movies

The POV Games

I'll probably start writing again tomorrow, but in the meantime I've been watching the movie versions of the Hunger Games books, which has been pretty interesting from a writing standpoint. (Spoilers ahead!!!)

I really liked the book The Hunger Games a lot, but I found Catching Fire and Mockingjay to be very disappointing, in no small part because they were very repetitive. ("Let's play the Hunger Games--again!") I haven't watched the two Mockingjay movies yet, so perhaps I'll be let down, but I have seen the movie versions of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

And I was really surpised by how good they were. With The Hunger Games I was surprised by how much the movie improved on what I thought was a very good book; with Catching Fire I was equally suprised by how much the movie improved what I thought was a tiresome and unoriginal book.

What made the difference? Getting the hell out of Katniss' head.

I realize that Katniss' voice is a big part of what made the series so popular with teenagers, and it's not like she doesn't have reason to be bitter and whiny, but bitter and whiny is what she is--the adults in her life suck, and she has to take on all this responsibility if she wants her family to survive. Being a teenager, she does so with as little grace as is possible, and she makes zero effort to understand the people around her--in her eyes, they're all just jerks and oppressors.

That's not a huge problem with The Hunger Games book, but it is part of what makes the movie stronger: The gamemaker, who Katniss just sees as a heavy, is revealed in the movie to actually be a naive idealist, which was to me much more interesting.

Her limited viewpoint becomes more of a problem in the Catching Fire book because Katniss knows less. In The Hunger Games, there are actually two games going on at the same time: The overt game where you kill everyone else off, and the PR game where you win viewers' hearts. Katniss knows about the second game, and she plays it very well--which is why both she and Peeta survive.

In Catching Fire the second game is political revolution, and Katniss knows nothing about it. Her scope of vision is limited to survival, and her experience is limited as well--in her mind, the second Hunger Games isn't meaningfully different than the first.

Of course, it's entirely different, and the movie makes that evident much earlier. You see President Snow's political calculations, and you know that the decision to put Katniss in the Hunger Games again isn't just another lousy thing to fall upon her out of the blue, which is all it is to her. (Adults suck, man!)

And honestly, I had much more sympathy for her tunnel vision in the movie, because I wasn't trapped in it for the duration like I was in the book. At the end of both the book and the movie, Katniss is shocked to hear that, in response to the revolution, her home district has been destroyed. In the book, that annoyed the piss out of me--she's been afraid of something like that happening the whole time, she's been blathering on about it at length, over and over again. Why is she surprised? In the movie, her bafflement at the speed at which events have unfolded is simply more understandable--she is just a kid, after all.

This Is a Really Good Film

Things are, as expected, kind of crazy right now--it's family stuff that I can't really talk about, but we've made some legal moves that will hopefully allow everyone to be taken care of in a way that is both effective and manageable for Team Responsible Adults. In the short term, it does mean a lot of extra work for me (I'm going to computerize things! A shocking idea, I know), but I'm hoping I can set things up so that I budget a certain amount of time for all that, and then can budget a certain amount of time for, you know, the stuff I actually enjoy doing. Like writing.

In the meantime, I watched This Is Not a Film, which is a movie about the Iranian film director Jafar Panahi and his experience being under house arrest and banned from making movies by the Iranian government.

It's excellent, but it's one of those movies (like Barton Fink or Adaptation) that is very much about being a creative person, which means that 95% of the people who watch it (even if they like it) really have no idea why it was made. The thing is, here's this guy who really is compelled to create, and he is prohibited from creating--so he's incredibly frustrated, which really brings out so much about the creative process because he's so nostalgic about it (plus he just can't not do it, no matter how dangerous it is).

The result is a movie that basically goes step-by-step through the various aspects of creativity: There's world creation (he literally tapes out a set onto his living-room rug), there's a whole meditation on how you start out making something but then it starts to make itself, and there's the fact that it's really therapeutic. At first Panahi's art is a welcome distraction from everything that's going on in the real world, but then what's going on in the real world become impossible to ignore (and there's that moment of guilt about having used art to escape). Finally, he gets behind the camera and starts making art out of what's going on!

Anyway, it's really brilliant--it's so much more than, "House arrest sucks!"--and I heartily recommend it. And obviously I hope Panahi gets his freedom sooner rather than later!

Shouldn't the cure match the disease?

I'm a hard sell with romance, I know, and I think a big part of the problem is that I can't get behind a relationship if I don't think it's actually benefiting the people involved--I just don't think relationships are automatically good things.

Likewise--and this probably doesn't come as a shock--I don't buy into the notion that a woman's problems can all be solved by having some kids. In recent years, my sister had a couple of kids, and it's remarkable how much her life and career continued unabated--she did take time off when they were very young, but she also worked part-time, went back to school, and is now working only slightly less than full time in her new field. Children, while quite demanding especially when small, are not the eternal time-sink that people sometimes make them out to be, and having them is no substitute for figuring out what you want to do. Indeed, I would argue that if you are having children in order to avoid getting your shit together, you're probably going to be a lousy parent.

It's interesting because in older books and movies, characters do sometimes basically prescribe having children as a cure for a woman's problems--but some of the time, it's really obvious from the way the story is written that those characters are full of shit, so it's not like people in the past were all blind to the complexities of human nature or anything.

But I recently saw a movie--made well past the time where anyone would seriously recommend relationships and children as a panacea for women--where the characters themselves seem to think the whole have-a-relationship-and-have-kids thing is a solution. The female character is stifled in a dead-end job because she is afraid to move out into the world and figure out what she wants to do. The male character realizes the situation she's in, and his solution is to have her quit her job, move into his place, and . . . just kind of hang out all day. Doing nothing. Except having sex with him sometimes because she's got nothing else to do. And maybe someday all that sex will lead to kids, who will of course will fix everything.

