War Must Be, While We Defend Our Books Against a Destroyer Who Would Devour All

I have seen the hill on which I die; I have seen the banner which flies above it.  I have read the words on that banner, the same words which will, I expect, adorn my tombstone, words which have never made anyone better loved but which have become a mantra, words which I have spoken a thousand times in vain: “That’s not in the book”.

The third Hobbit movie, ‘The Battle of The Five Armies’, is also the worst, a particularly ignominious end to an already-bad trilogy.  The special effects are cheesy, the writing is abysmal, the acting is insufficient, and it is years too long.  However, the most urgent problem, one which is the most pronounced in this third installment, is that it isn’t ‘The Hobbit’!

‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ has characters, scenes, battles, sub-plots, creatures, and romances which are not in ‘The Hobbit’, by J.R.R. Tolkien, and for which lack that book suffers not at all.

I suppose it is the old story: absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Peter Jackson probably had something very like absolute creative power over the Hobbit movies, and the movies themselves have paid the price for that.

It must have required a monstrous, overweening arrogance to roll up to ‘The Hobbit’, a small, cinematic jewel of a book, penned by no less an eminence than Tolkien, and to say, “I know what this needs: Legolas, some elf-on-dwarf action, and yet more roles for Benedict Cumberbatch’.  All of these impulses were badly wrong, and it is startling that they should have been the impulses of the man who adhered so slavishly to the master’s text in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies.  Between those movies and these, someone convinced Peter Jackson that he had better creative vision than Tolkien.  He had not.

The Hobbit’ was a tight, sweet little book, which could have made a lovely movie if Jackson had not determined that it be a swollen prelude to the ‘Lord of the Rings’, continuous in tone and character and preposterously identical in length.

But, despite its miserable badness and its total lack of integrity, ‘The Battle of The Five Armies’ made nearly $55 million its opening weekend in the United States alone, reaching a worldwide gross of $100 million in only four days.  I am alone on my hill, obviously, one confused and indignant voice talking to absolutely no one: “But none of that was in the book!”

Image taken from tolkienbooks.net.

The Hobbit‘, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

George Orwell Isn’t Angry, He’s Just Disappointed

Review of ‘The Maze Runner

I’m about to do something despicable: I am about to judge a story by its movie.  Obviously, this is not the done thing – it’s like judging a wine by the picture on the label, or a symphony by how comfy the seats in the opera house are.  I can offer only this: I am more disgusted with myself than you could ever be.

I haven’t read The Maze Runner, nor its sequels, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure, by James Dashner.  Let me be the first to admit the possibility that it is a literary masterpiece, plagued by none of the plot difficulties which I am discussing here.

Let me also say that ‘The Maze Runner’ movie is a ton of fun, at least until the climax.

Let me also also say I am going to spoil the ending.  Fair warning.

‘The Maze Runner’ is the story of a group of boys who wake up inside a gigantic mechanical maze with no memory of how they got there.  The maze is patrolled by large, shrieking mechanical bugs, who occasionally sting them with the Rage Virus from 28 Days Later.  To make a long and entertaining story short, they escape, and learn that they have been placed there by a sneaky cabal of Bilderberg-esque scientists (the same exact crew, I believe, who keep chasing poor Alice around in the Resident Evil sequels).

The scientists have the placed the children inside the maze to stop the zombie apocalypse which has swept the population in the aftermath of catastophic global warming (or so we are told in the last five minutes of the movie).  The young men, who might be immune from the zombie-ism (called ‘the flare’), were being studied by the scientists, who apparently needed fMRIs of their brains under…maze conditions.

This is all, obviously, deeply stupid and without any scientific rationale of even tissue-paper thinness.  Putting the potentially immune in a maze is not effective in combatting either zombie-ism or global warming.

[Side note: I can hear some internet asshat now, saying, ‘Scientists put animals in mazes all the time’.  Yes, but not to study disease immunity.]

I understand that peri-adolescent dystopias are all the rage these days, but the global catastrophism added nothing whatever to ‘The Maze Runner’.  In fact, the things which were entertaining about the story, the arbitrary creepiness of the maze, the dynamic among the boys in the face of the unknown, are starker and more interesting without the half-baked reveal of the puppet masters.  Sometimes, creepy stories stand better alone, without context or elaboration.

Dystopias ought to have a point.  The malignancies they depict are meant to have their roots in our own times and places.  They are meant to show us our danger.  ‘Global warming might burn the surface of the earth’ – OK.  Is it scarier, more revealing, more enlightening to add, ‘Global warming might burn the surface of the earth and then someone might put kids in a maze’?  It teaches us nothing, and detracts from an otherwise pleasingly weird story.

