesome. And we eat some really really delicious blueberry muffins. Dr. Watson comes along and drops a task on us (chiefly Scholl) as volunteers. Namely, to track down pertinent information on a number of local tourist attractions and put it together on one piece of paper to be distributed. We all accompany him upstairs to the labs (there being only ten minutes of break left) and grab what we can. Wilson, Ardith, and Anna trickle off to Section B, while I go to Section C, saving a seat for Scholl as he toddles off to repackage the information we have accumulated. He fails to show up, but Ardith suddenly wanders in, so I give her his seat.

Paper #4- Melanie Hix of Oklahoma City University (Graduate Student) presents "Consumption of the Inner Spirit: Gagool and Tolkien's Gollum." I was very interested in this paper for two reasons. First, King Solomon's Mines is one of my favorite books of all time and Gagool's death is one of the more memorable scenes. Second, I was interested in hearing a paper that was doing basically the same thing that I was doing. That is, comparing something from Tolkien's work to something from another author's and suggesting that he might have drawn from that source in the process of creating his own work. If you've ever read King Solomon's Mines you can start drawing half a dozen parallels right away, and if not then I won't be able to clarify things by elaborating further. Good paper, though.

Paper #5- Joe Cristopher of Tarelton State University (some variety of Doctor or another) presents "A Four-fold Interpretation of the Narnian Father Christmas." This paper was thick . . . excessively so, I thought. It was kind of hard to follow and by the end of it I wasn't quite sure what point he was trying to make. Also, the intent of the paper got a bit diluted in the after discussion when he spent a good five minutes discoursing on a tangent. All I know for sure is that he was examining different ways of explaining the presence of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

12:25- Time for lunch . . . Scholl, Ardith and I get our food and spot Dr. Hawkins sitting in a nice, neutral, empty sort of spot, so we surround her. We had a good time discussing this and that with her, mostly at random. Anna showed up after she finished doing . . . that whole volunteer thing (I wasn't paying attention, so I don't know what it was). Loius Markos, of Houston Baptist University, gets up and does a drama that he had already done in chapel that morning: Screwtape's Millenial Toast. In it, he pretty much eviscerated modern teen culture, much to the amusement of the very much non-teenagers that the crowd mainly consisted of. In fact, here's the entire thing, online.

At the end of his monologue, he made reference to signals from "Chairman Muckrake" at the back of the room. I turned around to glance at Dr. Watson (the Conference Chair) and he was looking right at me with a rather funny expression of surprise, confusion, and amusement. Then he got up to dismiss us and so forth at the end of the thing.

Dr. Watson: As Chairman Muckrake, I must say that was one hell of a speech!

1:30- After walking briskly back to my room to retrieve a hard copy of my paper, I returned once again to the Education Building to attend the John Brown University Student Forum. I wasn't particularly keen on any of the papers in the next two sets of sessions, so I figured I'd see what the students from Andy's school had to offer. Scholl, Sharptiano, Barbour, Dr. Solganick, and Dr. Hawkins were all in attendance. I can make this fairly brief, I think. Three of the papers were essentially Power Point presentations and the computer was being mean and hateful. So Scholl got to play techie while the one student that didn't have her paper associated with the computer got up to read.

Paper #6- Evelyn Baldwin (Junior, English Education) presents "Gods by Machine: The Semi-Pelagianism of J. R. R. Tolkien's deus ex machina Resulotions." This was by far the most delectable title on the entire program, and the paper did not disappoint. She took a look at how Tolkien manages to get away with having main characters who are, ultimately, never able to save themselves without some outside help, and still stay believable. There was, of course, a brief discussion of important things like the origins of the term deus ex machina and its use and abuse in literature in general. Clearly I can't do this one justice, but it was good stuff.

Paper #7- Mariam DiPasquale (Sophomore . . . I think, Anthropology) presents "Boxen and C. S. Lewis's Childhood." It was all about the fantasy world of Boxen that C. S. Lewis created with his brother Warnie when they were children, and it included all sorts of illustrations that he had done and so forth. As far as that goes, it was rather interesting. It would have been a lot more interesting if she had spent a decent amount of time showing us how these childhood games influenced his later work, but whatever . . . It was too long considering the lack of substantial material, her Power Point really could have used help, and I think it would be safe to say that I was at least mildly bored by the end. Scholl, apparently, was ready to scratch out his own eyeballs and use them to plug his ears, but then, he is a person given to much excess.

Paper #8- Megan Lein (Sophomore . . . I think, ironically I have no idea what her major is) presents "The Great War, Tolkien, and the T. C. B. S." This one was considerably better than the previous one. The Power Point worked better, it didn't drag as much, etc. It was a report on Tolkien's small (4 guys), close group of college friends and the influence that they had on his early life, as well as a brief recap of what happened to them in WWI. Two of them died, and Tolkien was, of course, deeply affected by this. Again, there was some analysis of the influence that this had on him, but I thought that it needed more to really give it a point. However, I found the topic itself to be quite interesting, personally, never having heard the full story before. Scholl was quite weary of Power Point by this time.

Paper #9- Ruby Vasquez (Sophomore, History) presents "Tolkien's Revisions in the History of Middle Earth." I thought this one was rather good. She examined the three different versions that Tolkien wrote of the story of Turin Turambar and paid special attention to the differences in the workings of fate in each version. I don't remember who told us this, or when, but sometime during the Inklings class I remember hearing that if the audience of your paper could just watch your Power Point presentation and eliminate you from the picture entirely . . . Well, that's problematic. Ummm . . . duh. This paper would have benefited enormously from simply being read, as we didn't really need to see any pictures or anything of that kind. That notwithstanding, it was a worthy effort.

3:40- Now the real "fun" begins, with everyone I know (and myself) presenting practically all at once. I sat and listened to Anna Ross present "The Presence of Eros in The Screwtape Letters" and to Ardith present "Stereotype Used Effectively:Portrayals in That Hideous Strength." Both excellent, of course . . . I had heard portions of Anna's, as she was in my group last semester, and I had also heard Ardith's, of course.

4:45- The final session . . . Randy and Scholl both go before I do. I hadn't heard Randy's paper, "Unusual Women: Luthien and Orual." Clearly, I need to hear it again. I liked what I heard, but I probably only caught one word in four . . . I was a bit distracted. Scholl presented his "Creation and Afterlife: A Comparison of the Worldviews of Two Inklings." Naturally I'd heard that one before . . .

And then it was my turn . . . last paper of the day for everyone in the room ("What Dreams May Come: The Purgatory of Dante and Tolkien"). Interesting crowd we had managed to collect . . . I guess it was one of the occupational hazards for being in a session with Scholl after pretty much attending the same sessions with him all day. He had collected quite a following by this point.

Upon later reflection, it reminded me of one of those storybooks for very small children which follows a day in the life of the main character. They journey throughout the day, meeting new people and having new experiences and so forth, and then at the climax of the thing all of the people he has encountered throughout the story gather together with this main character as the center of whatever is going on . . . I'm not sure if I'm quite getting across what I mean, but there it is.

