Sunday, February 03, 2008

Bam Bam & Celeste

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) Fun low-budget movie written by & starring Margaret Cho, about a fag-hag / Gay Best Friend road trip quest. Likeably hokey story with some very funny parts. Familiar Margaret Cho mix of pop culture gags touching on themes of racism, conventions of beauty and popularity, gay & straight relationships, etc.

2) Note: I like movies that look like they were made over the weekend in a friend's apartment. The feeling that I can "relate to" the filmmaking process makes up for a lot of verisimilitude. Your results may vary.

3) Margaret Cho is likeable and believable in the lead role, but she knocks it outta the park in also playing her mother - SOOO funny, charming and loveable.

4) The gay best friend character in this movie gets laid constantly - at a gas station, at a hotel, in the car pulled over beside the road, etc. Seemed amusingly stereotypical to me at first, until it occured to me that the Gay Best Friend character never actually gets the guy in movies / TV. It's nice to see the flip side of the cliche.

5) Ugly duckling stories never quite work in film. Film tells the story visually, so the likeable characters have to be good looking one way or another, which leads to scenes where beautiful people complain about being ugly, which makes them annoying and the whole movie loses appeal. It's possible to make a character sympathetic and appealing without being conspicuously pretty, but it's tricky and filmmakers rarely bother. (John Waters has managed a few times.)

The awkward compromise is the "makeover movie", where the ugly-duckling character learns to groom/dress/present herself (rarely himself, unfortunately, until "Queer Eye") for flattering effect under the guidance of a mentor. I used to resent the genre as superficial, but I've changed my mind. We're all beautiful on the inside, but it takes some kind of guidance to effectively reveal it to the world the outside. (I could have used such a mentor in high school...) Better to learn at the second act turning point than not at all.

6) Several scenes show anti-Asian racism - and that's fair enough, since it does exist. It would be nice, though, to see a scene with a white guy who's hot over Asian women, for balance. It's just as common and, perhaps, also pretty annoying to the Asian characters.

7) Since race is already a topic: it's great to see John Cho (no relation - he played Harold in Harold & Kumar go to White Castle) in a role neither sympathetic nor race-specific. A less thoughtul film would have made all the villains white, or all non-white.

8) Beauty issue, specific: I thought Margaret Cho was adorable in this movie. Full disclosure - I thought Margaret Cho was way fucking hot when I first saw her as an SF comic in the early '90s (For better or worse, I wasn't alone - straight male fans got stalkery over her public appearances; see above comments about white guys who dig Asian chicks.) My responses have varied since then - she does indeed look different now, and the focus of her work has changed accordingly - but I thought she was gorgeous in character as a New-Wavey high schooler and her flamboyant later self in this movie.

Risky topic, since Margaret Cho's work attacks standards of beauty while also celebrating them. Am I reinforcing unfair standards of beauty by saying she looks hot? Or am I insulting her by saying "she looks great despite not being conventionally attractive"? Everyone loses in that argument. I thought she looked great.

9) Beauty issue, general: I truly believe that humanity is beautiful, and we're all human, so we're all beautiful. I like to think I see that when I look at people. But I get tired of declarations that standards of beauty are meaningless - because anyone who embraces such a pronouncement is considered humanitarian and open-minded, while anyone who suggests that appearances can mean something after all may be attacked as superficial, oppressive, encouraging of unfair standards and self-loathing behaviors, etc.

My brief take: self-love and self-discipline turn out to be the two sides of self-understanding. I get annoyed at well-meaning discussions of beauty, health, weight, body image, etc. that suggest that either quality (self-love or self-discipline) can be disregarded without painful consequences.

The real problem is that society does offer some discipline, in the form of unachievable standards of beauty, but society does not and cannot offer love. (Not in fair portions, anyway.) So those who gather their understanding of who they are and who they should be from the public trough will find themselves badly imbalanced, with a clear notion of who they should be but little respect for who they are. That's where the stream must be rerouted.

10) The DVD commentary is half about clothes. Margaret Cho also shares the "if you put the production into motion, funding will come" philosophy that served this production. I have mixed feelings about that, having relied on it seven years ago when I launched a tightly scheduled $6000 feature film shoot without having a script or a cast. I do believe in the idea of letting the universe offer its helping hand, however. I just learned the hard way that there are crucial caveats that demand certain kinds of planning, discipline, commitment, focus and ability to collaborate.

"Bam Bam & Celeste" got made, though. It can work.

Monday, April 16, 2007


Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) Lots of movies show Good battling Evil, but this is the first time I’ve seen the conflict portrayed by juxtaposing the year’s most invigorating gung-ho entertainment (Rodriguez’ Planet Terror) with the most tedious, pompously nonsensical movie I’ve seen in forever (Tarantino’s Death Proof) into one big thrill ride.

2) Damn I had fun at Planet Terror, a viral-zombie flick. It’s plenty icky and lacks that certain Emma Thompson touch, but it’s an astounding triumph for sheer what-happens-next?!?. Shock and horror can be explosively creative, since the whole point is to charge across boundaries. The trick is apparently to know which boundaries to respect, and for how long, to prevent the whole thing from collapsing.

3) Death Proof is excruciating. Every character snarks incessantly like a 14-year-old girl – save one, who is punished for bringing any genuine charisma to the party. (His punishment is to make him a psychotic killer. There are no sane adults in Tarantino movies.)

4) The mock-trailers between the movies were the funniest fifteen minutes of film I’ve seen in years. They’re great parody, great homage, great shock, great schlock, and great wit but without the snooty restraint usually suggested by that word. They’re the part I want to see again.

5) The “Reel Missing” idea is a terrifically invogorating storytelling trick – it’s “cut to the chase” times ten. In Rodriguez’ movie, the trick is used to skip past all that was not absolutely necessary: who cares about a minor cause when the point is its major effect? I cackled with laughter when we dropped all that and got on with the story.

6) “Death Proof” uses the “Reel Missing” trick, like most of its other tricks, in exactly the wrong way: it takes away the one thing we want to see. Ten reels of grating pointless female bonding chatter are left intact, and the one reel of sexual confrontation goes missing. Did QT realize people were paying to watch this?

