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Posts Tagged 'blade runner'

Part the Third: The Nowhere In Particular Years

Where we last left off, I had been given an immersion, threefold, believer’s baptism at Overlake Christian Church in the spring of 1989, only for my mother and I to stop going entirely.

Why did this happen? Well, it’s complicated, and I’m not completely certain I understand it myself. What seems to have happened is that, as I said, domestically we were in crisis mode, and while Overlake’s services did a nice job of whipping you up into an arm-waving frenzy under their roof, Mom seemed to be weighed down by the disconnect between that stirring up and the despair that we were dealing with in the rest of our life. To a very real extent, I think the unraveling of our collective household well-being was also underscoring for my parents what it meant to be “unequally yoked”. In the midst of all of this trouble, the only two things my parents seemed to really have in common were me and their mutual unhappiness, and I think my mom maybe wanted to de-emphasize the religious difference to see what would happened, and perhaps she just wanted some time away from God to try to understand why he had put her there. On a practical level, between it taking over a year to sell our house, starting to hop from rental property to rental property once every year or so, and also having to go back to work, maybe Mom was just too exhausted to make Sunday mornings work for awhile.

Whatever the case was, she wasn’t going, and that meant I wasn’t going. For us, that changed a lot; absolutely zero changed for my dad, except that he didn’t have to worry that somebody was going to pressure him into doing something he didn’t want to do. (“Why in the hell would somebody who can’t think of a halfway decent way to spend Sunday morning want to live forever?” was one of his memorable lines in this period.)

In the vacuum, I became… I don’t know. Between all the arguing and the stress they were constantly under, all I wanted was to not be part of the problem. So I basically stopped talking to them and did my best to be a good kid, whatever that meant, on my own. In religious terms, I had absolutely no idea how to make that mean anything by myself; the only concrete ideas I had to fall back on were the precepts outlined in Josh McDowell’s Answers book, but those weren’t really holding up very well anymore. There was no community to reinforce anything, and my parents were dealing with their own problems, so I was scrambling.

I became a goth kid of sorts; I started wearing mostly black, I discovered the Cocteau Twins and David Lynch and Gary Numan and Blade Runner and Christian Slater and re-discovered anime, I started playing Rush songs on the guitar, and I got into the major Seattle bands a couple of years early. More about this later.

I have to skip ahead to my junior year of high school, because there really isn’t anything of note between the time we stopped going to Overlake and ’92/’93 in terms of me and Christianity. My grandmother tried to insist to my mom that she needed to find a good old-fashioned Lutheran church, and my mom just smiled and nodded. My dad had made friends with one Rick Snodgrass, an Evangelical pastor who had started a church in Redmond, and my mom and I tried to go there a couple of Sundays, but it just didn’t take. (Rick also offered to let me play guitar in their praise band, but I went to one rehearsal and felt like a square peg in a round hole.) The one major thing I can say, I suppose, is that I never lost my faith; there wasn’t anything in particular supporting it, and it was becoming evident to me that the Evangelicals on a national scale were distinctly interested in pointing fingers at other people as much as they could with no room for disagreement, but that couldn’t mean that Christianity itself was invalid, right? I didn’t really know what that meant for me, since so far as it had been explained to me, there were the real Christians who went to Overlake, explicitly non-Christian cults like Catholicism and Mormonism and Unitarianism, and then the “denominations” which were basically implicitly non-Christian cults made up of people who weren’t really serious about Christ. So where in the world did somebody like me fit in, somebody who believed but who wasn’t thrilled with who appeared to be controlling the conversation? I had no way to answer that question. It was kind of academic anyway, since I didn’t drive until my senior year of high school (I’ll explain later), and couldn’t get anywhere on my own Sunday mornings.

Junior year of high school, I had a crush on a very nice and very pretty Christian girl who went to Overlake. This was, alas, not destined to be my first successful attempt to convince somebody I liked that they liked me back enough to want to actually call ourselves something (that would have to wait a few more months), but she liked me enough at least that when I said that I used to go to Overlake until my mom stopped going, she offered to pick me up on Sunday mornings. Well, okay, then.

It was a curious experience, being back after four years. The high schoolers had their own separate service with their own pastor, which is what my friend and I went to, although it was basically the exact same format as the adult service. The very best thing I remember about the experience is that the high school pastor was a wonderful guy who genuinely cared about kids and had a very real love for God. He also had a heart for the outsider, which meant that the couple of times I specifically went to him because I needed to talk, he knew exactly what to say to me, and he appeared to actually be concerned with what became of me. I’m really grateful for that man, and only wish I could have gotten to know him better.