It's very bizarre because the guy knows what the problem is--he's explicitly aware of it! He talks about her need to go out into the world! He just doesn't seem to see how this should apply to their actual life! It's like watching a movie about a brilliant doctor who correctly diagnoses a patient who has a particularly sneaky form of lupus . . . and then tries to cure the lupus by applying leeches. I don't get it.

Not shockingly, the relationship has! a! big! crisis! and the woman moves out of the guy's house and into the world to, you guessed it, try to figure out what she wants to do. It's a real blow to the guy, but it's hard to have sympathy for him, you know? Like, how did he not see that one coming?

More to the point, it was hard for me to be invested in the relationship itself when it was obviously precisely not what the woman needed. They did get back together in the end, but they never explicitly hashed out how they were going to accommodate the woman's ambitions to be an adult, so it was hard for me to care. I guess I was supposed to take it on faith that the guy finally made a trip down to the Clue Shop and got one, but who really knows?

After the egg breaks

One of my favorite movies is Last Tango in Paris. I should note that it is also one of THE MOST disturbing films I have EVER seen--if you're going watch it, you should be prepared to get extremely upset. But I have tremendous respect for that movie. Likewise I have a lot of respect for Belle de Jour, although I don't think it's as good.

These are movies that are about sex, and they're both French (kinda), so as result, there's a lot of tittering nonsense about them--the assumption is, if they're about sex (and they're about kinky sex! And have I mentioned that they are both French!?! Sort of?), then they must be porn. You know, just like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is porn. (And the title is French! There you go!)

The idea that there could be a serious movie about kinky sex--a person has a problem, and they try to work it out sexually--just seems to be beyond people. The fact that neither movie ends well (nor does Jules et Jim, for that matter) kind of flies over everyone's heads: Marlon Brando can claim that Last Tango in Paris was simply the director's crude sex fantasy, but I'd argue that most men's sexual fantasies don't end with the woman deciding that the guy is a TOTAL loser and then killing him.

(And in fact, a lot of non-Americans criticize those movies for being too moralistic. That's got to be a sign you did a good job, right? Half the people are complaining that your movie is porn, and the other half are carping about your moralizing.)

I'm going to just go ahead and generalize irresponsibly here, but I think part of the problem with the American perception of these films is that in an typical American movie about, say, a troubled relationship, the buildup is often to the question of whether someone will cheat or not. Will a transgression happen? That's the climax of the film, so the transgression is extremely significant: If the answer is no, the person will not transgress, then the relationship can be saved. If the answer is yes, then the other person can leave the relationship (and most likely end up in a better one).

It seems to me that a more typical approach for a French movie about a troubled relationship would be to have the cheating happen, and happen early. It's not the big pivotal climax; it's often more a precipitating event: This person has transgressed. Now what? What does it mean? What are the consequences?

Obviously there are plenty of French (and American) movies where the consequences of transgression are pretty minimal (except you get to see boobies, which for me is just not that big a thrill), but in the better movies the transgression is highly significant, even though it's not the climax of the film: Why did it happen? Now that's it has happened, what do people do about it? What does it mean about the person who transgressed?

I think if people could get over the FRENCH!!! thing, they could see that both approaches are valid. After all, it's really just the age-old question: Do you make the drama about whether or not someone will cross a line, or do you make it about what happens after a line has been crossed?

Goat humor

The other night, I watched Tere Bin Laden, a Bollywood comedy about Osama Bin Laden (it came out before he was killed) and the war on terror. It was quite funny in the ways I expected--a lot of dark, absurdist political humor--but it was also funny in a way I didn't expect: namely, there was a lot of goat humor.

What do I mean by goat humor? Well, in that movie there's a TV news report on a peace agreement between the Afghan warlords and the American military. The peace is formalized when a delighted Afghan warlord VERY proudly puts a goat he is carrying into the arms of a somewhat-baffled American general.

The movie is full of this sort of thing--one of the major characters is a chicken farmer who has a genuinely touching emotional connection to his prize rooster. It's a riff on modernization--sure, we Bollywood South Asians fly around the world and are modern media junkies, but we're not too far removed from being dirt farmers whose main source of pride is their livestock.

You see something similar in Stephen Chow's movies--he's from Hong Kong, which is an expensive big city and can seem like a very glamorous place. But Chow's characters are almost always comically poor: In one movie he lives in a literal dump; in another, he lives in a stairwell; in a third, his bed is a piece of cheap lawn furniture (and yes, he does wind up having to romance the girl of his dreams there). There's always that idea that if you scratch a sophisticated and urbane Hong Konger, you'll find someone who used to live in a closet with eight other people and knows full well how to kill a chicken. 

It's interesting to me because it's a type of humor that is largely absent from American comedy nowadays--but that didn't used to be the case. Shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, characters like Ma and Pa Kettle, all of that rube humor dates from a time when urbanization and modernization weren't simply big words but actual experiences in many American lives. Now we're so past it that we think of rural poverty as a Serious Social Problem rather than as the way we used to live--and the way our grandparents, embarrassingly, pretty much still do.

I guess the modern American equivalent are comedies about celebrities and slacker comedies: We might seem glamorous and perfect, but really all we do is sit around on our couches, smoking weed and eating Doritos.

Emotional decision making

Lily White LeFevre posted a nice little take-down of Star Trek Into Darkness. I wasn't able to truly enjoy that movie either, but for me the big, glaring problem was the same big, glaring problem that plagues 90% of J.J. Abrams' output: Things happen because they are convenient.