7) A few characters appear in both films, which hints at an enticing larger vision. The overlap doesn’t do much, however, except to heighten the sense that Tarantino’s movie consists entirely of stuff that was deservedly chopped out of Rodriguez’ movie.

8) In an ideal movie, the characters are in big trouble and the audience is having lots of fun. In Death Proof, the characters are having lots of fun and the audience is bored stiff. Tarantino clearly thinks he knows what he’s doing, and that seems to be the problem.

9) The “Grindhouse” novelty allows Rodriguez and Tarantino each to exaggerate his cinematic style.

Rodriguez’ style is to reward the audience by giving them only what they want – with any deeper meaning or unnecessary explanation “accidentally” chopped out of the final product. The joke is how little substance, explanation or disregard for cliché is actually necessary when the story is working.

Tarantino’s style is all about keeping the audience from the things they want, and punishing the viewer for wanting those things when they arrive. In Pulp Fiction- the movie that made him a genre and gave him license to meander for the rest of his career - Tarantino interrupted the story only long enough to introduce the characters before the mayhem began, and it worked beautifully. The habit of pulling away from the action was there, but it was used in service to the story.

Since winning an audience, however, every shred of charm or excitement in his movies is used only as bait to lure the viewer into another scene of arbitrary conversation or arbitrary violence. Whenever the viewer wants to see more of a certain character, that character is taken away – not to build suspense, but as a kind of punishment; your affection or respect for any character will be used against you. It’s standard practice to delay the audience’s gratification, but it takes an especially malicious artist to leave in place only those scenes that fail to satisfy their cravings.

Many horror movies abuse the audience’s affection for the characters, but good ones (like Planet Terror) at least use the violence to change the direction of the story. When a character is killed in Death Proof, the death doesn’t interrupt anything, since no other story is underway; the deaths were the story. That’s somewhere between cynical and cruel – and it couldn’t be more different from what Rodriguez accomplishes.

10) Quentin Tarantino bothers me more all the time – because the gulf between the movies he obviously can make and the movies he actually does make is so vast. (His Bob-Hope-as-zombie-rapist cameo in Planet Terror didn't impress me either.)

There are two great scenes in Death Proof: the one where Stuntman Mike sweet-talks Butterfly, and the spectacular stunt ride at the end. Both scenes are terrific filmmaking – and neither scene is followed to any resolution. (The first is cut abruptly; the second abruptly hits “The End”.)

The joke with Rodriguez’ film was how little fuel a good story really needs; the joke with Tarantino’s is how much fuel can be wasted to little effect.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Star Trek - Operation Annihilate!

1) Haven’t seen any Star Trek in a few years. Got library DVDs.

2) I watched the DVD at odd moments, such as while I made breakfast. Somehow I noticed a resemblance between the alien creatures from the show with the food I was cooking:

Coincidence? Apparently the writer thought “Hmmm…what if the crew of the Enterprise were attacked by…MY BREAKFAST?!? Wouldn’t that be terrifying?

Spock, of course, would get attacked first; some meals have that effect on my smart, logical side. Then Spock would want to go back to the place where the breakfast first got to him, and seek his revenge by bringing the dangerous thing onto the ship, as if to say “Uhhh….how ‘bout you try it?”

3) Some star Trek looks predictably more cheesy than when I was a kid, but some of it looks great. When it started, it took itself really seriously. I like that.

4) In some ways, William Shatner was a darn good actor. I remain defiant.

Majel Barrett: not so good.

5) Spock is put in the chamber of alien-killing light and is left blind. This scene connects the cutting-edge sci-fi of the 1960s with the broad melodrama of turn-of-the-century Yiddish vaudeville. “Ach! He’s blind! She’s pregnant! With his child! At 47! Whatever will we do?!?”

6) The landing party visits the planet where the driven-crazy-by-the-alien people attack them with abstract tools made from polystyrene. In the future, angry mobs will wave giant styrofoam lollipops and scream scary space-threats.

7) This is the only episode where Captain Kirk’s brother Sam appears or is even mentioned. That seems silly, but it’s also kinda realistic. My own siblings are important to me, but sometimes I feel like we’re on opposite sides of the galaxy, and when we are, they don’t get involved in the story much.

8) The Star Trek crew women wore SHORT skirts. Reasonable from a TV perspective, but pretty ridiculous from a sci-fi or military-story perspective. Red underwear was visible in one shot. The crewmen wore shirts that would reveal bare midriffs if they didn't wear some kind of black undershirt, which can almost be seen in one shot. They were all more swinging-London than hippie-freakout styles. That said, I thought the uniforms looked kinda cool. Perhaps the flood-pants-with-boots look is due for a comeback.

9) One female crew member seems to have been given the job of "standing near the captain". She beams down with the landing party and walks around. Then she stands on the bridge, near the captain's chair, as if the facilities department is working on finding her a cubicle.

10) I like the Enterprise. I spent a lot of time there as a kid. I enjoyed another visit.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia – The Magician’s Nephew, The Last Battle (C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) I’m skipping through the last two books because they deserve it.

2) Every page of The Magician’s Nephew made me more annoyed that the regents of C.S. Lewis’ estate had put the books into a new order, with The Magician’s Nephew first. Some reasons why it was a bad idea:

a. Nobody who reads The Magician’s Nephew first would finish the series, because it isn’t terribly good. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is the most engaging story and a better introduction to the world of Narnia.

b. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the magical world is discovered accidentally and the reader immediately learns to love the place, which makes more compelling any threat against it. In The Magician’s Nephew, the magical world is the discovered through an evil experiment, and the first vision is of an empty wasteland. Reading the books in the new order makes the whole adventure seem much less worthwhile from the start.

c. Imagine you’re C.S. Lewis in 1957. You get a letter from a young reader who suggests that the books should be put in chronological order. You reply that “I suppose it doesn’t really matter in what order the books are read.” Why do you say this? Because you’re talking to a kid (not to mention a fan and a customer), and you don’t want to hurt his feelings by pointing out that it’s a really stupid idea.

d. As mentioned earlier, The Horse and His Boy contains a marvelous explanation of why stories are better when some details are revealed later. In the revised order, most details are introduced and fully explained at the same time, leaving a minimal amount of imaginative work to involve the reader.

