Friday, February 28, 2014

7 Quick Takes Vol. 32

Part of the 7 Posts in 7 Days hosted by Conversion Diary

1.     So, LCD is tentatively still my main project at the moment: I’ve restructured the story completely into a version that feels more satisfying, so it’s back to work. To give you an idea of what the restructuring looks like, consider this:
In all previous versions, a key supporting character is introduced by initiating an exposition-fill conversation with the hero.
In this version, he’s introduced doing a version of the “long-list of better insults” scene from Cyrano de Bergerac, which devolves into a massive bar fight that ends with all concerned fleeing the town watch.

2.     I’ve been reading The Temperament God Gave You, furthering my studies in personality type (though, as the authors note, temperament is not synonymous with personality). Very interesting! In case you were wondering, I’m Melancholic with a dash of Phlegm, meaning I’m a reclusive idealist who frets over the imperfections of life, but who also is sympathetic and patient with the wretched, weak people who infest this accursed world.

3.     I cannot believe I only have three more chapters of Chronicles of Hendricks left to post! Unfortunately, these are the ones that need the most work and which I’ve been putting off until now. Better do something about that.

4.     By the way, the chapter posted today, Boa vs. Python is a large part of why the book was written in the first place. See, I used to watch a lot of Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies (no, I don’t know why), and one of them was, well, Boa vs. Python. I was really excited about this one, so excited that it became the first one I watched with a friend. I also turned out to be the worst and most unpleasant SFCOM I had seen yet (the very worst I’ve seen, the one that made me give up the practice entirely, was Abominable, which was like “Rear Window with monsters, as done by someone who personally hates the viewer”). Among its many, many sins was the fact that the titular fight lasted maybe a minute and consisted entirely of the two very-bad-cgi snakes nipping at each other until one got hit by a train. So, when I started working on Chronicles (which started life as a tribute to SFCOMs), I determined to do that fight properly. Through the innumerable changes the story has gone through over the years, that fight has been one of the few things that’s always been there. So, enjoy!

If you haven’t started reading Chronicles and would like to, you can begin here.

5.     Saw The Apartment for the first time last night and absolutely loved it. It was just the kind of romance that appeals to me, and Jack Lemmon was a simply phenomenal actor (which I already knew, but hadn’t fully appreciated yet). I don’t know that I would personally classify it as a ‘comedy’ except in the classic sense (a story with a happy ending), since it’s really pretty serious for most of its running time, but I’m also not sure what else I would call it. I may write more about it sometime soon.

6.     I’ve been getting a lot of support from family and friends about my plans to move to (probably) Texas. So much so that I have to keep telling them that I still have no idea where exactly I’m looking or even the kind of job I’ll be looking for. As usual, my plans are much less advanced than most people seem to think.

7.     A fun quote:
“Some men are graduated from college cum laude, some are graduated summa cum laude, and some are graduated mirabile dictum.”
-William Howard Taft

Vivat Christus Rex!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Simple Bad Guys