The entire JBU contingent snagged one wall, apparently returning the favor of our attendance at their session (and Scholl's generous helpings of technical assistance). We had been pestering Dr. Hawkins the entire day, of course, so naturally she slipped in. Even Dr. Jordan, of the Hamlet paper, found her way to this session, somehow or other. And naturally there was the mandatory contingent of available SC members, available, as always, to show some friendly, semi-questionable support. Gallagher and Martinez had come dragging in from . . . wherever for the previous session . . . Anna had just presented in the same room the session before . . . etc. Dr. Olson was heading up the session, due to yet another recent schedule change, and she was clearly having far too much fun with all of the goings-on. There were people there, and I knew virtually all of them, that's what I'm saying. It was weird, but clearly more enjoyable that way.

And then it was essentially over. I opted out of the dinner and seeing Shadowlands performed that evening in favor of attending Hootenanny (and I'm clearly not getting into that right now). The Conference was truly an epic experience, and I expect it will be handy discussion fodder for some time to come yet. You should go find yourself one to attend, because it is very much a lot of fun.

And speaking of epic, I can't help but wonder if this post is a record-breaker . . . for me, I mean. I have no idea how long the longest blogpost ever might be . . . Are you still reading this?! Good grief! Clearly I wrote this particular post with the express purpose of keeping certain details fixed in my own memory. If, for some reason, you're still there, it is clearly time for both of us to go find something constructive to do.

Personally, I'm casting a vote for sleep. *looks around* Clearly I am talking to myself as I am the only one in the room. That makes it unanimous. Good night.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

March 12, 2004

A Profusion of Incongruity

Hmmm . . . I have a lot to talk about. Too much, really . . . And as a result, this post is going to be extremely disjointed. And I'll probably throw a few topics together that have no business being in the same room with each other. Deal with it. But first . . .

Life is like a Guatemalan in a Red Light District. You come walking in with a specific goal in mind (you want tamales). You know what you're looking for (tamales); you're pretty sure you'll find what you're looking for, too . . . and it's not there. You find, instead, something you weren't expecting at all . . . and so much for you and your search for tamales . . . and your innocence, for that matter. At this point, you either curl up in a little ball and weep, or you leave and never come back, or . . . Yeah. Nevermind that third one. So that's what life does to people, pretty much. Good luck with that whole "preserving innocence and staying sane" thing.

Incoherent section: Hmmm . . . rereads above paragraph carefully . . . Right. I'm really not a horribly twisted, hardened, cynical individual. I swear. I'm actually highly amused at life right now. In fact, I am under the general impression that life is by far the most humorous thing I have ever experienced. This week has been really really really funny, I must say. Like, funnier than usual. I just wanted to be sure to mention that . . . Ummm . . . *minds wanders* I had a specific reason, I know. *thinks some more* Okay, nevermind. It isn't important. There's something seriously wrong with the way my mind is functioning at the moment (trust me) so . . . I'll just abandon this paragraph and move forward. Fast.

At the Movies: I went and saw The Passion this week. It was good, and it was moving. There were various scenes that had me more confused than anything else . . . Just wondering "Why did he put that? Why did he show it that way?" Usually I wondered this when the movie started getting ultra-symbolical . . . that's generally what threw me. And speaking of being thrown . . . if you aren't intimately familiar with the gospel accounts of Jesus' life, you will be very very confused by this movie. There are quite a few very random and very brief (although quite recognizable) flashbacks to key scenes from Jesus' life and ministry, but they aren't explained at all and may even seem unrelated to the actual movie.

Mainly, I have this to say, The Passion is not the straight, bare-bones account of Jesus' last hours that I, for one, had been led to believe from the pre-movie hype. This is not a historical movie. It's close . . . there are a number of very accurate historical elements in the movie, but it very clearly and consciously strays from historical accuracy (and even the Biblical account) on a number of occasions. I don't have a problem with that, really . . . I think the movie was made for emotional impact, and that's what it delivers. I just thought I'd mention it.

And I'd just like to note that I was not . . . utterly repulsed, let's say, by the extreme violence. I thought I would be, but it didn't bother me. I attribute this chiefly to my own overactive and extremely vivid imagination, and to a general desensitization towards violence (partially caused by said imagination). I've heard the crucifixion process described a lot in very explicit terms, and I've never had any trouble visualizing this in my head. In a sense, I've already seen what came up on the movie screen in my own mind dozens of times. That was nothing new. What I have not heard described so explicitly or imagined so vividly is the emotional and psychological impact of this treatment on the person in question . . . or on Jesus himself. In short, blood and gore leave me unphased (though not indifferent) . . . the moving display of raw courage and fortitude and the resigned willingness to go through this (for me did not. It's not about the visuals at all.

I had thoughts on quite a number of specifics, which I could discuss here, but my review is lacking in structure enough as it is. Go see it yourself. It won't bite.

Back to my week: After that really nasty two-week period a while back, last week and this week were both looking fairly light. I failed to take into account the fact that I do not want to do anything because Spring Break is upon us and I'm just plain ready for it. There's no getting around that fact.

So things got put off, a lot. And some sleep was lost, but not much. And more time was wasted than usual, I'll admit. But as far as momentous, blogworthy events go . . . Nope, not a whole lot there, folks.

Oh, yeah. Except that I got tackled on Thursday morning by an overly-frisky department chair and nearly went tumbling into a class being taught by another department chair.

So I have my map quiz in Western Civ, right? And I've been over the locations and junk and I arrive at the classroom in a sedate "I should clearly still be in bed" sort of mood and sit down to take said map quiz. Dr. Kubricht is talking to someone and then he tells us to study for another minute or two because he has to go do something.

Yeah . . . I have nothing but blank maps on me, and I'm about to take a map quiz. Like I'm going to study anything. Instead I decided to go out into the hall and clandestinely make fun of Gallagher, who was sitting in Dr. Batts' Comp II class next door. So I'm laughing at him, and he's making faces at me, and suddenly . . .

Someone a good bit larger than me grabs my shoulders roughly from behind and carries me very quickly forward three or four steps until I am all but in the classroom. I'm sure I said something here . . . like, "What the . . .!" or something like that. Just as I'm about to go falling in, the hands let go and I scramble back a few steps and have a chance to look around and see what on earth. And the only person anywhere within ten feet is Dr. K, who is walking calmly back into the Western Civ room. I follow, naturally, with a part-annoyed, mostly-just-flat-out-shocked, "What was that for?!"

I got no reply. He just turned around and smiled. And laughed. And handed out the map quiz. *shakes head* Clearly the approach of Spring Break does not only affect the students. I have secured assurances from Dr. Johnson that he will never tackle me. Perhaps I'll go around and get similair guarantees from other professors after Spring Break.

