Posts Tagged 'neil gaiman'

Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Blogging is quite obviously not the humongous priority for me it once could be. I’ve got my dissertation, I have a 13-month old, I’ve been in an intensive Arabic course this summer, I have a longer commute to church than I once did, and so on. It’s just hard to find the time. I have things that I’ve wanted to blog about for months, I have multi-part posts I need to finish, I have books I’ve been sent review copies of, I’ve got other responsibilities, and so on. The blog isn’t dead by any means, but it’s just harder than I’d like to make the time.

Sometimes, though, things rise to the surface and require dealing with. Such is the case with Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I’ve been a Neil Gaiman fan since 1997 when my friend Bjorn Townsend insisted I read the Sandman graphic novels, which ultimately I read aloud to Flesh of My Flesh starting about 11 years ago, and at the ending of which she cried, surprising herself at how moved she was by a “comic book”. Coraline we also read aloud, and of course American Gods, and some of his other children’s books and graphic novels were devoured. I was going to review The Graveyard Book when it came out but I never quite got around to it, and writing an essay on Make Good Art from the perspective of somebody who at least strives to be better than mediocre in the practice of an Orthodox liturgical craft is something I want to get to sooner than later.

Ocean I pre-ordered months ago, it arrived in June, and I’ve had to basically wait until Arabic was over to even think about reading it. Well, I started it two nights ago and finished it this morning — it really only took about two and a half hours to get through its 178 pages — and I wanted to get some thoughts up about it while they were still fresh. There are thematic spoilers here, I suppose, but I’m not going to talk about plot specifics beyond the general setup.

If you were to ask me what my worst memories of childhood are, there are a handful of things I might say. I might tell you about the memory I have, from when I was 3 or 4, of having my lip stitched up in the doctor’s office after… well, I’m still not exactly sure after what. I think my best friend at the time punched me in the face and knocked me down for some reason, and I have a very vague notion that it had to do with a toy crane truck, but all I really remember is crying while the needle was poking in and out of my bottom lip. Or I could say it was the time when I was eight, and there was this five or six hour stretch where my mom had left, she was going to separate from my dad, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, and it was just my dad and I in our huge, brand-new, custom-built house, awkwardly not talking. But then my mom came home around midnight, and they patched things up, for awhile, anyway. Or, possibly, I could talk about the time when I was ten, during the time when we were trying to sell our big custom-built house (and it ultimately took us a year to do so, and then at a huge loss), when my parents caught me lighting pieces of paper and bits of thread on fire in the kitchen sink and all the stresses combined meant they absolutely lost it on me in their rage (the one time in my childhood I can honestly talk about having trouble sitting down for awhile, if you understand what I mean). The latest incident that might come to mind could be when I was 13 or so, and there was a sudden, explosive outburst from my dad, initially directed at me for reasons I didn’t at all understand, which then instantly turned into a confrontation between both of my parents that got so bad so fast that all I could do was run out of the house and keep going for two and a half miles through town to get to a friend’s house, the only safe place I could come up with at that particular moment.

Past that point chronologically, we get out of the “childhood memory” territory, where there are a lot of things going on around us we aren’t even aware of, or even if we are aware we don’t comprehend, and into a period where probably we usually understand things pretty well. Even 13 is a little old for that category, maybe, but that event was (and still is, all these years later) beyond my comprehension. Anyway, those are the main incidental things that come to mind; there are other systematic things I could talk about, like the way I was constantly shamed at home over my weight, or how it seemed like I was so often a target for bullies in elementary school, or this, or that. I should say that all of these things, while representing traumatic memories, are not the worst things I could say about my childhood by any means, nor are they intended to paint anybody as bad people; they’re simply what I remember of what happened.