The rest of it… well, not to put too fine a point on it, but my chief impression was one of conservative rich white kids patting themselves on the back for being conservative rich white kids, and it was plain as day to me that I didn’t fit in with that crowd, no matter how much I wanted to go to church somewhere and no matter how much I wanted to make this girl like me. (She herself also didn’t entirely fit in, but she fit in better and more naturally than I did.) Most of my memories on this point are somewhat impressionistic — I remember a couple of guys who were very reminiscent of Roger and Burt, the two Young Republican groupies from Bob Roberts, getting up and singing a song one day called “All He Needs Is A Few Good Men”. I remember there being this guy who was far, far, far more of a suburban goth-wannabe than I ever was who was bragging one day about having written a “gay-bashing techno song” that he had poetically titled “Hey You Faggot”. I remember Bill Clinton’s candidacy being of great concern, with somebody getting up one Sunday and talking very solemnly and seriously about how we had to consider the possibility that he could be the Anti-Christ, and somebody else saying that the central credit card computer was being openly referred to by the banks as “the Beast”. I remember there being nobody who really talked to me besides my friend (plus a couple of other people I already knew who went there) and the high school pastor. I even tried to do some of the social events like rollerskating and whatnot, but I just felt awkward and didn’t know where to put myself. (Again, the pastor was the main person who talked to me that evening.)

I talked with one of my other friends who went there about feeling lonely at Overlake. “Well,” he said very sincerely, “you’re somebody who’s got a lot of questions. Overlake is really someplace for people who have accepted the answers.” Huh. Okay, then. If even this guy felt I didn’t belong there, then maybe I didn’t belong there. By that point it was also clear that my friend had considered the notion of being more than friends with me and found the idea ultimately wanting, which was making the extra effort for her of picking me up something of a strain. The best thing to do seemed to just stop going, and that’s what I did. I wanted so badly to be a Christian and to have a church to go to — but the feeling wasn’t being reciprocated, apparently, and it seemed really hard to fit in where affluent suburban Evangelicals wanted kids like me to fit in.

Shortly thereafter, during my very first trip to Indiana in fact, the word “girlfriend” actually became a practical word in my vocabulary rather than simply a theoretical construct. She was raised Lutheran, more or less, which, as somebody with Lutheran roots for whom non-denominationalism hadn’t worked, sounded potentially promising to me, only to find out that she herself had no particular interest in it. Ah, well.

A few months after that, another girl was in the picture (oh, the drama that was my senior year of high school) who had been raised Unitarian, sort of. By that point I actually had a driver’s license and could go to church wherever I wanted if I wanted to go; I did so want, and she was okay with going with me. The question was, where to? There was a Baptist church that one of my favorite teachers went to, and I had gone there once with my mom, but it was too much like Overlake. I was completely out of the loop otherwise and had no idea where to go.

One day at school, I overheard a guy, an acquaintance whom I liked and respected but didn’t know all that well, talking with somebody about the sermon they had heard at church the previous Sunday. I can’t remember a thing about what he actually said, but it sounded interesting and thought-provoking at least, so I asked where he went. “Northlake Lutheran,” he said. Huh. Okay. I looked it up, and it was maybe 10 minutes from where I lived. Well, why not.

That’s where I found myself the next Sunday. The first thing that jumped out at me was that the place was small. There were certainly less than 200 people in the nave, which made it smaller than Overlake’s high school service alone. The next thing was that there was some kind of order to the service — “liturgy”, I heard this referred to as, which was a word I couldn’t remember hearing before. The singing free-for-all at the beginning and end wasn’t at all what happened here; there seemed to be specific moments where music happened, and it was regulated. There were hymnals, and we were supposed to be able to pick up the hymnals to follow what was going on. There was an organ and a choir, characteristics that had seemed to be stereotypically “churchy” in the movies but hadn’t ever been part of my experience. The next thing was that the sermon was short — like ten minutes tops, and the pastor seemed to base his homily on something other than his personality, which was hardly magnetic. He was kind of awkward, really, but that actually made the content of his sermon all the more powerful. Well, I did my best to sing along from the hymnal, I stumbled along with service as best as I could, with everything being sort of half-remembered (since it had been ten years since I had been to a Lutheran service), I was sort of scandalized by the use of real wine at Communion, and then that was that — the service was over. Maybe an hour.

The moment that brought me back the following Sunday, though, was that as the congregation filed out of the church, the pastor (Wm. Chris Boerger, now bishop of the ELCA Northwest Washington Synod) greeted everybody personally, and when he got to me, he shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Pastor Chris. I don’t know you. What’s your name?”