By all means, write a terrifying post-global warming dystopia.  Even put a maze in it, if you like.  But connect the two things!  Perhaps an angry group of Republicans has hidden the secret to passing a carbon tax, and a group of young men must find their way through their labyrinthine conservative thinking to find it!  Perhaps a scientist has found a way to scrub atmospheric carbon, but he has lost it deep in the bowels of a University designed to thwart PETA protestors!  But justify the inclusion of global disaster; don’t just throw it in at the end.

‘The Breast’

When I was younger, I would read anything I could get my hands on that promised to be in any way about sex.  The promised connection might be tenuous in the extreme, but I would read it, anyway, and hope.

So, you can imagine my excitement when, in the 4th grade, perusing my parents’ library, I discovered a book called ‘The Breast’, by Philip Roth (I didn’t know it then, but Philip Roth can be absolutely relied upon to write about sex, always, even when you long for him to stop).

I waited until one afternoon when my parents were suitably occupied, and I crouched behind one of the big wing-backed chairs (Lord only knows what I thought that would accomplish – I was perfectly visible, and must have looked quite stupid) and read the entire thing.

The Breast’ is a novella Roth published in 1972.  It’s about a man named David Kepesh who turns into a giant breast.  It’s excruciatingly boring.  Whatever attraction they hold for some, breasts aren’t characterologically interesting.  And Roth, who hasn’t been able, in his decades of authorship, to imagine a single fully realized female character (besides Anne Frank, for whom he cannot take credit), probably wasn’t the best candidate to make a man-sized breast into an interesting, three-dimensional figure.

Of course, the penis is the only organ Roth has ever really been interested in – his own stars in nearly all of his books.  And, though it would seem an impossibility, his penis even stars in ‘The Breast’ – it simply turns into the nipple of the eponymous breast (literally).  Much of ‘The Breast’ is spent in long and loving description of the seemingly endless spongebaths the nipple receives from the nurses at the hospital.

Roth, and ‘The Breast’, taught me an important literary lesson that day, behind the wing chair: in the hands the right (or wrong) monomaniac, even sex, that great and complicated human motivator, can be boring.

Philip Roth, despite my irritations with him, is considered a great American author for a reason, and ‘The Breast‘ is not one of his masterpieces.  To get a better sense of why he is loved by so many, try Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral, or Operation Shylock.

The book which features Anne Frank as a character is The Ghost Writer, and it is also, in my opinion, one of his best.

 

The Alien Problem

Aliens are tough.

If you want scary aliens in your movie, you have only two real options: human-scary aliens, and non-human-scary aliens.

Human-scary almost never works.  Human-scary aliens look basically like humans.  They walk like humans.  They have two legs, two arms, two eyes in their one head.

Human-scary aliens are rarely scary.  Or, rather, if they are scary, they are only scary the way that humans can be scary.  Take the aliens in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.

Signs Alien

From ‘Signs’.  Just a big-headed guy: not scary.

They weren’t scary, unless they were creeping through cornfields, or leaping out from a dark corner, or grabbing at you suddenly from under a door.  But a housecat can startle you if it sneaks up on you – that doesn’t make it scary.  These aliens aren’t frightening, or even particularly interesting, to look at.  That’s why they are almost never shown straight on, and, when they are, they are in shadow, or blurry.  Even Predator, with his far-out face, basically looks and walks like a muscular guy.

Predator

Predator.  Gnarly, but not scary.

The only way to make human-scary aliens actually scary is to bend their human forms in some way, like the broken-human, many-legged Thing (from the the 2011 remake), which scrabbles around like a crab.

The Thing

The 2011 Thing.  This would get your attention.

Contrast the ‘Signs’ aliens with the Alien aliens.  The ‘Alien’ aliens are the best non-human-scary aliens in all cinema.  The Alien is bizarre and creepy, fascinating to look at when it stands still, let alone when it moves (although it does move bipedally and have arms, it isn’t humanoid).

Alien

Alien.

The Alien was designed by H.R. Giger, which gives one a sense of how much work and genius it takes to design a really scary alien.

In the opinion of this author, the Alien has never been matched.  However, CGI has created some interesting runners up.  However, most of them are, like Alien, insectoid.  For example, take a look the skittering parasites from Cloverfield (which owe their form in part to the bugs from Starship Troopers, which, though the movie is funny, are a convincing menace).

Cloverfield Parasite

Cloverfield parasite.

Starship Troopers Bug

‘Starship Trooper’ Bug.