3) The Last Battle was the only Narnia book I didn’t like as a kid – because, as I understood my own reaction at the time, the ending was dissatisfying. Now, The Last Battle is probably the only book I’ve ever finished that I hated pretty much all the way through. As a story it’s ugly and unsatisfying, and as a metaphor it’s pompous and sloppy - but as a kind of painting, it has some lovely details.

4) The biggest problem with The Last Battle: nothing done by any of the characters, aside from Aslan, changes the direction the story. Society collapses into conflict, then Aslan shouts “further up, and further in!” and everybody follows, and then it ends. It’s more of a game show than a story.

I know it’s poignant to show the futility of human actions compared the wrath of the divine and all that, but a rule of storytelling is violated when the characters’ actions don’t change anything. A story that doesn’t pivot on something done by a central character isn’t a story: it’s an introduction to a bigger story. And that larger story (what happens in the next world) is the subject of this whole book, but we’re stuck reading the introduction. It’s like watching an infomercial about a great work of literature we’re not allowed to read.

5) The Last Battle feels wrong from the beginning because every bump and turn in the narrative pivots on some misunderstanding that the reader doesn’t share. Much historical drama has been driven by the overwhelming ignorance of the many and the deceitfulness of the few, but it makes for unsatisfying reading if the reader can’t respect the reasons why the good guys do what they do any more than the reasons why the bad guys do what they do. Somehow rescuing people from their own idiocy is inherently unsatisfying: with victory comes not a celebration but the compulsion to smack one’s compatriots for giving the enemy what they needed.

6) The Last Battle is also torn between two incompatible ideas – that the only real enemy we face is our own ignorance and gullibility, and that an absolutely good character (Aslan) must be opposed by at least one absolutely bad character. This is where the tension between C.S. Lewis’ symbolic storytelling and his religious agenda tear his world apart – appropriately, with the story of the end of the world.

7) Many scenes of animals talking in this book. Authors of children’s books think it’s charming to include pages and pages of animals talking to each other, each displaying a character that reflects its species – owls are wise and cantankerous, donkeys are stubborn, etc. Am I the only one for whom this stuff gets old fast? I think I get sick of it because these scenes serve only to show off amusing characters who aren’t amusing enough to be important to the story. That clever-but-expendable stuff is always cut out of great writing, but kids’ books tend to fill up with whatever seems diverting at the moment.

I also hate the species-as-character thing because it’s – well, racist. If the animals were people (and in the story, they’re supposed to be) it would be offensive to expect one consistent behavior from one race and another characteristic behavior from another race.

8) The quickest way to ruin a good story is to promise an enormous confrontation and then deliver a tiny one. Was anybody happy to see Boba Fett fumble his way into eternity in Return of the Jedi? No. The Sixth Sense did a similar bait-and-switch (the kid’s visions bite and claw him at the beginning of the movie, but the physical dangers are forgotten by the second half) but at least the switch was to something equally compelling.

9) There’s a common problem in kid’s books and movies: the story is about conflict, but the author is afraid of conflict. The result is bad guys who aren’t bad, never actually hurt the good guys, and politely die in ridiculous ways. Example: young Annikin Skywalker accidentally shoots all the stormtroopers. Ick.

In The Last Battle, the god Tash is presented as a fearsome incarnation of evil and malevolence – and then politely disappears when Peter waves his hand. Continuity! Editor! Rewrite!

10) I mostly find this stuff grating because it suggests the soul-deadening process whereby adults embrace something not because they like it, but because they think kids will like it. The result is a whole view of the world – the “hypothetical children’s literature” view – that applies to nobody. Kids do indeed like a lot of stupid stuff, but they don’t like all the stuff adults think they like. That they read pages and pages of talking animal dialogue or stories that fall forward accidentally is a testament to their hunger for what does work, not their love for what doesn’t.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Horse And His Boy (The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) The feeling this book triggered in me was the joy of escape and the excitement of travel across an unfamiliar civilization. The book begins with a balancing act, describing the tedium of Shasta’s youth in Calormen while showing Shasta himself to be someone who clearly didn’t belong there. It’s a perfect setup: a situation that demands a change.

Shasta later spends a period waiting outside the city to rendezvous with his traveling companions. The wait felt like the naïve, agonizing wait for adolescence to be over – waiting for the right woman to come along so the journey could begin.

2) Cool story. Much better than Silver Chair. More appealing characters, at least. I felt caught up in the adventure.

3) The justification for publishing recent editions of the Chronicles of Narnia books in “chronological order” was apparently that C.S. Lewis mentioned in a 1957 letter to a young fan that it might be appropriate to do so. (The regents of his estate made it happen a few years ago.) His own story, however, explains why it’s a terrible idea.

In “A Horse and His Boy”, the princess Aravis tells Shasta and Bree the story of her dramatic escape from her father, and offers this mysterious detail:

“But when I came out from the presence of my father I went immediately to the oldest of his slaves, his secretary, who had dandled me on his knees when I was a baby and loved me more than the air and the light. And I swore him to be secret and begged him to write a certain letter for me. And he wept and implored me to change my resolution but in the end he said, ‘To hear is to obey,’ and did all my will. And I sealed the letter and hid it in my bosom.”

“But what was in the letter?” asked Shasta.

“Be quiet, youngster,” said Bree. You’re spoiling the story. She’ll tell us all about the letter in the right place. Go on, Tarkheena.”

She reveals the contents of the letter a few pages later – and holds every reader captive until she does.

By introducing the letter into the story without explaining its contents, an anchor is placed in the reader’s imagination, and that anchor helps to pull the reader more deeply into the story, and the story more deeply into the heart of the reader.

A story begun in the middle moves both forward and backward: we come to learn what happened before the beginning just as the events achieve an ending. In Casablanca: first we learn that Rick and Ilsa were lovers, then we learn that she broke his heart – and finally, we learn that Rick has always been, underneath his pain, a brave and noble man. We gather the details of Rick’s story before we recognize the individual that lived through it.