So, here’s the thing — obviously the raw images that I remember don’t take into account things I didn’t or couldn’t know, but there is clearly a context that emerges, however skeletally, from some of the details (like the custom-built house that we’re newly in when I’m eight and then having to sell when I’m ten, or having a next-door neighbor best friend when I’m four but having to run two and a half miles away to get to a friend’s house when I’m 13), and then the way I recount those memories does in fact start to shade them with historical argument, like me contextualizing the playing with fire business by locating it in the year we had so much trouble selling our house and were all stressed out beyond belief. As an adult talking about those things, I can add details to justify, to explain, to excuse — but I wouldn’t have been sophisticated enough as a 10 year old to be able to do that. It’s an adult’s game to rationalize via historicity, and we don’t even know that we’re doing it sometimes because it’s just how you have to navigate the world and organize information as an adult, as I’ve written about before. Little kids, though, don’t — can’t — do that. They may well make sense of things by coming up with a story that explains them, and it may even be a story they decide they believe, but it’s not the same thing as what an adult does. An adult is trying to lie to himself with the truth; a little kid is trying to understand the true things he knows, filling in necessary gaps strictly as a matter of utility and without awareness that the gaps represent more than what he actually knows.

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we are given an account by a nameless first-person narrator, a not-entirely unknown device of Gaiman’s (Murder MysteriesViolent CasesMr. Punch), a narrator about whom we know very little except that he “makes art” for a living and who is having to go home as a middle-aged adult for a funeral. He does not tell us whose funeral, but it is hard to not connect it with Gaiman’s own blog posts about his father’s funeral from a few years ago. While visiting the location of his childhood home (now a block of flats), he stops in on a neighboring farmhouse that he vaguely remembers as the home of an old friend who moved away. The old friend’s… well, maybe she’s her mother, maybe her grandmother, but in any event, she welcomes him in. The visit brings back a flood of memories, which introduces us to the main thread of the narrative, about a series of events happening when he was seven years old.

That’s all I’ll really say about plot mechanics, but there’s plenty more I can say without having to spoil things. There seem to be a number of plot and thematic parallels to earlier Gaiman books like the aforementioned Coraline, Violent Cases, and Mr. Punch, but there is also a very strong Madeleine L’Engle vibe running through the book (there are characters who can’t but remind me of Mrs. Who, Whatsit, and Which, and the key image of the little boy and slightly older girl walking hand in hand through a menacing field kept making me think that a Cherubim was going to show up), and it is decidedly not a kid’s book in the way Coraline was marketed as (I chose my words carefully there), even though it’s told from the point of view of a child.

Although, even there, Gaiman tricks you a little bit, because it isn’t told from the point of view of a child. As with Violent Cases and Mr. Punch, it’s told from the point of view of an adult’s memories of childhood. But even there, is that exactly what’s going on? There are self-conscious present-day intrusions in the narrative, and then there are times when what he remembers himself saying as a child comes off as an adult dodgily trying to imagine what a child might say — Gaiman writes excellent children’s dialogue as a rule, so is this a choice he’s making deliberately, perhaps as a way of telling us that this isn’t “actually” what happened, but rather it’s how the narrator is trying to convince himself that something else didn’t happen? There’s a moment in the story that provides an internal mechanism for the alteration of a terrible memory — so is that maybe what’s going on throughout the whole book? That the whole narrative is just the protagonist’s cover story for the far more awful truth?

The way I’m inclined to read it is this. As I talked about, when we’re kids, terrible things can happen that we don’t understand. Maybe they’re just random occurrences, maybe they’re systematic problems. In any case, we rationalize them in ways that make sense to our little kid brains. I had somebody close to me once, for example, whose way of rationalizing a particular kind of abuse they had experienced was to reconceive of their identity so that they no longer thought of themselves as part of the human species.

And the thing is, adults will probably rationalize these same traumatic experiences, but they’ll do so in very different ways. They’ll justify, they’ll forget, they’ll historicize, and they’ll outright lie to themselves in order to rewrite history. As I said earlier, little kids aren’t really sophisticated enough to lie to themselves, but they can make up stories that they will themselves find convincing on some level.

But then, when we grow up, those stories don’t work, and the trauma still leaves wounds, so we either have to be honest with ourselves about what we experienced, or we have to find comfort in the “adult” forms of rationalizing. Both of these tactics might well require the adult self to remember the stories they told themselves as a child to explain what had happened, identify what really happened, and then make a choice about how to deal with it.