And that's about all there is to it at the moment. Except that I feel it is my solemn duty to provide the following information concerning the status of the following peoples:

The Amish

The Welsh

As I have already attempted to inform some of you, the Amish have been to Longview and gone again and are currently in the process of invading south Texas. You missed them. And the Welsh, too, have already been and gone quite a number of times. Currently they are busy elsewhere . . . procuring cheese logs. Furthermore, I have spoken with those in control of every group, affiliation, aggregation, alliance, association, band, body, brotherhood, cartel, circle, clique, club, coalition, combine, commonwealth, company, concern, confederation, consortium, cooperative, corporation, coterie, establishment, federation, fellowship, fraternity, guild, house, institution, league, lodge, monopoly, order, outfit, party, set, society, sodality, sorority, squad, syndicate, team, troupe, union, and organization that exists, ever has existed, or ever will exist and none of them have any plans whatsoever at all to grace Longview or especially LeTourneau University with their presence in the forseeable future (which another way of saying that they won't be coming . . . ever).

If you aren't one of the poor souls who knows what I'm talking about . . . don't worry. It isn't important . . . at all. You may go about your business. Move along.

Posted by Jared at 11:15 PM | TrackBack

February 29, 2004

Lord of the Rings Takes Its Place at the Top!

I am pleased. I am very pleased. "Return of the King" pulled it off. I . . . Well, I'd like to say that I knew it would, but I merely hoped it would. After all, the Academy isn't exactly known for handing out awards to the right people these days.

But now the greatest movie trilogy of all time (to date) has been given full honors, as is only natural. Eleven Oscars! w00t! Not only is it tied with "Ben-Hur" and *gags* "Titanic (Load of Crap)" for most Oscars of all time, but it now holds the record for a film winning all of its nominations. This record was previously held by "Gigi" (of all things) and "The Last Emperor" which each won all nine of their nominations.

Anyway, this is really, really great. And now . . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . *real life resumes*

Posted by Jared at 11:12 PM | TrackBack

February 18, 2004


I just returned from seeing Big Fish. Wow. That movie is worth seeing. It is really worth seeing. That's the best movie I've seen since . . .

Well, crap. I've seen so many good movies lately . . . But it was freaking good, and certainly the best of its type (I've never seen a movie quite like it). And now I attempt to walk the fine line between explaining why it was so great, and just summarizing the entire movie.

To hear Edward Bloom tell it, he has lived a life that is so rich and full of color and meaning that reality pales in comparison every time we break back into real life. The contrasts are amazing.

I just typed a paragraph . . . and deleted it. I don't want to go into specifics at all. Which means that now I'm running out of review . . . fast. Amidst all of the fun spectacle, the question running through your mind is: How much of this really happened? What has Edward Bloom really made of his life? Without giving anything away, you come to realize at the end that, not only is "what really happened" completely unimportant, it's downright detrimental. And that the most important sign of a life well lived is what you leave behind you.

I guess. I suck at this sort of thing. There's a lot that I want to say, and a lot that I could say. But you should really just go watch the movie. My conscience pricks whenever I give too much away about a movie that needs to be experienced first-hand.

*Runs off to concoct the story of his life . . .*

Posted by Jared at 10:13 PM | TrackBack

It's alive! It's alive!

I had to do an English Lit II journal on the Frankenstein movie we watched. And I figured I might as well post it here, as my review of the movie. And, of course, I'll elaborate as necessary and throw in one or two things I found while I was looking around, satsifying my idle curiosity.

The 1931 version of Frankenstein opens with an earnest warning to the audience that the movie will be frightening. So, we are told, we shouldn't watch if we are easily terrified. Unfortunately, I am part of a captive audience and have very little choice in the matter.

The story itself opens with a scene by an open grave as the priest reads the funeral service and the relatives of the deceased mourn his passing. As the grave is filled in, two wild-eyed and mysterious characters watch from nearby. One of these is Dr. Frankenstein himself; the other is his misshapen, not-very-bright assistant, Fritz. Once the gravedigger departs, the two move in on the freshly buried corpse. It’s all part of their search for body parts to use in the construction of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments with electricity and life, but he still needs a brain (two would do better, one for the monster and one for himself). Fritz, being a handy little devil, is able to procure one from a college classroom. Unfortunately, he is startled in the midst of the theft and he drops the normal brain on the floor. So he is forced to make do with the criminal brain which was sitting next to the other. D'oh!

Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s fiancé and best friend are worried about him, and track him down with the help of his former mentor from the college. Bla bla bla. Lots of boringness. They are shocked and disturbed by news of what sorts of things he has been working on and so forth.

It is a dark and stormy night, and Frankenstein is about to reach the point in his experiments that he has been working towards for many months: He will bring life to the creature that he has constructed out of spare body parts. Unfortunately, he is interrupted by the arrival of the three who are in search of him. He agrees to let them in to watch his experiment (because he's just very crafty like that). The experiment is successful (consisting of raising the construct up through the ceiling so that it is exposed to the lightning). The creature is brought to life, and all tremble in horror before it.

Now that he has created a monster, I’m not entirely certain what he has been planning to do with it. But that clearly has nothing to do with the movie. Before long, the monster is driven to kill Fritz, who has teased it constantly. And there is much rejoicing. Frankenstein and his mentor kill the monster with a syringe full of . . . killing juice, and Frankenstein goes off to be married, determined to forget all about the horrible experiment. The doctor decides he wants to do an autopsy on the monster, but unfortunately, the monster isn’t actually dead. And he objects to the idea of a biopsy in the strongest possible terms. Frankenstein’s mentor is throttled. I call it self-defense. That scalpel was out and it was coming at the monster's head. No jury in the world would convict.

The monster proceeds to wander out into the peaceful countryside around the quiet little German town, and accidentally kills a little girl (you see, he thought she was a boat). It was totally an accident. He is 100% justified in pleading insanity. No jury in the world would convict. He then proceeds directly to Frankenstein’s house . . . in broad daylight . . . in the middle of town (intuitively knowing where it is, and completely escaping detection), scares the living bejesus out of the fiancé (who Frankenstein has very craftily locked into her room while he searches the rest of the house for the monster), and leaves.

Suddenly, everyone in town knows that there is a monster, and that the monster is responsible for the death of the little girl (there were no witnesses, but . . .?). They split up (and by split up, I mean stay together) and go out in search of it. It's a classic monster-hunting mob, complete with torches and pitchforks. w00t!

Frankenstein commits the classic horror-movie blunder, and goes one way while everyone else goes the other way. He then proceeds to walk around with his head turned only to the left, and walks to the edge of a cliff to look over. Naturally, he is knocked unconscious while he is struggling with the monster. The monster drags him back to the windmill where it was created, with the townspeople in hot pursuit, and much excitement ensues. Dr. Frankenstein is thrown off the top of the windmill, but he isn't quite dead.

This turns out to be the monster’s undoing, as the others are now free to burn the windmill down. He didn't quite have a grasp on that whole "hostage negotiation" thing. The monster dies amidst flames, alone, trapped under a beam. Frankenstein is married and recovers (I’m not to sure about the order here). And his father the Baron gets to drink some very fine wine, surrounded by half a dozen very pretty, young maids with bobbed hair. It is a very happy ending. Totally random, but happy.

I liked the classic, campy way in which this film was carried out. As a fan of classic movies from all decades, I really enjoyed the style, and was reminded of some of the horror and suspense movies that I used to watch all the time. (Perhaps I will speak of The Tingler one of these days. Funniest movie I've ever seen, and I'm not exaggerating.) That said, this obviously was not really related to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in any but the vaguest possible sense.