Most good stories begin in the middle. Doing otherwise robs the narrative of mystery (beginning at the beginning is like watching your gifts being wrapped), and the cultivation of mystery is the very purpose of storytelling: it entices the reader to participate more fully in the story - and through its example, in life itself.

C.S. Lewis understood this perfectly, and that’s why the first book in this series went straight into the middle of something that made no sense at first. To be captivated by something that makes no sense frees us from the confines of logic, and returns us to a more fundamental realm of being: the use of feeling, instead of thinking, as our primary connection to the world. Through this change we recover a sense of life’s infinite dimension – even, perhaps, of the divine.

4) I started liking Aravis, the best female character in the series, as she explained her escape:

“And what happened to the girl – the one you drugged?” asked Shasta.

“Doubtless she was beaten for sleeping late,” said Aravis coolly. “But she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her.”

“I say, that was hardly fair.” Said Shasta.

“I did not do any of these things for the sake of pleasing
you,” said Aravis.

Huzzah! A real character, with contradictions and everything! We resent her selfishness, yet we envy her confidence! We despise her cruelty, yet we sympathize with her plight! What delightful power! What wicked charm! Will she hurt me?!?

All she needed do to be thoroughly appealing (as a character, if not as a companion) was to demonstrate that she operates from her own authority, yet is vulnerable. She makes all her own decisions, yet she’s fleeing from a world in which she had no control. She’s the opposite of the doped-up king from The Silver Chair: to help him was to go against his wishes. Aravis’ wishes and interests are so perfectly aligned that the natural response is to want to help her.

Many characters who gain compassion lose personal authority in the process. An evil male character who suffers defeat may become a parody of femininity: kind but weak. (The bully in “Back to the Future” went through this transformation.)

Aravis’ only vice is a lack of compassion, and she pays a price for it in the end. Fortunately, she learns to balance the two strengths, not simply to trade one for the other.

5) Why is it the contradictions that bring a character to life? I think it’s because we are all made of contradictions – masculine and feminine, weaknesses and strengths – and what is not visible on the outside is sure to be exerting a strong influence on the inside. (A strong man may turn to brutality as a way to conceal his weaknesses, etc.) The people we find less than interesting are those who demonstrate only one type of behavior, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, positive or negative. Such personalities always seem to be fake; the truth of our lives lies in between these extremes, and the truth of our characters (fictional and non-) lies between the contradictory behaviors they display.

6) It seemed at first like the exotic details (strange names, turbans, curve-tipped shoes, armor, etc.) were borrowed from the Middle East, which kinda bugged me even while it was effective. Details borrowed from exotic places can make fictional worlds seem exotic too – but then the influence flows in both directions, and anything suggested about the exotic fictional lands seems to apply to the real-life places as well.

Any story of adventure into the unknown needs details that feel both familiar and alien, and the shorthand way to suggest “familiar yet alien” is to borrow familiar details from an alien culture. This was easy when the world was easily divided into familiar and alien, us and them; but now there are few differences between the two, and many good arguments for erasing such absolute boundaries even further.

It doesn’t help that Narnian style seems to have stepped right out of British history while the style of Calormen is borrowed from everybody the British tried to conquer over the centuries. In the end, though, these books borrowed the visual details from all over – just as the plot details were borrowed from mythology, folklore, popular fiction, and everywhere else.

7) The Horse and His Boy is almost a lesson in combining old ideas to form a new story: there’s the “he’s not really your father” idea, the separated-twins idea, the buddy flick, the road trip, the “further adventures of the characters from the first book” idea, the Aslan cameo idea and others, all strung together into an engaging whole.

8) I think this book is the point when Aslan’s visits start to get predictable: by the fifth book the reader is going to be way ahead of the characters in figuring out which cats to be afraid of and which not to be afraid of. I liked it, then, that Aslan attacked Aravis. It keeps the reader guessing and ultimately suggests several contradictory aspects of Aslan’s nature in one gesture. It would have been an easy mistake to have Aslan behave predictably, and benevolently. It would have reduced him, and the whole series would have been diminished.

9) The Hermit of the Southern March lives in a perfectly circular enclosure, with a motionless pond, a huge tree and a little stone house.

First, I find it amusing that a hermit would describe himself by title. You’d think titles would be less important to hermits than to anybody else.

Second, there’s something about the perfectly round enclosure that makes it seem terribly symbolic – it’s the center of something, even while it’s well off the beaten path, bypassed by the enemy giving chase. Meeting the hermit feels like stumbling out of an adventure story into a fairy tale, full of powerful images of great simplity. He heals Aravis; he helps Bree face his humility; he sends Shasta on his solitary mission. There’s no need to define the hermit as a specific reference to the soul or God or some such thing; his power in the story doesn’t come from what we decide he symbolizes. He’s just there, a ready mirror for whatever meaning a reader might need to find inside.

When George Lucas was asked to explain one of the less effective characters from “Revenge of the Sith”, he said “Well, that character is a metaphor.” Huh? Sure, the character may have a metaphorical value in the story – all characters do. But shouldn’t he be a character before he’s a metaphor? A metaphor that has “METAPHOR” printed on it speaks to the intellect but not the soul. For a metaphor to be effective, it must dissolve into the waters of narrative and emerge as a living being, operating from its own logic, obeying its own authority and responding to its own view of the world. Otherwise, an engaging story becomes a flow chart. Yuck.

10) It bothered me that Shasta turned out to be the twin son of King Lune. The details fit together well in the story, but it adds up to…”midochlorians”. The series suggests at first that the secret of magic or royalty or divinity is within each of us (Lucy and Edmund and Susan and Peter had no special qualification to be kings and queens before it happened), but after the halfway point in the series, when things start moving downhill, we’re dumped back into the old idea that some people are “born with it” and the rest just aren’t. Good for Shasta, but disappointing for everybody else. More kudos to J.K. Rowling for coming up with magic-using muggles to flatten the playing field and make room for the rest of us.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Silver Chair (The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) George Lucas introduced Jar-Jar, the most irritating character in cinematic history, in the fourth movie of his series. C.S. Lewis introduced Puddleglum, a creature of similar charm, in the fourth book of his series. Both characters are reptilian and serve no purpose but to suck the energy out of any story in which they appear. They offer only discouragement and interference with anything the protagonists try to do.