For Abrams, it's always about ginning up some drama, logic be damned. So there's no safety system to prevent space ships from crashing into major population centers, and Khan gets free because Scotty decided--for no reason in particular--to stop paying attention to him.

When LeFevre complains:

[W]hat we’re given [in Abrams' Kirk, who she calls Emo Kirk] is someone who does not think the same way Kirk thinks, rather than someone who weighs his thought process against different life experiences. I didn’t mind his emotion-based decisions in the first movie, because he was so young and untried, but I felt like he learned nothing from that experience. Throughout this film he makes his decisions based on his feelings, NOT on his instincts. Huge difference. Kirk sometimes followed a path that seemed illogical, but was actually highly logical – it just relied on data that Spock did not have at his disposal, and that was Jim’s sense of tactics and knowledge of human nature, which is driven by irrationality, so it sometimes seemed illogical.

I think that she has a totally valid point, but I also think that Emo Kirk is really "Emo" Kirk, whose supposed emotionalism and irrationality is just a convenient excuse to have him go gin up some drama.

I'm seeing that again now because I'm watching The Vampire Diaries, which at this point is rapidly devolving into a soap opera about super-powered bloodsuckers. It turns out that vampires, conveniently enough, are really, REALLY, REALLY emotional and irrational, so they can be relied upon to do all kind of stupid, self-destructive crap for no other reason than to--you guessed it--gin up some drama.

This never works. NEVER. It's obvious string-pulling.

Does this mean that characters should never make impulsive or emotional decisions? Of course not. People make these kinds of decisions all the time. Recently I made an impulsive and emotional decision to pull my books from Barnes & Noble, despite having long claimed that it's important to make your books easy to buy and that it's important to diversify your retail base.

Guess what? One book was never actually pulled, because it's on B&N through Smashwords. And I realized that I could do the same with the other book, so I checked a box and it should be back up on B&N soon.

Even when people are emotional, they tend to be consistent.

Being emotional and impulsive doesn't mean that people just do whatever. Even crazy people have particular triggers and patterns of behavior--what they are doing may not make much sense to you, and they may not understand why they do what they do, but there is a logic to it. Inconsistency is often a highly consistent trait, something The Larry Sanders Show understood very well. Writing emotional and impulsive characters is like writing a book where the characters can use magic: Have rules, and it can be very engaging. Use it as a crutch, and suddenly all interest drains from a story.

Real people have patterns that can be really stubborn. Fictional characters need to have that core as well, otherwise they just aren't believable. If I can't believe, I can't care. And if the only thing I can believe is that the writer is desperately attempting to generate drama, then I really can't care.

How a tinny earlobe!

I've never had a problem watching movies with subtitles (yeah, you have to read a movie. For me, that is not a problem). That means I've watched a lot of foreign films, which means I've read a lot of really crappy translations, which is part of why the translators in the Trang book are so damned clunky--I like to share my pain.

Translation is an interesting process: I once worked as an editor on a series of books that had been translated from French, and the really fascinating bit was how the (native-English-speaking) translator had fallen down on the job in actually making the book English. For example, in French, you say, "It is the dog that is big" when you mean "It's the big dog," and "It is that which we want to do" when you mean "That's what we want to do"--you're not trying to be wordy, that's just the way the language works. But this person was leaving in all the "thats" and "that whiches" that you have in French, even when there was simply no reason for the English version to have them.

My fellow editor thought this meant that the person's French was not very good, but my theory was that once you get into the syntax of another language, it's actually pretty hard to get back into normal English syntax, and this guy just didn't complete the process. I felt like if he had the translation aside for a week and then read it again, he would have realized that you never need to use "that which" in English, ever.

The translation issue came back to me when I watched You're Beautiful a second time with different subtitles. It's not like the first set of subtitles was perfect by any means, but the second set lose anything even vaguely resembling humor in the dialog--I'm guessing because they used auto-translation technology, and algorithms are not exactly known for their wit, timing, or aesthetic sophistication.

The difference is pretty stark: At one point, two characters, Tae Kyung and Go Mi Nam, are discussing what to do on Tae Kyung's birthday. In the first set of subtitles, the interaction went something like this (this is from memory--the original was probably clunkier, but the repetition was there):

TK: You brought me here against my will, so you decide what we're going to do.

GMN: But you never want me to decide what to do. You always decide what we do.

TK: And I've decided: You're going to decide what we do.

In the second set of subtitles, the scene is:

TK: You brought me here against my will, so you tell me.

GMN: You didn't like me to decide for us, do you? You always decide for us when we are together.

TK: I will just follow you today.

"I will just follow you today"? Honestly, that borders on an out-of-character line for the acerbic Tae Kyung.

There's also a priceless scene where Tae Kyung (who is the dour leader of a popular boy band) explains slash fiction to Go Mi Nam (who is a very naive former nun-in-training). The example I'm going to use first is actually from yet another set of subtitles, but they are quite similar to the first set:

TK: Fans write novels with us as the lead characters. There are lots of love stories without a woman involved.

The second set (oh, look how you have to log in as an adult to watch that video. Because it contains The Gay!!!):

TK: Our fans always write novels about us. Women don't even appear in some of their novels.

It's like, come on. I know nothing about Korean, but which approach is funnier in English? It's a comedy! Work with me here, evil translation robot!

K-drama

So, these past few weeks haven't been a very productive time. Some of it is the kids, some of it is the issue of being bored with a beta task but not with-it enough to write.

And some of it, I must confess, is k-drama.

