Friday, October 21, 2011

Because Childhood Innocence Is Overrated

I was introduced to Richard Adams's classic leporine novel Watership Down and its lauded film adaptation through slightly roundabout means. Around the age of eight or so I developed an affection for Brian Jacques's Redwall series bordering on obsession; already a fantasy fanboy in the making, I found something irresistible in a world of ancient swords and epic quests populated by talking woodland creatures with a questionably influential affinity for strawberry cordial. Needless to say I was hooked for the next half decade or so, suffering through the eventual decay of the series with virtually undying patience and going so far as to develop the then largest Redwall fansite on the web.

All the while, I had continued to glaze over the back jacket cover texts that, book after book in the series, lauded Jacques's storytelling by comparison of its achievements to those of Watership Down, an otherwise unfamiliar title to me which stuck in the back of my mind but somehow never sufficiently motivated me to track it down. Mind you, such tracking of a non-Rowlingian English-language novel was always a Herculean task in the Thailand of the 1990s, particularly when one lived as far from its civilized (read: westernized) hub in Bangkok as my family did at that time, at least given the quality (read: lack thereof) of Siamese roadways in those days. Consequently it was not until the flame of my passion for Redwall had been reduced to a dying ember in my mid teens that I chanced upon a tattered mass-market edition of the elusive work in an equally tattered missionary guest home, and my world was changed forever.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate. Let us rather say my world was improved markedly. The novel, which I have not had the opportunity to read again in the last seven years or so since that happy discovery, could be considered a masterwork of the 20th century English literary canon (I refuse to employ the vile terminology of "children's" literature), assuming one were to put such stock in my over-glossed nostalgia-fueled memory of the thing. And were this review expressly about that written work, it should likely be nothing more than the slathering adulation of a worshipper and scarcely worth the name of Literary Criticism (though just try telling such a thing to an Austenian scholar, I dare you on your life). As it stands, this review is about the 1978 Martin Rosen animated film adaptation, which has both the advantage of my only just having seen it for the first time and the disadvantage of my having no fond childhood memories attached to its being - though I wonder if any child could possibly view this film without experiencing unmitigated terror, "fondness" be damned.

Vapid dust-jacket review blurbs aside, the similarities between the world of Redwall and that of Watership Down are superficial at best. Jacques's characters, particularly after the first book, are less so animals than they are people in animal costumes - the word "anthropomorphic" hardly begins to encapsulate the fact that they are bipedal, possess opposable thumbs, and not only practice in some hybrid Benedictine/Neo-Pagan religious order but fashion matching abbeys and habits to boot, to say nothing of their inordinate preoccupation with the culinary arts. Adams's rabbits, conversely, are rabbits: they hop about on all fours, their primary concerns in life are survival and reproduction, and the discovery of a boat's buoyancy in the course of a predatorial escape is their equivalent of a Copernican revolution.

It has been observed before by wiser critics than I that Watership Down fits comfortably nowhere in the canonical scheme of western literary genres; nowhere, that is, posterior to the Homeric epics. For WD is nothing short of an epic, albeit one told by rabbits, about rabbits, and for rabbits, the work itself operating under the genius conceit of being conveniently translated for its human readership, with "Lapine" names such as Hrairoo rendered as "Fiver" for our humble benefit. The scale of the story is certainly epic from that Lapine perspective, a journey of two miles consisting of near immeasurably life-threatening adventures and close escapes even when truncated from the novel for the purposes of standard "childrens'" film (that vile terminology again!) running time. The world's mythology, two, is as artistically fitting and psychologically appropriate as any of that in Homer's renditions, and therein perhaps lies the greatest strength of both the book and the film.

Watership Down, I believe, is so universally understood and adored by those familiar with it precisely because it fails to fall into any classical Aristotelian category. Neither inherently comic nor tragic, WD is a resonantly true (and ironically human) story due to its treatment of the pathos of sapient existence, which, one might thereafter watching coherently argue, holds as strongly in the case of of rabbits as it does for that of homo sapiens. For no one is the fragility of life - and, conversely, the necessity of its perpetuation - more apparent than for rabbits, the race "with a thousand enemies" ever seeking to catch and to kill. The narrative of Hazel, Fiver, and the entire Watership Warren is positively overflowing with the abundance of life in all its most extreme experiences, from the sheer terror of present and painful death to the pure elation of fulfilled dreams to the ethos of meaningful sacrifice.