Together, the two characters suggest the amphibious voice that, when an inventive series reaches its halfway point, creeps up from the depths of a writer’s subconscious to sabotage the narrative and whisper “shame on you for writing stories for kids.” That shame is then projected, in the form of these characters, onto any adult who tries to enjoy the story: “You’re embarrassed to find meaning in this stuff, and this is what your embarrassment looks like.” Both series continue and conclude, but details in each hint at a certain ironic distance the author eventually places between himself and his creation – a promise that, mythological symbolism aside, the story was never meant to be taken seriously by adults.

In the end, this kind of character is just another way adults tease children with tickling they can’t avoid and jokes they can’t understand. Kids hate these characters just as adults do, but they hate them within the context of the story, and adults interpret that as youthful fascination. Show me a kid who wants to hang with Jar-Jar or Puddleglum and I’ll show you a kid whose only joy in life is found by solving his inept parents’ endless problems.

2) A quick look at shows a large number of people declaring this their favorite Narnia book, which I found kinda baffling at first. There are no compelling characters, save for Aslan. The lead characters’ participation in the story is almost entirely passive; nothing happens to them during the main adventure that wouldn’t have happened to everyone sent on the same mission. That unspecific quality seems like it should allow the reader to relate to the characters, but I don’t think it works that way. A truly compelling story follows the characters along a path that only those characters could travel, revealing as much about them as the world they travel through.

3) Yet the adventure is compelling. The kids go to the land of the giants, then they flee underground, where they meet strange cave-dwelling creatures, a nasty queen and a doped-up king. This stuff resonates. Have you ever been to the land of the giants? Duh – we all spent our first several years living there. Have you fled underground? At the time they called it ‘adolescence’. How about the cave-dwelling creatures? We recognized one another in elementary school and had our first real friends.

The problem comes with the nasty queen and the doped-up king. Briefly, she’s a little too nasty and he’s a little too doped-up. It feels too simple for the woman to be a horrible witch and the guy to be her victim. Five years of marriage have slowly taught me that any guy living under the spell of a nasty witch has a real problem, and the woman in his life ain’t it. At the end of this story, the nasty witch gets her head cut off and the king is set free – but the smart money says that king will be married to another nasty witch within a week. Guys love to repeat mistakes.

4) The fairy tale presents a king and a queen; she’s evil and strong, while he’s good and weak. So, the problem is that she’s evil, right? Nope – the problem is that he’s weak. A healthy body that can’t fight off some infections isn’t a healthy body, and a good king who can’t deal with some evil now and then isn’t a king. This focus on avoiding evil rather than strengthening good has made us vulnerable to anything that disguises itself as a force against evil; we’re clearly taught who our enemies are, but we never learn how to recognize a blatant lie from someone we’re supposed to trust. Our president couldn’t get away with the everything he’s gotten away with if we were focused on building a functioning society of interdependent individuals rather than eliminating every last threat we may someday face.

5) There aren’t any beautiful women of consequence in most of these stories; if a woman is beautiful, she’s wicked. Susan and Lucy don’t count, since they’re sisterly characters and they act like it. Caspian marries a hottie in the previous book, but we’re told nothing else about her. Adult sexuality isn’t merely absent from these stories – it’s a sign of corruption. For all the wonders of the books’ portrayal of Aslan, it suggests a pretty weak spiritual vision overall – and a shallow version of Christianity in particular - if human sexuality is in itself cause for suspicion. Guess that kinda thinking goes back to the old testament, though.

6) When the wicked queen dies, the spell breaks and everybody is free. I hate that. Same thing happens in the Wizard of Oz and dozens of other stories. Apparently the nightmare of loyalist insurgents maintaining a futile battle and leaderless locals rioting from anger at the new government makes for an unsatisfying conclusion. Yet the “smooth transition from deposed leadership to functional democracy” never, ever, ever happens in real life. That’s one of many differences between fiction and reality that we must ensure the President of the United States knows before we let him take office. Believes in mermaids? Fine with me. Prays to a green tree monster in the woods? I’m cool with that. Thinks that his headaches in foreign countries will evaporate the moment we remove the leader for arbitrary reasons? Quit makin’ shit up, Mr. President.

7) Somehow it’s more irritating that the dopey king is a happy guy than it would be if he’d merely been an angry hostage. It probably bugs me because I was happy in the same way as a kid – my cheerfulness designed to distract myself from all the things I wanted to not think about. The king’s cheerful cooperation with the wicked queen makes him less worth rescuing, since he’s most of the problem.

8) I liked the jabs at modern education and parenting offered in references to “Experiment House”. I attended 8 years of elementary school that sounded exactly like “Experiment House”, and no, it didn’t prepare kids for real life. That doesn’t mean I yearn for the regular beatings offered to students by British schoolmasters, but there’s gotta be a happy medium.

9) The “to serve man” bit in the story seems to have been borrowed from Damon Knight’s 1950 story, which also inspired the Twilight Zone episode. Intellectual property laws must have been different back then. Regardless, the thinking may have been that borrowing an adult story to slip into a children’s story wasn’t really stealing, since who would read both?

10) Like the Star Trek movies, every other one of the Narnia books kinda sucks in its own enjoyable way. In this case, 1, 3, and 5 are good stories; 2, 4, 6 and 7 are weaker. The numerological instability of that pattern may somehow be responsible for the recent re-ordering of the books. That must be it.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) This was probably my favorite Narnia book when I was a kid, either because the cover was purple, or because it had more adventure than the first two books did. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was engaging but it kinda focused on tea parties and Christmas presents in a way that didn’t speak to me as much as it might have, while Prince Caspian had the heroes sitting around eating apples for the first hundred pages. This one drops the reader right into the water. It’s the adventure that everybody who read Prince Caspian thought was going to happen in that book.