What is that? Korean telenovelas. This all started after I read this article and decided that, if other people are destroying their lives by watching 28 hour-long episodes of Shining Inheritance in a row, why shouldn't I?

So I popped some Korean dramas into my Netflix queue and got on with life, ignoring the little time bombs I had set for myself.

Well, I never watched more than one episode of Shining Inheritance (it reminded me too much of Dallas and Dynasty). The problem is that I started with a much more dangerous show: My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho.

What's a gumiho? Oh, you can find out about that here. You can also find out what an oppa and a noona are, and the difference between jondaemal and banmal. Oh, and what are mania dramas? What's the live-shoot system? Did you know that the Korean wave now so dominates Asian entertainment that there are dating services in Japan specializing in Korean men?

You see the problem? It's not just a show, it's a research project. Add on the facts that Gumiho is rather like Buffy, that I am apparently a natural fan of the Hong sisters, and that Netflix is pulling a bunch of these shows off streaming March 1st (A DEADLINE! AIIIIGGGGGHHHH!!!), and I've got the perfect storm of time-suckage.

Really, who needs crack?

So, I started with Gumiho, went on to Secret Garden, and then had to make some tough choices because there was no way I'd get more than one series in by March 1st. So I went with another Hong sisters drama, You Are Beautiful, and now I want to watch that one again but there just isn't time! (The DVDs are fricking $110 a set, too. Way to price yourselves out of the market, idiots.)

Instead, I've been thinking about why the shows are compelling, even when they're kind of disappointing. (The live-shoot system basically means that the quality of the show is guaranteed to degrade in the later episodes, which really works against the strength of a telenovela in my opinion. One nice thing about the Hong sisters is that they plot things out in advance--and whether they like it or not, the fact that their shows aren't popular enough to get a few extra episodes tacked on to the end at the last minute is also helpful. I think Secret Garden would have been a much better show if it hadn't done so well in the ratings.)

Certain conventions in Korean dramas seem...odd to me. For example, they use soliloquies, which strikes me as a little unnecessary because the acting is usually quite good. A lot of tears get shed: You get about three-quarters of the way through and everyone's just weeping and weeping and weeping. These are romances, but they can't show a lot of physical intimacy, so guys demonstrate their interest in girls by grabbing their forearms and dragging them around like they were a sack of beans. (Honestly, girls, just do the "wax on" thing, OK? That's an easy hold to break.)

But thinking about why I like these shows (despite not being too crazy about romances), is that they tend to be in the Pride and Prejudice school of romance-as-a-mutually-beneficial-partnership, rather than the Twilight school of romance-as-salvation-for-the-woman.

In other words, in the k-dramas I found compelling (and even in the one I didn't), the guys need work. There's certainly a fantasy element to the men (they're typically rich and/or famous, plus good looking and capable of eventually becoming a worthwhile and stable partner), but at the beginning, they tend to be pretty seriously damaged. They need to learn some life lessons and become better people. Likewise the woman typically needs help and/or work, which she receives from the guy.

It is simply more gratifying to me to see a partnership develop where both parties have something to offer and both are improved. You don't have this useless wad of a gal sitting around feeling sorry for herself until Mr. Wonderful rides in on his white horse and wooshes her away to his magic castle.

I really don't like the notion that it's someone else's job to fix you--in my experience, you either fix yourself, or you stay broken. That's probably the core of my discomfort with romance, because these days the barriers tend to be internal, which usually means that there's a damaged person there who needs to be fixed.

But--and I realize this sounds like a subtle distinction--I don't mind it when a character is motivated to fix themselves in order to obtain a romantic goal (or any other kind of goal).

That's why Knocked Up didn't bother me, even thought the Seth Rogan character was, you know, a Seth Rogan character--a seemingly hopeless man-child. The Katherine Heigl character explicitly surrenders the job of fixing him. She means that in a positive way (she doesn't want him to change), but her leaving the ball in his court essentially forces him to take responsibility for his own life and his own choices for the first time.

And that's what these k-dramas get right. The guys (and the women) grow, and they grow on their own. They do it for the other person of course, but they also do it very much for themselves.

I know damned well there are people who are completely incapable of growth--the notion that people can improve themselves is in its own way something of a fantasy. But many people (sometimes some very surprising people) do grow. And I'm not such a black-hearted cynic that I can't enjoy it in fiction.

A twist too far

There are bad movies, and then there are movies that absolutely enrage people. One of the latter is the film Reindeer Games, where Ben Affleck plays an ex-con who gets forced to do a heist.

If you haven't seen the movie, you're like, What's so infuriating? There are an awful lot of mediocre action movies about a guy who wanted to get out of the game but was pulled back in. It's like a Simpsons meme at this point.

But the thing that really seems to enrage people about Reindeer Games is that there's a twist partway through, and then toward the end there's another! shocking! twist!

Except that it's not really shocking. It's unexpected, sure, but that's because it not remotely credible. (No, he doesn't wake up and it's all a dream, but it's about as satisfying.) You look at this twist that is suppose to explain all the crap that's been going on in this mediocre movie, and you promptly downgrade the film from "mediocre" to "insulting to my intelligence."

I was thinking about that because I recently finished a book where the main character is accused of crimes that--in a shocking twist!--it turns out he didn't commit.

Now, have you ever been accused of crimes you didn't commit? I have (luckily not by anyone with the least credibility), and let me tell you, everyone who knows me has heard about it. At length.

But this guy is accused by credible sources and does have a price on his head and is estranged from his family and society at large. Why? Because he never bothers to point out to people that, you know, he didn't actually do it--at least, not before the denouement.

