Posts Tagged ‘Commentary’

Oh no, a new year’s post

Thursday, January 1st, 2015

I have a love/hate relationship with resolutions because I’ve made a lot of foolish ones, and seen other people make them, and then we all fail together and commiserate and learn little from the process. I’ll say, this year is the year I’m going to exercise three times a week, and I’ll buy new sneakers that are like walking on puffy clouds. I’ll run for a few weeks before waking up one day and thinking, oh no, it’s raining, can’t run in the rain, maybe tomorrow, but then the rain stops while my excuses keep pouring out.

Excuses are easy. Giving up is easy. Making unreasonable resolutions and then missing a day and feeling like a loser and never getting back on the proverbial llama: easy. Llamas are large and temperamental things, all spitty and bitey and kicky. Best viewed from afar. Do not engage.

Last year, I tried to set some manageable goals for myself. Write 12 short stories. Finish my novel in progress. Revise a previous novel and start looking for beta readers.

I did write the 12 stories, plus a poem and a play, but I didn’t finish or revise any novels. I abandoned the novel I was working on because I didn’t love it. I started to revise another novel and abandoned that one, too. I submitted stories and I revised stories and I got 39 rejections. I felt like a failure. If you’re wondering, failure feels like a sick tummy and a hot neck. And llama spit.

But the writing life is a game, and as any child can tell you, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you put away the board and sulk for a while, but eventually you pull it back out and pick your color and play again. Snakes and ladders. Sometimes you climb, and sometimes you land in the mouth of the beast and it craps you back out where you started.

The thing about being at the bottom in this analogy is, trite as it may be, you have nowhere to go but up. You can’t do worse than lose. There is no double-losing.

I took three classes: one with Nick Mamatas, one with Jillian Burcar, and one with Jeff VanderMeer. All were excellent in very different ways, and in all I found new friends who I hope will one day be counted among my old friends. I wrote a story, and people enjoyed reading it, and it turned into a novel project that still gives me a kind of giddy glee.

If there is a single vital thing I learned this year, that’s it: write what you love. What excites you. What entices you. I wrote a lot of stuff that was trying to be thoughtful and important, and so little of it was really what I wanted to write, as much as what I thought people wanted to read. Backwards of me, I think. And now, that’s behind me.

So, resolutions. Read more. Write more. Write better. Keep helping other people do the same. Snakes and ladders this may be, but you’re only really playing against yourself, and there’s no penalty for reaching down that ladder and giving someone else a hand up. And if you see someone sliding into a snake–if you’re that someone–cut the creepy crawler wide open and use its guts for a rope.

Get back on the llama. It’s actually kind of soft and warm once you get to know it better.

Postmodernism in fantasy: huh?

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Brandon Sanderson recently wrote a piece with the lofty title “Postmodernism in Fantasy” that makes some interesting points. He claims (as far as I can tell, feel free to comment) that virtually all fantasy after Tolkien is in some sense postmodern. Or perhaps he means that all fantasy written after the fantasy that was written as a reaction to Tolkien is postmodern.

His main criterion for what makes a fantasy novel postmodern appears to be how much it subverts or breaks away from the body of work that is primarily imitative of Tolkien. He explains that previous attempts at postmodernism typically yielded unsatisfying results because they were only modifying particular tropes or modestly tweaking expectations; they were either still too similar to the source material to appeal to people seeking originality, or they resorted to twists that undermined the genre rather than expanding its scope. His example:

“Well, it starts out like every other ‘farmboy saves the world’ fantasy novel. You know, the plucky sidekick rogue, the gang of unlikely woodsmen who go on a quest to find the magic sword. But it’s not going to end like that. I’m going to twist it about, make it my own! At the three-quarter mark, the book becomes something else entirely, and I’ll play off all those expectations! The reader will realize it’s not just another Tolkienesque fantasy. It’s something new and original.”