What? The pastor knew his people well enough to know that there was somebody there he didn’t know? And he cared enough to find out my name? That was beyond my comprehension after what I had been accustomed to at Overlake. The very best part, though, was the next Sunday, when he saw me and said, “Hi, Richard!” Beyond anything else — beyond creationism, tribulation, abortion, whatever, I desperately needed somebody to actually notice that I had shown up, and cared enough to say something about it. Going by myself at the age of seventeen to a church I had no family history at whatsoever was really going out on a limb in ways I think I understand better now, and that notice and welcome kept me in the game at a time when I might not have otherwise felt like I had any reason to stay in it.

I kept going to Northlake up through my high school graduation. It started to actually feel like a “church home”.

Then things became a little complicated.

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Thoughts on Inception or, Christopher Nolan and Cobb salad

I’m not going to write a conventional review of Inception; I think the movie is stunning, and I strongly encourage everybody to go see it. That’s about as much of a “review” as I want to write; what I’d rather do is discuss what thoughts were provoked by it.

I will say this once:

DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN INCEPTION, SINCE A VERY THOROUGH DISCUSSION OF SPOILERS IS TO FOLLOW. I WILL ALSO BE TALKING ABOUT THE PRISONERUSUAL SUSPECTS, SHUTTER ISLAND, THE PRESTIGE, MEMENTO, FOLLOWING, INSOMNIA, BATMAN BEGINS, AND THE DARK KNIGHT, SO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

We clear?

I’ve seen Inception three times now; I saw it at the midnight showing last Friday morning, again Friday night, and again Tuesday morning. It’s one of those movies where you want to take people to see it and be there with them while they experience it for the first time. I think maybe The Usual Suspects was the first movie like that for me; I took different people to see that, all because I wanted to be there when they saw the falling coffee cup and realized what it meant. Christopher Nolan has become the the guy who makes that kind of movie for me these days; Memento and The Prestige were both movies I happily did repeated viewings of with different people, and two summers ago, as reported to some extent here, I did the same thing with The Dark Knight.

Now, one of these things — The Dark Knight — is not like the other, at least at first glance. Suspects, MementoThe Prestige — these are just all “twist ending” movies, right? The whole point of the movie is the ending you aren’t expecting, and there’s not really anything to them beyond that? Well, there are those who might argue that, sure. The question becomes, how do these movies stand up to repeated viewings? I have never bothered with The Blair Witch Project since the one time I saw it in theatres, because that’s the kind of movie that, for my money, really is just a magic trick that would probably show its strings upon seeing it again. The twists of Suspects, Memento, and The Prestige are such that you have a fundamentally different sense of what the story is actually about the second time around, and it’s a question of whether or not that different story is interesting. Is the story of Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze (depending on how you look at the story) conning Agent Kujan as interesting as the story of Agent Kujan trying to figure out what happened at the pier? Is the story of Leonard Shelby setting himself up to murder John Gammell, both as revenge for being used by him and as a way to give himself closure, however briefly, over the death of his wife, as interesting as the story of Leonard trying to solve a murder mystery in an incapacitated state? Is the story of three magicians essentially living out large-scale versions of their own tricks in pursuit of their craft as interesting as the story of the rivalry between two magicians leading to a mysterious death?

And for me, the answer has always been, unequivocally, yes. Verbal/Keyser becomes a fascinating character on subsequent viewings — little gestures and facial expressions take on new meaning, and while you realize that he’s taking Kujan on something of a ride, you also come to the conclusion that some of it has to be true. It’s particularly unsettling if you conclude, as I do, that he’s telling the truth about having killed his own family. The ways in which both John Gammell and Natalie manipulate Leonard to their own ends, but also in which Leonard consistently manipulates himself, suggest that what Leonard really is in his damaged state is a loaded gun, and it’s just a question of who’s going to get to pull the trigger. One of the rewards of multiple viewings of The Prestige is understanding exactly why Borden figures out the goldfish bowl trick so quickly and why Angier doesn’t get it, to say nothing of seeing just how clever Christian Bale’s performance actually is, and that he very clearly differentiates between the two twins.

Particularly given my experience with Memento and The Prestige, I did my best to stay as ignorant as possible about Inception from the time I heard it announced until when I walked into the theatre for the first time — but it didn’t escape me that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was named “Cobb,” the same name given to the antagonist in Following. What would it come to mean, if anything? Would “Cobb” be nothing more than Nolan’s “Spota”? Or was there more to it?

The opening shot of Cobb sprawled and sputtering on the beach suggested even more of a connection to Following, since a very similar image plays an important role in the opening of that film as well (and as it works out, in both movies you don’t find out what these images actually mean until much later). About an hour into seeing it the first time, I started to become convinced that where the story was leading us to was the revelation that Mal was right, that she had escaped the dreamworld by throwing herself off the building and Cobb was still stuck, and that all of her manifestations were actually her entering Cobb’s dream to try to rescue him. Perhaps she was a “forger” as well, and that was why Saito echoed her line about a “leap of faith”. I prepared myself for this ending, expecting a montage of clips at the end that would replay some of Mal’s appearances with additional “behind the scenes” information presented, showing how they meant something else than what we, the audience, thought they meant at the time. I figured that even though I had figured it out, Nolan would be able to present it in a way that would make it work and that would be up to par with the rest of his work.