But I digress. It is only fitting that I speak at least briefly of the film qua film. And indeed, what a unique film it is, damned though it be by fate and the general stupidity of Western prejudices to the annals of esoterica. The animation, directed and fully conceptualized by Rosen with the exception of the introductory mythology (which retained the style of the original and late director, John Hubley), borders on ultra-realist in such a way that resonates perfectly both with the pervading seriousness of the WD world and with an identifiably English sensibility in substance. It is, quite frankly, drab and depressing on account of that utter commitment to realism, though hauntingly and captivatingly so. Starkly beautiful in the manner of a Bruegel landscape in its depiction of reality, and vibrantly twisted like the most horrifying of Bosch's triptychs wherever it portrays hallucination or any other decay of that reality.

It's downright chilling in both instances. And it's damn good. Sure, the voice syncing is distractingly off (likely a side effect of the animation team's dedication to realism), the sprawling plot of the four-hundred-plus-page novel is truncated and compressed to such a dizzying degree that the viewer often has scant time to learn a character's name before said character is killed off haphazardly (see the novel for proper treatment on this point), and the graphic violence likely to leave young children waking up at 3am in tears should their parents be foolish enough to mistake it for "family fun," but it's meaningful in a way that few western films of the latter 20th century can claim to be, animated or otherwise. What's more, though the film's gratuitous violence and darker thematic elements were ultimately its commercial downfall, it's precisely what makes it so memorable; we just don't see this animation on this mythic scale produced outside of Japan these days, no more in 2011 than we did in 1978, with all due apologies to Brad Bird. The score, on the other hand, is nothing special, though appropriately moody, and the infamous music-video-within-the-video of Garfunkel's "Bright Eyes" is actually one of the most poignant scenes in the film, if a bit jarring given the otherwise Romantically inspired orchestration. The mise-en-scene is beyond comment: the gentle English countryside is rendered with loving exactitude, almost too palpable to seem "merely" cartoon even in the moments wherein our protagonists' unique perspective transforms it from idyllic pastoral paradise to hell upon earth. Suffice it to say that high octane nightmare fuel abounds.

In conclusion, Watership Down, the film: flawed, yes. Masterpiece, no. Classic for all the same reasons as the novel, yes, and worth every moment of your emotional investment tenfold over. You might be surprised just how much rabbits have to share with us about what it is to be mortal – what it is, after all, to be human.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating (For the film, mind you; the novel must wait for a future revisit): 7/10

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Enterprises of Great Pith and Moment

A number of my friends (several of whom I suspect rather to be clever enemies) have for some time been contriving to cajole me into the blogosphere on the pretext that I have some meaningful things to say about the world and that some tragically bored souls somewhere may even be interested in reading them.

I've started this blog to prove them wrong.

To that end, I intend to post here my reactions to and critiques (not necessarily criticisms) of selected targets chosen from amongst everyone and everything I encounter, including but not limited to films, theatre, books, music, games, food, wine, beers, websites, abstract concepts, politics, pop culture phenomena, dinosaurs, and especially notable lawn ornaments, all from the perspective of a recent university graduate with a background in philosophy, literature, and a small assortment of other monetarily unprofitable qualifications.  

You have been warned.

Sure, Make Yourself At Home

Poignant, haunting, and above all else tantalizing: Let Me In, in all its disturbing subtly, is everything a vampire film can and should be. Only a small handful of the great gothic storytellers in history have represented the metaphysical ramifications of vampires in any meaningful way; fewer still have comprehended their emotional import, misogynistic Mormon teenage "romance" authors obviously being no exception. John Lindqvist, however, thankfully belongs to the former authorial category rather than the latter, and both the Swedish and American adaptations of his work (scarcely distinguishable in either their setting or cinematography) do full justice to his vision. Let Me In is a near masterpiece of horror not because it is "scary" but because it is truly, deeply, and memorably unsettling. If you let this one in, it's doubtful you'll be able to let it out again.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 9/10

Still the First Man

Film noir in the truest sense of the term, The Third Man crafts a breathtaking story out of chiaroscuro shadows both literally and figuratively. Never to my knowledge has the pulp detective thriller form been executed so elegantly, whether in the utterly sincere performances of some of the greatest actors ever to grace the screen, the brilliant manipulation of darkness both to obscure and reveal men and motives, and a script that takes seriously the thought lives both of its own characters and of its audience. The closing shot alone probably deserves some kind of honorary acclaim, and I would recommend the movie for that single moment even were the rest of it unmitigated trash.