There's a lot of drama there, what with family members trying to hunt him down and whatnot. And I suppose it was intended to be exciting, but at the end I just found myself wondering why the hell he never spoke up for himself beforehand--it would have saved him (and his family) an awful lot of trouble.

I think twists or reveals are fine as long as they make sense. But you have to be disciplined about it. I don't like it when characters just arbitrarily decide that they need to keep certain secrets (that just happen to be convenient for the plot) from their nearest and dearest. I mean, it's not like that doesn't happen (my own father hid a cancer diagnosis from his family) but it's incredibly dysfunctional behavior (while that specific cancer didn't kill my dad, that pattern of behavior finally did).

And I really don't like it when an antagonist who does horrible things to the protagonist turns out to have been secretly on their side all along. I'll give you a little life lesson: The people on your side act like they are on your side. The people trying to do you in are a danger to you. These two groups of people do not overlap. If someone insists that they are on you side as they try to do you in, that person has a personality disorder--which can make for some exciting reading, to be sure. I also don't mind it a bit in stories when people do bad things while trying to do the right thing. But if everything ends in hearts and flowers and puppies and rainbows and I-was-secretly-on-your-side-all-along, it's just not credible.

Hey, that's a joke!

Recently I watched the "Gangnam Style" video, which has become something of a Internet sensation. Watching it was kind of an odd experience. I have a really hard time laughing at people who aren't trying to be funny. I'll do it--I'm only human--but I feel odd about it, and I don't make a habit of seeking out stuff that's really bad or unintentionally campy when I feel like having a good laugh.

So the first time I watched "Gangnam Style," it really perplexed me. Then I read the Wikipedia entry on it and twigged that, oh, it's supposed to be funny. Psy, the South Korean rapper who created the song, is making fun of people who are trying way too hard to be classy, so he runs around terrorizing the upscale Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam with his silly dance. The odd-looking and -acting men in the video are Korean comedians. They're not trying to look cool--they're trying to look like people who are trying to look cool and failing miserably.

And then I watched the video again, and I laughed and laughed. Because it was OK.

I'm not the only person who responds this way--Mel Brook's The Producers is about two guys trying to create a Broadway show that is sure to fail so they can make off with their investors' money. But they do too good a job, and everyone assumes that their awful show, Springtime for Hilter, is a hilarious parody of the Third Reich. The show becomes OK for the audience, they laugh and laugh, and the hapless producers have a monster hit on their hands.

It's also interesting to see situations where there's a joke (the histrionic "I am NOT drinking any FUCKING Merlot!") and people don't realize that it's not meant to be taken seriously (sales of Merlot fall). One of the funny things about Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is the level of effort they went to in order to ensure that the whole thing looks and sounds like a crappy low-budget '80s TV show--one of the actors even went through and re-dubbed all his lines so that they don't quite match up with the movements of his lips. But the problem, of course, is that some people didn't understand that it wasn't really a crappy '80s TV show. You also see this in some responses to Richard Ayoade's movie Submarine, which is deliberately pretentious, because it's about an adolescent, and adolescent pretension is funny, see?

I think this is where is helps to have a brand (and to also make sure a humor book is actually filed under humor and possibly has "humor" or "comedy" or "parody" or "It's OK, you can laugh at this" on the cover)--when Koreans see Noh Hong-chul doing what Wikipedia calls "his trademark 'lewd dance,'" they're expecting it and find it far less baffling and unsettling (What is that guy DOING!?!) than I did the first time I saw it. If you don't realize that Ayoade is a comedian, and one with a special interest in visual world-building, then the pretentious French New Wave-style cinematography of Submarine just seems like...pretentious French New Wave-style cinematography.

Creating vs. receiving

You may recollect that, when I first tried to figure out what kind of book Trang was, I failed miserably. I thought it was "fun action adventure!" which it was clearly not. And I'm not the only one who has had these problems.

I mentioned this difficulty once to my sister, specifically this notion that Trang was fun action adventure. She immediately said, "What? Oh, no. I could see why maybe it was that way to write, but to read? No."

I've been watching The IT Crowd, which is excellent. One episode, "Something Happened," really applied here: In the episode, an IT guy named Roy (who is vaguely social and is played by Bridesmaid's Chris O'Dowd) confesses to another IT guy, Moss (who totally has Asperger's and is played by Richard Ayoade), that when he got a massage, the male masseuse ended the session by smooching him on the fanny.

Roy was quite traumatized by this and is afraid to tell anyone because he is terrified that people will find it funny. Of course, the audience did and does and always will. Roy confesses all this to Moss, who stares at him, without responding, for what O'Dowd later describes as a "giant pause." The longer Moss pauses, the funnier the scene becomes, because the audience is just waiting for him to start laughing. It's completely on par with the schawarma scene in The Avengers--the longer the silence lasts, the funnier it becomes.

Buuuuuuut...if you watch the blooper reel, you discover (8:12) that the giant pause was because O'Dowd forgot that the next line was his.

So, if you're O'Dowd, that episode is "The one where I totally blew it, and they left the mistake in to keep me humble, I guess." If you're the viewer, it's "The episode where Ayoade proves, without a doubt, that he is the on the same level as Gene Wilder as a comic-pause genius!!!"

You just never know. Everyone totally loves the scenes in Trust that are told from the point of view of an alien, and yet I was very nervous about those scenes, because they're such a departure from the rest of the book. But even though I was nervous about it, I went for it. I think you have to, because what people really love about, say, The Avengers is the weird, quirky shit--the schawarma--not the fact that it's a competent action movie.

For want of a button battery, a critic was lost....