Can I tell you that I was really happy to be wrong, and that I was completely unprepared for the last five minutes of the film, much less the cut to black on the spinning, but wobbling, top? The “twist,” insofar as there was one, was really about Cobb’s soul and less about plot mechanics or where amongst the various levels of reality he actually was, and the final bit of ambiguity — the top’s losing stability, so it has to fall, right? Or does it? — is just enough to leave the audience with closure on Cobb’s emotional journey (the real story in the first place) even if you can argue until the cows come home whether or not he’s in the “real” world. It’s like the origami unicorn at the end of Blade Runner, except that by the time audiences could see a cut of Blade Runner where the origami unicorn meant what Ridley Scott intended it to mean, they were already prepared for it to mean that. I’m not sure anybody was expecting the top.

An assertion that some reviews I’ve read have made is that, with DiCaprio in the leading role, there are uncomfortable similarities with Shutter Island. I don’t disagree necessarily that there are parallels, but I also think the claim is misleading. With Shutter Island, I knew from reading the reviews that Teddy Daniels would turn out to be crazy; the only question I had watching it was just how this would unfold. Dom Cobb’s issues have to do with his dead wife, much as with Teddy Daniels, and Shutter Island makes you question the “reality” of what you’re seeing, but that’s just about the extent of the similarities. Cobb isn’t crazy, and there are far more levels of reality-bending at play in Inception than in Shutter Island. Shutter Island really is a “twist ending” thriller, whereas Inception is an emotional and psychological drama playing out in the framework of a caper movie. If you go into Inception expecting it to be Shutter Island meets Dark City, you will be expecting a much different movie than what you actually get.

Something the two definitely have in common, however, is that Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a knockout performance in the lead role. I hadn’t been all that interested in him before a couple of years ago — I noticed Russell Crowe in The Quick and the Dead but really couldn’t care less about Leo; Romeo + Juliet and Titanic were neither fantastic nor offensive performances, as far as I was concerned; I remember Gabriel Byrne a lot more than I remember him in The Man in the Iron Mask, and I hated hated hated The Beach. Then I saw The Departed, Blood Diamond, Shutter Island, and Body of Lies in reasonably rapid succession, and realized he had developed into a fantastic adult dramatic actor. As a friend of mine put it, he’s no longer an ingenue. He captures Cobb’s guilt and regret and makes them compelling, while still being able to sell us a “master extractor” at the top of his game.

I might suggest that DiCaprio is somewhat unconventional for Christopher Nolan as a leading man; Hugh Jackman and Aaron Eckhart are both classically good-looking man’s men; Guy Pearce, Christian Bale, and even Jeremy Theobald (at least in spots) all have kind of a drawn, chiseled quality the way he photographs them — not necessarily meaning that they’re ripped (although certainly Pearce, Bale, and Hugh Jackman are), but rather that there’s a particular air of cultivated masculinity about each of them, especially in the face. DiCaprio doesn’t really fit into either category (although Cillian Murphy’s Fischer fits in with Pearce and Bale), and he definitely doesn’t have the rippling muscles that Nolan takes pains to show us with Pearce, Bale, and Jackman. He starts to assume an air of something like the latter category when he’s “Mr. Charles” in level 2 of the dreamworld, but it’s clear that it’s an act, or a “gambit” as the movie explains. In any event, even if DiCaprio isn’t exactly doughy, he is more of a physical Everyman than Nolan has given us before (except maybe with Al Pacino, although even then, c’mon, it’s Al Pacino).

Thematically, Inception is very much a development of what Nolan has done before; as I’ve noted in earlier musings, there are recurring motifs in his work, and they’re all here. Fischer’s need to resolve his feelings of letting his father down mirrors Bruce Wayne’s struggle in Batman Begins. Domestic tragedy, time being messed with, people leading multiple lives with multiple identities (or even multiple people sharing an identity), the overwhelming desire to simply go home to one’s family, a hidden place where one is hiding the truth from everybody, often including themselves — and, curiously enough, agonizing leg injuries have started to pop up, starting with Angier falling through the trapdoor in The Prestige, Batman dropping Maroni in The Dark Knight, and now Mal shooting Arthur in the kneecap. In fact, in a lot of ways, Inception is a reworking of some of Memento‘s story, with even a repeated visual quote (the view of the wife lying down but shot so that she’s oriented vertically, since she’d be parallel to the person whose point of view is providing the shot), except that it’s the wife with the damaged mind, and Cobb is aware of his own role in Mal’s death, making revenge a non-starter, and the Cobbs have children, whereas Leonard and his wife did not — giving Cobb something else to live for, a meaning to his life beyond Mal’s death that Leonard didn’t have. Leonard describes his condition “like waking, like you just woke up”, and goes to great lengths at one point in the movie to construct a scenario where he will wake up and think he’s still in his own home — essentially the same idea as Inception‘s “dream within a dream”. Not only that, but John Gammell’s constant insistence that Leonard doesn’t know what reality is, that he’s “wandering around, playing detective” prefigures Mal’s speech to Cobb that “you don’t believe in one reality anymore”. Of course, a key difference here is that Mal’s wrong… right?