We discussed in class the significance of the subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus,” and the one thing about the movie that I especially noticed was the almost complete absence of consequences. Fritz and Frankenstein’s mentor are murdered. A little girl died. Some random person got wounded. An abandoned windmill burned down. Frankenstein gets hurt, but he’ll be better soon. I don’t think anyone was sad to see Fritz go. The mentor is all but forgotten by the end of the movie (I only just remembered as I was going over the body count in my head). The little girl’s death is rather unfortunate, but it doesn’t affect Frankenstein.

He, as the Prometheus character, is not punished in any way for all of his meddling with things he shouldn’t be meddling with. He gets to live happily ever after, and none of the characters that died in the book (of those that actually appeared in the movie) are killed. That pretty much takes the soul out of the story. Oh, it’s still a cautionary tale, I suppose, but almost all of the impact is gone. All that is left is a very cheap popcorn flick which has pervaded pop culture for the past sixty-plus years and completely supplanted the original novel. That’s too bad.

At the end of the movie, I was really only left with one burning question: If it was Fritz all this time, then who in the world is Igor?

I did a bit of research on that. My first search only told me that the first use of the character name "Igor" was in this 1966 movie. A further search revealed this, which I'm sure some of you already knew.

I end this in the classic style of MST3K, with a quote. There are a number of highly amusing and extremely memorable quotes in this movie, but I finally settled on this one from Dr. Frankenstein himself:

Dangerous? Poor old Waldman. Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have your never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn't care if they did think I was crazy.

Good night, everyone.

Posted by Jared at 02:30 AM | TrackBack

January 19, 2004

Let me tell you about great movies . . .

While I was on the general subject of RotK (again), I was just going to go ahead and take a few cracks at Roger Ebert's rather annoying review. However, I find that it dovetails rather nicely with . . . something else.

So, we watched Citizen Kane tonight, which I had never seen before. A movie that tops film lists is worth seeing almost by default, and that was how it first came to my attention a few years back, but the opportunity to see it just hadn't come my way. So now I've seen it.

Obviously "Greatest American Movie of All-Time" is a very subjective thing which cannot be measured empirically. But if the movie-saturated folks of the AFI get together and a group of them looks at all the candidates and decides that Citizen Kane is the absolute best movie ever made in this country, people will listen, and they'll probably have something of an idea of what they're talking about.

The following paragraph is an opinion, blah blah blah:

I, personally, do not think that Citizen Kane is the greatest movie of all time. I probably wouldn't even put it in my top 100. I thought it was a great movie. It was executed almost flawlessly. I noticed 1,000 great shots making excellent use of reflections and/or lighting/shadows and/or camera angles and so on. The acting was superior. The movie was very well-paced. The opening ten minutes or so run you through the entire story in classic newsreel style, and then you spend the rest of the movie delving into it on a more personal level, the whole thing driven by a search to solve the mystery of one man's cryptic last word.

Ultimately, I thought it was a very empty movie. That's kind of the point, I know . . . the man who had everything but couldn't get the one thing he really wanted . . . or something. His life is empty and so the movie is too. You keep seeing him making the wrong decisions, going to far to prove a point, always pushing in the wrong directions, and things just keep crashing down around his ears. And when the ending finally reveals what he's been thinking about in his last days, you realize just how much his life has been sucking all along. Bleah. In the end, just bleah.

I was reading some of the wonderful, and ever-intelligent and well thought out comments on IMDb under The Pianist about a month ago. I can't find the comment I was reading now, but the basic premise of the would-be "critic" bothered me. He said that the movie was neither Polanski's best (I wouldn't know, haven't seen any others), nor did it deserve the Oscars it won. Why? Because a movie about the Holocaust is easy to do well. The emotions of the audience are easily manipulated . . . everytime they get too secure, kill another Jew. Aside from being rather insensitive, the reasoning sucks.

The fact is, you can make a movie that absolutely nails everything, but if I don't care about your subject then your movie will fail . . . ummm, with me, anyway. Picking the right thing to make a movie about is every bit as important as any other detail, if not more important. People will love movies like Star Wars and Back to the Future that are full of plot holes, and cheesy dialogue, and dated special effects because the director just picked really really well. Marvelous examples of the craft, on the other hand, like Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane, only last beyond their time among film buffs. Ordinary people don't know and don't care . . . Why would they want to watch a movie about that? Just because it was really good at the time?

I'm the kind of person who can watch a movie and appreciate it immensely on the technical level, but still not enjoy it, or think it is an exceptional movie. Or maybe I will enjoy it, for whatever reason . . . Sometimes, unfortunately, I'm certain that that is all certain people are looking at. *cough, cough* The Academy *cough, cough*

So, as previously stated, for all the skill that went into Citizen Kane, and as much as I really did enjoy it, I don't think that it is one of the greatest movies of all time. It's just too dang empty of meaning and feeling.

Now, back to Ebert: "There is little enough psychological depth anywhere in the films, actually, and they exist mostly as surface, gesture, archetype and spectacle. They do that magnificently well, but one feels at the end that nothing actual and human has been at stake; cartoon characters in a fantasy world have been brought along about as far as it is possible for them to come . . ."

Guh. Between that quote, an accusation or two that I've seen accusing every character in the trilogy of the vague crime of being one-dimensional, and even the statement that the Matrix trilogy had "a lot more plot" than LotR, I'm about to . . . plotz.

Hmmm . . . I wrote, like, three paragraphs or so . . . one for each of the above proverbial thorns in my proverbial side. But they sucked. And I'm not in the mood. And you all know I'm right anyway. And now I have to go do things . . . and stuff. Later.

Posted by Jared at 12:45 AM | TrackBack

December 25, 2003

Return of the King, finally . . . and with a nasty little twist . . .

Alright, first things first . . . Wait . . . *prioritizes briefly* . . . Important things first. So, there are a lot of us going to the theater for the first showing we can make . . . which happens to be 4:00 *curses at responsibilities and other such crap*, and we decide to arrive at 3:30 to buy tickets. Lord of the Rings has never had a big opening day around here . . . when I went to FotR for the first time, I was at the first showing ever here and there were about 15 people in the theater. There are some friends meeting us there, and a bunch of the orphanage kids, having enjoyed the previous installments with us for the past few years. So we get there about ten minutes later than I wanted to because my parents are sloooooow and there's a pretty decent-sized line, which surprises me. But no big deal, we have plenty time to get to the front of it. I spot our friends near the front of the line, and I settle back to wait until I can buy my ticket. And then suddenly my friends are there beside me, telling me they sold out of tickets two people in front of them. Suck. Gotta wait for the 6:00.

But that didn't matter . . . I've waited a year . . . and an extra week . . . I should have expected to have to wait an extra two hours to get in. We all went back to my house and played games and generally had fun until it was time to go again. We had been told that they would let people into the theater starting at 5:30, so we showed up about then. They weren't letting anybody in, there was a large line formed . . . blah blah blah. Finally, at about 15 till, we discover that this line is to see Brother Bear, and we can go in now. It seems like we're the first allowed in, too. Except that the theater was well over half full already. Grrr . . . Our group of 25+ people couldn't find more than five empty seats in a row, so we splintered in all directions.