The only marks on this otherwise flawless masterpiece are a distracting preponderance of Dutch angles (we get it, Reed - the perspectives are skewed) and a rather interminable chase sequence in the final act. As for the much-celebrated zither-only score, I cannot say I was overly impressed, nor was I in any way disappointed; apathetic would be a better word. These few preferential cavils, however, are hardly enough to mar this gem of cinema. The Third Man is a film for people who love films and who love to take them seriously. Hell, it's a film for everyone else, too.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 10/10

"Skazoosh" - You Can't Unsee It.

Kung Fu Panda 2 trades its predecessor's stronger villain (and let's face it, what foppish peacock was ever going to be as badass as breaks-out-of-the-world's-deepest-darkest-prison-with-nothing-more-than-a-feather-and-the-sheer-essence-of-awesome Tai Lung?) for a tighter script and faster pace. In many ways - mostly good ones- it's more of the same: more laughs, more gorgeous renderings of Fantasy China, and more kickass kung fu choreography. In some cases - thank God - it's less; a notable decrease in the number of bowel-related gags, for instance (I only counted two this time around).
In other words, it's that rare sequel worth seeing - and from DreamWorks Let's-See-How-Deeply-Through-the-Dirt-We-Can-Rake-Our-Best-Loved-Franchises Animation, no less!

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 7/10

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust Stanley Kubrick

Satire doesn't get much sharper than this. Not only is Dr. Strangelove deeply, darkly, and disturbingly funny in its Cold War arms race parody, but it is every bit as starkly beautiful in its cinematography. Every scene is a testament to Kubrick's mastery of formalism, from the breathtaking opening aerial shot to the dizzying Dutch angles artfully employed in Sterling Hayden's ominous closeups.

It is impossible to avoid crediting (although Kubrick, true to egoistic form, did just that) Peter Sellers for his tremendous - some might say single-handed - contributions to the film's humor both through his script work and his performance as no fewer than *three* of the principal characters. While Dr. Strangelove is ironically the weakest of these and perhaps the most overtly farcical aspect of the film, Lionel Mandrake's riotous RAF unflappability in the face of nuclear war and President Muffley's deadpan insecurities account for two of the highest points of comic genius in Seller's career.

Thanks to Kubrick's detailed direction and Sellers' uncanny characterization, Dr. Strangelove is that rare comedy whose artistic merits easily match - and perhaps even outweigh - its simple laugh appeal.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 10/10

How Not to Write a Compelling Novel (Except in the Sense of Compelling Readers to Homicide)

When a cursory reading of a book’s inside jacket text in tandem with the first chapter reveals that the protagonist is a thinly veiled fantasy-fulfillment proxy for the author himself, you begin to have uneasy feelings as a reader, especially when that proxy is quickly revealed to be a Marty Stu of near John Galtian proportions (who, of course, is the sole object of the only prominent female character’s sexual attention). Equally ominous is the opening line of the narrative. When you turn to the first page of the first chapter of a novel, you expect to encounter an introduction either riveting or, barring strong authorial creativity, at least mildly interesting; perhaps you would even settle for vaguely diverting.  William R. Forstchen cares not for your expectations. No, William R. Forstchen will start a book any way he damn well pleases, and if William R. Forstchen wants to dedicate the first words of his brainchild to informing us that “John Matherson lifted the bag off the counter,” then by God he will do so.

            You would think the narrative could only move uphill from there. You would think that, but you would be wrong. With each excruciating page, William R. Forstchen drags us deeper into the stygian undercurrents of his Plutonian soul, a swirling cesspool from which flows every incarnation of chauvinistic, jingoistic, racist, sexist, and homophobic bigotry known to humanity (and perhaps even some which hitherto remained unknown). Now, let me take a moment to qualify the previous sentence by noting that I do not believe in judging literature for its moral value.

            Fortunately, One Second After is not literature, and so I have no qualms with judging the shit out of its Gringrichian ass.

            In the world of William R. Forstchen’s imagination (one inhabited, I am fairly confident, only by himself and a select handful of Glenn Beck’s most enthusiastic bedfellows), women do not possess functional free will, and if they do it is only so that their acquiescence to the whims of their male superiors should be all the more sexually fulfilling. Any females who upon introduction display signs of diverging from this attribute are quick to assure the reader to the contrary; the Requisite Love Sex Interest is identified as such before she has a chance to demonstrate anything as dangerous as efficacious narrational causality, and the only female authority figure, the mayor, is concerned less with the operations of her municipality under apocalyptic conditions than she is with managing “not to sound like the dumb female in the crowd here” [sic]. Ultimately the task proves beyond her capability.