                Someone asked me on my Wicked post why I thought the Witch was such an interesting character. Of course, I couldn’t simply give a quick rundown; this had to turn into another blog post about villains in general (the fact that the next day I ripped apart a terribly done villain also factors in).
                These days we like complexity in everything, including our bad guys: “he’s not just a simple villain” or something like it is becoming such a common source of praise that one wonders whether it’s approaching its expiration date (the way “spectacular special effects” has done). Now, I’m not going to object to this habit; I like complex, humanized antagonists as much as the next man. But I notice that the villains we really gravitate to, the ones that stick in our minds are, for the most part, the ‘simple bad guys.’
                If you were to list the most memorable and iconic villains in cinematic history, your list would probably look something like this: Dracula, the Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, Blofeld, Hannibal Lecter, Mr. Potter, and Freddy Krueger. These are the villains who capture our imagination, whose image we keep coming back to, who become bywords or cultural touchstones, so that even people who haven’t seen the movies know at once who they are. And with the possible exceptions of Hannibal and (arguably) Vader, they’re all extremely simple characters. They’re two-dimensional, flat, ‘just villains.’ Yet they are the ones who fascinate us (this notion is further supported by the fact that the most celebrated movie villain of recent years is The Dark Knight’s emphatically non-humanized Joker).
                This to me suggests that maybe complexity and what we might call ‘humanity’ isn’t necessarily what we look for in our bad guys. Or, to put it another way, that when we compare complicated, distinctly human villains with simply evil bad guys, we’re actually comparing two very different things.
                When we view a story featuring a humanized villain, we’re seeing a conflict between two men; Mal and the Operative are both just men with competing philosophies and characters. Mr. Smith and Sen. Paine likewise are just men who, finding themselves at the same moral crossroads, took divergent paths.
                On the other hand, you can’t really call, say, Mr. Potter a ‘man’ at all. He’s a caricature, a bogey; the embodiment of greed, corruption, and self-interest. The Wicked Witch likewise is a bogey; a living expression of ‘wickedness,’ with all its implications of cunning, cruelty, spite, and covetousness.
                The distinction, then, is between what we may, for present purposes, call an ‘antagonist’ and a ‘bogey.’ An antagonist is a human bad guy; someone who opposes the hero for clear and understandable reasons because they either both want the same thing or want two mutually exclusive things. A bogey is a mythic bad guy; less an actual person than an imaginative representative of some idea or quality. To put it simply, an antagonist possesses certain qualities; a bogey embodies them.
                Let’s take an example: contrast Mr. Kirby in You Can’t Take it With You with Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Both characters are greedy, unscrupulous, self-centered businessmen of a well-known type: the uncaring rich man who gobbles up everything he possibly can by hook or crook, who relentlessly seeks more and more even when he already has more than he could ever use or enjoy.
                But Mr. Kirby is an antagonist: he’s greedy, snobbish, and heartless when it comes to his business, but he loves his son dearly, has a sense of humor, and is capable of acts of kindness and self-reflection. Mr. Potter, on the other hand, is a bogey: he has no family, no apparent interests apart from being a heartless miser, and he only ever laughs when he’s getting one over on someone else.
                A key difference is that Mr. Kirby has a past: he and other characters make references to things he had done or characteristics he had had before he became so obsessed with business. There’s a sense of Mr. Kirby being fallen from what he once was. Mr. Potter has no past; as far as we know, he entered life old, rich, and evil. As Hannibal Lecter said in a cut line from Silence of the Lambs, “nothing happened to me. I happened.”
                Bogeys don’t have pasts. Of the villains I listed above, I believe only one – Darth Vader – is given any kind of back story, and that very little: he was a Jedi Knight, he was seduced by the Dark Side, he betrayed the Jedi, his wife and infant children went into hiding to escape him (note that I’m not counting later attempts to give these characters histories, both because these efforts come after they have already become seared into the public mind and because they almost all fail spectacularly). Having a past humanizes the villain, and some villains don’t want to be humanized.
                In Batman Begins, there are several scenes where characters discuss the idea of symbols: a mere man can be destroyed, or ignored, or locked up, but a symbol is something more, something eternal and incorruptible. Bruce consciously sets out to achieve that kind of mythic status through a combination of solitude, anonymity, and primal imagery. That is what a ‘bogey’ villain is meant to do; to encompass in a single figure some archetypal evil. When they succeed, some vast, formless shadow in the viewer’s mind is given a definite shape or symbol, almost in the way a sound is associated with a letter. That vague idea of seductive, yet life-sucking evil finds its expression in the form of Dracula. The chaotic, violent subconscious that so terrifies us in our sleep is given the name and face of Freddy Krueger. The half-suspected cruel intellect manipulating world events from behind the scenes becomes a soft-spoken man stroking a Persian cat. Thus our formless notions of evil are given shape and character in these mythic villains.