2) All I remembered from having read the book as a kid was “the land where dreams come true” (Would I be the one who could survive in such a place? Or would I be the most vulnerable to its dangers?) and the pool of water that turned things to gold. I spent much of my childhood wondering what it would be like to be stuck at the bottom of a pool, having been turned to gold by the water. Drowning would be the only real problem, but it’s a real problem. Okay, dying because all my organs had turned into gold would be a problem too. Plus I'd be too heavy to move.

3) Many other things came back to me as I read. I remembered the dragon with the bracelet pinching his arm. I remembered the name Reepicheep, which reminded me that one of my grade school teachers had said the name Reepicheep, which reminded me she’d read the first three books aloud to the class. Somehow I’d forgotten about that. I found Reepicheep a little less ridiculous as a kid.

4) I like the way the kids enter the voyage with little buildup and no rational explanation - it just plunges everybody into the water. A rational setup would have been pointless.

5) Eustace’s character transformation is very effective, as Edmund’s was in LWW. For all of the captivating and powerful dimensions in these stories, Aslan is the only character whose contradictions are described directly: he’s beautiful and terrible, kind and dangerous, etc. The only human characters who are blessed with contradictions are those who start out acting one way and wind up acting another – Edmund in LWW, Eustace in this book and one or two others. (Both Edmund and Eustace start being likeable and stop being interesting when they complete this transition.) Eustace in particular is given a great deal of time to suffer for his mistakes – and resent others for them - so when he emerges as a different sort of person, it feels genuine.

6) I love the scary part when Lucy enters the magician’s house. One of Keith Johnstone’s most basic rules is to get the characters into trouble. In this case it doesn’t turn out to be real trouble, unfortunately.

7) The magician changes a whole species of creatures and refuses to change them back. That kinda bugged me.

8) I’ve heard that King Arthur’s gathering of the Knights of the Round Table symbolizes the work the conscious mind does to gather the resources lying buried in the subconscious. The demands of surviving childhood require each of us to bury our treasures - strengths we’re not yet ready to use - and the demands of surviving adulthood require each of us to dig them up again.

Caspian took his voyage to locate the seven lords who’d fled Narnia. What might seven lords represent?

Sensitive new age guy that I am, I associate the seven lords with the seven chakras. Five years ago that word would have made me gag, but I’ve learned a few things since then. Stranger In A Strange Land presents a multi-leveled psyche; a system of chakras could be thought of along the same lines – seven different levels on which each of us might interact with the world. Regardless, Voyage of the Dawn Treader suggests an individual who’s gathering up seven lost parts of his kingdom, his consciousness, which have been lost.

I’m not suggesting that C.S. Lewis had any of this in mind when he wrote the stories. I presume these ideas came together subconsciously, as such things do. But there was clearly a meaning behind the number of lords being seven. Would it have been the same with six lords? Eight? Five? It would have felt different, and that feeling is the best indicator we have that something symbolic is going on.

Come to think of it, why are there seven days of the week? One for each chakra? We have a base-ten mathematical system because we have ten fingers; it makes sense that we’d base the week on the number 7, which is central to many patterns in nature. (I'm sure there's at least one other more rational-sounding reason that I just don't know, but I just don't know it.)

9) The voyage to the end of the world is a basic mythological idea that somehow always succeeds in being interesting, since it’s by definition a voyage into the unknown. A story set in a familiar location runs the risk of repeating the same events that happened last time, but a story at the end of the world – well, who knows what’s out there? Nothing could logically be there, so whatever is there must be beyond logic. Any story that goes there uses logic as a vessel (a pattern whereby this event causes that event which causes another event) to sail beyond the limits of logic. That trick is why stories exist.

The end-of-the-world quest also has a way of isolating the characters in the story for a personal confrontation. When they travel out beyond all familiar territory, they have nothing but what they’ve brought with them.

10) I love the way Aslan’s country is always left mysterious, always in the distance, even beyond the end of the world. There's something hopeful about that.

Monday, October 17, 2005


1) I never watched Seinfeld during its original run. Started watching the show on DVD a few months ago and suddenly couldn’t get enough.

2) Half the plot complications in Seinfeld would evaporate if the characters had cel phones, but they hadn’t yet conquered the planet in the early ‘90s. Weird to think how very quickly the whole world can change when the right options come along.

3) First I watched the fourth season, then the first season. Together they formed a lesson in sitcom production. Nothing was together during the first season. Everything ran more slowly and quietly. Characters said whole sentences that weren’t funny, just to move the story along. Kramer acted as though he wanted to be liked, which was just creepy. The whole cast behaved like kids who were afraid their parents would get divorced if they made any noise. Things got better after the first few episodes.

4) The show has the reputation of being “about nothing”, but that’s not quite it. What’s unusual about the Seinfeld is that each story pivots on minor details, and each one is spread over several episodes. Great importance is given to insignificant events, and no importance is given to finding direction or resolution for the characters. Small distractions are plentiful; big gestures are futile. That this is a particularly urban, kinda pathological way of looking at life was not lost on the fearful executives who were hesitant to green-light the show.

Each story element (a jacket, a car, a relationship, etc.) is mentioned in one episode, reincorporated in the next as a joke, then reincorporated in yet another episode as a plot device that pivots the whole story. Each episode consists of jagged parts of several stories, like parts of different photographs stuck into one frame.

5) I think the cultural phenomenon that has the most in common with Seinfeld is the Peanuts comic strip. Each character suggests one fragment of a modern human psyche – the everyman, the loser, the haunting romantic past, the weird neighbor-creature with mysterious powers. I’ve had dreams involving the Seinfeld characters. The main difference between Seinfeld and Peanuts seems to be that in Peanuts, Linus occasionally says wise things, while Seinfeld exists in a world without wisdom. The show’s motto, after all, has been described as “no hugging and no learning.” Wisdom is replaced by Jerry’s standup routines, which present as objective a view of reality as can exist on the show.

6) Kramer became the best character. He’s a walking interruption of the routine, turning any conversation into a scene and any drama into comedy just by walking in the door. Where he goes, the scene follows.

Like all great characters, he’s full of contradictions. He’ll go to great lengths to stand up for his principles, yet his behavior is amoral and unpredictable. He has no social skills, yet he’s a ladies’ man. He’s a fearless slapstick character on a show about sophisticated neurotics. Nothing is too over-the-top for him to do. I love Kramer.