To me, this is isn’t a fantasy novel, although it could be taken as such. Ultimately — and this is where I guess I will mention certain other plot specifics — I take as the key “real world” events of the book the failed birthday party (bad for a seven year old boy), the death of the kitten (worse) and then the opal miner (terrible), then the nanny’s affair with the father (incomprehensible), and the scene in the bathroom between the narrator and his father (devastating). (The “Does it make you feel big to make a little boy cry?” confrontation sounds too much like wish-fulfillment, something that the adult self wished the child could have said, for me to take entirely literally.) The Hempstocks, then, are an image of what the women in his life would have looked like had they not been complicit (as he saw it) in these events. To me, it’s a book about what the narrator experienced as the worst trauma of his childhood, how he rationalized the very adult pain he experienced from death, betrayal, and violence at the hands of people who were supposed to care about him, how everybody ultimately covered it up and explained it away, and how as an adult he’s still covering it up to himself. In a way, while there are certainly similarities to Coraline et al., the Gaiman work it seems to be most like is Murder Mysteries, with the protagonist ultimately left unable, or perhaps unwilling, to admit what they’re carrying around on the inside, unwilling to put the pieces together because it would mean acknowledging that the whole is in fact a hole. The other work it reminds me of isn’t by Gaiman, but it certainly seems to me that Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth deals with many of the same issues (and, come to think of it, so does Twin Peaks, particularly Fire Walk With Me).

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a great book, no question, but it is very uncomfortable to read, particularly when one starts to suspect what Gaiman might be up to. It is not a children’s book (and it isn’t being marketed as such), even though it has some superficial characteristics of one and probably could be read and enjoyed by children. It’s the kind of thing I would have read it at nine or ten and enjoyed, but I would have gotten something very different out of it than what I get out of it as a reader in his mid-30s. As an adult reader, the pain at the core of the narrative is evident and catching, and the menace under the surface of the narrative that isn’t spelled out explicitly is a lot more frightening than stuff you’re told outright. What’s scarier — that you’re being abused by somebody who’s being manipulated into doing it by externalities, or by somebody who simply does it as part of their nature?

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Amanda Palmer’s TED talk

I’m not a humongous fan of Amanda Palmer’s creative output. I like the idea of it more than I like its execution. I find her creative processes and chances to be intriguing, and on the whole I guess I’m glad that there are people trying to push the envelope of the present day economic model for the arts, particularly since I’m also somebody who is hoping that there are alternate funding models out there that can work. I’ve bought some of her music; as I say, it’s more interesting than enjoyable to me, on the whole, but the stuff that’s interesting can be pretty interesting. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m an Oingo Boingo fan from way back in the day, and her “punk cabaret” thing is sort of a de-professionalized version of the the same idea. Sort of.


Ms. Palmer’s TED talk appears to be tearing up the Internet, and there are a couple of things I’d like to throw out there about it.

First off, I recently attended a seminar by a political theorist who is proposing that, along with liberty and equality, dignity is the third necessary precondition for democracy to work — that is, there has to be some way that the intrinsic worth of the participant is going to be preserved in the democratic process. This is interesting to me on a number of different levels, but for present purposes, I will say that it seems to me to be a big part of Ms. Palmer’s point. What she’s saying, essentially, is that if you ask for something in a way that affirms the dignity of both the person asking and the person being asked, rather than demanding in a way that assumes you’re asking from a position of authority or begging in a way that debases yourself as the petitioner, but that just says, “Hey, one human being to another, can you do something that’s in your power to do?” — that is, presents the proposed transaction as something mutual and participatory — then you’re more likely to get what you’re asking for, you’re also more likely to broaden your social network in some way through that person, that person’s social network is reciprocally expanded, and they are likely to feel like they got something of value out of the transaction. It’s a really lovely idea, no question.

I have no doubt that there are game theoreticians out there who will have plenty to say about Ms. Palmer’s model. My amateur’s observations are this:

Crowdfunding amounts to the thought I think probably every college student has ever had — “You know,” they say to themselves, walking to their next class, “if I could figure out a way to get a dollar from every person on this campus, then my tuition bill would be covered.” It’s a perfectly sensible thought if you can just figure out how to do it — why shouldn’t it be easier to get $1 from 40,000 people than to get $40,000 from a single source?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, it seems, why it isn’t easier, but Ms. Palmer starts out by saying, well, that’s the model that I followed as a street performer, and I did okay enough to see it as being fundamentally worthwhile. Here’s the thing, though — what she doesn’t tell you is that she did it in Boston. In order for something like that to work, you basically have to assume a certain size city, with a certain density of people on foot, and you have to assume a critical mass of a certain kind of person with a certain amount of cash on their person.