There wasn't long to wait. They showed the Troy preview and the Timeline preview (because that still isn't out here). And then the movie started. Yay. Finally. I see "El Señor de los Anillos" come up, but they always have the titles in Spanish. Then we see the first shots, and I'm liking it, and it's going to be good. The first line of the movie is, "Smeagol!" And there's a lot of that name mixed in the few seconds after. And I notice something odd . . . Deagol is saying "eh-Smeagol!" instead of "Smeagol!"

And I say to myself, I say, "Self . . . D'oh!" Because Spanish speakers are incapable of saying a word that starts with the letter s followed by a consonant without putting an "e" in front of the word. So the only reason for Deagol to be saying "eh-Smeagol!" is if the movie is in Spanish. Of course, this flashes through my mind in a nanosecond and it was confirmed almost immediately. For the next five minutes I think I genuinely regretted being in this country right now for the first time. But then I settled in for the movie.

From one standpoint, it's not a big deal. I've seen movies in Spanish before and later had a hard time remembering whether they were in Spanish or English. I can understand everything they're saying perfectly. The main concern is poor dubbing. I hate dubbed movies because they never sound quite right. And often the voice acting is extremely poor, even painfully so. In this case, the voice acting was tolerable, but it definitely lacked the feeling that I was expecting and hoping for from the original actors. Also, (and I've done this a hundred times myself when translating anything), most things simply will not translate straight over, and a lot of times it comes out sounding completely different and maybe even meaning something different. I could tell the movie was doing this too, and it irritated me. So, basically, I can't submit a review on any of the dialogue in the movie, and precious little of the acting, because by my standards, both sucked when done in Spanish. Spanish can be a very very poetic language, but not when you're trying to listen to another language's poetry in it . . . especially a language as weird as ours.

So, now not only do I not have closure until I see the EE in November, I will have even less closure until I've seen the bloody movie in English!!! I expect this to happen by Sunday, because there are places around here that are showing it English. I am simply disappointed in the extreme that our theater right down the street (literally a five minute walk and about a $1.75 ticket) is not one of them. I'll probably see it two or three times in English, and up to four or five in Spanish before I get back.

Yeah, for convenience sake I am going to see it in Spanish again. Because this movie was a good movie. I mean . . . well, you've all seen it already, curse you, so you know what I mean. A little change of language could not ruin this movie. Not by half.

My minor irritants stemmed mainly from Peter Jackson walking the fine line of sticking to the book and pulling in his own crap just a little too closely. One part was where Sam hesitates just a little bit too long before returning the ring to Frodo. Another was the change to the Shelob sequence that had Frodo escaping the lair, Sam sent away, and Gollum getting the crap beat out of him before the real sequence came several minutes later. He was really pushing it there . . . I know he likes to make the audience think he's going one way, and then go another, but when he is making me think he's really going to screw up the book, that's not cool. Sometimes it's not cool even when I know he isn't. My least favorite part of FotR is where it appears that Sam is going to drown and then doesn't. If Sam actually drowned, that would be the lamest thing ever in movie history, and since he isn't going to it's lame to draw out the shot so far that we think he will. And yeah, Gandalf's flashlight and Sauron's darting eye searchlight were underwhelming on an epic level (but fortunately not overused so I didn't care too much).

All of that notwithstanding, this movie delivered for me. I found myself tearing up at several random moments. There was so much that was right for me that it's impossible to focus on the wrong. The eagles . . . I didn't know whether they were in there because I forgot to ask anyone and literally no one has mentioned them anywhere. So as that part drew near I was wondering . . . they were great. I agree with Randy about Shelob. I'm not even really afraid of spiders, but that part freaked me out. Nor am I bothered overmuch by heights, but the stairs of Cirith Ungol . . . *shiver* They remind me of the last time we were at Tikal and I climbed one of the Mayan temples. The stairs are seriously almost that steep . . . but of course nowhere near that narrow and not slick as snot on a doorknob either. My youngest brother got "stuck" halfway up and wouldn't climb any higher or come back down without help.

Some of the parts that were especially right: Pelennor fields, all of it (especially the initial charge of the Rohirrim and Eowyn's face-off with the Witchking) . . . The second part of Shelob . . . Frodo and Sam climbing Mount Doom . . . the whole winddown (short shrift given to Gondor notwithstanding). There are loads and loads of little things that were perfect as well, but I don't want to get into all of that.

I need to go see it again. But there are more things to do between now and then . . . the other happenings of late will have to wait for another post. I'm starving.

Posted by Jared at 10:24 PM | TrackBack

December 08, 2003

"Children Are Evil," or "Jared Has Been Watching too Many Horror Movies"

What is it about small children that scares us so much? I have my own answers to the question, but I'll let you draw what conclusions you will. When I ask that question, I am referring, of course, to scary movies. Over the past few days I've been watching (or re-watching) some scary movies, suspenseful movies, etc. Almost inevitably, the creepiest character is a child. Why this widespread trend in scary movies? Well, because it works. Little kids apparently scare us more than almost anything else. I don't watch very many movies that can be described as "horror" and those of you who do probably have half a dozen titles in your head right now which don't involve children. First of all, "slasher" movies can be largely discounted. I'm not talking about movies that rely solely on "jump out in front of the camera very suddenly and yell" tactics to scare you. Those scares don't really last. No, at least think movies that involve the supernatural, movies that really leave a lasting impression. Just look at, for example: The Others, The Sixth Sense, The Ring, The Exorcist, Ghost Ship, Child's Play, Children of the Corn, The Poltergeist, The Bad Seed, Lady in White, The Shining, The Nanny, Audrey Rose, Paper House, Salem's Lot, The Omen . . . Well, it's a long list. And . . . wow. I am not linking all of those. Anyway, random thought process of the day (coming on the heels, specifically, of watching The Ring just now). Make of it what you will. Or don't. Makes no difference whatsoever to me.

Posted by Jared at 04:37 PM | TrackBack

December 03, 2003

Why Do the White Gulls Call?

Alright, I'm sitting here in the library trying to do 10 Bible journals at once, and just finishing up the fourth. I'm not working very fast because I'm in one of "those" moods, and I have a train of thought stuck firmly in my head, moving at a slow crawl on the circular track. I can't get it to jump the tracks, the bridge isn't out at the moment, and I don't have any spare wood to stoke the engine fires with. So this is what we do: I'm switching the tracks, and the train is coming out at my fingertips (you know, the ones that are stuck to this keyboard). This little introductory section is coming while I wait for it to wind its way down out of my head and through my arms to the . . . Wait, I think its here.

Yesterday I found this link where the final track of the Return of the King soundtrack is available to be listened to in its entirety. Later that night I actually went out and bought the thing (not having realized that it was already out). Since then I have listened to the final track (which will be played during the end credits) about . . . well, I've listened to it a lot, over and over. I'm listening to it right now.