I've mentioned that I'm a fan of Joss Whedon's work, so I've been keeping an eye on the reviews for The Avengers, since I'm probably going to break habit and actually go see it in the theater. For the most part, critics seem to like it, but a rather notable exception occurred yesterday in The Wall Street Journal.

That reviewer clearly did not enjoy the movie, and he singles out a slow first act as a problem. But he puts "an asterisk" onto his lack of enjoyment and goes on to note (emphasis added):

Now, about that asterisk. I saw "The Avengers" in 3-D at a screening in Hollywood at the ArcLight, a multiplex known for excellent projection. As soon as the opening credits hit the screen it was obvious that something was wrong; the images were dim and badly out of register. I should have known that the problem was a dead battery in my glasses, since the same thing had happened—in a different theater—during last year's disastrous screening of "Clash of the Titans." Instead, I sat there stewing with frustration, and assuming the projection was to blame, since a couple of friends who'd come with me were having the same problem. One of them went out to complain, but nothing happened. A few minutes later he went out again and returned with replacement glasses for himself, his wife and me. Someone had told him the glasses were the culprit, but those batteries were dead too.

The third try did the trick; he passed out three pairs of glasses that worked. By then, though, I'd been distracted for most of the first act, and felt more empathy than I would have preferred for Bruce Banner's problems with anger management. That's the main reason I'm recounting this here. The technical screw-up was so upsetting that it may have skewed my judgment about the movie as a whole. I think I settled down, but I can't be sure, and I can't omit mention of the problem from my review.

The other reason has to do with the status of theatrical exhibitors as the weakest link in the 3-D process. (Some theaters have already been caught reducing light levels on the screen to extend the life of expensive projector lamps.) What happened to me and others at the ArcLight the other night was the height of absurdity. Here we were watching a production that cost somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter-billion dollars. Yet our enjoyment was compromised by button batteries that can't cost more than a buck a pop. And we were an invited audience, privileged to see an advance screening, not moviegoers paying hefty premiums for their 3-D experience. I shudder to think what they see.

Your book. Your book is the quarter-billion dollar movie extravaganza--because, let's face it, the time and energy and money required by book production is but a small fraction of the time, energy, and lost revenue required to write the freaking thing in the first place.

The one-dollar button battery? That's your copy editing and your book formatting and layout.

When done well, these things cannot make someone enjoy something they wouldn't enjoy anyway--this critic may have disliked Avengers even more if he had been able to actually see the first act. This makes less-experienced writers believe that these things are trivial and don't matter. The problem is, when these things are done poorly, they can turn a potential fan into someone who goes, "Meh, I didn't really enjoy it."

You want people to get "swept up in the story"? PONY UP FOR GOOD BUTTON BATTERIES, ok?

Progress report, Twain, Fellini

Today I edited up to chapter 8, so a good day there. It was a part with fewer problems, though, and I've got a chapter coming up that the beta reader really did not like.

The thing that's nice about good readers is that they're very focused on the main storylines and the characters, so they notice right away when a character starts doing something off, or when all the characters magically forget about the many problems that were causing them so much consternation five minutes before.

It's easy for the writer to lose track of that kind of continuity (I'm guessing because it takes a lot longer to write something than to read it, and you don't always write page 1 first). For example, with this problem chapter coming up, a long time ago I read Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and there's a hilarious bit in there about wearing armor. I'd always remembered that bit, so I thought I'd write a similarly hilarious bit about Philippe Trang and his suit.

The problem is that there's an awful lot of really serious stuff going on, and then all of a sudden it's all "Ha-ha! His pants are falling off!" and the beta reader felt that was inappropriate. And you know something? The beta reader was right. 

Last night I also watched Federico Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits. I've always liked Fellini, and by "always" I mean since I was about 10 or 11, and my sister and I very randomly came across La Dolce Vita flipping around television channels one afternoon. We watched the entire rest of the movie, and I vividly remember it, as does my sister. We both really enjoyed it, and not just because it was obviously about "adult stuff" we weren't supposed to be watching.

The reason I enjoyed Fellini as a kid is no different than the reason I enjoyed it last night: Despite all the surreal aspects of his films, they are very straightforward. Fellini was someone who was very sure about what he wanted to say, and everything in the film--no matter how random-seeming--actually serves the larger purpose. You don't get the feeling that a bunch of crap was thrown in there to make it arty. His movies are deeply logical.

So, I guess my point is that it's worth it to pursue that kind of continuity. No matter what's going on, it needs to at least make emotional sense.

Loyalty to a monster

(The kids are here today; no work shall be done.....)

My sister and I were discussing vampire romances the other day: Namely, the Twilight/Stackhouse convention that nothing is more erotic, sensual, sexy, and exciting than making love to a cold, hard, stone statue.

I'm just going to get inappropriate for a moment and say: Bullshit. Take a stone phallus, stick it in your freezer for a day or so, and then jam it into your orifice of choice. Having fun yet?

Anyway, the point I made to her is that for some people, the simple presence of vampires is enough. They love themselves some vampires, so a book with vampires in it is a winner for them, no matter what. Likewise there are quite a number of people who seriously object to sci-fi that has no aliens in it. Aliens = quality, period.

I'm not that way, and I get the feeling this is part of my problem with horror. Right now, I'm 184 pages into Dan Simmons' 766-page horror novel The Terror. Now, I LOVED the Hyperion books, so I have hope that Simmons is going to do something interesting. But at the moment, I've got two problems.