To put it another way, you couldn’t really do it in Bloomington.

Second, Ms. Palmer presents it as a model of “all you have to do is ask and anybody can do this”, and I’m just not convinced that it’s at all that simple. She at once talks about the value of expanding one’s social network through the average person on the street while also downplaying her own not-inconsiderable non-Average-Joe social network. She’s married to Neil Gaiman, is my point. That’s wonderful that she can get a Neti pot delivered to her at a coffee shop within 5 minutes of Tweeting the need for same; if only it were that easy for me to find Theodore a babysitter that way — but that’s just not my (or my wife’s) social network. Our networks are largely outside of Bloomington, which means they’re not terribly useful for immediate and personal needs — that’s what happens when you live in this kind of town for ten years, all your friends move away.

(Mr. Palmer — er, Neil Gaiman — also has a talk floating out there online that I intend to comment on soon. All in good time.)

All of that said, there is absolutely an art to asking, and fearlessness in reaching out really is the first step. I have found in my own projects that, if you’re hoping that somebody can give you $100, it’s better to ask for $400 and have them give you $200 because they really are happy to help than to ask for $100, have them figure you don’t really need the money if you’re asking for so little, and they give you $50. That doesn’t work in all cases, but it works in a reasonable proportion of them.

At the same time, there is no bigger draw to my blog than the materials under the tab “Greek Resources”. I have put them up for free, there are a lot of links out there to them, and I have tried to suggest over the years — Hey, if you think there’s a value here, then it’d be great if you expressed that value somehowAnd, well, that’s generated all of I think $20 a year since I started putting them up. That’s fine; I’m not going to take them down, and I’ll keep plugging away at them eventually, but that tells me something about how Ms. Palmer’s economic model works — that is, there’s more to it than simply putting up what you got and asking people to pay what they can. Along those lines, the funniest moment in the movie Julie and Julia to me is when Julie’s complaining about what she spends on cooking, somebody suggests to her that she put a PayPal button on her blog, and next thing you know, gifts and checks just start rolling in. Yeah, it’s just not that simple, kids. Would that it were.

The Saint John of Damascus Society is about to try to crowdsource a particular creative project, or at least the first stages of it, and I will be very curious to see how it goes. I do have a particular social network made up of particular kinds of people I’ve gotten to know over the years, and while it can’t get me a babysitter, I will be very interested to see if it can generate support for something creative. We shall see.

In which the author takes note of the BBC’s plan to take over the minds of American geeks

Cliff Watson as the Usher, Tom Derbyshire as the Learned Judge, and Yours Truly as the Defendant. The martini glass was my own touch. (Bridesmaids, left to right: Kathleen Gillette, Angie Bartels, Tessa Studebaker, Katie Edwards, Winchee Lin, and Hollis Heron. My friends, if any of you are reading this, it's really hard to believe that was a decade ago this year. I miss you all terribly. It's been too long. I really didn't think I'd be out here anywhere close to this length of time, and now I don't have any idea about what would ever bring me back. To say nothing of the fact that I expect I would only ever be in the audience anymore for SG&S even if I were back.)

I can’t really claim to have ever legitimately been an Anglophile. I obviously was fascinated by Sherlock Holmes as a little kid, and reading “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” inspired me to badger my mother into preparing a goose and plum pudding for Christmas when I was nine years old, then for a few years I ran in Episcopalian circles (which isn’t really the same as being an Anglican, I eventually decided, but it’s as close as you can get in some parts of the country), had a stint in the Tudor Choir, honeymooned in Victoria, B. C., and also sang a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan. Still, I never actually went to England before five years ago, I never cared much about the Union Jack or tea or the Queen Mum (or any of the royals, really), and really couldn’t tell you the first thing about Winston Churchill. The way to put it that is at once most accurate and charitable is that, if anything, I was an Anglophile wannabe.