                Though let me be clear that these are not mere ‘symbols,’ so that you can say that Mr. Potter is the evils of unbridled capitalism, or Hannibal Lecter is psychopathic tendencies. Rather, they embody these things in the way that Apollo embodies music or Diana embodies the woods: it is a deeper kind of symbolism, one that doesn’t allow for a one-to-one comparison (i.e. Potter’s confinement to a wheelchair represents to actual impotency of capital, etc.), but which tries to capture the feel or beats of the thing itself in one archetypal figure. In describing the effect, it often seems like mere symbolism, but it actually goes much deeper than that; the thing being expressed is caught in elements you could never really put down in a list of matching qualities. It’s found in the witch’s cackling voice that has an undercurrent of a snarl. It’s found in the goddess’s bare arms and deer-like strides as she runs under the moon, a bow on her shoulder and dogs baying at her feet. It’s in the old man tossing off muttered sneers as he recommends ruining another man’s livelihood. In short, the whole ‘feel’ of the character captures the feeling of the thing itself in our minds. Like in music, it’s the piece taken as a whole that creates the effect.
                 Now, obviously there is a lot of grey area here, where a bad guy fails to either be humanized or achieve any kind of mythic grandeur. It might be said that a ‘bogey’ is the easiest kind of villain to write and the hardest kind to do well. The ones listed above are a mere handful of the innumerable blunt, simplistic, one-dimensional bad guys that flood cinema screens. Most, frankly, just feel lazy or boring. Some rise to a mild level of archetypal power, but not enough to really capture the viewer.
That, I think, is why we often sneer at bad guys who are ‘simply villains;’ not because it’s bad writing in itself, but because it fails so often. This sort of thing is very advanced storytelling, so advanced that most examples of it happen, as it were, by accident; the right combination of design, script, and performer come together to capture the intended effect, often as much to the writer’s surprise as the viewers’. If Dracula had been played by anyone other than Bela Lugosi – even great actors like Conrad Veidt or Lon Chaney Sr., both of whom were considered for the part – I’m willing to bet that he wouldn’t have made half the impact he did (the fact that none of the many, many actors who had assailed the part since have come close to eclipsing Lugosi supports this view). The same thing with Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (an earlier Lecter film featuring Brian Cox is now barely remembered except as a trivia question), or Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch. The best most filmmakers who attempt this sort of character can reasonably hope for is generally something like Red Skull from Captain America or Jack Wilson from Shane: a villain who captures the right feel of the thing, but not spectacularly so, and only, as it were, for the time of the film. They serve their purpose in the story, but don’t take a place in the ‘pantheon’ of the culture.
                Regarding complex villains, these, I think, generally fill out the middle or upper-middle of the storytelling spectrum; they fascinate and intrigue and trouble us, but I find they almost never rise to the artistic heights of ‘bogeys.’ Much as we enjoy them and admire the craftsmanship that went into them, I think it’s clear they don’t grab us in the same way the others do. Sheriff Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil is an intriguing character and a great villain, but who remembers him? In fact, the only indisputably ‘complex, three-dimensional bad guy’ I think of off the top of my head who reaches iconic status is Norman Bates (I’m not counting characters like King Kong or the Frankenstein Monster, whose ‘villain’ status is debatable). These ‘antagonists’ as I have called them have our cheers and our critical approval, and rightly so, but they don’t fascinate us like the bogeys.
                And that, to finally answer the question that prompted this post, is why I think the Wicked Witch of the West is an ‘interesting’ character (at least in the movie: I haven’t read the books); she’s one of those great mythic figures that capture an idea so perfectly that she becomes the means of conveying that idea. She’s interesting in the same way that Hecate is interesting; because she taps some primal well of imagery in our minds and becomes more than just a character in a children’s story. You could, if you really wanted to, break her down into Freudian or feminist or religious or Marxist interpretations, but you’d spoil the effect, just like you’d spoil a joke if you tried to explain it, or kill an animal by dissecting it. She’s interesting not because you can dissect or examine her, not because she raises interesting questions or poses moral quandaries, but simply because she is what she is: the Wicked Witch of the West.