Which is why it made for a nice change to encounter the wing-dinging alien Mimics in the ‘Edge of Tomorrow’.  These fast-moving and tentacled aliens owe more to octopi than to insects, although even they owe something to Giger, with their semi-mechanical steampunkish tentacles.  And while their faces were, of course, disappointingly human, they are the best aliens seen in a long while.

Mimic

A Mimic.

A still doesn’t really do the Mimic justice; their most affecting quality is their movement.  They are very fast, and move non-linearly, which makes them difficult for a human eye to follow.

And that is exactly the point of aliens: they aren’t like us.  They shouldn’t look like us, think like us, or move like us, and the more unlike us they are, the better they are able to do the job of scaring us.

Anyone who enjoyed the ‘Alien’ movies even a little should take a look at H.R. Giger’s printed work.  The Necromonicon is a good place to start.

‘The Edge of Tomorrow’ is based on the novel All You Need Is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

‘Starship Troopers’ is also based on a novel, Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein. 

 

On ‘Gone Girl’

     It seems that everyone loves Gillian Flynn’s third novel, ‘Gone Girl’, and it’s clear why: it’s the most engrossing mystery most of us have clapped eyes on in a while.  ‘Engrossing’ is perhaps an understatement; ‘Gone Girl’ is compulsive and anxiety-producing.  It’s a masterpiece of unreliable narration, and Flynn manages to wind her readers through almost two hundred pages of Nick Dunne’s first person account without ever revealing whether or not he murdered his wife.

     The first half of ‘Gone Girl’ is a murder mystery.  On their five year wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife Amy vanishes from their home.  Their story is told both from Nick’s perspective in the days following her disappearance, and from excerpts of Amy’s diary during the years of their courtship and early marriage.

     However, after a deft, tense first half, Flynn abandons her well-constructed ambiguity and turns to that favorite device of genre fiction: the psychopath.

     Psychopaths are fascinating – they are humans without humanity.  However, in real life, antisocial personalities are characterized not only by a lack of empathy, they are also impulsive, reckless, and unlawful.  Flynn’s psychopath, however, shares with her fictional brethren a distinct lack of impetuosity.  The premise of ‘Gone Girl’ rests on the ability of a flamboyant sociopath to plan, meticulously, and well in advance, to mask their thoughts and emotions and to forego any short-term satisfaction in order to execute an elaborate and excruciating revenge.

     In real life, this is very un-psychopathic behavior.  The diagnostic criteria of antisocial personality disorder include “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest”, “consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations”, and “impulsivity and failure to plan ahead”.  It is striking that these traits are not only absent in Flynn’s psychopath, they would severely limit, if not completely obviate, her ability to plan and carry out her scheme.

     The meticulous psychopath is a tempting plot device.  He is capable of any evil, smarter than his opponents, and conveniently unencumbered by normal human emotional frailties.  There aren’t any characterological weaknesses to limit him, and so he can enact any outlandish deviousness his author dreams up for him.

     However, he is totally unrealistic, and while he may have the immediate magnetism of a car wreck, he isn’t actually interesting.  He has no internal conflict; he is all plot.  When plot is all that matters, he’s fine.  That’s why he does such reliable work in cop dramas, soap operas, and beach reads.  And maybe ‘Gone Girl’ is only meant to be a great beach read, but it could have been better.  The tension Flynn manages to build in the first half of the novel is effective and affecting.  The different early perspectives offered by Nick and Amy Dunne make the reader question not only the reality of their marriage, but also the ability of any two people to ever really know each other.  It offers a view of marriage that is not a shared life, but merely coincident delusions.  It is a dark vision, and it is much more compelling than the Dances with Psychos that the book becomes.

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.

Why Does ‘House of Cards’ Keep Abusing Small Animals?

Or, Beyond Mr. Bigglesworth

Disgression on ‘House of Cards’

     This post contains mild, and largely irrelevant, spoilers.

     Like many Americans, I have been watching the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’.  When Netflix releases an original series, it makes an entire season available for instant streaming online, and, again, like many Americans, I binge-watch.  Binge-watching television can certainly enhance the viewer’s experience; however, it is unforgiving to the shows themselves.  Bad or repetitive writing, or over-reliance on certain plot devices, becomes apparent when you watch one episode right after another.  Watching a lot of one show in a short amount of time helps the viewer identify patterns that they might otherwise have forgotten from one week to the next.

     For example, ‘House of Cards’ really has it in for small animals.  In the second season alone, Cashew the guinea pig has been tortured, and a small parrot deliberately crushed.