My love of Sherlock Holmes meant that my formative Holmes actor was Jeremy Brett, whom I saw on Mystery! probably starting in 1985. He was not only formative, but normative —  the gold standard in the way that Batman: The Animated Series is the gold standard of Batman interpretations regardless of medium. I do have to confess, however, that the first screen Holmes to captivate me was Christopher Plummer in the, uh, criminally underrated 1979 Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper film Murder by Decree (directed by Bob Clark, which is rather curious since he is probably most famous for A Christmas Story) (and Decree is also quite notable for having James Mason as Watson). The first time I saw that was probably in 1982 or 1983 on late night television — I remember my dad pulling me out of bed because he correctly thought I’d probably be interested in seeing it. There was also a production of The Hound of the Baskervilles at Woodinville High School in 1984 that I remember seeing — one of my teachers took me to see it, and I also recall that the actor who played Holmes came out after the play and talked to me for a little while. Can’t remember the guy’s name, but I remember being blown away by him.

Doctor Who I became aware of probably starting in 1989 when I began reading Starlog, and I remember seeing bits and pieces on PBS here and there. I think the part that sticks out most in my memory is catching the end of The Armageddon Factor. For better or for worse, however, the first Doctor Who I ever watched in its entirety was the 1996 Fox TV movie with Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and Eric Roberts as the Master. I certainly enjoyed it well enough to be part of the letter-writing campaign that tried to get Fox to pick it up as a series (as well as to save Strange Luck, but something about having historically been a fan of horrifically lost causes comes leaping to mind), but obviously that didn’t happen.

Skipping ahead to 2004, I read about Christopher Eccleston being cast as the Doctor in a relaunch of Doctor Who. Interesting, I thought, but how will I ever actually have the chance to see it? I don’t have cable, and I don’t really have time to organize my life around watching a TV show anyway.

Over the next few years, mostly through reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, I would catch bits of Doctor Who news here and there — David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and then, after apparently months of speculation that it would be Lenny Henry Paterson Joseph, Matt Smith — wait, who? — as the Eleventh Doctor. I had absolutely no idea what any of this meant, but it sure sounded like it would be worth watching if I ever had the chance. Also, around this time, mostly due to reading TheOneRing.Net and seeing lots of speculation about Martin Freeman as Bilbo, I started hearing things about a TV series based on the idea of a modernized Sherlock Holmes.

Well, in the fall of 2010, finding myself with a wife out of the country and our big TV out in the middle of the living room while my friend Phil Woodward lived in the second bedroom where the TV used to be, I decided I wanted to be able to watch Netflix Streaming on the TV. I had been able to plug my laptop into the set, but I could only do video — the video/audio-to-HDMI converters I had tried burned out within minutes, so I could watch the video on TV but I had to listen to it through the laptop speakers. The trouble was that we bought a Blu-Ray player right before Netflix Streaming had become standard on them, I didn’t really want to buy another Blu-Ray deck just for that functionality, and if Flesh of My Flesh had come home to us owning a Wii or an Xbox or some other gaming unit, she would have divorced me instantly (which in Indiana I believe involves a rusty pair of scissors and a clamp). I know, I know, First World Problems. In any case, I was persuaded by some poking around that AppleTV was the most cost-effective solution for my particular circumstances, and thus I brought one of the little black boxes home one day.

When I hooked it up and got Netflix Streaming up and running, I actually spent some time poking around the library, which I hadn’t done before — I had only noticed if a movie in my queue was listed as being available for instant viewing. Sure enough, there was the Eccleston Who — so I started watching. When it was over, I watched the next one. When that one was over, I watched the next one. Next thing I knew, the Ninth Doctor was telling Rose, “You won’t see me again, not like this,” and I was crying. Still, David Tennant was a lot of fun, but then when he disappeared from the beach before he could tell Rose he loved her, I was crying again.