Problem #1:

The book is based on Franklin's lost expedition, an arctic expedition that was lost back in the 1840s. It is believed that every person on the expedition died as a result of:

1. Inadequate supplies

2. Disease

3. Inadequate planning

4. Severe cold

5. Exhaustion

6. Poor command decisions

In The Terror, the men are facing:

1. Inadequate supplies

2. Disease

3. Inadequate planning

4. Severe cold

5. Exhaustion

6. Poor command decisions

7. A HORRIBLE MONSTER

See, here's where the fact that I'm not the kind of reader who is just delighted by the mere presence of a HORRIBLE MONSTER works against me. To my way of thinking, that HORRIBLE MONSTER just isn't bringing anything to the party: Factors 1-6 killed off everyone perfectly well all by themselves. The HORRIBLE MONSTER is just superfluous.

And he is really HORRIBLE, which brings me to....

Problem #2:

OK, you're a HORRIBLE MONSTER in the arctic. You are 12-feet tall, massively strong, with claws as big as Bowie knives. In addition, you can materialize and de-materialize into the ice, and bullets don't hurt you. Oh, and you can control the weather.

You come across two ships stuck in the ice, filled with delicious humanity you want to kill for some obscure reason.

Would it take you months and months, because you insist on picking them off one or two at a time?

I'm serious, HORRIBLE ARCTIC MONSTER, let's talk about your time-management skills. They are stuck inside their ships. They are sitting ducks. With a little effort, you could be inside their ships, slaughtering away. I know this has occurred to you, because you tried to break in through a ship's hull. Helpful hint from your bear friends: Don't try to break the windshield, break the back window. In ship terms that means: There are doors on the deck leading down--go in that way, instead of trying the fortified hull of an ice-breaker.

And if you were in a situation where a HORRIBLE MONSTER kills the lookouts on deck, but never goes into the ship, would you ever go on deck? I know characters in scary movies are constantly leaving places of safety to get killed, but it always annoys me. (I liked 28 Day Later in no small part because when the guy roamed off in an apparently stupid manner, it turned out that he had some really interesting reasons, and they resonated thematically with the rest of the film. That thrills me so much more than the presence of zombies.)

Real life and fiction (and some looong footnotes)

So, have you heard of the Battle of Rorke's Drift, which took place in 1879 in South Africa? That's the battle in which about 150 British soldiers hanging out in a "garrison" (read: old trading post with no real defenses) managed to survive a two-day attack by 3,000-4,000 Zulu troops. It's a remarkable story--I mean, yes, the British were pretty much doomed in South Africa and holding onto Rorke's Drift didn't actually help with that, but from a tactical perspective, it was pretty amazing.

And it was made into a pretty amazing movie called Zulu, which among other things made Michael Caine a star.

And yesterday I read the book Zulu: In Space.

OK, it wasn't really called that. But that's what the book was--a retelling of the Battle of Rorke's Drift in space with aliens. The Zulus were played by the really alien aliens, and the British were played by the humans and their allied aliens, and I just know we could have a long discussion about post-colonialism, post-post-colonialism, post-post-post-colonialism, and whether we should still be offended by this sort of thing or if we're all over it now.

But was it a good book? Honestly, I can't say--I didn't enjoy it nearly so much once I figured out it was Zulu: In Space. I have a good memory for stories (to compensate for my terrible memory for names, I guess), and once I realized what I was reading, everything became dull and predictable, especially because the book followed the (extremely memorable) movie very closely. So reading it was like: Oh, here are the two wounded guys who together make one soldier; oh, now the Zulus--I mean, the aliens--have gotten over the wall, that's going to suck; oh, now the British--I mean, the humans--are singing back, it's about time.

There was also the knowledge that surprises weren't going to come from certain sources. When the humans & friends find a pair of weird alien buildings on this weird alien planet to occupy, they wonder why the buildings are there and why they are arranged the way they are arranged. At first I wondered, too, thinking this was a set-up for some delightful or dreadful surprise, but of course the buildings were arranged that way because that's the way they were arranged in South Africa in 1879. What, you were expecting something interesting, or maybe just something germane to the story?

This doesn't just happen with books based on historical events--although I've read quite a number of fantasy/alternative-history/steampunk books that devolve into history textbooks (that I've already read, thanks). It happens with books based on earlier literature--when King Lear shows up, the reader is not exactly shocked when it turns out that Princess Cordelia is a peach but that her sisters are not so nice.

I think it's a matter of letting the tail wag the dog--it's fine to be inspired by true events/other literature, but if you're just retelling someone else's story, why bother? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is respected because it's not Hamlet: In Space or Hamlet: The Musical or Hamlet: The Version More Consistent with Tom Stoppard's Political Beliefs. Even something as fundamentally silly and commercial as the 2007 movie version of Beowulf isn't about a super-duper guy who fights a monster and the monster's mother, and then finally bites it facing a dragon--it's about how that legend came to be. (And now I'm reading the Wikipedia entry about that movie and realizing that it was written by Neil Gaiman. Ex ungue leonem!*)

(* Before you start thinking that's totally unwarranted praise given how noisy and over-the-top the Beowulf movie was, I studied Anglo-Saxon poetry for a year in college, and it's obvious that the movie was written by someone who is both familiar with the poem and with the language--there's a lot of clever transitioning between Modern English and Old English.** Considering that most of the time Hollywood produces laughably ignorant crap like "When you taught Beowulf, did you make the kids read it in the original Middle English or did you use a translation?"--which is not only dumb because Beowulf is Old, not Middle English, but also because unlike Middle English, Old English is incomprehensible to speakers of Modern English, even the alphabet is different, so getting snippy because a high-school teacher teaches Beowulf in translation simply indicates that President Bartlet is an overly-demanding asshole with a gigantic stick up his butt--I was pleasantly surprised.)