There are also interesting similarities to Following, too, beyond the name “Cobb”. Both movies are about a long con, but one can also draw lines of connection between Inception‘s Cobb and Ariadne, at least at the outset, and Following‘s Cobb and the Young Man. In both cases, Cobb is the master taking the apprentice under his wing, and the first dreamshare training sequence with Ariadne, with Cobb explaining how people populate their dreams with their subconscious, has a curious parallel to Cobb in Following breaking into the first apartment with the Young Man, and explaining how people’s things in their apartment reflect who they are. Cobb tells Ariadne that if they design a safe, the dreamer will automatically fill it with their secrets; Cobb tells the Young Man that “everybody has a box… that’s sort of an unconscious collection… [that] tells something very intimate about the people.”

It also seems to me that the concept of a “totem”, something by which one keeps track of reality, is everywhere in Nolan’s films, even if he hasn’t named it before. In Memento Leonard has his “system,” his photos and his tattoos. In Batman Begins there are the arrowhead and his father’s stethoscope. In The Prestige it is Borden’s ball. In The Dark Knight it’s Harvey’s coin. They also appear to have varying degrees of efficacy — Leonard’s “system” doesn’t work at all, for example, but Borden, at least one of him, seems to keep it together pretty well. (By the way, on the third viewing I noticed that Ariadne is madly fiddling with her totem on the plane at the end, as the camera pans from Arthur across to her. It’s a nice touch.)

Something else that strikes me about Inception is that it is a surprisingly low-tech movie. The technological conceit of dreamsharing is pulled off through compounds fed into the bloodstream via tubes in the arms leading from a gadget in a suitcase, rather than slick-looking headpieces that jack into the brain. There is one computer in the whole film, a rather chunky looking laptop; we only see two cell phones, and they’re barely used at all. Beyond that, tech isn’t really a factor, like at all. Professor Miles writes in what look like Moleskine notebooks, for heavens’ sakes.

To be honest, I argue that Inception isn’t even science fiction, any more than The Prestige is. Philip K. Dick’s definition of science fiction is that the technology, or what he called the “conceptual dislocation” of the world in the story from the real world, must “result [in] a new society… generated in the author’s mind” (From a 1981 letter printed as the preface to “Paycheck and Other Classic Stories”, PKD). There’s not really anything of the kind in Inception; you have a particular technological conceit that facilitates the story (Cobb dealing with Mal’s death) but is not itself what the story is about. Dick’s stories are usually all about how the “conceptual dislocation” creates a new world, with that “conceptual dislocation” being what drives the story forward. PKD’s version of the story would ask the question, “What would the world be like if this were possible?” and use Cobb’s emotional journey as the way of answering that question (if we’d even get Cobb’s emotional journey — Cobb would probably be named Wheaton or something like that and be an unhappy minor bureaucratic functionary who just happened to accidentally press the button on the machine at the wrong time); Nolan, by contrast, uses Cobb’s emotional journey to drive the story forward in Inception, not the technology. We don’t really see how this technology changes the world. The same applies to the The Prestige, at least Nolan’s film of it.

A criticism I hear of Nolan that baffles me is that his work is technically brilliant but cold and emotionally uninvolving. I just don’t get that at all. I find his movies highly emotionally involving; I fail to understand how anybody could see the vertical-lying-down shot of the wife in either Memento or Inception, or Angier’s attempt to drown himself in the sink in The Prestige, or the memory of Thomas Wayne with young Bruce and the stethoscope, or Harvey Dent waking up in the hospital and finding the scarred coin, and be left cold. Perhaps those are losses that one must be able to reasonably fear sharing themselves in order to be able to relate. I suspect that the familial losses experienced in Nolan’s movies are the very ones by which he himself would be devastated; certainly there is an allusion to his own personal situation in Inception when Cobb says that he and Mal “were working together” (Nolan’s wife, Emma Thomas, is also his producer), and we see another co-worker couple destroyed by their professional association in The Dark Knight (Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes). I wonder if there will be one down the road where the protagonist loses his child (present, but handled rather indirectly, in Insomnia).