At the end of Fellowship we had "May It Be" sung by Enya, and it was a pretty song. She's got a good voice, the music is pleasant, etc. The lyrics were . . . functional. They worked. It was kind of a "Godspeed" to Frodo as he starts the real journey. It kind of glanced off the surface of things, a bit. It's not particularly deep or meaningful, (not that I care). I wasn't expecting it to be (I wasn't thinking about the music much when I first saw the movie anyway), and I think it is a very nice song. Looking at it now, I can see that it carries the movie forward from the "last scene." The movie isn't over until . . . (I wasn't going to say the fat lady sings) . . . this song has ended.

Then, at the end of Towers there was "Gollum's Song" performed by Emiliana Torrini. The choice of this song was . . . interesting. It takes a moment to get used to it, first. It's a direct contrast to Enya, both the voice and the lyrics. Torrini's singing is almost like listening to a heart break, musically. She sings just shy of a whine or a moan. But the words are what make the song really good. I think this is a perfect capture of what has just happened to Smeagol/Gollum as the movie ends. Once again, the movie isn't over until the song is over. And, while I think it has more depth than "May It Be," it's not the sort of song one listens to over and over and over. This is not because it's melancholy, I don't mind melancholy, but the song offers no hope. It only crushes and departs.

Then, after all this, comes "Into the West" sung by Annie Lennox. Based on the name of the next to last track ("The Grey Havens"), together with the fact that each of the songs before was a continuation of the thoughts during the last scene, I would say that this song is basically Sam's thoughts and feelings as Frodo and the other Ring Bearers leave Middle Earth. Be that as it may, I found the lyrics to be especially significant when considered in the light of being a euphemism for the physical death of Christians. I don't want to take the time here to go through each line and stamp my little commentary in, and I think that would ruin the song anyway. Here are the lyrics, think about them yourself as you go listen to the song:

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
Night is falling
You have come to journey's end

Sleep now
Dream of the ones who came before
They are calling
From across a distant shore

Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away

Safe in my arms
You're only sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?

Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come
To carry you home

And all will turn to silver glass
A light on the water
All souls pass

Hope fades
Into the world of night
Through shadows falling
Out of memory and time

Don't say
We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again

And you'll be here in my arms
Just sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?

Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come
To carry you home

And all will turn to silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass
Into the west

And, as a final, bonus thought, consider the following lines from each song as they connect together:
"Oh! How far you are from home" (May It Be)
"You are lost, you can never go home" (Gollum's Song)
"The ships have come to carry you home" (Into the West)

Posted by Jared at 04:29 PM | TrackBack

November 24, 2003

The Week That Rocked

Twelve days since I made a substantial post. Bleah. The longer I put it off, the more there is to write. Of course, it's not like this is some kind of chore, but it takes time. But I have no time to digress . . . ummm . . . more than I normally digress.

I finished War in Heaven . . . obviously, I kind of had to. It was really great, but not quite as good as Many Dimensions, I thought. That's purely a personal preference concerning subject matter, though. I wouldn't recommend one over the other. I was pleased to discover that the LeTourneau library has a copy of All Hallow's Eve. Seriously, I'm not making that up. I'll definitely have to look into this situation at a later date, when my reading slate is a little bit cleaner. I have moved on now to Descent into Hell, and since I'm just that slow these days (I'll elaborate in a bit) I am now truly reading three books related to Hell.

On Sunday night . . . and by Sunday night, for clarity, I mean last Sunday night (we're starting at the beginning here), I went to see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I and, I believe, the rest of us who were there, were quite "wowed" by the quality of this movie. It was most excellent in just about every respect. I'd go into deeper detail, but I've hashed through it so thoroughly so many times with people since that . . . I'd rather not write it all down at this point. I meant to write a complete review a week ago, but I was too busy and it didn't happen. In any case, it was good, well-acted, well-paced, generally worthwhile, etc. Go see it. It's strange. I never actually went to a movie in this town at all during my first year (barring The Two Towers in January, and that doesn't really count) and then suddenly I go to four movies in a two week span. Odd.

Monday was spent finishing War in Heaven and writing my reading summary for it. These activities were not equally proportioned at all. I finished the book approximately 50 minutes before class, and then did the summary. I finished printing out and stapling my 2nd draft at the moment when Michael walked into the computer lab to get me. I rode with him to Dr. Olson's house (we had class there, for the second time this semester). The atmosphere is mostly very conducive to the class in general. The main problem is focus and getting everyone together. We didn't start until about 45 minutes late, and ended up running 20 minutes over. Dr. Olson's dogs were . . . less than well-behaved this time around, periodically banging loudly on the door of the room they were in (which happened to be less than 10 feet away from me). Aside from this, it was a fun class. Of course, I ended up getting back to my room after 11:00. And I had genre reports to work on for Bib Lit and a speech to write for the next day.

Wilson helped me brainstorm a topic and I got to work on that. I had hoped to finish the genre reports in time to send them in to Owlet, because it's worth an extra quiz grade to do so. However, as the night wore on and the thing refused to progress with any sort of speed, it became apparent that this would not be taking place. Long story short, I stayed up all night.

The next day wasn't anywhere near as fun as my last all-nighter, not by half. Not enough caffeine, you see. I zonked in Woodring's class, and fully expected to zonk in Kubricht's. Fortunately, he was showing a video. Even more fortunately, he failed to bring the right video, realized that he'd actually thrown away the right video, and cancelled class. So I got off easy on that one. Speech, of course, was a breeze. Go in, sit through speeches, make your speech, leave. Yeah, I got picked on to do mine . . . no lucky breaks for me, yet again. Payton sure made up for that first speech where I actually got to go last. Which sucks because that was the only one where I was fully prepared to go first.

Anyway, this was a special occasion speech, and I gave a before-dinner address to the 7th Annual Gulf Coast Purity League Book Roast and Fish Fry. I, for one, was quite entertained, and I think my classmates were as well, generally. I brought along several books to "burn" and pulled them out to show everyone. I had the Harry Potter series ("I know I burned them last year, but I figured I'd just go ahead and do it again."), a couple of Dungeons and Dragons books that I bummed off someone, a Stephen King book, Dante's Inferno, Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time, book 6 by Robert Jordan . . . the title was the main thing, and the fact that I happened to have it in my pocket), and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. That last one may sound a little odd, but while doing "research" the night before I discovered that it had met that doom at a few church book burnings in recent months, so it passed.

After that I went over to Best Buy with Scholl and Uncle Doug in my new truck, my first official use of it really, to get myself a copy of The Two Towers: Extended Edition (43 minutes of extra scenes . . . oh, yeah!). And, of course, since we were in the area we stopped by Books-a-Million to check out the scene. I was tempted to buy a few things, but I have too much to read as it is.

We returned to my room and Martinez and Wilson showed up as we watched through most of the new stuff. We broke for supper halfway through, and Moore joined us for the second half. It was all kinds of fun, and there are so many great new scenes! I won't go into it here, there's no point. If you haven't seen them yet, you get a hearty reprimand from me, and . . . you should go see them now . . . or something. By the time we finished, it was about 7:00. Everybody left, my computer screen started getting really blurry, and I decided that my bed was . . . looking . . . particularly . . . zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Yeah, I went to bed at about 7:30, so I got 13 hours of sleep. Crazy. And lucky as well, because I ended up pulling another all-nighter on Wednesday in order to finish those dang-blasted genre reports. Bleah. All kinds of bleah. I got some other stuff done in there, too.