Meanwhile, Phil, my housemate for the year, turned me on to Veronica Mars, which was also available via streaming (no longer, it seems — alas). I watched all three seasons, and I enjoyed it — Twin Peaks meets Beverly Hills 90210 is sort of how it seemed to me, at least at first — but I consider myself one of those who felt that it lost its way during the second season and never quite recovered. Even the first season — the way it was set up, it was absolutely awesome, and even the way they solved the season’s central mystery was fantastic and completely unexpected, but in general the wrap-up didn’t quite seem to follow through on the all of the convictions the setup had started out with. Without totally giving things away, I’m not entirely certain they played fair with the audience in the first season resolution, and then the way they returned to the same material for second season’s mystery was not in the least convincing. Also, in general, in the first season I was able to buy that these were high school kids, even if many of them were high school kids of significant privilege; almost all of that credibility went out the window during the second season. The third season — well, you’ve got an early appearance of Armie Hammer, which was kind of cool, but beyond that, by the end I was having trouble caring. The point of all of this is to say, American episodic television was leaving me wanting more. I’m aware that Veronica Mars is hardly representative of “American TV”, but nonetheless, that’s how it fits into the story.

I got through the first four seasons of Who, and most of the first two seasons of Torchwood. For the record, I didn’t really quit watching Torchwood, I just sort of ran out of time. I will go back and watch the rest at some point. John Barrowman is amazingly talented, and strikes me as what Tom Cruise would be like if Tom Cruise were a good TV actor rather than A Movie Star (that said, go see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it’s the best of the bunch and Brad Bird slams it out of the park). I watched all of the long specials that constituted Tennant’s putative “fourth season”, culminating in the heartbreaking “I don’t want to go!” — and suddenly there was this gangly kid onscreen yelling “Geronimo!”

Around this time, I decided to bite the Sherlock bullet. It wasn’t available on streaming, but the season pass on iTunes was something like $16, so… what the heck.

And, with that — season (I know, I know, “series”) five of Doctor Who and Sherlock — I was plunged into the depths of Steven Moffat’s pulsating pink glob of insanity jelly that he calls a brain.

Matt Smith quickly became my favorite of the three relaunched Doctors (and that after thinking there was no way that Tennant could possibly top Eccleston, and then thinking that Tennant had it as nailed as anybody could possibly nail it). Despite his youth, he played old surprisingly well, and in a way was the oldest-feeling of the bunch. The thing that in general grabs me about Doctor Who is that there are really no limits to the kinds of stories it can tell; science fiction, historical drama, comedy, horror, with any mixture of any number of those being possible. The Doctor himself, “the madman with a box”, has literally seen it all; Willy Wonka is a common comparandum to the Eleventh Doctor, but one I haven’t seen before that I think is apt is Neil Gaiman’s Morpheus — terribly old but still timeless, and still mortal in some way even if not quite. If any kind of a Sandman project ever does get off the ground, I’d love to see Matt Smith in the role — he looks like Morpheus (particularly in some of his Goth-boy publicity shots), and there were moments during the second half of the sixth season (particularly “Let’s Kill Hitler,” “The God Complex,” and “The Wedding of River Song”) where he captured a kind of despairing self-loathing that, to me at least, is key to the Dream King. (And let’s not forget the fairly blatant reference to the Doctor’s shadow self in “Amy’s Choice” as “The Dream Lord”.)

When my wife got back from Germany, I told her, okay, I’m now going to introduce you to my new favorite TV show. I started with “The Eleventh Hour” to see if she’d find it at all entertaining, and she did. Given what happens in the fifth season, I went back to “Blink”, “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead”, then proceeded with the rest of the fifth season and then the sixth season, so that this year’s Christmas special was the first one we watched “in sync”, as it were. She made the interesting observation, after watching “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” and Captain America: The First Avenger in reasonably quick succession, that each one represents a very different kind of cultural memory of World War II. For England, the memory is one of being bombed, forced out of your home, losing loved ones, being terrified in the dark — and for the United States, the memory is of being the good guys, plain and simple. Since we’re now working our way through the Eccleston series, I said, well, you’re going to get quite a bit more of that shortly (I’m thinking of “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”, which, it occurs to me, are also the first Steven Moffat-scripted episodes).

So, then there’s Sherlock.