So what’s the deal with the name “Cobb,” anyway? In Following Cobb is a smartly-dressed, violent thief who is ultimately long-conning the unnamed protagonist, and who disappears at the end leaving no trace of his existence. He’s nothing like Inception‘s Cobb… well, except for the part about the smartly-dressed thief pulling a long con, and I guess Inception‘s Cobb is violent at times, although only either in the context of a dream or when his life is in danger. Maybe Nolan is pulling some pieces from his early work and reforging them based on the artist he is now. Maybe “Cobb” is just a name; maybe it’s a reference to The Prisoner, a work that strikes me as likely having had an influence on Nolan (particularly since he was supposed to do a big-screen adaptation up until about a year ago). Cobb was a character in “Arrival,” the very first episode, a colleague of Number Six’s who had been brought to the Village only to commit suicide. At the end of the episode, it is revealed that his death was faked, and he was working with the Village all along. Anyway, it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s just one more thing to talk about endlessly.

So far, Nolan seems to going onward and upward. He’s the most exciting and interesting Hollywood filmmaker working right now, as far as I’m concerned, and while I can’t wait to see what he does next with Batman, there’s part of me that is even more interested to see what his next original story is like. (Although — I’ve said it before, but while I like the work Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have done with him, I really hope he finds a way to work with David Julyan again as the composer.) Is he the next Kubrick? You know, I really don’t care — so far I’m plenty happy with him just being Nolan.

Salon: Why no Lord of the Rings in “Top 10 of the Decade” lists?

With a tip of my sunbeaten Panama hat to TheOneRing.net

Salon is running a four-part column on the question of why, after so much critical, box-office, and Academy love on their release, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films appear to be all but forgotten on the vast majority of “Best Movies of the Decade” list. I would submit that the resulting discussion in the comboxes is interesting, even as much as certain individual opinions make me want to rip my hair out in clumps. My chest hair. I’ll come back to this. (The combox discussions, not me ripping out my chest hair.)

Having re-read the book and re-watched the Extended Editions in the last year, as well as worked my way through much of the supplementary material on the DVDs, what I might say is this — the story has its seeds in World War I, is in its final form a product of World War II, and was conceived and produced as a film in the last days before 9/11. In a post-9/11, post-George W. Bush world where the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are not yet over, Lord of the Rings perhaps reflects a view of the world that some are going to find hard to stomach — not because it’s wrong, necessarily, but because its central themes and ideas are exactly the things most disputed in our own day, and both the book and the movie dare to treat them with a level of sincerity and earnestness that, by virtue of being irony-free, can be rather off-putting for the modern postmodern. The limits of power (but also its necessary exercise), the honor in fighting for what is necessary (but also the dishonor in picking fights), the importance of having roots in the home of your forebears (but also knowing when you have to give it up for others), respect for (but also fear of) one’s surroundings, the importance of tolerance (but also its limits), the necessity of forgiveness (but also its consequences), and the importance of the common man, but also the reality that he will always pay the heaviest price. There’s also the issue of what tends to be painted as a racial metaphor, but which is really a religious issue the way I read it: follow a false god and it will twist you spiritually and physically. That’s the kind of thing We’d Rather Not Talk About These Days. In general, these themes are all just enough off from contemporary sensibilities to probably be at least distasteful if you start applying them to present-day matters. If there were some self-aware irony (like, say, in the recent Gaiman/Avary/Zemeckis film of Beowulf), well, okay, we’d at least know the storytellers knew better than to take these things seriously, but we know enough about Tolkien to know that he actually took these things quite seriously. They were convictions for him, not storytelling devices.

Specifically as regards the movie, however, I’ll say this: Elijah Wood’s performance, while it didn’t call any negative attention to itself in the theatres, neither does it hold up well after a decade of seeing Daniel Radcliffe improve with every Harry Potter installment, and when he’s the central figure of the plot, that’s a bit of a problem. In the case of both Wood and Sean Astin — who is otherwise note-perfect as Sam Gamgee as far as I’m concerned — there’s the simple reality that American actors have gotten better at accents in the last ten years.

Beyond that — I personally think the movies are marvelous. Outside of Wood, I think the casting is uniformly terrific, the cinematography is outstanding, and I think they tell a complete cinematic story that is true to the spirit of the book without a) becoming something that ultimately only uses the book as a jumping-off point for something totally different, like Blade Runner, or b) becoming a “greatest hits” of the book, which sometimes the Harry Potter movies can feel like.