Vivat Christus Rex!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer

                My reaction to the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ trailer has been enthusiastically positive, though with a little ‘left-brain, right-brain’ debating:

                Left-Brain: “Oh, for Pete’s sake, not another ‘bad-boy’ superhero movie!”
                Right-Brain: “It’s the superhero/scifi version of The Usual Suspects! I’m betting the tree is Kaiser Soze.”

                Left Brain: “Ah, the girl is psychopathic murderer. Feminism!”
                Right-Brain: “Hooray! Zoe Saldana as a green-skinned space-babe in a movie that probably isn’t green propaganda!”

                Left Brain: “Rocket Raccoon is worth the price of admission.”
                Right Brain: “Agreed.” 

Seriously, though; this looks like it's gonna be a ton of fun. 

Vivat Christus Rex!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Mandarin or ‘Davy Jones Syndrome’

                  It’s a little late, but it’s time to get this off my chest: the handling of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3.

                  (FAIR WARNING: I'm writing this piece assuming that you've seen the movie, or at least don't care enough about it to bother about major spoilers).

                  Some people think the twist a brilliant piece of satire. Others think it unutterably stupid.
                  Me? I think it was the single worst decision in any superhero film since someone decided Arnold Schwarzenegger would be the ideal Mr. Freeze (and no, I am not forgetting the death of Cyclops or evil Tobey Maguire thrusting his pelvis at the camera).
                  Imagine if, midway through The Dark Knight, Batman had tracked down the Joker only to learn that he was an innocent clown hired by for a birthday gig that got out of hand and that Eric Roberts’ Mafioso character was the real villain. Or if the original Star Wars had killed off Darth Vader and kept Grand Moff Tarkin as the main bad guy. I call this the “Davy Jones Syndrome:” wherein a work introduces an awe-inspiring or iconic villain, only to sideline him in favor of a more generic bad guy who gores whatever ox the writer happens to be obsessed with (usually capitalism or patriotism or some other institution liberals don’t like). It’s named, of course, after the disastrous Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, which – in addition to their many other sins – inexplicably decided that an utterly generic evil capitalist would make a better chief bad-guy than a super-powered demonic cross between Captain Nemo and Cthulhu as played by one of the best character actors in modern Hollywood.
                  Iron Man 3 makes almost the exact same mistake: a diabolically evil villain played by a master bad-guy is unceremoniously tossed aside to make room for a nondescript corrupt corporate executive. The only saving grace of this debacle is that Guy Pearce is an excellent actor in his own right and can make a perfectly serviceable villain, unlike…whatever the hell his name was in Pirates. The trouble, though, is that Pearce is best at playing rather ordinary or at least human bad-guys (see his deliciously heartless turn in The Count of Monte Cristo). As a comic-book super-villain, ‘Guy Pearce as evil businessman’ is no match for ‘Ben Kingsley as all-knowing terrorist mastermind.’
                  This is so stupid, so anticlimactic, and so indescribably lame that I find it single-handedly derails the film (in my review, written shortly after I had seen it, I thought that it didn’t quite, but upon reflection I realized that the film’s contrary virtues are all ones that only really come on the first viewing, and the black hole of badness created by the Mandarin and the many other flaws grows ever larger the more you think about it).
                  I’ll try to explain why and how this was such a terrible, terrible idea (because I think it's instructive). To do that, I’ll have to recount the basic set up of the first half or so of the film and read it as though they were not going to pull their disastrous twist.
                  The Mandarin (played with chilling coldness by the great Ben Kingsley) is established as a master terrorist; Osama Bin Laden by way of Fu Manchu. He has a deep, abiding hatred for America and all it represents, a hatred he expresses through precise and symbolic bombings across the globe, accompanied by stylistic propaganda videos explaining his reasoning. He often announces his targets ahead of time, but the authorities prove helpless to do anything to stop him. At one point he openly challenges the President of the United States by threatening to execute a hostage if the President doesn’t call him in time. Then when the President does, he kills the man anyway. He’s made his point: he is in charge.
                  The Mandarin gives off an air of chilling omnipotence; he is so cunning and subtle that he can make a phone number appear in the President’s personal cell-phone while effortlessly eluding all attempts to bring him to justice. Combined with his theatrical manners and trappings, he seems almost more than a man.
                  Then, one day, Tony Stark’s friend is injured in one of the Mandarin’s attacks. Tony, enraged, offers a public challenge to the terrorist. The Mandarin accepts by bombing Stark’s house into rubble.
                  The impression is that, for once, Tony has really bitten off more than he can chew. The Mandarin is the kind of bad-guy, like Bane or the Joker in the Dark Knight films, who cuts right to the point with a speed and ferocity that the hero is unprepared for; an intricately planned blitzkrieg that overwhelms and crushes him right where he thought he was most powerful.
                  In the midst of this is Guy Pearce as a character named Aldrich Killian; a business rival with a serious grudge against Tony Stark for snubbing him years earlier. Killian possesses an unstable performance-enhancing technology called ‘Extremis’ which is tied up in the Mandarin’s schemes, and appears to be working with – or for – the terrorist, who headquarters in Killian’s Florida mansion.
                  Now, what happens in the film is that it turns out Killian is the one in charge and the Mandarin is actually a funny little British actor who has no idea of the crimes he’s involved in. Killian is in league with the Vice President and has a deal in which he’ll kill the President in exchange for the Vice President supporting his war profiteering (in a desperate attempt to save face, the writers have Killian inexplicably screaming “I was the real Mandarin!” right before he dies).
                  First of all, lame, lame, lame, Lame, LAME! Political corruption, a personal vendetta, and war profiteering? Boring! Seen it a thousand times. Hell, the last two Iron Man movies did all that, and did it better! Killian is basically just a mix of Iron Monger (the war profiteer), Vanko (the personal grudge against Stark), and Justin Hammer (the corrupt business rival), all of whom were a heck of a lot more interesting and fun.
                  Even if we hadn’t seen it all before, a corrupt corporate executive with an old grudge is a petty, rather pathetic figure. There’s no power or grandeur to him. He’s a perfectly serviceable villain, but he’s a mid-level bad-guy, not the ultimate threat of the climactic film of a trilogy. On one side we have the Master Terrorist who hates the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave and all it stands for, and on the other we have a shallow, soulless man who can’t forget a personal slight. All the laws of drama scream in protest when you take the latter over the former.
                  What should have happened is that Killian, out of his hatred of Stark, would join forces with the Mandarin, thinking, in his arrogance, that he could control the terrorist. This would lead to the crucial moment where he realizes that he has been toying with a force far more powerful and dangerous than he bargained for and would presumably pay the price. The dynamic would be rather like Dagget and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises: the greedy businessman who, looking for an edge over his rival, turns to someone who really believes in something greater than mere Mammon and finds, to his horror, that the ideologue is something far beyond the control of a petty creature like himself. Killian, like Dagget, is a small man; a man of spite and greed and envy, whose overwhelming arrogance is the only thing that prevents him from realizing how dangerous someone like Bane or the Mandarin really is (or ought to be).
                  Which brings me to one of the crucial points: the Mandarin, as established in the first half of the film, hits Tony at a point he’s never been hit before. He strikes right at the roots of who he is and what he does. He forces Stark to face the question “what, exactly, are you fighting for?” Stark has always supported and ‘fought for’ America: both when he made weapons for the military and when he took the fight directly to the Afghan terrorists. But really, Tony has always had his own interests at the forefront. Even after he became a hero, it’s always about either cleaning up his own mess or protecting his own friends and loved ones.
The Mandarin forces him to question all that. He forces Tony to look for the ideal beyond any personal interest; it’s not about him, his past, or even his friends, it’s about the bigger issues of Freedom, Justice, and so on that Tony is supposedly fighting for. Do those matter to him at all? If so, is he really certain he’s on the right side? When push comes to shove, can Tony fight for something higher and nobler than himself?
                  See, the Mandarin, had they but allowed him, would have forced Tony to do some serious self-examination and answer some hard and interesting questions. He wouldn’t have just been a physical or intellectual challenge, but a spiritual one.
                  But perhaps I’m asking too much. Modern Hollywood seems almost incapable of imagining a man fighting for a higher cause like Justice or Honor; even Captain America wasn’t allowed to have any more profound a motivation than “I don’t like bullies.” Hollywood morality is, as a rule, entirely self-centered: personal exploration, personal empowerment, supporting one’s friends and families (if we’re lucky), and so on. The idea of fighting for a flag or an idea, for the “ashes of your fathers and the temples of your gods,” seems entirely alien to them. If so, then I can only say that if they can’t comprehend the ideas that make stories worth telling, they should stop telling them.
                  Still, even if they were never going to make the most of the Mandarin, what they actually decided to do simply hideous. On the most basic dramatic level, setting up an omnipotent, deadly mastermind able to run circles around the most powerful nation on Earth only to throw aside the curtain and show him to be nothing but smoke and mirrors is a stunning misstep, on the level of having the characters wake up and realize that it was all a dream. Having it done as a cheap joke (complete with toilet humor) only adds to the insult.
                  There is a time to be subversive and a time to be conventional. In both cases, that time ceases the moment it begins to hurt the story. In this case, it doesn’t just hurt the story; it maims and kills it. “We know you came for an elemental confrontation between Iron Man and his greatest foe, but that’d be too obvious, so we thought you’d enjoy more of the exact same kind of stuff you got in the first two movies, only stupider.” Or, alternatively “yes, I did just spend an hour setting up an utterly terrifying villain only to turn him into a cheap gag at the last minute. Ain’t I a stinker?” For goodness sakes, that’s the kind of joke you get on a Simpsons episode; it doesn’t work in an actual movie!
                  I’ve heard some people say they support the twist on the grounds that the Mandarin is a ‘racist’ character. Personally, I don’t know what racist stereotype is forwarded by a man who can outsmart the whole United States Military and go toe-to-toe with Iron Man. I’m not sure what negative statement this makes about Orientals or Anglo-Indians. Moreover, if we’re going to play the ‘racism game,’ isn’t the twist a lot more racist than the alternative would have been? Isn’t the implication (if you insist on drawing one) “oh, of course an Oriental couldn’t be the real bad guy: they’re just a funny little people. For a real mastermind, you need a white man”?
                  Besides that, what about the Mandarin is at all racist? A ‘mandarin’ is just an aristocratic class of civil servants from Imperial China who served as advisors, barristers, treasurers, and that sort of thing. An equivalent Western bad guy would call himself something like “the Bureaucrat” or, less amusingly, “the Judge.” This, of course, makes perfect sense for the Mandarin as presented in the first half of the film; a master strategist who appoints himself to stand in ‘judgment’ over the United States, and does so from the heritage of his own (ostensible) culture.
                  The only other grounds for calling the Mandarin a ‘racist’ character is the mere fact that he isn’t European, in which case good God! Do you realize how idiotic that position is? In the first place, it actually is racist to assume that people of one race do not suffer the same temptations and passions that any other race does and hence cannot be villains. In the second, pick up a newspaper sometime and see how much relation that notion has to the real world.
                  I can think of two, maybe three reasons for the decision the filmmakers made. The first is a simple desire to do something different, in which case they ought to be reminded that their job is to tell a story, not to win a Calvinball tournament. Originality is a tool, not an end, and the moment you start worrying about being original rather than simply telling a good story, you have lost your way and should put down your pen until you find it again.
                  The second reason is a fear of overseas markets. I suppose I can’t really fault them for that; filmmaking is a business, after all, but we’ve reached a very low point of culture indeed if we’re so desperate for the wealth of the tyrannies and dictatorships of the world that we dare not say a word against them. That’s even assuming that the Mandarin was explicitly connected to the Chinese government in any way, which would be an easy thing to avoid. Indeed, if they were really so worried about that, it seems to me the obvious solution would be to introduce a sympathetic Chinese character or a flattering depiction of the Chinese government to balance the portrayal (though the latter would be morally questionable in its own right).
                  The third and most troubling reason is that they really believe this is closer to how the world works: that the director or screenwriters subscribe to a kind of ‘9/11 Truther’ view of politics in which nations like America really fabricate terrorist threats to gun up the military-industrial complex that pumps wealth into the pockets of the right people. If so, then they’re despicably ignorant and callous people who need to learn to face the real world and their film is not only bad, but actively offensive (the fact that it came out mere weeks after the Boston Marathon Bombings only emphasizes this).
                  Unfortunately, I suspect the last is the true, or at least primary, motivation. Something I read quoted from an interview with the director indicates that he subscribes to this kind of insanity (I can’t find the interview at the moment).
                  So, in summary, the treatment of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 squanders great dramatic potential, is hideously anticlimactic and stupid in itself, and seems to stem from motives that range from silly to despicable. It’s a real winner. Storytellers, we’re going to file this under the ‘don’t’ category.

Vivat Christus Rex! 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Wicked Interpretations

                I don’t like Wicked.
                Oh, the music is great, and I listen to many of the songs all the time (Defying Gravity is one of my go-to running songs), but the story is nothing but one gigantic misfire.
                The trouble is that it purports to tell the back story of the Wicked Witch of the West. But it doesn’t. It tells the story of Elphaba; a young woman born with green skin who is ostracized, oppressed, and ultimately accomplishes nothing except landing the cute rich boy and being friends with a brainless popular girl named Glinda. At no point does she even remotely resemble the cunning, powerful, walking nightmare known only as the Wicked Witch of the West.
                Now, you may be saying “but that’s the point of the story! That she wasn’t wicked, but only misunderstood!” To which I answer “if that’s the point, then I don’t see the point of it.” Once you strip away her evilness, there’s really nothing very interesting about the Wicked Witch of the West (or, as I suppose we must call her, the “Misunderstood and Innocent Sort-of Witch Who at One Point Makes a Vague Reference to the West”). The attempt to reform her destroys the character. There’s simply no reason to connect the two figures of Elphaba and the Wicked Witch of the West, since they have absolutely nothing to do with one another.
                And not only that, but by any standards Elphaba isn’t a very interesting character. She’s certainly nowhere near as captivating, imposing, or impressive as the W³. For one thing, she’s essentially helpless; I don’t think she actually accomplishes a single thing over the whole course of the show, except for some really bitching musical numbers and setting the Cowardly Lion free. The one time she encounters a real threat, she needs to be rescued by her boyfriend. She never defeats the Wizard (here the villain), who just kind of gives up after she’s out of the picture. Moreover, the “plain, unpopular, brainy girl who nevertheless lands the hottest boy in school” isn’t exactly a bold or original character type, and I can’t remember them putting any kind of unique spin on it.
                So why do I bring all this up? Is it just to vent my spleen after growling about it for years? Well, partly. But more importantly, it’s to illustrate an important point; that most really interesting characters can’t survive very much reinterpretation. The Wicked Witch of the West can’t be the heroine; not without removing everything that makes her the Wicked Witch. The Joker (despite what Harley Quinn thinks) can’t be a misunderstood innocent without ceasing to be the Joker. The more striking a character is, the less they can be presented as other than what they are.
                I have a similar reaction to the many “historical” Jesuses as I have to Wicked: the sense of “well, if that’s all, then what’s the point?” If Jesus were just a moral teacher, or just a political revolutionary, or just a whatever-else, then there really doesn’t seem to be any reason why anyone should have worshiped Him. No one worshiped Socrates, or Seneca, or Solon, or any of the other ancient sages. No one deified any of the hundreds and hundreds of revolutionaries constantly springing up and being put down throughout the Roman Empire. Moreover, all of Jesus’s first disciples were Jews: the very last people who would divinize anyone. The problem, in short, is why, if that’s all He was, did anyone try to portray Him as anything different?
Even of the early Heresies, no one (as far as I am aware) tried to pull the “just a moral teacher” card: they said He was an adopted semi-divine creature, or a spirit with only the appearance of a body, or that He was a divine schizophrenic with two-natures, or any other number of interpretations, but always with the view that He was more than human. The only people who called Him a revolutionary or such like were the Roman authorities who weren’t paying much attention to the actual teachings.
There’s a troubling disconnect here; on the one hand, we have the Church, which worships Jesus, assigns Him the titles of “Son of God” and “Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.” On the other we have the man Jesus Himself. Somehow we have to get from the Jewish man walking about in Israel to the mushrooming community of people who fervently believe that He was God come to Earth and who are willing to go to their deaths rather than deny that belief and argue out the most fiddling and difficult philosophical implications of it over the course of centuries. A mere revolutionary or moral philosopher simply isn’t, well, interesting enough to spark that kind of movement. But the only possible motive for such a movement is that the founders actually believed it to be true. There are precious few interpretations of the figure of Jesus that will account for all these facts (not to mention the fact that this religious movement was explicitly founded on the idea that He died and rose to life again). As a matter of fact, I would say there’s only one: that Jesus was and is just who the Church claims He is. Much like the Wicked Witch of the West, Jesus simply can’t be interpreted any other way without losing everything that makes Him worth talking about in the first place.

Vivat Christus Rex!

Friday, February 21, 2014

7 Quick Takes Vol. 31

Still hosted by Conversion Diary:

1.     So, Lost City is officially on hold now. I realized the story and characters just weren’t jelling because they lacked any kind of unified theme or purpose apart from cool dinosaurs, so I needed to step back and settle on that. This requires some major story restructuring, and though it won’t be quite as extensive as I thought at first, it will require me to come up with yet another new opening.

2.     All this means I’m effectively between projects again: I have about three or four different novels I could be working on right now other than LCD, but I can’t seem to settle on any of them. They all require either more research or more story or both. I hate being between projects; I feel so frustrated and restless. It’s like when you have a bad cough and you take cough syrup, only it doesn’t stop your throat from scratching, it only stops you from coughing to relieve the scratching, so really it just makes things worse!

(I really, really hate cough syrup).

3.     Speaking of which (books, not coughing), Gods and Monsters the blog has now gone public, since the ‘invite only’ list was causing more problems than it was worth. So, if you want to read any of the fiction I keep talking about, you can hop on over. I recommend starting here, where you can read the still-ongoing Chronicles of Hendricks (which is actually nearing its end, and I have nothing to replace it with!).

4.     I’ve been listening to The Forgotten Man, a new history of the Great Depression. It confirms my great dislike of FDR, which has been growing for some time. It also makes me interested to learn more about Coolidge, whom I’ve been developing an increasing respect for. Partly I think it might be that I relate to the introverted Coolidge much more than the extroverted Roosevelt. A case study comparing the two presidents would be interesting, I think; the gregarious FDR who liked to play games with other people’s lives and the reserved Coolidge who maintained a firm grip on the impact government policies actually have on people. It’s an interesting contrast of expectations – the ‘people person’ forgets real people and the ‘non-people-person’ remembers them – and would make a fascinating study.  

5.     This week I learned that I seriously need to exercise every morning, at least during the week. Otherwise, I barely have the energy to get through the day without going on a rampage (my resignation can’t come soon enough). Exercise gives me a nice influx of good cheer and optimism to help me survive another day of soul-crushing toil. And it means the added bonus that if I do go on my rampage, I’ll be able to make something of it (I have classical tastes, so my idea of a rampage mostly involves kidnapping an attractive lady and climbing a tall building).

6.     I’ve been working on a lot of blog posts, mostly about hammering out my own views on life, the universe, and everything. Mostly it’s been a stripping away of the assumptions I’ve been indoctrinated with for most of the first few decades of life about history, competition, art, and so forth. I might be posting some next week, so stay tuned.

7.      If nothing else I always have the comfort that I’m the kind of man who uses the evolutionary history of sharks as an argument against modernity. This might appear in one of those promised posts, but the short version is that sharks demonstrate the popular notion of ‘progress’ to be false because they show that nature actually works not by experimentation but by maintaining models that work for as long as they work: sharks haven’t changed appreciably in over 400 Million Years.

Vivat Christus Rex!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reviews: The Lego Movie


            The Lego Movie is everything you would hope for from a movie about Legos. That is, if you’re the kind of person who hopes for anything from a movie about Legos. Even if you aren’t that kind of person, it’s everything you would have hoped for, if only you had known just how good this sort of movie can be. Here is anarchic, freewheeling creativity with surprising depth and frenetic, subversive humor paired with real heart.
            Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a breathtakingly average Lego construction worker; a little lonely, but otherwise gleefully and obliviously happy in his staggeringly normal life. In the Lego city where he works, everyone follows the instructions, watches the same stupid sitcom, drinks the same overpriced coffee, and listen to the same super-catchy dance tune (“EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!”).
            Then, at the end of another day’s work, Emmet runs into an alluring and mysterious young lady, who accidentally leads him to a mysterious object that marks him as the messianic ‘Special:’ “the brightest, most talented, most interesting person in the universe” (“uh…yes! That’s me!”). This launches him into a larger world of evil conspiracies, secret resistance movements, and an ancient prophecy…or does it?
            You see, The Lego Movie’s plot is one long cliché at first glance, but as time goes on it becomes clear that what is going on here is something much subtler and more exciting. Unexpected twists, clever subversions, and endless inventiveness abound at every turn. You may not believe it, but this is a movie that will genuinely surprise you. Even the usually trite “everyone is special” and “believe in yourself” messages are handled in subtler and more intelligent forms than you’d expect, and in the end even the formulaic nature of the story itself hides a deeper meaning.
            I can’t really get into any of this without massive spoilers, which I absolutely refuse to do. So, I’ll turn instead to the utter brilliance of the writing, with never-ending gags and laugh-a-minute jokes. A random sampling: a hyperbolic expression of enjoyment that turns out to be completely and literally true; a title that remains visible in the background throughout the subsequent scene; and a gleefully vindictive depiction of a certain famous superhero whose last appearance on the big screen was a notorious failure.
            Yes, we have real superheroes here. Lego is partnered with several major franchises, and The Lego Movie makes good use of this fact with a string of hilarious cameos, not to mention Batman himself playing a major supporting role (voiced by Will Arnett). I would say this affectionate semi-parody of the world’s most popular superhero is the funniest thing in the movie, but I don’t dare make any such a bold claim in a film like this.
            Another fair choice might be Will Ferrell’s villainous President/Lord Business: a controlling, yet rather cheerful dark lord who bears more than a passing resemblance to Ferrell’s earlier role in Megamind; an evil genius who keeps getting sidetracked by picky little details and is constantly annoyed when things don’t turn out the way they’re supposed to. In fact, he has a plan to make sure that things will end up and stay just the way they ought to be…
            Or it might be Lord Business’s chief enforcer; Bad Cop/Good Cop, who is somehow ten times funnier for the mere fact that he’s voiced by Liam Neeson (“Darny-darn-darn-darn-DARN!”).
            Or…well, trying to list the film’s best jokes would be an exercise in futility. It’s simply the funniest movie I’ve seen in a long time.
            And yet, the gag-a-minute humor doesn’t change the fact that this is also a movie with a lot of honest-to-goodness heart to it. The little plastic heroes evince real humanity; they get under your skin and make you love them, much like the similarly artificial-yet-soulful protagonists of Toy Story or Wreck-It Ralph; especially Emmet, who really is just a very nice, normal guy. He’s almost hobbit-like: cheery, good-humored, friendly, honest, not-too-bright, and capable of both simple kindness and great courage. Even better, his very normalcy, though the source of much humor, turns out to be his greatest advantage. He is a fit hero precisely because he’s so humble. 
            Elizabeth Banks’ Wyldstyle isn’t quite as interesting as Emmet: she’s a bit too ordinary (ironically enough) in the sense that badass action-chicks are a dime-a-dozen these days. She does break the mold a little, though, by being perhaps a little too good; that is, she may be putting on a bit of an act and actually be a little more vulnerable and needy than she initially appears (her obviously-made-up name is the source of both several funny gags and a scene of real pathos).
            Morgan Freeman (!)’s Vitruvius is a fun send-up of the “mentor” archetype. Like Neeson, the mere fact that this is Morgan Freeman playing a plastic toy (and apparently having a ball doing it) makes everything he does even funnier, while his smooth, authoritative voice makes us immediately believe everything that Vitruvius says, however ridiculous (“all this is true/because it rhymes”). 
            Ah, but this is supposed to be The Lego Movie: what of the Legos? What makes this a movie about Lego rather than just a generic animated adventure film?
            Everything. The Lego nature of the world is recalled in every scene, almost every moment. Every ‘conceit’ of the Lego toy is represented perfectly: from the range of movement on the characters, to the fact that they can ‘stick’ to any surface with the correct ‘pegs,’ to the way they change their clothes by swapping-out torsos. The whole world, even water, smoke, fire, and explosions are made out of Lego pieces.
            When I first saw the trailers for The Lego Movie, what struck me most was the animation style. The characters don’t move with the fluid, seamless grace of your typical CG character, but with the jerks and strobes of stop-motion. The effect is that it looks like this was made with real Lego figures filmed a couple frames at a time, though the actual events and set-pieces are obviously much too complicated and elaborate for that. The style gives the film an appealing solidity and makes it seem even more at home in the world of Lego.
            Moreover, the feel of Lego; the unbridled creativity, the ability to take and remake almost anything into anything is a key part of the story. This is captured perfectly the moment Wyldstyle exclaims “quick! We can build a motorcycle out of the alley!” Certain characters are “Master Builders:” people who can make anything out of anything (one scene has Emmet tested to “build a racecar using only what you see here”). In short, this is a movie about a toy that knows exactly what makes that toy special, and makes that it’s theme. This central idea – the magic of Legos – is the bedrock that makes the movie work. If they hadn’t done this; if it had merely been any kind of story set in a world made of Lego, but without any of this freewheeling creativity, it would have been a failure, however good the writing was.
            At the same time, the film dares to critique unbridled individual expression even as it celebrates personal creativity. Some form of authority; a guiding voice or a common aim is necessary if creativity is to reach its full potential. Neither the extremes of complete conformity nor absolute individualism will work, but something like self-submission and willing obedience to lawful authority is required for the creative impulse to really achieve anything. 
            There is also a hint of Tolkien’s idea of ‘sub-creation:’ that man is the image of God in that he too creates, though in a subordinate fashion, and that God’s will for His creatures is that they join Him in the act of creation. I can’t really explore this idea further without getting into spoilers, but the mere fact that it can be seen here is startling enough.
            Flannery O'Connor once wrote that a good story tells something that can’t be told in any other way, so that if someone asks you about a certain book “what’s it about?” the only answer is “read it.” Would you believe me if I said The Lego Movie does something like that? Here is the balance between freedom, authority, creativity, and humility laid out so that it can be seen, if not quite described.
            The value of humility, the joys and limitations of freedom and personal creativity, theological wonder…can these themes really exist in a film about small plastic building blocks that features things like a robot army breaking into a dance number, or a pirate with a completely mechanical body that includes a built-in shark? Well, why not? Isn’t that the ideal of creativity; that each proclaims the truth in his own, inimitable way? If the truth can be proclaimed in Legos, let it be proclaimed in Legos!
            The Lego Movie is perhaps the best example to date of something I’ve been saying for years; any subject, in the right hands, can make a good story. If you can take a completely plotless line of creativity toys, toys whose very appeal is in their lack of structure or storyline, and from that produce one of the finest animated films in recent memory, you can, with enough talent and creativity, turn any subject into gold.