Since I’ve read “A Study in Scarlet” probably a half-dozen times, within the first minute or two of “A Study in Pink” I knew what they were setting up — the question was, does the person they’re going out of their way to not show or draw attention to have the same motivation as Jefferson Hope? Seemed unlikely that a teenage boy would fit in with the same kind of revenge scheme at the heart of “Scarlet”, so knowing the what without the why kept me watching.

I was not prepared for “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!”, much less “No, she was leaving an angry note in German! Of course we’re looking for a Rachel!” What I realized was that knowing the stories set up certain expectations in my head that allowed Moffat and co. to subvert them. Removing the setting of Victorian England, what becomes effectively a third major character in the stories, allows the series to focus on the stories and characters themselves rather than either selling the spectacle of a recreated period (like the Downey Jr./Law movies) or having to be somewhat deliberately stagy to avoid spending too much money on a recreation (like the Jeremy Brett series could be at times).

(I would nonetheless love to see a big-budget, faithful, period film of “A Study in Scarlet” someday. I have no doubt that it will never happen for all kinds of reasons that should be obvious to anybody halfway familiar with the middle portion of the novella — probably the backstory would have to be merged with that of “The Valley of Fear” or something like that, which itself seems like an apologetic rewrite of “Scarlet” anyway — but I hope that I might be wrong on that point.)

It was also fascinating to see the series creators work in other kinds of references. The end of “Pink” definitely recalls Vizzini vs. Westley in The Princess Bride, but it also sets it up with The Vanishing, one of the more terrifying — to me, at least — cinematic psychological traps of the last 30 years. (I’m talking about the Dutch original, by the way, not the remake with Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland.) “A Scandal in Belgravia” also cleverly works in a Fight Club homage as well as what I’m convinced is a subtle Star Trek II reference. “Hounds of Baskerville” includes a couple of Nolan-esque moments, one a riff of a moment in Insomnia, and conceptually it is indebted to Batman Begins as much as to Conan Doyle. These don’t strike me as derivative — if anything, they strike me as “Easter eggs” for a particular kind of viewer.

And then, of course, there are the performances. Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t impersonating anybody, he isn’t being reverent to Brett or Rathbone or Plummer or anybody else, he’s giving the audience a Holmes without the veneer of 19th century gentlemanly society, thus exposing him as a “high-functioning sociopath”. He’s every bit as good as Brett while being a completely different take on the character; I can’t wait to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I’m very curious to see what Hollywood makes of him, given the recent casting of him as the villain in the next Star Trek. Martin Freeman is a perfect foil, and the showrunners do a great job of giving Watson more to do than just chronicling and commenting on Holmes. Turning him into a hapless wannabe-ladies’ man is an interesting comment on how Watson’s love life works itself out in the Conan Doyle stories, and his everyman qualities make it plain why Peter Jackson thought he’d be the perfect Bilbo Baggins. Una Stubbs is a lot of fun as Mrs. Hudson, and her take on the character reminds me a bit of Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett. And, I have to say, I don’t understand why some people have such a burr in their saddles over how Moriarty has been handled. I’ll be curious to see where it goes with “The Reichenbach Fall”, but in the 21st century I find it quite reasonable to think that a master criminal might be, at heart, a man-child on a power trip who wants to get back at everybody who laughed at him growing up.

There’s clearly a shared creative DNA between Sherlock and Doctor Who; obviously there’s Steven Moffat, but there’s also Mark Gatiss, Euros Lyn, and so on. Sherlock and the Eleventh Doctor have similar ways of processing information (compare “What did I see? I saw…” in “The Eleventh Hour” to the “Bond Air” bit in “A Scandal in Belgravia”), and there are some very interesting similarities between “The Hounds of Baskerville” and “The Unquiet Dead” (the third episode of the Eccleston Who), both Gatiss-scripted. I haven’t yet seen Tintin, but I’m very curious to see how Moffat’s work translates to the big screen.

And there you have it — I’m still not really an Anglophile, but I’m nonetheless one of the people who helped make Doctor Who the most purchased-from-iTunes TV series in 2011, and I’m doing my part to pass along the disease. I’ve shown the first fifteen minutes of “A Study in Pink” to about ten people thus far, and there hasn’t yet been an instance where I haven’t had my hand slapped away from the remote when I’ve said, “Okay, that’s the first fifteen minutes, I’m sure you’re not interested in seeing the rest…” Nor has there yet been an instance where I haven’t been bugged for the next 2-3 days about watching the other two episodes of the first season. “The Eleventh Hour” has also had a similar success rate.

I’ll also briefly note that a recent British TV movie called Page Eight was something I was persuaded to check out by virtue of the cast alone — Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, and Ralph Fiennes. (One wonders if all of the Harry Potter alumni get together to do these kinds of things for fun.) It’s an espionage thriller, and a very understated espionage to say the least, but that hardly makes it uninteresting. Bill Nighy  — whom I’m embarrassed to say I first heard of because a friend dragged me to the first Underworld back in 2003 — is such a restrained character that the tension is ratcheted up just by the viewer’s fear of what will happen when he finally lets loose. Does he? I ain’t sayin’. I’ll just say for now that I hope he gets to return to the role at some point, and that Page Eight is well worth checking out — you can find it on either iTunes or PBS’s website, I believe.

Post-Lenten unwind

This last weekend was the most relaxed I’ve had in a couple of months. I didn’t have to set an alarm Saturday morning, and we were able to leisurely make biscuits and gravy for breakfast.

Yesterday, after Divine Liturgy, we had time and energy to walk to the movies in the afternoon, and then come home and make French Onion Soup for dinner (to use up the onions with which I had dyed eggs last weekend).

The movie we saw yesterday was State of Play, with Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels, and, in a standout supporting performance, Jason Bateman. (Can I say that I never thought I would ever type a sentence where “standout supporting performance” would modify “Jason Bateman”, the ’80s sitcom kid?) Anyway, it was interesting — it asks the question, how do you make a good newspaper movie when the newspaper itself is a  dying medium? An undercurrent of the story is blogging vs. print journalism, and also how journalistic ethics are jeopardized when a newspaper has a mandate to sell copies at all costs. I’ve posted here before about the death of the print version of one of the newspapers of my childhood hometown, and Rod Dreher blogs regularly about surviving the various batteries of layoffs at the Dallas Morning News which have occurred recently; these are things I think about as somebody who taps out a few words here and there in various places, and I found it to be an engaging treatment of the question. Could Watergate still happen in today’s information economy? Or would it be spun so fast that the story would be managed before anybody knew what happened?

As long as I’m thinking about movies — I’ve mentioned before that I watch a lot of DVDs while I use my treadmill. I burned through the entirety of the old Batman: The Animated Series, as well as Batman Beyond and a good chunk of Justice League Unlimited. I’ve also watched all three Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings films plus the Peter Jackson commentary, and recently did all the commentary tracks and other supplemental material on the Blade Runner: Final Cut set. Well, Friday, I finally took the opportunity to watch the new Wonder Woman animated movie.

You know what? It’s actually not half-bad. It looks as good as any of the Timmverse stuff at its best, the writing is clever and entertaining, the voice acting is fun, and it does a pretty darn decent job of having a thoughtful take on the material and telling a good story about the character. It definitely borrows from 300 and Lord of the Rings in spots (which I thought on first viewing and which later was owned up to in the commentary), but parts of it also remind me of Gaiman’s Sandman (which I’d love to see taken on as one of the DCAU projects, but I’m not holding my breath).

Anyway — it was a really welcome change of pace to be able to sleep in on a Saturday and have a Sunday afternoon where it could be just the two of us. We’ve got six more weekends before I head off overseas (for a change), so hopefully we can have a few more like that.

From The Onion, 17 January 2001

With a tip of the hat to Neil Gaiman, all I can say is: Ouch. Whatever one’s politics, it’s just not funny, is it?

Timely words

I’ll have more to say about Neil Gaiman‘s The Graveyard Book a little later (“buy it and read it” will do for the moment), but these words struck me as being apt for the world in which we presently find ourselves:

Fear is contagious. You can catch it. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say that they’re scared for the fear to become real. (p188)

Food for thought. Count me as one who believes that it is falls to artists (among others) to help guide us through tough times; from that standpoint, thanks for the tip, Neil.


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