I’ll say that none of Jackson et al.’s changes to the mechanics of the plot particularly bother me. The bottom line is that film and the novel are two different media, and different things work in one that won’t work in the other. Any person adapting a book into a movie has to make decisions about what they think the book is about, and then how to tell that story in a way that suits the cinematic medium while adhering to what they think the spirit of the book is. Because, then, an adaptation is ultimately an interpretation, there’s not really a way to please everybody, particularly purists. The relevant question winds up being, “Did this filmmaker make an effective film based on their own subjective interpretation of the source material?” and not “Did this filmmaker make an effective film based on my subjective interpretation of the source material?” I will note that for every book purist I’ve heard complain about this, that, or the other deviation from Tolkien’s text, I’ve also heard somebody unfamiliar with the books criticize the films for things that ultimately have the book as their source. “The first movie doesn’t have a real ending, it just sort of stops, and you have to see the next movie to find out what happens,” one person told me as to why they didn’t like Fellowship of the Ring. “This movie was long enough. Why do I have to see two more long movies over two years to get my money’s worth out of the first one?”

I’ll wrap up by touching on one of the comments over at Salon. I think what this person says demonstrates how the trouble is the clash between the worldview of the story and where contemporary sensibilities often fall at a time, after nine years of Afghanistan and Iraq, when there still seems to a cultural catching of one’s breath after George Dubya — or, to put it another way, why Avatar‘s shelf life as compared to LotR‘s will be interesting to compare:

[The books create] an aesthetic world that is reactionary by default rather than by choice, but reactionary all the same. They long for a world where no one asks pesky questions about race, where the pettiness and complexity of deliberative democracy don’t hamper great leaders, where brutal capitalism doesn’t exist, just happy markets, where the “land” isn’t a resource that people choose to value in a rational, moral way, but a force that gobbles you up if you violate it. Crunchy cons and easy-living libertarians, wall-to-wall.

On his own terms, he’s not wrong. It just demonstrates that everybody has a teleological view of history — the question is only whether the telos is an endpoint down the road, or modernity.

Star Trek

Gotta admit it — never been much of a Trekker. I’ve seen most of the movies multiple times (save Nemesis, which I never saw at all) and most of the them in the theatre at least once, I’ve seen some number of episodes of the original series at one point or another, and same for The Next Generation. I could never quite get into Deep Space Nine or Voyager, and I didn’t even bother trying with Enterprise. In terms of Star Trek being any kind of an influence on me, First Contact inspired me to give a go at coming up with a story that would wrap up the Star Trek universe once and for all. This wound up becoming an original story called The Ascension, a sort of Fugitive story set in a space opera universe, for which I actually went through the process of writing a full screenplay, 120 pages, three act structure and all, and subsequently tried to pitch as a spec script. I was able to fast-talk my way into getting a few agents to read it (including one who is now a producer of some note), but of course it didn’t go anywhere. Still, it was a great writing exercise, it taught me a lot about story structure as used in movies (which in and of itself was a bestowal of charity for me when it comes to judging movie adaptations against their source material), and it prompted my good friend and sometime editor Matthew Murray to tell me, “Hey, there’s this TV series that I think is similar in tone to what you’re going for that I think you’d really enjoy — it’s called Babylon 5.” And, sure enough, he was quite right — so perhaps we could say that Star Trek‘s biggest influence on me was to eventually get me, via a rather circuitous means, interested in Babylon 5 and the work of J. Michael Straczynski in general.

But I digress (what a surprise — can you tell I read Ain’t It Cool News a lot in my late teens and early twenties?).

Anyway, point is, while my life doesn’t depend on Star Trek movies by any means, I was certainly intrigued enough by the trailers and the reported premise, to say nothing of the cast, to want to see it opening weekend.

I enjoyed it a heck of a lot; in particular, I admired a lot the ability of the new cast to inhabit the spirits of their various characters without ever devolving into impersonations (and in the case of Bruce Greenwood, the ability to create a great onscreen character out of somebody who has mostly existed as offscreen backstory), and appreciated the film figuring out a way to have an in-story reason for a reboot without going to Crisis on Infinite Earths proportions of ridiculousness. I’m looking forward to future adventures with this particular crew, and I’m looking forward to Chris Pine growing into the captain’s chair. I also loved that the movie was able to do something that the original series could never do — have an official handoff of the Enterprise from Christopher Pike to James T. Kirk.