Final Rating: 4.5/5: Everything is Awesome! 

Vivat Christus Rex! 

Friday, February 7, 2014

7 Quick Takes Friday vol. 30

Welcome Conversion Diary readers!

1.     My first item was going to be a complaint about J.K. Rowling expressing regrets about the romances in Harry Potter, but as you know, that turned into a post of its own (which I just shamelessly promoted).

2.     I’ve started reading A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs this week, and am absolutely loving it! It’s like a breath of fresh air to one used to sifting through postmodern leftist nonsense to get at some small kernel of truth or virtue. Burroughs splashes things like “a gentleman doesn’t lie, even to save his life” right there across the page! And the story and characters – the gentle Sola, the fierce, yet admirable Tars Tarkis, beautiful and spirited Dejah Thoris – are delightful. I’m engrossed in the story now, and looking forward to seeing how it turns out. This is real literature, this is!

3.     I’m also still reading My Bondage, My Freedom, by Frederick Douglass, Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales and Aristotle’s Ethics. I have a vague idea that the same person isn’t really supposed to be reading those four particular books all at the same time.

4.     On the writing front, I’m still plugging away at Lost City, which is progressing quite well. My present strategy on this one is that I have about three or four previous drafts in various states of repair. So, I take the bits that I like from those drafts (mostly from the most recent one) and paste them into the current one, then fill in between. It’s working pretty good; I just pasted in a description of a fishing method that uses trained rhamphorhynchuses (little pterosaurs) after the manner of falcons; they fly out, scoop up a fish, and return to drop it in their owner’s bucket. More traditional fishermen hate people who practice this method, and vice versa (that gives you an idea of the kinds of things I put in the book).

5.     I just learned we’re scheduled to get our second Godzilla trailer one week from today! That news is awesome enough to warrant its own take. As I said in my rundown of the teaser: I’m looking for a clearer shot of the title character and/or the enemy monsters, a better sense of the story, and, most importantly, a hint of the atomic ray (ideally, the final shot of the trailer will be his plates just beginning to light up). Yes, I’d say I’m fairly excited about this movie.

6.     Speaking of movies, I’m pleased to see that The Lego Movie is getting very positive reviews thus far. I’ve been looking forward to that one, and from the sound of it, it was worth the wait. I’ll probably make time to go see it this weekend, so look for a review next week!

7.     Apparently, someone stole my credit card information, so I had to cancel it and get a new one. What does someone buy with a stolen credit card? $70 worth of Green Tea. Yes, for real; that was the transaction that made the bank suspicious. Something tells me I wouldn’t get along with this thief on a number of levels.

Vivat Christus Rex!