7) Jerry is the everyman character, and the everyman character is often mistakenly thought to be unnecessary in comedy. Charles Schulz ended his career thinking Snoopy was the true protagonist of the Peanuts cartoons, and the result was twenty years of strips that weren’t funny.

Jerry Seinfeld is the host who invites the viewer into the strange world of otherwise self-absorbed, neurotic, bizarre characters. His standup comedy bits at the start and end of each show aren’t always very funny, but they make it clear that he’s our guide through the story that follows.

I’m guessing this was the reason for the “Seinfeld curse”. I never saw the shows that the other three actors launched when Seinfeld ended its run, but they might have tried to build their comedy around a central character better left on the periphery. When we’re asked to see the world through the eyes of a weird character, that character stops being weird – or, less comfortably, we start to feel weird ourselves.

8) George became more of a loser with every episode. At the start he was employed and mild-mannered. The interview footage on the DVD shows the actor, Jason Alexander, to be quite handsome and charismatic when his character isn’t trying to lie his way out of his latest catastrophe. I get a bit wary of George’s total inability to do the right thing, but it does keep the stories moving forward. The stories work better when George gets stuck between doing two “right things” – such as quitting the job he hates, and maintaining an income – and decides to try doing both.

9) Elaine mostly shares the everyman role with Jerry, but she also slips into whatever role the story needs her to play: she can be obsessive and manic, or she can play the voice of reason.

I may be missing or dismissing some key aspects of her character, but the show clearly needs her to be both sane and crazy; consequently, she winds up acting reasonable most of the time, yet surrounding herself with lunatics, such as her series of over-the-top bosses. She seems to be a rational person, but her career and life are controlled by irrational people. She's extremely rational in her idealism, but she takes it to irrational extremes.

10) Elaine winds up as the emotional core of the show. Jerry wears one facial expression through most of the series, yet Elaine can project affection, exasperation, anger or anything else she might feel. She's Jerry’s romantic past, right there in the room with him - judging his present relationships and offering limited emotional support. The scene where she and Jerry negotiate a return to their physical relationship might as well be Jerry cautiously inviting emotion back into his life. If Jerry realized this kind of thing, of course, he'd be well-adjusted, and probably unemployed. Instead, we have Seinfeld.

Prince Caspian (The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) This was the first book I ever read quickly, and out of personal interest, when I was a kid. However lovely or hokey the Narnia stories might seem, they’re beautifully written. Few wasted adverbs.

2) I remembered only two things about this book from childhood: apples (how it would be to eat nothing else for days at a time), and the children returning to Narnia to answer the call of Susan’s horn. I love it when one story gracefully reincorporates something mentioned in another, suggesting a world bigger than both stories put together.

3) When King Miraz’ wife gives birth to an heir, Prince Caspian suddenly becomes an enemy as a rival to the throne; that’s why he has to leave. I love that. It’s complex yet compelling, like a Shakespeare play. It also suggests the transformation of adolescence, when the parents who had been our only protection from the world become, one way or another, the trap from which every growing child must free him or herself.

4) The mentor in many stories is not merely a teacher who offers knowledge of the larger world, but is, in some hidden way, a part of that world. Ben Kenobi wasn’t just a guy who knew about the Jedi knights; he was Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi knight himself. In this story, Cornelius is another such mentor – not only a guide into the unknown, but a refugee from the larger world the wicked king has banished from existence.

5) I love the re-incorporation of the Stone Table and the castle at Cair Paravel, both aged many hundreds of years while the four children were away. Handy shortcut for creating an epic. I’m probably exaggerating the effect, since I read the second book long after I’d read the first, but this centuries-between-books strategy seems to call up that feeling of remembering something from childhood, even if the reader only experienced it a few days before. Burying the stone table and the treasures of the castle adds to the effect: what had been experienced consciously is now rediscovered deep underground, buried with other hidden treasures in the depths of the dream world.

6) It’s a weirdly structured book. Caspian’s story is very interesting, but he’s a tangential character. Despite the battles they enter, the four kids with whom we begin the story aren’t really challenged or transformed as they are in the first book; for the most part, they’re passive characters. It adds up to a sorta mundane tale with really interesting backstory. I do love that moment when the story-within-a-story meets up with the main narrative, though; we know the new character, yet we’re meeting him for the first time.

7) I’m not sure what to make of Peter and Susan’s departure at the end, except that it feels appropriate. It could be viewed as “they’re getting too old to experience the world of imagination”, which is depressing, because it’s wrong. I prefer to think of it as “they’ve learned the lessons that Narnia had to teach them”. That suggests that the timing of each visit is a facet of the mystery of Aslan, and that Narnia is one of many places a human life may pass through. He often says “each is told only his own story, no one else’s”. The details of how and why visitors come to Narnia is left appropriately unexplained.

8) Narnia is an imaginary world, yet it’s very familiar territory – kings and queens, fauns and centaurs, talking animals, etc. The imagination is reputed to be the land where all the details are made up on the spot, yet most fantasy stories tread very well-established paths. This suggests either that storytellers are lazy, or that imagination consists of one specific world, or that folklore is an accumulation of images and stories that are very useful for exploring psychological, cultural, and even natural territory that may be impossible to explore directly. To discuss the natural world without revering its mystery is to miss half the picture, and a cast of characters to populate and give form to that hidden side has been in wide use for millennia.

9) The division in Narnia is not between animals and humans, but between talking animals and non-talking animals. That makes for convenient storytelling, but still makes for a mealtime full of amusing double-standards, left mostly unexplored.

10) There’s a recurring motif in these books and many others: “the crazy stories you heard as a child are true.” This idea is appealing on a lot of levels, but I think it works best taken literally. Adults develop a great many illusions as we mature; as we learn to focus on our chosen paths, we shut out most of what is going on in the world and in the depths of our own minds. Or so it seems to me.