So, Thursday wasn't any more fun that Tuesday. The only real difference was that I didn't have to give a speech, and I didn't get to skip Western Civ. I crashed at about 9:00 and slept through chapel on Friday, so I got 14 hours of sleep there . . . all in all my average for the week was better than it has been many times in the past. That's really sad.

I spent a sizable portion of Friday playing Freedom Force, a really fun computer game (the first I've played in a couple of months, too) wherein you take control of a team of up to four superheroes. The style of play is similar to Baldur's Gate . . . squad-based, real-time strategy that you can pause whenever to issue orders to your guys, with a heavy role-playing element in terms of advancing your heroes, and figuring damage, etc. It's very retro, done in 60's comics style . . . even if you've only ever watched the old Batman TV show, this game will crack you up with how dead on it is. Very well done voice acting, perfectly melodramatic and so on. The narrator is especially good. And the gameplay is just awesome . . . so many cool powers, so many cool heroes, so little time!

Friday night was the usual (Bible study), Saturday was the usual for the most part. I went to Waffle Shoppe with the crew at 1:00 in the morning, and that was fun. Randomly going out and eating pancakes with a bunch of people at all hours is the very essence of college life. And they were really good pancakes, too (at only $1.79 for 10!). Sunday afternoon was spent finishing my paper so people could hack at it. It still needs more hacks, but there was a bit of commentary forthcoming this evening. Of course the big activity was a supper of sandwiches, chips and Oreos in preparation for the full showing of The Two Towers on the big screen in Barry Auditorium. Four hours is a truly epic amount of time to spend watching a movie . . . it was loads of fun. "He was twitching because he's got mah axe buried in his nervous system!" Classic.

Jeepers! It's after 2:00! I'm not doing anything like what I did last week, no way, no how. I'm going to bed. I need to continue to catch up on sleep, I have a lot of driving to do on Wednesday. Uncle Doug and I will traveling to Lubbock to visit my family (extended, not immediate) for Thanksgiving Break. Should be fun . . . it will be interesting at the very least. Good night, y'all.

Posted by Jared at 02:07 AM | TrackBack

November 10, 2003

Acquisitions, Movies, and Wilde (is a genius)

Well, craziness this weekend . . . more so concerning what didn't get done as opposed to what did. I'll still finish everything I need to finish, and I'll get it done on time, too. But I haven't done much of it yet. My dad was here this weekend, so I did stuff. We saw a few movies, and that was cool. To make a long story as short as possible, the only activities which will be of any interest to you to read about (I say this without knowing for sure, of course), and of any interest to me to write about, are the movie reviews.

Well, that and the fact that he drove my new pickup over from Lubbock. Nissan Frontier, 1998, red, manual . . . etc. I drove it here and there the past few days and I'm just generally pleased with it. And, of course, it must have a name, just because I can. I believe "Errant Venture" will do nicely. It has just enough levels of meaning, although the one I'm thinking of in particular is "Straying from the proper course on an undertaking of 'uncertain' outcome." For you Star Wars fans out there, I didn't pick it specifically because of the SW connection (Booster Terrik's Star Destroyer). Rather, the name occured to me because I heard it there and liked it on its own merits.

Anyway, on Friday night I went to see Runaway Jury. I thoroughly enjoyed it, pretty much throughout. If you like Grisham, and you liked the book the movie was based on, then you'll probably enjoy it. A suspenseful two hours of watching people manipulate each other . . . yay! They made some very interesting changes from the book, but overall it was a surprisingly faithful adaptation (especially considering the sheer number of events in the book). The trial here was over gun control instead of smoking, which was . . . odd. I'm not sure what all the reasons were for that choice. Personally, I suspect it has to do with how much more relevant and highly-charged the gun control issue is right now. The biggest change, to my mind, was in the ending, but it fit nicely with the direction they had been taking things all along. It annoyed me, but only slightly. The casting was excellent as well.

On Saturday night we saw Radio. I still have two opinions about this movie . . . I can't quite decide. I've been watching the previews for months, and during the first half-hour my original assessment seemed to have been confirmed. This movie is Forrest Gump meets Remember the Titans. As such, the whole thing is terribly cliché. If you liked either of those movies, particularly the latter, then you're going to like this movie. After the football season ended fairly early on, I realized that this wasn't going to be a total rehash of Titans, at least. Then, when the movie hits its "low point" I suddenly woke up and started examining what had happened so far. The movie was rather blatantly attempting to manipulate the emotions of the audience, and it seemed that that was as far as it went. This didn't come as a surprise or anything, I just suddenly noticed it. You were made to like Radio and feel happy for him, and then the movie would do something really crappy to him. And then he'd be back on top again. But after this "low point" it stopped doing that as well. The end was what clinched it, pretty much. The movie was based on a true story, and the main character is still alive. They ended with a voice-over and footage of Radio at recent games. That helped put the movie in perspective and allowed to feel more connected with what I had just seen (thinking of it as real rather than utterly contrived, as I had been tempted to think earlier). It also resonated because of the setting . . . a small, Southern town. Throughout the movie I kept thinking "Well, I've been there!" and "I know that person!" Cuba Gooding, Jr. did an incredible acting job. I've seen him in other movies, and this is obviously as much of a departure for him as Forrest Gump was for Tom Hanks. Ultimately it comes down to this. The movie does not require you to suspend your disbelief in order for you to enjoy it. Rather, you must suspend your cynicism. This makes it more apparent than ever that there are two of me. Because I still have my two opinions about this freaking movie!!!

Finally, tonight (my dad having returned to Guatemala today) we watched The Importance of Being Earnest. I thoroughly enjoyed it because . . . well, Oscar Wilde is a freaking genius. But you knew that. It's great because it works well for both of my personalities. Few things work as well comedically as the classic screwed-up love story. Take two men, both in love, both in the habit of using the same alias with their loved ones. Add two stereotyped Victorian women capable of swinging wildly from hyper-romantic naivete to cold, clammy propriety in the blink of an eye. Throw in a few random plot devices like the materialistic, social-climbing guardian whose consent is required for marriage, and the foundling origins of the main character. Season with the biting satirical wit of Oscar Wilde (a man equally comfortable with the sniper rifle and the sawed-off shotgun when it comes to satire) directed at skewering his society. Shake well. Hilarity ensues. Anyway, it was loads and loads of fun. I'm just kind of scratching the surface here, because that's all I really want to do. I'll leave you with some quotes from the play (unfortunately, it is impossible for me to judge how funny they are taken out of context), and then I'm off to bed.

"I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. Shilly-shallying with the question is absurd."

"The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means."

"To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

"I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square."

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!"

"I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing."

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

"The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to some one else, if she is plain."

"It is awfully hard work doing nothing. However, I don't mind hard work where there is no definite object of any kind."

"Oh, I don't think I would care to catch a sensible man. I shouldn't know what to talk to him about."

"Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die."

"Women only call each other sister when they have called each other a lot of other things first."

Posted by Jared at 02:40 AM | TrackBack

November 05, 2003

That "Matrix" Thing

Well, I really did it this time. Yup, I really did it. Oh, it was nothing bad, depending on your definition of bad. I went to see The Matrix Revolutions.

My assessment: "Eye candy . . . yummmmmmmmm." *Said with large eyes, suitably glazed over, and a large, happy smile on your face.*

No spoilers . . . not because I don't want to spoil it for you, but because there's just no point. You'll see it, or not. You'll like it, or not. Or, like me, you'll recognize what it is and just generally be entertained. My favorite quote from the movie:

"Cookies need love, just like everything else."

Heck, yeah! I want all of you, right now, wherever you are, to share the love. Eat a cookie. I was reminded of Senator's speech yesterday on the many and varied benefits of eating a cookie. Good stuff.

Well, in a surprising turn of events, more stuff happened to me today, and I did more stuff as well . . . Kinda like everyday. I'm just the kind of person that stuff happens to, and that does stuff. I guess some would call it my defining characteristic. But probably not, since it's kind of common for that to be the case with just about everyone. Actually, today's stuff isn't worth staying up and writing about. Unless you just want me to so that I won't get any sleep so that the last post can have a sequel . . . Not gonna do it. Not . . . gonna . . . do it.

Good night, y'all.

Posted by Jared at 11:45 PM | TrackBack

October 21, 2003

Zen and the Art of . . . Dante

"To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause."
-Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

It would appear that Hollywood producer, a bad piece of fish, and staying up too late reading The Divine Comedy led to the movie whose title is taken from the quote above (see linked portion). Let me just say that somebody is having some crazy dreams out there. I enjoyed the imagery of the movie immensely. Very Dante-esque. I haven't read the Paradiso yet, but I know a little about it. The locations in the "heaven" portion of the movie are breathtaking, to say the least. Too bad heaven sucks so much. I mean, come on . . .

Quote from the movie:

Chris (the main character): Where is God in all of this?

Albert (one of the two "Virgil" characters): Oh, He's up there somewhere, shouting down that He loves us, wondering why we can't hear Him... you think?

Sounds very nice, doesn't it? Wait, though . . . the characters are already in heaven. Where the heck is God then?! That's just the tip of one very nasty theological iceberg (the movie is the Titanic, get it?). In terms of watchability, the pacing is totally screwy. It bogs down rather severely in hell. There is some great visual material in the hell sequences. Unfortunately, we don't get to see hardly any of it. The camera spends more time giving us close-ups of Robin Williams reactions than it does showing us what he's seeing. And for every 30 seconds of hell footage, we are forced to break into yet another very unimportant and even more lengthy flashback.

And then the capstone of the thing . . . After hauling his wife out of hell itself, and being reunited with his kids at his dream house in his dream world (I mean, geez . . . even the family dog is there!) . . . After all of this, the main character and his wife decide to get themselves reincarnated and do it all over again. ("I found you in Hell, you don't think I can find you in Jersey?") Oh, the pain . . .

That said, there were some very interesting parallels to Leaf by Niggle (Tolkien) . . . only that story was set chiefly in Purgatory. I wouldn't be surprised to find that someone involved in the movie had read that story as well, although it shares so many themes in common with The Divine Comedy that it could just as easily be a coincidence.

After that I finished the Trivial Pursuit game with Anna and Wilson. For an account of that, head over to Wilson's blog (assuming you didn't just come from there). I need to get back to work.

Posted by Jared at 03:19 PM | TrackBack

October 06, 2003

Thoughts on the Holocaust and . . . Poseys?!

This week's Sunday night movie was The Pianist. And it was excellent from where I was sitting. Minor criticisms aside, the form was virtually flawless, and the movie accomplishes its purpose as effectively as possible. Like Schindler's List, which I have not seen (working on it), it is not a movie to be watched lightly. Unless your mind has been completely numbed by violence, etc. in the movies, you will probably be disturbed. And that's the way it should be.

The whole point of a movie like this is to ensure that we never forget what happened in Nazi-occupied countries during the Second World War. As I heard it put elsewhere, "There aren't any words left in our world to describe the horrors of the Holocaust. Only pictures hold us in sufficient sway to convict, humble and revive determination . . . those pictures seem to be intensifying, becoming more vivid and gruesome, as if to somehow counteract the dulling effects of the passage of time."

However, I don't want to dwell on the subject, myself. As it says above, there are no words left. There certainly aren't any that I can say which would be better than anything that has already been said. You don't need to hear them, and I don't need to write them. But I would like to take this opportunity to plug two excellent books. One is the first World War II-related book I ever read, and the other is one of my favorite books (at the least my favorite piece of historical fiction) of all time.

The former is, of course, aimed at a much younger audience. It is called Escape from Warsaw, and it focuses on three Polish children who fend for themselves in the city during the war, and then strike out for Switzerland on foot to try and meet up with their parents. Without going into the whole plot, it is a very good (and easy) read.

The latter is much meatier and far superior. Mila 18 by Leon Uris (everything I've read of his is good, this is the best) is about the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The book starts out before the war begins, as I recall, so there is plenty of context and background before the actual uprising. Also, Uris is fond of giving loads and loads of fascinating background for his main characters. It is a highly worthwhile read.

I really need to share the wonder of Friday's English class with you all. It was another group presentation day, and the group's topic was Sir Philip Sidney's "A Defense of Poesy." As I sat down, one of the first things I noticed on the slide they had up for their Power Point presentation was the title "A Defense of Posey." I thought to myself, "Self, I wonder if they're doing a parody of the actual work, perchance. Or mayhap they are making a joke. Surely they don't seriously think that Sir Philip Sidney went to all the trouble of writing a lengthy defense of small bouquets of flowers, or a city in California."

Needless to say, it was neither parody nor joke, and they proceeded to pronounce and spell Posey throughout the presentation. It was most distracting, and I found it difficult to take seriously a group who was as obviously unfamiliar with the title of their main topic as this one was. The amusement factor, however, was fairly high. Well nigh to being off the charts, I'd say, if I had to hazard a rough guess.

The group partially redeemed itself, to my mind, by bringing along a copy of the new trailer for Return of the King. I had already seen it, of course, but I had no objections to watching it again (and on a much larger screen than my own). Dr. Watson ended his lecture five minutes early and bustled about the room ensuring that the door was shut, the blinds were drawn, and the lights were off, so that the preview could be enjoyed to maximum effect (he had not yet seen it). After the trailer had ended, there was a brief, two-second period of total silence. Then, from Dr. Watson's general area of the room I hear a slightly strangled but rather loud, "Yes!" It was rather awesome, and just generally concurred rather thoroughly with my thoughts on the matter.

Quote of the day: "Guatemala is one of the worst countries in Central America in terms of the concentration of economic power." -Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize Winner. Finally I agree with somebody who won the damn thing . . .

And that is what is most important for me to have touched upon, for the time being. It is high time for bed, and that's where I'm headed. Good night, y'all.

Posted by Jared at 02:49 AM | TrackBack