     Now, two incidents does not, strictly speaking, make a pattern; however, the lamentable fates of these two animals is particularly striking because small animals rarely feature in prime time television (or the Netflix equivalent).  Dogs are obviously cinematic darlings, and cats have their place in plot or character development: they can be relied on to knock things over, or signal that an unmarried woman is letting herself go.  Even fish occasionally appear, to be swallowed or flushed, but outside of animated movies, other small pet animals are few and far between. Several minutes of hard thought have produced the names of only two movies in which small animals figure largely: ‘Babe’ and ‘Willard’.

     So why do they keep showing up in ‘House of Cards’, and why do they keep having unfortunate ‘accidents’?  Let’s first take the case of the unnamed and broken parrot. Having a character torture an animal is an easy way to show that he is really evil and deranged.  Raymond Tusk, the man who kills his own parrot, seemed kindly at first; presumably, his avian-murderous streak is meant to show you, the viewer, how wrong you were.  The fact that the killing is sudden and, apparently, out of character may be the point: however unlikely it is that a man who breeds parrots would become so enraged with one chirping that he would break its neck, as simple gestures go, it’s an efficient way to communicate brutality.

     Cashew the guinea pig is harder to explain.  Guinea pigs almost never feature in dramatic plots: they aren’t very active, and they seriously lack charisma.  So, from the beginning, Cashew’s presence was puzzling.  She was featured prominently in several scenes, and attention was drawn to her well in advance of her being squished.

     In fact, that very attention should have made it clear that the future was dark for Cashew.  Given how un-scintillating she was as a character (how unrecognizable, even – if one were not familiar with guinea pigs, one might be forgiven for wondering why Gavin Orsay kept clutching an enormous dust bunny), she was either a very strange character detail, or an intended victim.  As it turns out, she was both.  Orsay himself explains his ownership of Cashew as an existential reminder – she helps the hacker to remember that he might at any moment find himself behind bars.  Why someone would want a pet who served as an aide-memoire of one’s own worst outcome is unexplained.  However, Orsay clearly loves Cashew, which is why things will obviously not go well for her.  He is an angry, anti-government vigilante; she is his weakness.  Like clockwork, when a malevolent FBI agent arrives to strongarm good behavior from Orsay, he illustrates his metaphorical boot on the hacker’s neck by placing his literal boot on Cashew.

     Still, the mean FBI agent might just as easily have leaned on a puppy – why a guinea pig?  Jimmi Simpson, the actor who plays Orsay, has suggested that Cashew is a guinea pig to show how uncomfortable with human companionship his (Simpson’s) character is – basically, the only company he can tolerate is a furry chicken nugget.  Perhaps that’s all there is: Cashew is there precisely because she is so un-dynamic.  However, her oddness steals the show, and it may be that Cashew is the most sympathetic character in the entire second season of ‘House of Cards’.

Let Sherlock Die

Review of ‘Sherlock: Season 3

     “If ever a murderer was to be haunted by the man he had killed and to be forced to atone for his act, it was the creator, turned destroyer, of Sherlock Holmes.”

     – Richard Lancelyn Green

     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to hate Sherlock Holmes.  Conan Doyle had had higher literary aspirations (he wrote several novels, among other things), and was dismayed by the exclusive attention his fans gave to Holmes.  He also apparently got tired of thinking up all the clever little crimes and cleverer solutions that allowed Holmes to distinguish himself.  He wrote, “Holmes is becoming such a burden to me that it makes my life unendurable”.

     It was with relief that Conan Doyle threw his detective off the Reichenbach Falls (on the night he finished ‘The Final Problem’, his diary reads, “Killed Holmes”), and it was with reluctance that he resurrected him, in response to overwhelming fan outrage.  Perhaps that reluctance is why Sherlock Holmes’ return to life has never been convincing; it required the bare minimum of effort, the hasty imaginative work of an author who wanted it all to be over with.

     I was raised watching Jeremy Brett in ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’, and I really believed that I would never love again.  Others have tried to be Holmes (Basil Rathbone was too villainous; the movies with Robert Downey Jr. were a hack job), but I imprinted on Jeremy Brett and could envision no other.

     Thus, it was with an entirely closed mind that I approached the BBC modernization ‘Sherlock’, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.  I was prepared to loathe it – I am skeptical of modern adaptations as a rule, and, besides, I had found my Sherlock.

     I was wrong: ‘Sherlock’ was brilliant.  I watched and rewatched the first season, anticipated and then accordingly loved the second (which ends with ‘The Reichenbach Fall’).  Cumberbatch was a different kind of Holmes than Brett: he was colder, crueler, more broken.  Brett brought a subtle warmth to the character; where he was eccentric and driven, Cumberbatch was dysfunctional and obsessed.  Both were convincing to me, and both struck me as valuable interpretations.  Holmes as a literary character always needed to be fleshed out; he was more method than man, and Brett and Cumberbatch gave very different, but very compelling, substance to Conan Doyle’s frame.