I’ve heard that Chinese Medicine defines depression as “losing touch with the divine part of oneself” – and I’ve found that definition to be absolutely consistent with my experience and that of everyone I know. A story that suggests simply that “what you believed as a child is true” is more accurate than not, and much more helpful than not. The world – as experienced by humanity, at least - is not a rational place; those who’ve lost touch with the irrational, creative part of themselves will not be equipped to deal with the challenges it presents.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) I read the series as a kid. Assume you did too. I’m rereading them before the movies come out. Trying to learn what I can about writing kids’ books. Figured I’d enjoy them again.

2) I remember finding the White Witch much more attractive when I was 12. There was something about a 7-foot-tall porcelain goddess who starved young boys and made them do her bidding that I found very sexy. Now, having learned to maintain self-respect within relationships, I’m no longer so hot for the cold scary ladies.

3) The Call to Adventure happens when Lucy enters the wardrobe and has a lovely time with Mr. Tumnus. Lucy never actively refuses the call – but the other children do so on her behalf. Consequently, all four children together form a single hero on a familiar path of self-discovery, rescue, triumph, etc.

4) There are several mentor characters too – the professor, Aslan, Father Christmas - each one offering wisdom and/or gifts that prove useful. The effect is to make the world seem more caring and nurturing: the children are subject to dangers and mysteries, but help and guidance are available everywhere.

I was never too comfortable with Father Christmas turning up in this story, even while it was a convenient way for the kids to receive their gifts. Might have seemed dorkier to us than to the British, since Santa Claus represents both the best of human compassion and everything that’s wrong with American culture. Some kids meet Santa Claus in the hospital, but most of us meet him by going to the mall.

I liked the character of Aslan. The frequent references to how “terrible” and scary he was made him much more interesting and effective; many adult books have less sophisticated, more hypocritical notions of “good” and “evil”. The religious references, and the whole story, would have been much weaker if Aslan had not had that wrathful, or at least dangerous, aspect.

5) I like the professor character too. Very mysterious.

I think a book is serving its most basic purpose by creating mysteries (such as “Why does the professor understand Narnia, and why does he have the wardrobe?”) to draw the imagination out of its lair. The trick is apparently to tell a story that has a beginning and ending, set in a world that doesn’t. Any story that answers every question it raises creates a claustrophobic world that leaves no space for the reader to inhabit. Better to let some references reach beyond the words on the page.

When I was in elementary school our class watched a movie that was supposed to provoke our imaginations. In the movie, a man walks into an arena and must open one of two doors. Behind one door are wealth and happiness; behind the other are tigers that will eat him. The movie ends when he opens one of the doors, and we were supposed to finish the story ourselves. Stupid movie.

It might have been useful as a psychological test, but even as a creative challenge it was disappointing. Yet it was presented in a moralistic way, as if complete stories do the imagination a disservice and this one ennobled us by letting us make up the ending. Whoopee.

What the teachers didn’t realize is that that movie had it perfectly backward: it presented a very limited world – one that consisted only of an arena, two doors and the guy who had to choose between them – and a story that had no beginning and no ending. Our imaginations would have been more involved had we been given a few details about the world, a complete story that takes place within it, and the freedom to tell the stories that were hinted at but had otherwise been left to the imagination of the audience.

The imagination is drawn out by relationships between things more than by the things themselves. Life provides the materials, but it’s up to us to establish the connections. Alice In Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, for example, both start with perfectly ordinary elements of everyday life – playing cards, animals, grammar lessons – and each tells a crazy story about the relationships these things might have with one another. The imagination is brought into the realm of everyday life, and the illumination affects everything we see and do thereafter.

The whole world of Narnia is found in something equally mundane, the wardrobe, and no wardrobe might ever look the same after reading it.

6) There’s some essay to be written about how the quaint details of Narnia (tea parties, children as royalty, etc.) contrast with the emotional realism of the Harry Potter books. In a nutshell, the details of fantasy worlds haven’t changed nearly as much as the characters who visit them. Could be that today’s world, despite its reputation for barbarism, is much less scary than the WWII setting of the Narnia stories (the kids are sent to live with the professor because of the war) – and that more frightening, chaotic world is balanced by a more noble and less scary fantasy world than that of the Harry Potter books. Then again, the Narnia books were written for a more exclusively young audience; Harry Potter seems to have been aimed at more general audiences.

7) Every other mention of the Chronicles of Narnia books includes the phrase religious allegory or Christian allegory, but that’s unfair to the stories, if not to the famously Christian author. First, the stories deserve to be taken on their own merits; all literature borrows structure and relationships from other places in the culture. Second, the stories do have clear parallels to Christianity – but then, so do other religions, and it’s pretty rude to call them “Christian allegories”.

8) That said, the Christian references are inescapable. I didn’t pick up on them until the sixth or seventh book when I was a kid, and I don’t know my bible stories well enough to recognize all the references, but any reader over age 12 who’s spent time in a church will recognize who’s who in these books.

9) Edmund’s transition from insufferable traitor to hero is very effective. I guess it’s not that difficult to think of ways for a character to be horrible and treacherous and then find some reason or reasons for him to change, but I can appreciate it when it’s well done.

10) Not to read too much into this stuff, but: the four kids in this story parallel the four “court cards” in many tarot decks – king, queen, knight and page. That seems arbitrary, except the parallel works so well: Peter is the high king, heroic and decisive and commanding; Susan is the high queen, compassionate, maternal, emotional and intuitive; Lucy is the page, naïve and youthful – a beginner in every respect. And Edmund is the knight – but not in the most immediately obvious way.

The knight in the tarot deck is usually thought of as accomplishing great deeds, performing feats of bravery – but what does Edmund do in this story? His character transforms, while the other children merely reveal the character already intact inside them. When a knight card comes up in a tarot reading, it may suggest exactly that transformation: the “great deeds” implicit in the image of the knight may represent the dramatic steps taken by any of us who experience deliberate changes in our lives.

I'm guessing C.S. Lewis did not borrow his characters from the tarot. Rather, I think that this story and the standard tarot deck each stumbled independently onto a powerful set of character types that combine to form a complete human personality. We each have a powerful king, compassionate queen, ambitious knight, and passionate novice inside us. Fiction and the tarot each speak to the part of the imagination that understands this, and offers its own thoughts in response.