This book idea, he claims, fails because it will alienate readers who enjoy the beginning and therefore feel betrayed by the twist at the end, as well as readers who are immediately bored by the beginning’s lack of originality. He says it’s a fine line between subverting established tropes in an entertaining way, while conforming to those very tropes because readers expect and desire them.

The success of the books was in hitting the right balance for the right people; those like myself who love the old epics, and like some resonance with them—but who also want something new in their storytelling. That careful blend of the familiar and the strange, mixed up and served to people who have tastes like my own.

But, as Jeff VanderMeer points out, postmodernism is not reducible to some cosmic scales with convention on one side and originality on the other. Even the definition of postmodernism on Wikipedia states, “Postmodern literature, like postmodernism as a whole, is hard to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance…” It has many elements but not necessarily all at once, and even those elements are up for debate. I like the way he sums up his argument:

Perhaps the most important point in all of this (and this now has nothing to do with anything Sanderson said in his post) is that writers don’t choose the way they view the world–that’s inherent in their psyche. When you view the world a certain way, you may gravitate toward certain approaches and techniques–with digressions because no one is all one thing–but it’s not a cynical matter of deciding to be experimental or deciding to be postmodern rather than a modernist, for example.

My humble opinions: It’s one thing to know your genre–modern marketing requires it of any writer. It’s also wise to know what has come before in order to avoid excessive repetition and inadvertently retread well-worn ground. But as far as classifying your work beyond that? Leave it to the literary critics. If you’re choosing your themes and techniques to deliberately conform to some nebulous, decentralized, disorganized and ill-defined literary movement, I submit that perhaps your priorities are skewed.

If you can’t find it, fake it

Monday, December 21st, 2009

“If I did Titanic today, I’d do it very differently. There wouldn’t be a 750-foot-long set. There would be small set pieces integrated into a large CGI set. I wouldn’t have to wait seven days to get the perfect sunset for the kiss scene. We’d shoot it in front of a green screen, and we’d choose our sunset.” –James Cameron

“Reading those comments by James Cameron just makes me feel sad for movie making today.” —afscot

Why is my buddy sad? Because he thinks it’s weird to fabricate something that exists in the real world for the sake of convenience. Film makers are relying more and more on technology to substitute for the real when the real isn’t readily available or would be more expensive to procure or create. Forget shooting on location in some remote jungle for weeks when you can set up a green screen and do the same work in a few days. Don’t worry about building some elaborate contraption to make your actor appear to be missing limbs, or setting an actual stunt person on fire, or blowing up the Statue of Liberty in miniature; computers can handle everything. Depressing, isn’t it?

Not really. Movies are fictional, after all, and they always have been. Anyone yearning for some mythical good old days seems to have forgotten that once upon a time, movies were filmed on sound stages with staged lighting and painted backgrounds that were swapped out as soon as the director said, “That’s a wrap!” It wasn’t until the 1960’s that one could say most films were shot on location, and that didn’t mean they were bereft of the various trappings of the studio stuff. Even Italian neorealism and cinéma vérité required specialized technology and careful setup, not to mention the eventual manipulation of the raw footage through editing. No movie can truly said to be “real,” only a more or less realistic representation of reality as we know it. Why, then, cannot “as we know it” become “as we wish it to be”?

Still, is there something to be said for shooting “practical” instead of digital? Naturally; until recently, and arguably still today, technology had not sufficiently advanced to be able to trick the audiences’ brains into accepting the animated as something that actually exists. However, movies like Avatar push the boundaries of the impossible back to make room for a few more possibilities. Does it matter whether the enormous eyes and blue fur of a character are digital or pasted on and sewn together? Does it matter whether the spaceship flying through an alien jungle is a miniature or a computer model? Both are equally unreal, and yet can be equally satisfying.

In time–perhaps now!–it may very well be easier and more cost effective to simply fabricate a sunset than to have a film crew standing by every day for a week to capture an hour or so of footage in the hopes that it yields the perfect shot. If anything, the film makers of the distant past would probably find it sad that anyone would wait on that sort of thing when they could just have an artist paint a backdrop and be done with it.