            Minorities, though rare enough to confirm the authenticity of the setting, exist only to demonstrate William R. Forstchen's egalitarian magnanimity in granting them firm moral rectitude, despite all demands of realism to the contrary. Most touching of these condescensions is the inclusion of a convenience store-owning Arab who, William R. Forstchen goes to great lengths to assure us, is almost certainly not a terrorist. As far a we know. Though, OK, he probably has a few body bombs in his back freezer. And more likely than not he’s going to murder us all in the name of Jihad. But whatever the bigoted READER might think, the good ol’ townsfolk of Ashbrook aren’t going to jump to any rash racial conclusions, no sirree.

            I won’t attempt to document the full extent of William R. Forstchen's jingoism here because I, unlike William R. Forstchen, do not have time to write a novel. Let it suffice to mention that the phrase “But this is America, God damnit!” (yes, that exact phrase) is uttered with more umbrage than O’Reilly’s appraisal of civil rights and with at least twice as much frequency. None, however, so thoroughly encapsulate the sentiment as the exuberant ejaculation:  “Vitamins. My God, so American! Something so good from a small bottle.”

            It seems almost unfair to criticize the novel on a stylistic, typographical, or grammatical level given its far more glaring moral, structural, and factual issues (the latter two of which I have neither space nor time to address here), but I cannot allow a book with at least fifty uncorrected instances of “would of” or “could of” in place of “would’ve” and “could’ve” to escape my linguistic bile. When you purchase a novel, you expect to receive a finished, edited product, just as the purchaser of an automobile expects to find functional steering and acceleration systems under the shiny hood of his new vehicle. You do not expect, however, to apply pressure to the gas pedal of said vehicle and discover it engages only the windshield wipers; nor do you expect to read said novel and find more spelling errors than an unfiltered YouTube commentary. The stylistic problems of One Second After are equally numerous and somehow significantly more irritating. William R. Forstchen characters, for instance, do not merely speak; they instead say things “sharply,” “coldly,” and most frequently of all “with a sigh.” Words are spoken “with a sigh” so overwhelmingly often that were I analyzing any other work I would label them a motif and conduct an in-depth subtextual study into the literary significance of dramatic aspiration. As it stands, I say (sharply) that their presence is merely an unfortunate consequence of William R. Forstchen’s negligence to take a single creative writing class in his eight plus years of higher education.

            I could keep writing for weeks, but it’s three in the morning, and the mere act of having read this novel already constitutes a far larger segment of my mortal life invested in William R. Forstchen than is conducive to my physical well-being. Or sanity.

Rating: 1/10 (Very nearly compelled me to introduce negative ratings into my scale)

How to Make Your Family Films

There's a loving touch to the animation of How to Train Your Dragon that almost justifies the comparisons it has received to the works of Pixar. The film is a delight to behold, filling the screen with the kind of visual fantasy that excites all the best parts of the imagination and reminds us why we watch animated features in the first place. The story is a tried and true coming-of-age tale supported by memorable characters and a good-spirited sense of humor, despite a few obvious cases of the writers trying just a bit too hard to pull a joke across. The very best moments, of course, occur between viking-in-name-only boy Hiccup and the titular dragon Toothless, who as a living animated character is one of the most powerful tacit arguments I have ever witnessed for the benefits of CGI modeling over the dying hand-drawn tradition.

My only substantial quibble is with Jay Baruchel's casting as Hiccup: I found his quite obviously adult voice utterly jarring for a supposed adolescent boy surrounded by other kids who actually sound like, you know, kids. On a second viewing it was significantly less distracting, but I still felt myself occasionally grated by Baruchel's half-hearted attempts to mimic the cracking intonation of a pubescent set of vocal cords.

That, however, is a rather minor complaint to make of a film as entertaining as this one, and its team - along with that of Kung Fu Panda - deserve some solid kudos for prying DreamWorks Animation out of the humiliating rut it's been mired in since Shrek went to shit.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 8/10

We'll All Be Disappointed When It Turns Out the Wind's Name Is "Tim"

To hear the reviewers tell it, Patrick Rothfuss is the second coming of Tolkien.
My interest in The Name of the Wind was first piqued by two glowing recommendations the boys at Penny Arcade. Tycho's opinion in itself was enough to justify adding it to my ephemeral list of Books I Will One Day Get Around to Reading, a notion that was strengthened when I read a similarly glowing review by Ursula K. Le Guin. Then Terry Brooks. Then Tad Williams. Then Anne McCaffrey. Then Orson Scott Card. Then, finally, Robin Hobb, and I'll be damned if I was going to ignore that many uplifted thumbs from the greats (well, perhaps the "pretty decents" in Williams's and possibly McCaffrey's cases) of contemporary fantasy literature. But let's get down to the only opinion that really matters here: mine. Does Rothfuss live up to the glowing praise heaped upon him by media outlets ranging from the New York Times to the Onion A.V. Club?

Kind of. Alright, fine: yes, yes he does. Mostly.

Every liberal arts major has likely at one point or another heard a professorial speech on the distinctions between serious "literary" fiction and escapist "commercial" fiction. The former is canonically defined by that miserable legend Laurence Perrine as fiction that holds "academic" literary merit on account of style, depth, and whatever other arbitrary distinctions make Bram Stoker's Dracula a less valuable piece of prose than Ulysses. The latter can be defined - much more intelligibly - as "books people buy because they're actually fun to read." God forbid.

So let's throw aside all comparisons to that incomparable giant JRR Tolkien: The Name of the Wind is not a deep work, though for the sake of brevity I won't go into all the reasons why here - read it and find out for yourself. Suffice it to say that I despise rigid categorical distinctions as much as the next postmodern Aristotelian, but even I'm willing to admit that TNOTW falls far and clear into the commercial category. Is that a mark against its favor? I'll leave that to other readers to decide. Allow me only to say that, profound metaphor and relevancy to the human condition be damned, TNOTW is as entertaining a fantasy novel as any I have read since Tolkien's own Hobbit. And damnit, there I go, both breaking my own promise of non-comparison and forcing Perrine into a subterranean barrel roll in one fell sentence.

The novel has a few faults, of course, so let's get those out of the way. Let me start by saying that the narrative voice reeks of the kind of pretension that could only belong to a first-time fantasy novelist propelled into New York Times Bestselling fame practically overnight. I admit the analogue is a bit anachronistic, but Rothfuss's narrative voice, both as the omniscient meta narrator and as Kvothe's (the Hero, but we'll get to him later), is just dripping with a not-wholly-undeserved satisfaction in its own cleverness, even at its most markedly un-clever moments. Allow me to present the closing paragraph from the prologue, which gleefully recycles fantasy's time-trashed tradition of opening with some mystical personification of a natural force and/or abstract concept (in this case a "silence of three parts," a merciful departure at least from Robert Jordan's "wind that was not the beginning"):

"The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn's ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die."

And that after an entire prologue's worth of exactly the same thing. And this stuff is practically pink compared to the deep purple of some of Rothfuss's later prose. "Self-important" is perhaps too kind a term. Let's just say Rothfuss is weakest when he waxes eloquent and leave it at that. The real issues of pretension come in with...

...ah, yes, Marty Stu. Or "Kvothe," as he is called in this incarnation. Again, "glorified author proxy" doesn't begin to describe this utterly unflappable paragon of perfection, who is not only smarter than you and better than you and getting way more action than you (with ninjas and faerie goddesses no less) but who KNOWS it with the kind of infuriating self-assurance ordinarily reserved to the acutely adolescent - which, to be fair, Kvothe is for the greater part of the novel. It's helps just to accept him as a satire of munchkin power gaming and ask no further questions.

The times when I was busy rolling my eyes at the author's fantasy actualizations aside, I loved every moment of TNOTW. Hopelessly self-important as the story is, it makes you believe in its importance, which in itself is possibly as high a praise as can be levied on a novel of this genre. Kvothe is an impossible figure, a fiery Achilles with Ulysses' wit, torn from Homeric lines and written into a world no more fantastic than our own save for the existences of a few more sciences in the mystical bend.

Fantasy is about exploration of the possible by transportation to the realm of the impossible, and on that count TNOTW succeeds mightily. It is escapist fiction, yes, but escapist fiction of the most compelling kind. Rothfuss is above all else a master storyteller, and so what if that story gets a little bit out of hand at times? It's the prerogative of a good story to do so, after all.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 8/10