(**OK, this is hard-core geekery about the use of Old English in the movie version of Beowulf. Wikipedia says that Grendel (the monster) speaks Old English, but that's not quite true. Grendel speaks Old English words, but he does not speak Old English.

What do I mean? Well, let's look at a Modern English sentence:

Beowulf tore off Grendel's arm with his powerful hands.

You understand that, right? You know who did what to whose arm and with what he did it. And you know that because of the order in which the words appear. Word order is key to Modern English.

Word order is irrelevant to Old English. Instead, they used word endings to tell you what was the subject, what was the object, what was the indirect object, etc. An adjective like "powerful" would have a different ending depending on whether you meant that Beowulf's hands were powerful or that Grendel's arm was powerful or that Beowulf or Grendel were just generally powerful.

Assuming you gave every word the correct ending, you could mix up those words and not change the meaning of the sentence. In other words, in Old English:

Hands with arm his tore Grendel's Beowulf powerful off.

His powerful arm off Grendel's with tore Beowulf hands.

With his off Beowulf hands Grendel's tore arm powerful.

Grendel's tore arm with powerful off hands his Beowulf.

would all make total sense, and they would all mean "Beowulf tore off Grendel's arm with his powerful hands."

That's a big part of the reason Old English is so freaking incomprehensible to Modern English speakers--when a sentence begins "With and what weather with held he hot the that and the though," the speaker of Modern English pretty much throws in the towel. (And the Anglo-Saxons did that sort of thing all the time, because their poetry didn't rhyme, it alliterated. Since word order didn't affect meaning, it made perfect sense to organize their sentences by grouping together words that started with the same letter.)

What they did in the movie version of Beowulf was have Grendel use Old English vocabulary and Modern English syntax. So when Grendel says, "Mother, the man hurt me," it sounds a little weird ("Muther, tha maen hurt mea" or whatever--I'm not looking it up), but you can understand him. Which just goes to show how important word order is to us--if, instead, he said "Man me mother hurt the," you'd have a much harder time understanding him, even though those are Modern English words.

For the record, later in the movie there's a couple of minstrels who are speaking proper Old English (in fact, they're reciting the original Beowulf). It's not even recognizable as English.)

A thousand little decisions

[Another repost! This one's from 2008.]

One of the things I used to HATE was having editors ask to see a rough draft of something. I'd always warn them, It's a rough draft, it's going to suck! I'd ask if I could avoid doing this, and they would assure me that they totally were going to understand.

And without fail, I'd always get this really intense reaction of surprise and displeasure because it was a rough draft, and therefore, it sucked. (I also got really hilarious questions, like, Was I going to take care of the part that reads, "XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX FIX ME XXXXXXXXXXXXX FUCK FUCK"? No, I just figured it could go into print like that.)

Polishing is really key, and it's what separates the good stuff from the rest of it. And it is polishing--you rough out the main points, and then you go back and make it good. So people want to know why what you're giving them isn't shiny and smooth and beautiful, like the stuff you usually give them after you've had time to polish, and it just makes me want to scream. (Let's just say, when Joss Whedon let us crazy Browncoats get an advance peek at the rough cut of Serenity, and some people were like, Why does it suuuuck? Why isn't it great like his finished product always is? I really, really felt for him.) Do you pull a cake out of the oven halfway through and then complain about the texture?

Anyway, the inspiration for this rant is the movie La Femme Nikita, which I finally saw. I saw the English-language remake Point of No Return when I was in my 20s, and I totally did not understand why people were so excited by this whole Femme Nikita idea. The two movies aren't very different in their bold strokes, but it's the million differences in the way they were polished that make La Femme Nikita such a better movie, from the opening shot (four junkies walk down a nighttime street; one holds an ax, and they are dragging a fifth junkie by her feet) to the decision NOT to have the boyfriend be a complete moron.

Anti-progress

[So, I've been feeling guilty about neglecting this blog--less guilty about neglecting Trust, because that home-improvement project is chugging along nicely--and I figured I'd do the lazy thing and repost an old entry from 2007, back when this blog was mostly about working in a place where sexual harassment and exhibitionism were considered good things. (I mentioned that we worked with children? Yes, I did, but I'll mention it again--we worked with children.)]

I subscribe to Netflix, and since my queue is typically maxed out at all times, I'll hit these really weird runs of movies because 500 titles ago, I got curious about a particular director or actor or genre.

So recently I saw two Tupac Shakur movies, first Gridlock'd and then a few weeks later, Juice. In Gridlock'd, I thought Tupac was kind of what you would expect from a whatever-turned-actor--just a little unpolished and unnatural, a little stagy, a little exaggerated with the gestures and expressions, and clearly someone pretending to be a character rather than someone who really gives the impression of being the character. In Juice, though, he's perfect--very smooth, very natural.

The thing is, Gridlock'd was made five years after Juice. I don't know if it had to do with the subject matter or the director or the other actors, but I find it interesting that Tupac became a worse actor over that five years, rather than a better one.

That's a phenomenon that really creeped me out when I read City by Clifford D. Simak. It's a classic sci-fi book that is a collection of interconnected stories. The last story was written many years after the earlier stories--if I recall correctly, it was written by Simak once a decision was made to publish the stories (which had appeared in magazines) together as a book--and in my opinion, it's by far the worst-written of the lot. This terrifies me, because you really are supposed to become a better writer with time--I suppose it's to compensate for you losing your looks or something. With Simak, I think I know the reason--he spent the intervening years working as an editor for some dry-as-dust publication, and it infected his writing so badly the last story has all the verve and excitement of the product warning on the back of a bottle of vitamins. (I still think the book is well worth reading, just don't expect too much from that last one.)