Dramatic irony or unnecessary exposition?

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

A debate is brewing–nay, raging violently–at chez moi. It revolves Charybdis-like around the film Vertigo, which one or two of you may have seen. If you have not seen this movie, do not continue reading because I am going to say things about it that may, inadvertently, spoil the experience. Or maybe they won’t! This is because the question at hand involves the use of dramatic irony in the aforementioned film.

Dramatic irony can be a tough trick in these spoiler-soaked times. When people are so deeply concerned with being surprised by movies, letting them in on the secrets can have the same effect as a magician showing where the rabbit comes from. At the same time, as one of my professors once said, if most of the audience is going to be smart enough to figure out your twist–to guess for themselves where that bunny is hiding–then failing to take control of the reveal leaves said audience thinking that the filmmaker is an idiot who believes they are equally stupid and gullible. Resentment surges! Ticket sales plunge! Armageddon is at hand! Use of exclamation points spirals out of control!

Vertigo is an interesting case in that, after what seems like the climax of the film, the narrative continues because the mystery has not truly been solved. Could it have ended there? Conceivably. The audience would likely have grudgingly accepted that supernatural forces were at work and poor Jimmy Stewart did his best but it wasn’t enough. Would it have been a disappointment? Almost certainly. But at that point, the movie is only half finished, and the second half involves a somewhat bizarre exploration of the psychology of grief, shame and guilt. But of course, it is also the half where the mystery is solved, with a suspenseful doubling of the end of the first half that may be one of the best uses of dramatic irony in a film, or at least in a Hitchcock film if you’re not feeling too generous.

Then again, maybe it isn’t. The scene that makes the difference between dramatic irony and mystery, that lets the audience in on the secret instead of leaving it hidden, is what I’ll call the letter-writing scene. After a stay in a psych ward and a lot of moody moping around, Scottie has managed to find a girl that he swears is a dead ringer for the dead one. The makeup artist for the film did her job well because Kim Novak as Judy Barton bears only the most passing resemblance to her role as Madeleine. As a side note (or not), Harvard is currently conducting a study on whether people can recognize certain notable celebrity figures just by their faces, without any hair, and apparently it is harder than one would think. So for Scottie to pick Judy off the street as a lookalike for Madeleine is, perhaps, stretching things a bit. Perhaps not, given how obsessed he is.

He follows her up to her apartment, where she does what I think is an amazing job of being nothing like the Madeleine character. I was fooled. I thought, Scottie has really gone off the deep end. He is being intensely creepy to this poor girl. Why is she tolerating it? Why hasn’t she kicked him out? Maybe I wouldn’t have kicked him out, either. I try to be nice to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they aren’t grief-stricken men pleading with me, so who knows?

No one knows, and no one will ever know, because then we have the letter-writing scene. Scottie asks Judy out on a date and she says that she needs time to change. Instead, what she needs is time to write a letter that completely explains how the first half of the movie came to be, what went down and why. If you were expecting the big reveal to come at the end, too bad! Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

Everything after this scene is rife with dramatic irony. It’s so thick, you could cut it with a butter knife and spread it on toast. Side note #2: allegedly, Hitchcock was once asked how long he would allow an onscreen kiss to last. He replied with a relatively high figure, something along the lines of three to five minutes. The questioner was shocked. So long? “Well,” Hitchcock said, “I’d put a bomb under the seat first.” Think Touch of Evil, which begins with just that, and then has the longest take of your life as the car with the bomb under the seat drives all over God’s creation before finally exploding. Vertigo is kind of like that after the letter-writing scene. You know what’s going on, but Scottie doesn’t know, until he does, and then it’s heart palpitations and bitten nails until the end.

But what if that letter-writing scene had never happened? What if Hitchcock let us keep thinking that Scottie was a nutjob and Judy was a slightly-too-nice girl humoring a nutjob? Would it have been more satisfying when Judy pulled the telltale necklace out of her jewelry box and Scottie recognized it? When Scottie laid out the whole nefarious tale as he climbed the steps of the bell tower? In short, would it have been more satisfying to be surprised than to be in on the secret?

The answer to that question perhaps hinges on whether or not the audience would have been surprised or whether they would have figured it out themselves long before the end. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, so it’s difficult to pretend for the sake of argument that the scene didn’t happen and the rest of the movie played out as it did. You already know what happened, so is it possible to determine whether or not you would have known if it were different? All you can do is try to think back to the first time you watched it and remember whether the letter-writing scene surprised you. If it did, maybe you would have been happier without it.

The scene accomplishes another goal, I think, namely to endear Judy to the audience by showing that she really did have feelings for Scottie and wished they could be together. And then for her to consciously decide not to run, instead to stay and try to make a go of it, only to die in the end is perhaps more poignant than if she had been left an enigma until the scene with the necklace. Fortunately or unfortunately, we have the one movie and not the other, so unless someone wants to re-edit it and run some tests on unsuspecting viewers who have never seen the original, the question of which would be preferable is academic. Thank goodness for academia.

She-Hulk smash! And tear, and eat raw meat…

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Gender roles in Euripides’ Bacchae are manipulated, even reversed, over the course of the play. The self-proclaimed champion of good behavior is Pentheus, who opposes the worship of Bacchus not only on the grounds that he is not truly a god, but also that the allegedly false god incites his female followers to act outside the acceptable boundaries established for their gender. He is both right and wrong; the women, having left their homes and engaged in acts of violence, are violating standards that would have the women stay inside and avoid bloodshed. However, he accuses them of promiscuity and carnal sins that they do not appear to be enacting, and thus that particular charge falls flat, perhaps even reflecting his own disturbed mind more than that of the typical worshiper.

This shift in behavior is entirely controlled by Dionysus, who whips his followers into a frenzy in which they are capable not only of wild dancing but also of extreme carnage, tearing apart animals with their bare hands and eating the raw flesh. Their hair is unbound, their clothing primitive, and they are even described as nursing wild animals with their own breast milk. When they believe they are being attacked by the local men, they take their wands and use them like weapons, becoming stronger soldiers than the men of the village that they fall upon. When Pentheus is cornered in the tree, they literally tear it from the ground to get at him, exhibiting inhuman–and unwomanly–strength. Finally, the murder of Pentheus by his own mother is as far from the traditional role of a woman as can be imagined. It is difficult to picture a woman of the time doing such a thing without extreme provocation, and Euripides almost certainly presents these images for their shock value while being careful to ascribe them to spiritual fervor rather than any normal, natural emotions or behaviors. Indeed, the efficacy of their bare hands and wands in fighting the men can only be described as supernatural, and in no way characteristic of typical female potency.

On the other hand, Pentheus himself is coaxed into reversing his own gender in order to infiltrate the ranks of the maenads. Having been the stalwart male figure concerned with the piety of his city and the chastity of its women, arresting offenders and lording it over Dionysus in his guise as the stranger, Pentheus eventually becomes submissive and eager to follow the stranger’s instructions. This is manifested physically by his cross-dressing as a worshipper of Dionysus, with feminine robes and head coverings. There is even a humorous moment in which he worries that the clothes are not properly adjusted and Dionysus helps him. His ultimate fate, of course, is to have his transgressions punished by being torn to pieces by women, who are themselves asserting their strength and superiority over him, a man and ruler of the city. His eulogy as delivered by his grandfather Cadmus focuses, not on his civic deeds as a man’s should, but on his private household deeds as a woman’s might. In the end, the god’s presence retreats and Agave is returned to her normal self, left to come to terms, as a mere woman, with the manly murder she perpetrated while in the mad frenzy inspired by the god.