Most of all, however, I loved that the movie was more than just a Star Trek story — it acknowledged, and referenced, much of what has happened that is important in science fiction TV and movies since the original series. The design of Nero’s ship sure looked to me like an homage to the Shadow vessels in Babylon 5, the planetary drills also seemed to be a reference to the Vorlon planet-killers, and then the fate of George Kirk (and even to some extent how they reworked the story of Christopher Pike) had overtones of Jeffrey Sinclair. Much of the camera work seemed to reference Battlestar Galactica (the new one). Certain shots (one in particular, but to say which one would be a bit of a spoiler) were definitely nods of the head to Blade Runner. Nero’s tattoos were Darth Maul-esque, and then the space battles to begin with were the first I’ve seen in a Star Trek movie which seemed aware that there’s a space opera series out there called Star Wars which sets the bar for space battles. On that level, the movie is a love letter to fans of science fiction film and TV of all stripes, and I think it succeeds marvelously.

Anyway — looking very much forward to seeing how this version of the five-year mission plays out.

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.

Varii (go see Watchmen) and (go see Watchmen) sundries (go see Watchmen)

A “Byzantine” monastery from the late 5th/early 6th century has been found about five miles west of Jerusalem, reports CNN:

During the first few weeks, the team exposed the church’s narthex, the broad entrance at the front of the church, whose floor is covered with colorful mosaics in geometric patterns, he said.

“Unfortunately, at the conclusion of the excavation this mosaic was defaced and almost completely destroyed by unknown vandals,” Mor [the leader of the excavation] said.

Ouch. On the other hand, I smile at this detail (particularly since I just finished my first-ever attempt at homebrewing):

The excavators also partly exposed a complex wine press, said Mor. Grapes grow well in the region, and it’s likely the monks sold the wine.

And it’s in my period and region, too. Hmmmmmmmmm.

The screenwriter of Watchmen urges people who liked it to see it again, preferably this Friday or Saturday (a tip of the hat to WatchmenComicMovie.com):

This is a movie made by fans, for fans. Hundreds of people put in years of their lives to make this movie happen, and every one of them was insanely committed to retaining the integrity of this amazing, epic tale. This is a rare success story, bordering on the impossible, and every studio in town is watching to see if it will work. Hell, most of them own a piece of the movie.

So look, this is a note to the fanboys and fangirls. The true believers. Dedicated for life.

If the film made you think. Or argue with your friends. If it inspired a debate about the nature of man, or vigilante justice, or the horror of Nixon abolishing term limits. If you laughed at Bowie hanging with Adrian at Studio 54, or the Silhouette kissing that nurse.

Please go see the movie again next weekend.

You have to understand, everyone is watching to see how the film will do in its second week. If you care about movies that have a brain, or balls, (and this film’s got both, literally), or true adaptations — And if you’re thinking of seeing it again anyway, please go back this weekend, Friday or Saturday night. Demonstrate the power of the fans, because it’ll help let the people who pay for these movies know what we’d like to see. Because if it drops off the radar after the first weekend, they will never allow a film like this to be made again.

Fine by me — er, seeing it again, that is, not the other proposition. Who wants to see it with me on Saturday sometime?

I saw Watchmen in IMAX last Friday. It is worthy of its own post, and that might happen after I see it a second time, but I will say for the moment that it is a challenging, adult, in-your-face, no-holds-barred piece of art which is worth seeing and to which it is worth reacting. Yes, it is violent and the violence makes you giggle in a way which makes you very uncomfortable with yourself after the fact. Yes, there is a bizarre use of Leonard Cohen’s original recording of “Hallelujah” (which, I must say, is very jarring listening to begin with when you’re used to the — dare I say it? — superior Jeff Buckley version). Yes, I read the book — I read it for the first time probably twenty years ago and have read it any number of times since then, including reading it aloud to my wife. I’ve read much of what’s been published about Watchmen the book and have been following its development as a film since way back in the day when Comics Scene had a half-page interview with Sam Hamm about his screenplay and about how Terry Gilliam would direct it. Hamm, as I recall, speculated about perhaps Michael York as Adrian Veidt and Robert DeNiro as Edward Blake. Might have been interesting.

Anyway, go see it. I’ll go see it with you. Blade Runner shouldn’t have taken as long as it did to be recognized, and I’d hate to see a similar fate befall Watchmen. It’s a big-budget Hollywood art movie, much like The Dark Knight was, but unlike TDK this doesn’t have much in the way of presold factors that allow people to be fooled into thinking it’s just an action movie. It’s not perfect, but that’s okay. Just go see it, and then we’ll talk.

After the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts tonight, Fr. Peter was talking about how Orthodox Christianity permeates the first film of The Matrix trilogy. “It’s all about the Fathers,” he said. “It’s an Orthodox movie through and through.”

“If that’s the case,” I replied, “it must be advocating specifically the Western Rite.”

“Why is that?” Fr. Peter asked, tilting his head at me with a quizzical expression (which is not uncommon).

Without missing a beat I looked him right in the eyes and said, “There is no spoon.”

I will be going to Confession this weekend, I imagine. I don’t look forward to the penance.


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