     The writers of ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ stuck doggedly to the text; the writers of ‘Sherlock’ wrote new stories for a new time, and while they were uneven, they did at times attain dizzying heights of referential cleverness.  I am a sucker for clever things, and I was entirely persuaded.

     ‘Sherlock’ was helped along, of course, by Cumberbatch, who managed, by the skin of his teeth, to channel a truly massive charisma into a twitchy intensity.  Cumberbatch was helped along, in turn, by Martin Freeman, who plays the best Watson I have ever seen.

     So you can imagine my excitement about the premiere of the third season.  Can you also imagine my disappointment upon seeing it?  Holmes lives again, but not really.

     It seems the writers have got carried away with the charm of their actor, and they’ve lost Holmes.  He’s Benedict now, pretending to be a French waiter, enjoying his own sex appeal.  While the first two seasons allowed Holmes to be darkly witty, he was never funny (on purpose); he’s funny now.  More, he’s zany, he’s a cut-up, a trait so antithetical to the deep intellectual seriousness of Sherlock Holmes that it’s jarring to watch.  The plot of ‘The Empty Hearse’ is thin to the point of nonexistence, but that’s fine – the plots of Sherlock Holmes stories were often thin.  The problem is that the series has forgotten that Sherlock Holmes is much, much more than Benedict Cumberbatch in a peacoat.

     Perhaps we should have learned from Conan Doyle:  Holmes can’t come back from the Fall, not the same.  Perhaps the fans, then as now, and myself among them, who clamored for more, were wrong; perhaps it is better to have loved and lost than to believe the adored object has returned, only to discover it a poor substitute.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes: All 4 Novels and 56 Short Stories, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

For a discussion of how much Conan Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes, read the semi-eponymous first essay in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, by David Grann.

Hellbenders

    The other night, I watched a movie called ‘Hellbenders’.  Written and directed by J.T. Petty and starring Clancy Brown (who you may remember as the Kurgan from ‘Highlander’) and Clifton Collins Jr., ‘Hellbenders’ is the story of the Brooklyn chapter of the Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints, a group of men and women who live lives of sin and debauchery so that their souls are always damnation-ready.  They are called to exorcisms, and when they meet a particularly powerful demon, they tempt him to possess them and then kill themselves, thus dragging the demon back down to hell with them.

    They run into trouble when the Catholic Church tries to shut them down on the same week that Surtr is freed and sets the Apocalypse in motion.  Surtr is called an ‘old god’ in the movie, but nerds may recognize him as a Norse jotunn, a giant, who does, in fact, feature prominently in Ragnarok – apparently, he brings forth the flames that will devour the earth.

    The movie received poor reviews (only 33% on Rotten Tomatoes, for example), but I kind of loved it.  It was farcical, obviously, and campy, but it was genuinely funny.  The Hellbound Saints are an unprepossessing yet dedicated lot.  They earnestly keep a ledger book of sins, consistently falling short in both severity and frequency of sin. They are schlubby in the extreme; their main sin seems to be drunkenness.  They are unlikely saviors, totally un-battle-ready, and I found them completely charming.

     More than that, I think it’s a great premise, and I’m a complete sucker for a great premise.  It reminded me of one of my favorite Borges stories, ‘Three Versions of Judas Iscariot’.  Borges is too astonishingly good and beautiful to summarize without extreme discomfort, but, with humility: in it, Borges tells briefly of a fictional scholar, Nils Runeberg, who comes to believe that Christ’s sacrifice was total, his abasement for the salvation of mankind complete:

    “God, argues Nils Runeberg, stooped to become man for the redemption of the human race; we might well then presume that the sacrifice effected by him was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions.  To limit his suffering to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is to fall into contradiction…God was made totally man, but man to the point of iniquity, man to the point of reprobation and the Abyss…he chose an abject existence: He was Judas.”

    I’ve always thought that an incredibly interesting and sophisticated bit of thinking on Borges’ part, and I enjoyed the less-sophisticated, but still very enjoyable, mirror in ‘Hellbenders’.  It presents a, to me, compelling theological paradox: can you go to hell for sins which you have committed for holy reasons?  If you are doing an evil thing in an act of godly sacrifice, are you really committing evil?  Or is it the religious equivalent of a justifiable homicide?

‘Three Versions of Judas’ can be found in the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges.