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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Recent Trashy Reading Roundup
It's not all high minded nerdery here at Kaedrin. Sure, we'll take on classics on occasion, but sometimes you want to read a fictional account of "Bin Laden's assassination - by a vampire who stuffed a grenade in his mouth and then threw him over a cliff so he exploded in midair." Yeah, it's trashy, but it's fun. I've recently started a couple of series that promise to keep me busy, so long as I don't lose interest...
  • Storm Front by Jim Butcher - This is the first book in the long running Dresden Files series recounting the adventures of Harry Dresden, a modern-day wizard operating out of Chicago (i.e. that other wizard named Harry). Butcher is trying to mashup fantasy with detective fiction here, Dresden being something of a magical PI. This was a book club choice of my work companions and I was in the mood for something trashy, and this pretty much delivered exactly what I was looking for. I was already familiar with the world of the books from the short-lived TV series (which is obviously slightly different) and I thought it would be enjoyable. For the most part, I was right, though I will say that if you're looking for anything that will display restraint or rigor in its worldbuilding, this series may not be for you. I was willing to go with it in this first book, but things get pretty absurd at times, and while Dresden is a likeable enough protagonist, he's also a little too old fashioned for my tastes. I'm surprised the TV series never took off, because this book is something right out of the police procedural TV series playbook. But, you know, with wizards and shit. In that way, the book is somewhat predictable. I mean, Dresden suddenly takes on two completely unrelated cases, but yeah, we know better than that. Still, as a first entry into the series, this works pretty well.
  • Fool Moon by Jim Butcher - This is the second book in the Dresden Files. With the worldbuilding and character establishment out of the way, I was expecting something more assured... but this thing is a mess. I suppose I was somewhat biased here because one of the TV episodes kinda gave away the "twist" of this installment, but even then, the things that I hated here were many. The story basically surrounds a series of werewolf attacks, and yes, it's lame. One of the things I dislike about fantasy stories involving magic is that the rules of the magic are often vague and limitless. This tends to lead to an escalation of power that quickly becomes unwieldy. In this case, I felt like Dresden took way too much of a beating to be effective in any way, and the limitations of magic in the series seem arbitrary and inconsistent. Not ridiculously so, but enough that I was continually taken out of the story. I get that authors need to make things hard on their characters - otherwise there's no real conflict and thus the story becomes pointless and boring - but Butcher perhaps went a little too far, and didn't really allow Dresden to redeem himself. Butcher is trying to walk a tricky line with this series, and while he managed to get it working in the first book, I feel like he faltered with this one. I didn't particularly enjoy it... That being said, I may actually check out some of the later books in the series. I'll have to look into it, but I'm guessing the series gets better as it moves on...
  • Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth - Inspired by a review of the second book in the series, I decided to check out this first installment. In an interview, Farnsworth lays out the premise pretty well:
    ....he discovered an odd factoid in American history: a sailor who was convicted of killing and drinking the blood of his crewmates, then inexplicably pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. So Farnsworth provided a reason: The vampire sailor had taken an oath to serve the nation. The ideas for a series of novels were quick to follow.

    "I just thought it would be really cool if Jack Bauer were like a vampire," said Farnsworth.
    And indeed, it is pretty darn cool. The vampire's name is Nathanial Cade (fantastic and evocative name) and in this opening installment, we get a little of his background and see him take on a group of Frankenstein's monsters (or something like that). This book certainly does check off quite a few boxes: Supernatural secret agent? You bet. Newly assigned hotshot kid minder? Yep. Grizzled veteran agent teaching the hotshot? Of course. Insane Nazi doctor? Naturally. Zombies? Check. Hints of romance? Sure. Big explosions and car chases? Indeed. High level government conspiracies? Well duh! Where Butcher tried to walk a line with his Wizard Detective between magical and realistic, Farnsworth seems to be saying: What line in the who now? And that lack of restraint does infuse the book with a manic energy that works well enough. I mean, this won't change your life, but it's a nice travel/beach read, and a lot of fun. Despite all the insanity, it is pretty clear that Farnsworth is drawing on a universe he's thought a lot about. While this book does suffer a bit from the arbitrary escalation of magical power mentioned above, it never feels like Farnsworth is making this up as he goes along. I had a lot of fun with this and pretty quickly moved on to the next book in the series...
  • The President's Vampire by Christopher Farnsworth - This is the book that opens with Bin Laden's assassination, what Farnsworth describes as his "Captain America punching Hitler in the mouth moment." And it is pretty glorious. In this book, the world is fleshed out a little more. We get some insight into the mysterious Shadow Company, and there appears to be some sort of Reptilian conspiracy as well. As villains, the Reptilians are a bit lacking, but the Shadow Company guy is pretty great. And Zach, the young hotshot minder for Cade, has grown into his new role to the point where it doesn't feel silly when he contributes something (always an issue when you pair a supernatural being with a "normal" human). Cade is his usual stoic self and totally badass (of course). And Farnsworth seems to have injected more humor here than in the previous book (though neither is a comedy or anything):
    "He's too geed up to notice. Got a skinful of mahoska in him."

    Zach sighed. Cade had been around a long time. As a result, his slang spanned decades. Antiquated terms could come out of nowhere. It got to the point where civilians would notice, and Zach couldn't have Cade becoming too noticeable. So Zach had taken the rare measure (for him) of giving Cade a standing order.

    "Cade, what have we said about using slang?"

    Cade grimaced. He spoke mechanically, as if forced: "'It embarrasses both me and the person forced to hear it.'"


    Cade frowned at him, but continued: "'And we try to avoid that kind of humiliation whenever we can.'"


    "Prador's on drugs?"

    "Antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and tranquilizers," Cade said. "He's under a tremendous amount of pressure, and he's used drugs to cut off almost all of his body's signals. I could smell it in his sweat."

    "I never get tired of hearing what you can smell."
    Again, this isn't life-changing stuff, but it's entertaining and fun. Farnsworth does seem to be burning through the ranks of the supernatural at a pretty high pace though. At the beginning of each chapter, there's often a reference to a past event that Cade dealt with or that was just strange, and you can recognize most of them. For instance, one is the mysterious death of a bunch of kids living on Elm street. Heh. So nothing unexpected here, just good old fun. The third book in the series came out just recently, and I'll probably be checking it out in the near future...
I seem to have gotten away from my Science Fiction comfort zone recently, though I don't think I've found anything that quite engages me on the level that SF does either. I'm sure I'll continue to hit up some fantasy novels now and again, but I'm hoping to return more to SF in the near future...
Posted by Mark on July 29, 2012 at 07:40 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On The Inevitable Batman Reboot
This list of five things he wants in the Batman reboot (assuming that the next film in the franchise will be some form of reboot) has some interesting notions. I'll have more to say about some of his other demands, but if I were ever tapped to make a Batman movie (or comic, for that matter), this one would be my keystone:
Make Batman a detective.

The full name is "The Dark Knight Detective." Batman isn't just an urban vigilante in a strange getup - he's a master detective whose deductive skills rival Sherlock Holmes. This element of Batman is historically underplayed, and Nolan's Batfilms in particular have ignored his detective element (or, more truthfully when Nolan has engaged the detective element it has been in a way that makes Batman seem stupider, like the fingerprints on the Joker's bullet thing).

Tell a story where Batman isn't just punching guys but where he's engaged in a real mental match-up. Where he's not only riding in his Batmobile but also piecing together seemingly mundane and pointless clues. Where he's seemingly at a loss but is actually one step ahead of the villain. Look to the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes films for a sense of how to do this.
He loses me with the Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes reference (I guess they're fine for what they are, but are they really something to emulate?), but otherwise, this is spot on. Batman's first appearance was in Detective Comics, after all, and he's supposed to be the world's greatest crime solver. Why not give him an actual mystery to solve? As the Devin Faraci (the author of the piece) notes, this aspect of Batman is historically underplayed, but everyone loves a good sleuthing, so long as the mystery is actually clever and not just obscure (i.e. don't hire Lindelof and Abrams, though I suspect people would lobby for that duo). To my mind, this sort of story would be an ideal fit for The Riddler as villain, but I'm getting ahead of myself. More on villains later.

As for Faraci's other suggestions, I don't feel strongly about most of them, but let's take a look anyway. Maybe I can muster up some invective or praise:
  • Less Frank Miller, more Grant Morrison. Having already copped to not having read the comics, I'm not really qualified to respond to this, but I think I can go along with the general point, which is to make Batman less grim and gritty and more fun. Makes sense, but there's also a fine line to walk. I'd like to avoid the Danny Devito Penguin, if you please. Say what you will about Nolan, but I like his mixture of realism and comic book fantasy when it comes to a character like the Joker.
  • Get rid of the bulky rubber outfit. I'm mostly ambivalent about this one, though I agree that it would be nice to see a good portrayal of the grey suit. On the other hand, the grey suit has that whole Underwear of Power thing going against it, so I'm fine if they stick with the black armored stuff.
  • Have it take place in the DC Universe. Again, not really qualified here, but I would want anything in this vein to be subtle and on the periphery. Post-credits sequence would be acceptable. I may have more to say on this a little later in this post.
  • Don't you dare make it an origin story. Hell yes. Wholeheartedly agreed here. As Devin notes, "I'll allow a visit to the grave of the Waynes, but that's it." Heh.
So, what would I really want out of a reboot, besides making Batman a detective and eschewing the origin story? I'm glad you asked:
  • Give Batman a single villain. Look, I get it, Batman has the strangest, most memorable, and all around best rogues gallery in all of comics. But please, please show some restraint here. Villains seem to multiply in sequels, but I'd respectfully request that be avoided as well. You only have two hours or so, and it's exceedingly difficult to manage the balancing act of having so many characters onscreen. What's more, it's completely unnecessary. You want to do a story with The Riddler and The Penguin? Fine, make two different movies. It's not like the studio doesn't want two more movies. Keeping the number of main characters to a minimum is another reason I don't really like the idea of opening Batman up to the rest of the DC universe (though I suppose that can be done responsibly).
  • Avoid the Joker. I know someone will eventually get the unenviable task of rebooting the role of the Joker at some point, but for now, you have to leave this one alone. There's just no beating Ledger's Joker right now. Maybe with the passing of time, a new take on the Joker can emerge, but for now, let's just focus on the rest of that neglected rogues gallery. What I would have loved to have seen with Leger's Joker was a situation in which Batman would consult with Joker in Arkham, Hannibal Lecter style ("What became of your lamb, Batman?") That is one situation where multiple villains would actually work. Alas, I still think it's too soon for such an approach. A Harley Quinn approach would be an interesting way to reprise the Joker's themes without the Joker himself... but I'm digressing.
  • Don't set up a sequel/crossover. Like limiting the story to one villain, this is all about focusing on the matter at hand. I think some leniency could be made on this point if the setup is minimized and subtle, like in a post-credits sequence (Nolan managed pretty handily in Batman Begins). This one is another reason I'm not a fan of opening Batman up to the rest of the DC Universe. Again, it could be done responsibly, but there's a big possibility the movie would pull an Iron Man 2.
So there's my five requests. I suppose an honorable mention could go to leaving out a love interest for Batman/Wayne... but that sorta goes along with the minimizing characters theme I've got going with the list. My movie would be pretty simple from a number of characters standpoint, but perhaps more complex from a theme and plot perspective (as befitting a mystery, though obviously there'd have to be enough characters to maintain suspicions). This is straightforward stuff: Make him a detective, pit him against a single villain who is not the Joker, and don't say anything about sequels or origin stories. It's minimalist, but don't worry, I can guarantee this won't happen. Unless Hollywood calls, in which case, I'm all over it.
Posted by Mark on July 25, 2012 at 09:59 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises
On Thursday into Friday, I took in a marathon of all three of Christopher Nolan's Batman films. This presentation has put me into a more reflective mood than I would have if I'd only seen the latest installment, The Dark Knight Rises, so there's going to be a fair amount of wandering discussion to start the post. The short, spoiler-free news here is that The Dark Knight Rises is a worthy successor to The Dark Knight, though it doesn't quite approach the latter's true greatness. To a certain degree, this film does suffer a bit from sequelitis, but much less so than any other comic book franchise to reach a third installment. I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but if you want to avoid them, I'd stop reading and come back once you've seen the film.

The modern comic book franchise has an interesting pattern that is unlike most movie series. The first film tells the origin story, and is generally competent and commercially successful. Rarely do these first installments achieve greatness, as origin stories are difficult to pull off. The origin itself is usually the most interesting part, but it also crowds out the villain or inciting conflict a bit, making the conclusion of the movie seem rushed or awkward. Still, by that time, the movie has probably ingratiated itself to the audience to such a degree that imperfection is tolerated if not celebrated. For his part, Nolan did an excellent job with Batman Begins, which is one of the better origin stories in modern comic book movies.

But the interesting thing about comic book movies is that the second film often eclipses the first. There are, of course, exceptions to this. The Burton/Schumacher Batman series certainly fell prey to the challenges inherent with sequels. Iron Man 2 suffered less from being a sequel than from being a building block in a larger scheme, though the problems are similar. However, most comic book sequels in the oughts were surprisingly good (perhaps because they learned from Burton's mistakes). The origin and world-building was out of the way, and the filmmakers were free to tell a straightforward story arc. This made for sequels that were tighter and more assured than their predecessors. Think X2 or Spider-Man 2. And, of course, The Dark Knight (which is my personal favorite).

This leads into the third film, which, for numerous reasons, tends to be the last film. One of the interesting things about comic book movies is that they often tend to retain the creative team from film to film. This becomes a commercial challenge, as the productions then get more and more expensive, and with expense comes other limitations. Plus, the actors have aged and the director wants to move on. Knowing that this is their last chance with the material, the third film often becomes crammed with the comic's famous remaining story arcs. Multiple villains, additional characters, and at least two major story arcs get smushed into a single narrative, muddying the waters quite a bit. As such, series with a good second installment end up faltering under the weight of expectation (because the second film was so good), expediency, commercial considerations, and overstuffed narratives. We end up with Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand. Neither series has fully recovered, though both have had spinoffs or reboots, with varying degrees of success.

So, does The Dark Knight Rises succumb to the same pressures? Perhaps, but it's as good as I could have ever expected. It's certainly miles ahead of the aforementioned third films, even if it doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessor. It's worth taking a look at why The Dark Knight was so successful. To my mind, it's because that movie transcended its origins. It felt less like a comic book adaptation, and much more like its own entity. This isn't to hate on comic books. I'm not someone who looks down on the medium or anything, but one commonality to most comic book movies is that they feel like an adaptation. And what do we know about adaptations? The book is usually considered to be better than the movie (with a few rare but notable exceptions), and while I haven't read a lot of comic books, I suspect this is the case for the grand majority of film adaptations. But I don't get that feeling from The Dark Knight. There are some who will complain about how grounded the movie is, almost like it's ashamed of its comic book origins, and that's certainly a discussion worth having, but to me, that's just the film trying to be its own thing. It's a realistic take on the concept of a vigilante, and it acknowledges the problems with such a stance (something few superhero movies do). There's a devil in the details vibe to the film that just works so well - Batman is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. The Dark Knight isn't good for a comic book movie, it's a good movie, period. Again, it transcends its roots, and that's why I love it.

Now, it is not a perfect film. There are some plot machinations that didn't fit well and Nolan is not known for direction action sequences (to my mind, he's much more notable as a writer and storyteller than as a visual stylist, though he can certainly hold his own), but to me, all of that is overlooked because of the narrative and emotional arcs that were weaved through the film.

The Dark Knight Rises has similar imperfections, but it never gells together quite as well as its predecessor, and indeed, it feels like an adaptation again. Like a lot of third installments, there are more villains, more side characters, more story arcs smushed together here, but Nolan somehow manages to make it work. I was very worried about all the new characters - Catwoman, Bane, Blake, and several others - and while I'm not sure all of that was necessary, they did a good enough job with it all. It helps that they cast talented and charismatic actors in those roles. Anne Hathaway is wonderful, a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy series (but, uh, stuffy in a good way). It's unfair to compare her to Heath Ledger's joker for a number of reasons, but from a charisma and charm perspective, she did remind me of that performance. Unfortunately, while she has a hefty side role, she doesn't really have a ton of screentime (one of the problems with having so many characters). Joseph Gordon-Levitt does an admirable job as rookie cop Blake, but I couldn't help but think that his character felt a little tacked-on. I wouldn't change it, because I ultimately like where its going, but it does add to the feeling that the film is a bit stuffed.

So we come to Bane. I have mixed feelings on this matter. In truth, I think Nolan exceeded my expectations. Bane is a worthy villain, even if his byzantine plans are a bit of a retread for the series (we find out why later in the movie). He also shares some of the villainy duties with other characters, though Bane is clearly the big bad here. Tom Hardy does his best, but for a character that is so expressive, it's frustrating that we can't ever see his face (the various costumes and disembodied voice are a little strange too, but I went with it). At one point in the film, there's a bit of a flashback, and we do get to see him sans mask. It's such a weird feeling, because Hardy really is a magnetic presence in any film, and he displays that more in a split second of the flashback than we get whenever he has the mask on. He works as a villain, but he's got big shoes to fill, and it's tough to beat Ledger's Joker. It's a bit of a conundrum, one of those things that makes the movie feel like an adaptation, rather than its own thing. Again, I've not read a lot of Batman comics or anything, but I'm guessing that Bane works better on the page than he does on screen. The being said, he gets the job done.

Christian Bale is dependable as always, and he's given some heft to chew on in this film. Nolan has taken the character in an interesting direction. As the film opens, Batman hasn't been seen for years and Bruce Wayne is something of a recluse. Selina Kyle piques his interest, and he eventually figures out a way to don his costume again. It's an interesting dynamic, and I'm glad to see that they've acknowledged the wear and tear of the superhero lifestyle (even if it's handwaved away a bit later).

I won't go into too much detail about the plot. It goes places I didn't expect, which is nice, but it also feels comic-booky. Again, I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, except insofar as it makes this movie feel like an adaptation. I suppose you could argue with that distinction, but that's what I get out of it. As previously mentioned, Bane's plan is audacious and complex, and thematically, the film tackles relevant economic themes, particularly the occupy movement, and it does so in ways I didn't really expect. Does the plot hold together well?

Alfred Hitchcock might help here:
Dear boy, quite obviously you've never heard of the icebox syndrome... I leave holes in my films deliberately, so that the following scenario can take place in countless homes. The man of the house gets out of bed in the middle of the night, and goes down stairs and takes a chicken leg out of the icebox. His wife follows him down and asks what he's doing. 'You know,' he says, 'there's a hole in that film we saw tonight.’ 'No there isn't,' she says and they fall to arguing. As a result of which they go to see it again.
Hitchcock referred to this as "the icebox trade" or "refrigerator talk", neatly encapsulating the notion that a movie works well while you're watching it (because of a fast pace or tense atmosphere), but that falls apart while standing in front of the refrigerator for a post-movie snack. This is something that impacts both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, though I think it impacts that latter far more. For me, it ultimately worked, the same as how Hitchcock's films worked, but I've seen other folks complain about this aspect of the film.

As an action director, I feel like Nolan has made some strides in the right direction. I did get a weird vibe from the two big fights between Batman and Bane, mostly because it made me think of Rocky III, with Bane in the role of hungry up-and-comer Clubber Lang, and Batman as the complacent champion, Rocky. Again, it's weird to be thinking of that movie during this one, but that's what happened. Indeed, I got another weird movie connection with Alfred's Affleckian speech about seeing Wayne in Italy or somesuch. These aren't really complaints though. The fights were clearly choreographed and well shot, and the ending of the film is satisfying. Nolan managed to kill off Batman without killing off Batman, which worked for me (though this hint of optimism may strike others as being too convenient, I kinda loved it).

In the end, what we've got here is a good film. It's not as transcendent as its immediate predecessor, but it stands up favorably to the first film, and indeed most of the comic book canon. There are a lot of things about this movie that will mold to fit your preconceptions. If you're inclined to go with it, as I was, it will come out ok. If you're not, if you're looking for reasons to dislike it, you'll come out with your suspicions confirmed. That being said, it's a fitting end to Nolan's trilogy, even if I'm certain the series will continue. The series as a whole has raised the bar for comic book movies, and few have even approached its high points.
Posted by Mark on July 22, 2012 at 02:12 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Link Dump
It's actually been quite a while since the last link dump, so here's a few things I've found interesting on the internets recently:
  • Science Fiction Movie Classics as Pulp Novels - Artist Tim Anderson has created a trio of fake book covers for classic science fiction movies, and he has absolutely nailed it. Each cover is evocative of both the movie and cheap pulp novels, something that would be easy to screw up, but it's perfect here. Don't you just wish there really were a series of Rick Deckard novels?
  • Front Page Films' Batman Series - Some of the Batman parody videos are old and you've no doubt seen them, but they've been releasing new ones in the leadup to the new movie, and they're all fantastic. In essence, they make Batman out to be a total moron who infuriates and confuses his opponents into losing. To my mind, though, nothing beats the Riddler video.
  • 40 MORE Of The Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings - A follow-up to that amazing article ridiculing Rob Liefeld's comic book art from a few years ago, this one's almost as good. As usual, Liefeld seems to have trouble drawing feet. Heh.
  • Lois interviews Miles - For all, uh, one of you that have read Bujold's Vorkosigan books, here's a dialogue between the author and her character (originally done in preparation for Cryoburn).
  • To be a face - I have absolutely no knowledge or interest in professional wrestling, but MGK actually manages to make it interesting in this quick post on the face/heel dichotomy.
That's all for now. With luck, I may return on Friday for some Dark Knight Returns thoughts (if not Friday, then Sunday)...
Posted by Mark on July 18, 2012 at 09:08 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What is good?
Ian Sales thinks he knows:
I've lost count of the number of times I've been told "good is subjective" or "best is subjective". Every time I hear it, it makes me howl with rage. Because it is wrong.

If there is no such thing as good - because if it's entirely subjective and personal, then it's completely useless as a descriptive term - then how do editors choose which books to publish, how do judges choose which books to give prizes to, how do academics chose which books to study? And why don't they all choose completely different books?
The irony here is that I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that "good is objective". And yet, no one seems to be able to define what constitutes good. Even Ian, despite his adamant stance, describes what is good in entirely subjective terms.
It is not an exact science, and it is subject to changes in taste and/or re-evaluation in light of changes in attitudes and sensibilities. But there are certain key indicators in fiction which can be used to determine the quality of that piece of fiction.
Having established that there are key indicators that can be used to determine quality, Sales proceeds to list... approximately none of them. Instead, he talks about "taste" and "changes in attitudes and sensibilities" (both of which are highly subjective). If it's not an "exact science", how is it objective? Isn't this an implicit admission that subjectivity plays a role? He does mention some criteria for bad writing though:
Perhaps it's easier to describe what is bad - if good is subjective, then by definition bad must be too. Except, strangely, everyone seems to agree that the following do indeed indicate that a piece of fiction is bad: cardboard cutout characters, idiot plotting, clumsy prose, tin-earred dialogue, lack of rigour, graceless info-dumping, unoriginality, bad research...
The problem with this is that most of his indicators are subjective. Some of them could contain a nugget of objectivity, notably the "bad research" piece, but others are wholly subjective. What exactly constitutes "tin-eared dialogue"? One person's cardboard cutout character is another person's fully realized and empathetic soul.

Perhaps it's my engineering background taking over, but I have a pretty high standard for objectivity. There are many objective measures of a book, but most of those aren't very useful in determining the book's quality. For instance, I can count the number of letters or words in the book. I can track the usage of punctuation or contractions. Those numbers really won't tell me much, though. I can look at word distribution and vocabulary, but then, there are a lot of classics that don't use flowery language. Simplicity sometimes trumps complexity. I can evaluate the grammar using the standards of our language, but by those measures, James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon would probably be labeled "bad" writers. For that matter, so would Ian, who's recent novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains eschews the basic grammatical convention of using quotations for dialogue. But they're not bad writers, in large part because they stray from the standards. Context is important. So that's not really that useful either.

The point of objectivity is to remove personal biases and feelings from the equation. If you can objectively measure a book, then I should be able to do the same - and our results should be identical. If we count the words in a book, we will get the same answer (assuming we count correctly). Similarly, if we're able to objectively measure a book's quality, you and I should come to the same conclusion. Now, Ian Sales has read more books than me. The guy's a writer, and he knows his craft well, so perhaps the two of us won't see eye to eye on a lot of things. But even getting two equivalently experienced people to agree on everything is a fool's errand. Critical reading is important. Not everyone that subverts grammatical conventions is doing so well or for good reason. Sometimes simplicity can be elegant, sometimes it feels clumsy. Works of art need to be put into the cultural and historical context, and thus a work should stand up to some sort of critical examination. But critical is not equivalent to objective.

Now, Ian does have an interesting point here. If what's "good" is subjective, then how is that a valuable statement?
If good is subjective, then awards are completely pointless. And studying literature, well, that's a complete waste of time too. After all, how can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual's value judgment is worth exactly the same another person's? There'd be no such thing as an expert. All books would have exactly the same artistic value.
Carried to its logical extreme, the notion that what's "good" is wholly subjective does complicate matters. I don't think I'd go quite as far as Ian did in the above referenced paragraph, but maybe he's on to something.

So far, I have mentioned a bunch of questions that Ian asked, which I will now try to give an answer to:
  • How do editors choose which books to publish? This is a pretty simple one, though I don't think that Ian will like the answer: editors choose to publish the books that they think will sell the most. To be sure, editors will also take a chance on something that could bomb... why is that? Because I think even Ian would concede that most readers are not even attempting to be objective in their purchasing habits. They buy what feel like reading. The neat thing about this one is that there actually is an objective measurement involved: sales. Now, are sales an indication of quality? Not really. But neither are most objective measurements of a book. The neat thing about sales, though, is that it's an objective measurement of the subjective tastes of a given market. There are distorting factors, to be sure (advertising, the size and composition of the market, etc...), but if you want objectivity, sales can boil the subjective response to a book down to a single number. And if an editor is bad at picking good sellers, they won't be an editor for much longer...
  • How do judges choose which books to give prizes to? My guess is that it's their subjective taste. In most cases, there isn't a single judge handing out the award, though, so we've got another case of an objective measurement of a group of people's subjective assessments. In the case of, say, the Hugo Awards, there are thousands of judges, all voting independently. There's a lot of room for fudging there. There's no guarantee that every voter read every book before casting their ballot (all you need to do to vote is to pay to be a member of the current year's Worldcon), but since there are usually around 1000 voters, the assumption is that inexperience or malice among voters is smeared into a small distortion. Other awards are chosen by small juries, one example being the Pulitzer Prize. I don't really know the inner workings of these, and I assume each award is different. I've definitely heard of small juries getting together and having a grand debate amongst themselves as to who the winner should be. The assumption with juried prizes is that the members of the jury are "experts". So if I were to be on the jury for a Science Fiction award, I should probably have extensive knowledge of Science Fiction literature (and probably general literature as well). More on this in a bit. Ultimately, an award is meant to do the same thing as revenue or sales - provide an objective assessment of the subjective opinions of a group of people.
  • How do academics chose which books to study? And why don't they all choose completely different books? I won't pretend to have any insight into what drives academia, but from what I've seen, the objective qualities they value in books seem to vary wildly. I assume we're talking about fiction here, as non-fiction probably has more objective measures than fiction.
  • How can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual's value judgment is worth exactly the same another person's? I get what he's going for with this question, but there's a pretty simple answer here. An expert in a topic will have more experience and knowledge on that topic than a non-expert. Sales has read more books than me, both within and outside of SF, and he's a writer himself. I would think of him as more of an expert than me. I'm just some guy on the internet. Unfortunately, one's expertise is probably also subjective. For instance, you can measure how many books someone's read, but comprehension and contextualization might be a little more difficult to figure out. That being said, individual experts are rarely given a lot of power, and I imagine they would suffer setbacks if they're consistently "wrong" about things. At their most important, they'll be a reviewer for a large newspaper or perhaps a jury member. In both cases, their opinions are smeared across a bunch of other people's thoughts.
The common thread between all of these things is that there's a combination of objective and subjective measurements. At some point in his post, Sales sez that objective measurement of what is good is "why some books are still in print two hundred years after they were first published." That's something I think we'd all like to believe, but I don't know how true that is... I wonder what books from today will still be in print in 200 years (given the nature of current technology, that might get tricky, but let's say I wonder what books will be relevant and influential in 200 years)? There's a school of thought that thinks it will be the high literary stuff discussed by academics. Another school of thought thinks it will be best-selling populist stuff like Stephen King. I don't think it's that easy to figure out. There's an element of luck or serendipity (whatever you want to call it) that I think plays into this, and that I think we're unlikely to predict. Why? Because it's ultimately a subjective enterprise.

We can devise whatever measurements we want, we can come up with statistical sampling models that will take into account sales and votes and prizes and awards and academic praise and journal mentions, whatever. I actually find those to be interesting and fun exercises, but they're just that. They ultimately aren't that important to history. I'd bet that the things from our era that are commonly referenced 200 years from now would seem horribly idiosyncratic and disjointed to us...

Sales concludes with this:
If you want to describe a book in entirely subjective terms, then tell people how much you enjoyed it, how much you liked it. That's your own personal reaction to it. It appealed to you, it entertained you. That's the book directly affecting you. Another person may or may not react the same way, the book might or might not do the same to them.

Because that's subjective, that is.
He's not wrong about that. Enjoyment is subjective. But if we divorce the concept of "good" from the concept of "enjoyment", what are we left with? It's certainly a useful distinction to make at times. There are many things I "like" that I don't think are particularly "good" on any technical level. I'm not saying that a book has to be "enjoyable" to be "good", but I don't think they're entirely independent either. There are many ways to measure a book. For the most part, in my opinion, the objective ones aren't very useful or predictive by themselves. You could have an amazingly well written book (from a prose standpoint) put into service of a poorly plotted story, and then what? On the other hand, complete subjectivity isn't exactly useful either. You fall into the trap that Ian lays out: if everything is entirely subjective, then there is no value in any of it. That's why we have all these elaborate systems though. We have markets that lead to sales numbers, we have awards (with large or small juries, working together or sometimes independently), we have academics, we have critics, we have blogs, we have reviews, we have friends whose opinions we trust, we have a lot of things we can consider.

In chaos theory, even simple, orderly systems display chaotic elements. Similarly, even the most chaotic natural systems have some sort of order to them. This is, of course, a drastic simplification. One could argue that the universe is headed towards a state of absolute entropy; the heat death of the universe. Regardless of the merits of this metaphor, I feel like the push and pull of objectivity is similar. Objective assessments of novels that are useful will contain some element of subjectivity. Similarly, most subjective assessments will take into account objective measurements. In the end, we do our best with what we've got. That's my opinion, anyway.
Posted by Mark on July 15, 2012 at 07:05 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

So this is old and indeed, the Kickstarter for Clang has already ended (funding successful!), but there's some interesting stuff going on here beyond the typical Kickstarter stories. This was a campaign to raise money for an accurate sword fighting video game, one that would rely on motion controls. This seems soooo 5 years ago at this point, but on the other hand, if someone actually made this game 5 years ago, motion controls might not be the joke they are right now. That's interesting, right? Alright, fine, you caught me. My interest in this originates more from Neal Stephenson's involvement than anything else. Here, check out this funny, detailed pitch:
There's actually a bunch of other interesting videos explaining some of the detailed thought behind why they want to make this game. I particularly enjoyed the one talking about how comprehensive our selection of guns are in games and how people argue over the minutia of gun combat, but sword based games have a depressing lack of options.

It might seem odd that a science fiction novelist is making a video game based on swordplay, but then again, this is a guy who wrote a book about a sword-wielding pizza delivery ninja. It also seems to be an outgrowth from one of his other interesting projects: a collaborative, interactive publishing system optimized for digital devices. I still haven't gotten around to reading The Mongoliad, but it's making its way up the queue.

Anyways, there's been some interesting interviews about the project and he even did a Q&A on Reddit recently which was pretty fun. It's all well and good, but I'm glad his involvement in this stuff seems to be winding down. I'm sure I'll keep tabs on Clang and the Mongoliad, but in the end, I'm really a fan of Stephenson's writing, so I'm looking forward to a new book... at some point.
Posted by Mark on July 11, 2012 at 10:07 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Fahrenheit 451
I recently finished Ray Bradbury's short novel Fahrenheit 451. The title refers to the temperature at which paper ignites, and it tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman in a world where books and reading are illegal. Ironically, in this book, firemen don't fight fires, they start them. Whenever a stash of books is found, the firemen are called in to burn them. In one memorable and vivid incident, a woman refuses to leave when the firemen show up, preferring to burn with her books. This seems to represent a crisis point for Montag, the point at which he begins to wonder why books must be burned.

There's nothing particularly special about the characters or the plotting of the story, but Bradbury's ideas and style seem to carry the book. Bradbury's delirious prose evokes a lot of emotion and imagery. There's the aforementioned woman burning with her books, but also the sensory overload of the "parlors" (basically a room rigged up with multiple televisions), the snake-like stomach pump, the mechanical hound, and the fire itself, burning through everything. It's not an easy read, perhaps even overly poetic, but in this case it works. The novel is short enough and the ideas behind it are crazy enough that Bradbury's style fits.

It's a dystopia, and like a lot of such stories, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Again, Bradbury's stylistic flourishes are what make it work here. There's a lot of talk about how the book is critical of state-sponsored censorship, and I suppose there's an element of that, but where Bradbury differs from his contemporaries is where the censorship began: as a populist movement. As Montag's (surprisingly well-read) boss Beatty explains:
There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time...
It's an intriguing notion. Mass media and conformity extrapolated out to its logical extreme. The dystopia aspect is unrealistic, and yet, the steps it would take to get there are things we see all the time. For a later edition of the book, Bradbury wrote a Coda where he expanded upon some of these ideas:
About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.

But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women's characters and roles?

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn't I "do them over"?

Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped.


The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from the book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.
It's a weird blend that Bradbury conjures with this novel. It's the tyranny of the minority versus the tyranny of the majority, only they're somehow set together into a negative feedback loop until you end up with a book-burning society. Some see the book as a condemnation of communism; railing against conformity in favor of individuality. And that's certainly there, but what Bradbury wrote also condemns democracy and technology as a conduit towards conformity. I don't think he's entirely correct about it. 60 years later, we struggle with different problems... but that sorta misses the point.

Like Orwell's 1984, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is a document of its era. I don't find it a realistic portrayal of the world, but that doesn't mean that Bradbury failed. Indeed, it means he succeeded. His tale portrays the nightmares of 1953, a time when radio and television and movies must have had the book on the run. Despite the frequent lament that people today don't read enough, I think we've avoided Bradbury's nightmare, and instead live with our own, perhaps stranger, problems.
Posted by Mark on July 08, 2012 at 06:44 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

55 Reading Questions
As memes go, this one is self-explanatory, but I read a lot so it's fun too:

1) Favourite childhood book?

I suppose this depends on where you draw the line of childhood, but the book that comes to mind is Dean Koontz's Lightning. It's the book that I credit with getting me to read for pleasure. I was 13 at the time, and reading was generally something I was forced to do for school, not something I did for fun. But my brother gave me this book once when I was bored and I couldn't put it down. I'd never had an experience like that before, and from that point on, I read as much as I could. If teen years don't count as childhood, another thing that came to mind is Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, but it's been a solid 20-25 years since I've even seen those things, and I remember very little about them except a character named Taran and the black riders that seem so similar to the Nazgul from LotR...

2) What are you reading right now?

I just finished Fahrenheit 451, part of an effort to familiarize myself with Bradbury's work (this originated back during the NPR SF/F list days when I acknowledged my shame of not having read any Bradbury - it's just a not-so-happy coincidence that I read this book in the wake of Bradbury's passing). I just started reading a collection of short stories by Sharma Shields called Favorite Monster, which, despite having only read a few of the stories, might be the weirdest thing I've read all year.

3) What books do you have on request at the library?

Sadly, I haven't been to the library in many years. I'm not even sure where the closest library is...

4) Bad book habit?

I'm not really sure I have any, save perhaps not reading enough...

5) What do you currently have checked out at the library?

Again, no library usage here.

6) Do you have an e-reader?

Yes, a Kindle Touch that I've used more than expected. In fact, Fahrenheit 451 was the first paper book I've read in several months... Though it was sorta appropriate given the subject matter, it was really just because the physical book was cheaper than the Kindle version (I get that instituting ebooks at a big publishing house is non-trivial, but stuff like this is so non-intuitive and frustrating).

7) Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?

For the most part, I'm reading one book at a time. I primarily read fiction, but will often have a non-fiction book started as well, and will switch back and forth as my mood dictates or given certain situations (this might be too much information, but I almost always have a book in the bathroom, often a book about homebrewing or beer). In general, though, I will get into one of the two books and burn through to the end.

8) Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

I started this blog about 12 years ago at this point, and my reading habits have changed several times in that interval. I will say that I do tend to blog more about what I read these days, that being a good way of arranging my interests in parallel.

9) Least favourite book you read this year (so far)?

A two-way tie between Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh (my thoughts) and Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher. In both cases, I will probably revisit other works by the author, but I don't have anything planned in the short term...

10) Favourite book you’ve read this year?

Another two-way tie (but the books are deeply intertwined and part of the same series) between Memory and A Civil Campaign, both by Lois McMaster Bujold. Check out my thoughts on both, along with some other books in the series.

11) How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

Occasionally. A lot of non-fiction is generally outside my comfort zone, and I've been vying away from my normal comfort zone more this year than last year...

12) What is your reading comfort zone?

Science fiction and pop-science non-fiction. Maybe horror and fantasy would also fit, though I don't read a lot of either...

13) Can you read on the bus?

I'm sure I can, but buses around here are generally to be avoided.

14) Favourite place to read?

If it's nice outside, I like to sit on my deck and read, but the grand majority of my reading is done in my living room, on my couch.

15) What is your policy on book lending?

I'm generally pretty open to lending, though it doesn't seem to come up much.

16) Do you ever dog-ear books?

I'm sure this is blasphemy to some folks, but yes, I'm a compulsive dog-earer, especially for non-fiction. However, I'm finding that one of the big advantages of an ereader is the ability to easily highlight passages (and even save some notes about why I'm highlighting the passage).

17) Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

Very rarely did I do this with physical books, though perhaps I did for a few things in college, but I do so more often now that I read ebooks.

18) Not even with text books?

I don't have much occasion to read text books these days, but like I said, when I was in college, I probably did a little of this (but not a ton).

19) What is your favourite language to read in?

English is pretty much the only language I can read. Unless someone is writing novels in javascript now... I feel like an unworthy nerd. I can't even read stuff in Klingon or Dothraki!

20) What makes you love a book?

Interesting ideas, engaging characters, and good storytelling.

21) What will inspire you to recommend a book?

I find recommendations difficult. I rarely give unqualified recommendations, but if I really love a book, I will recommend it. If someone's asking for recommendations, I do my best to tailor my recommendations to their needs and desires, rather than just what I like...

22) Favourite genre?

Science fiction.

23) Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)?

I wish I had a better handle on crime novels. I love crime movies, but have rarely read crime books. It's something I want to become better acquainted with. I'm reasonably familiar with horror literature, but I have not read much in the past few years, nor have I gone as deep as I have with something like SF.

24) Favourite biography?

I don't read many, but Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War was fantastic and would probably be my favorite.

25) Have you ever read a self-help book?

I can't say as though I have, unless you count stuff like Homebrewing books or pop-science books.

26) Favourite cookbook?

I have a couple cookbooks, but they're fairly unremarkable, to the point where naming them my favorite seems like a waste. If homebrewing counts, then How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time by John J. Palmer is a great introductory text.

27) Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?

Not sure if I really get inspired as this question intends, but pop-science non-fiction always seems to get me fired up. So far this year, I'd say that Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson was probably the one that hit me the best...

28) Favorite reading snack?

Pretzels, but for the most part I'm not eating whist reading. I usually drink tea or water whilst reading though. On rare occasions, I'll crack a sipping beer, like a barleywine or a bourbon-barrel aged stout or something (a good pairing in winter).

29) Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

I don't really see much in the way of hype when it comes to books. Perhaps there are some classics that don't quite live up to their reputation though. A lot of golden-age SF is written in a bit of a flat style, but often the ideas are still well represented, so I'm having trouble thinking of specific examples...

30) How often do you agree with critics about a book?

I can't say as though I read a lot of critics, at least not in the way that I read a lot of film criticism. I suppose I tend to agree with most of what I read, or I can at least understand where someone's coming from when their opinions don't match mine.

31) How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

I don't relish giving bad/negative reviews in the way that some people in the internets do, but if I didn't like a book, I'm going to say so.

32) If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?

An interesting question. The first thing that came to mind was Japanese, but I suppose Russian would be an interesting one too.

33) Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.

34) Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

An interesting question. There are perhaps a few, but the one that springs immediately to mind is James Joyce's Ulysses.

35) Favourite poet?

Not much of a poetry guy, but who doesn't like Robert Frost? Or heck, Shakespeare...

36) How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?

Again, no real library usage here.

37) How often have you returned books to the library unread?

Again, no real library usage here.

38) Favourite fictional character?

This was a tougher question than I thought, but the obvious answer for the past couple years is Miles Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold's very long series of books mostly detailing his life and times. After thinking for a moment, I also thought of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe clans from Cryptonomicon, but that's sorta cheating, as there are multiple characters and I love them all...

39) Favourite fictional villain?

And this is even harder than the last question. The first thing that came to mind was Sauron, but that's a boring answer. Unfortunately, not that many other options are forthcoming. How about Grand Admiral Thrawn from Timothy Zahn's Star Wars books? I suppose it's a bit hokey to reference Star Wars books, but Thrawn was a genuinely well thought out villain and a worthy successor to Vader and the Emperor...

40) Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?

Something that is breezy and easy to read in busy places with lots of distractions like beaches or airports. I once tried to read Umberto Eco on a trip and it was... not quite as rewarding as it would have been if I read it at home in a more controlled environment. On the other hand, Bujold's books were great companions last year, and I'm sure John Scalzi's books would fit the bill as well...

41) The longest I’ve gone without reading.

I really don't know how to measure this one. I presume we're talking about books here and not newspapers, magazines, websites, etc... but even then, I'm not really sure how to go about quantifying this. There are certainly periods in my life where I didn't read nearly as much as I do now, but I don't really know the longest period of time I've gone between reading books. Let's say a couple weeks?

42) Name a book that you could/would not finish.

It's pretty rare that I don't finish a book, but I never did finish David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It's something I may go back to, but I got pretty well fed up with the book while reading it. I got almost halfway through it though, which is actually a lot of time and effort to throw away, but I was getting annoyed by the lack of any real point to what I was reading. Oh sure, lots of themes and interesting stuff, but it felt like reading a SNL show filled with disconnected skits, and even when they connected, it wasn't quite enough to make up for all the stuff about drugs and stuff that I didn't particularly care about.

43) What distracts you easily when you’re reading?

I was going to say the internet, but really that's my fault, so the real answer to this question is me. I let myself get distracted sometimes, but that's usually indicative of the fact that I'm not enjoying what I'm reading.

44) Favourite film adaptation of a novel?

That's a tough one, as there aren't a lot of situations in which I've both read the novel and seen the movie. The Lord of the Rings movies are certainly a candidate, as they managed something I wasn't sure was possible... Fight Club is a pretty great adaptation. I do love The Shining, despite the fact that it is so very different than the book. I think that's what really makes it work though, as I will often get bored by the book or movie if I've already read/seen the other version of the story.

45) Most disappointing film adaptation?

Another difficult one as there are so many bad adaptations. How the Grinch Stole Christmas comes to mind. David Lunch's Dune is more of an interesting failure than a disappointing one. I definitely want to call out Starship Troopers, as it's one of the least faithful adaptations ever put to film. Regardless of what you may think of Heinlein's right-wing novel (it's not one of my favorites), the film completely changes the direction while keeping the basic structure in place. It's a movie that has inexplicably enjoyed a sorta cult following since it bombed at the box office, and I will admit there is something compelling about the film, but in a bad way. Like watching a trainwreck.

46) The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?

I can't say as though I've really kept track. I don't tend to buy a lot of books at once though, so I'm guessing it's pretty low. Then again, there's definitely been a holiday season or two when I've bought a lot of books as presents, probably going as high as $100...

47) How often do you skim a book before reading it?

It's pretty rare, though I do like to see how much reading is left before the end of the chapter/section I'm currently reading. This is one thing that does annoy about ereaders, as it's very difficult to do that sort of thing.

48) What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through?

So the inverse of what I love is a good place to start: Dumb ideas, bad characters that I can't engage with, bad storytelling or plotting. As I mentioned before, it's pretty rare that I stop reading a book though. I can only think of a couple books I've not finished in the past few years.

49) Do you like to keep your books organized?

I have a loose system, but nothing particularly special. I know there are lots of folks who obsess over their bookshelves, but it's not something I've ever really worried about.

50) Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

I generally keep books, but I wouldn't have a problem parting with a lot of them. I'm a bit of a packrat though, so I tend to keep stuff.

51) Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter has been on my shelf for a while now. I'm sure it's something I'd enjoy, but it's a really long book - 1000+ pages of very dense, complex prose - and I feel like it would kill the momentum I've built up this year in reading...

52) Name a book that made you angry.

I tend to avoid books I think will make me angry, but some non-fiction will make me angry, especially politics or detailing tragic situations in the real world, etc...

53) A book you didn’t expect to like but did?

Another tough question, as I don't read a lot of books I don't expect to like. I generally go into a book hoping to like it... That being said, I think I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness

54) A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

The aforementioned Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh was the most recent and egregious example of this...

55) Favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading?

I can't say as though I've ever really felt guilty of reading something, though perhaps my recent reading of a couple of Christopher Farnsworth's trashy Vampire spy novels kinda fit.

Well, there you have it. It was a long one, but fun. Feel free to berate me for my answers in the comments and have a happy Independence Day!
Posted by Mark on July 04, 2012 at 07:58 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

First things first: Merida's hair is glorious. I'm not an animator and I don't work with computer graphics very much, but I have a detail oriented mindset and thus I think I can appreciate all the work that went into getting that hair to work so well. Apparently there was a whole team of folks at Pixar working on a new hair simulator that could handle Merida's curly red hair, and again, I'm no expert in this realm, but I'm guessing the amount of physics that went into modeling how different bits of the hair worked was large and complex. Then they had to tweak it all to simulate wet hair (for what I believe is only a single scene in the movie). It's impressive stuff.

So... is the movie Brave as good as the hair portrayed within? Maybe! It's not a top tier Pixar production, but I'd put it somewhere towards the top of their middle tier. Which is to say, it's better than most films (animated or not). Pixar is at a strange place right now. After an impressive run in the oughts, they appear to be running out of steam. Or are they? It's strange that every time a new Pixar film is released, there seems to be a referendum on the whole of their oeuvre. People love to rank the films and argue whether or not they've made a truly bad film (for the record, I don't think they have, even if I didn't love Cars 2).

And this film had even weightier expectations because it was the first Pixar film to feature a female as the protagonist. It was also the first Pixar film to be directed by a woman, though she was apparently replaced at some point in the production, leading to a co-director credit. In recent years, there's been a fair amount of talk about Pixar's gender problem, but I'm on record as arguing that this sort of analysis completely misses the point: "Traditional Disney fare was always a sorta female dominated affair. Lots of princesses and love stories and yada, yada, yada. There were the occasional male-dominated stories, of course, but overall, animation was female dominated. One of the big things Pixar did to establish itself as something new and different was to focus on boys ..." Put simply, I don't think this movie is getting a fair shake in this respect. If this was a Disney or even Dreamworks picture, I think folks would be raving, but they expected so much from Pixar that I think the film is getting crushed under that weight of undeserved expectation.

I appear to be playing into this a little bit. I mean, I've written three paragraphs already and I haven't actually said anything about the movie, except how awesome the hair is. And while the curly red hair is spectacular, it's also a bit superficial. So let's get into it. The film focuses on young Scottish princess Merida, a fiery tomboy who loves riding her horse, archery, and climbing mountains. Her mother is in a constant struggle to get her to act all lady-like, but her father seems content to encourage her less elegant pursuits. Things come to a head when visiting clans vie for Merida's hand in marriage. I will admit, this is something of a rote premise. The initial parts of the first act come off as being very Disneyish. There's even some bad Scottish kilt-lifting jokes (which I suppose are unavoidable, but still). Now, "Disneyish" isn't inherently bad, but I can totally see why people wouldn't be very thrilled by this setup. Fortunately things get better from here.

It's hard to describe the rest without getting into spoiler territory, but I'll try. In essence, Merida runs away and meets up with a witch and there's a curse and she ends up spending some time with a friendly bear. And it's fantastic. This is where the movie sets itself apart. The bear is fantastically animated, walking around on two legs and somehow managing to maintain some sense of dignity, though I think the bear eventually learns the value in acting in an undignified manner.

The real heart of the story, though, is Merida's relationship with her mother. This, I find, isn't something that's very common in movies like this (I could certainly be wrong about that, but I found it refreshing). Now, I'm a guy, so I don't know how well the movie actually captures that whole dynamic, but it's got a ring of authenticity to it (and in general, female critics seem to praise this part of the film, even when they don't like it overall). There's an excellent scene in the first act where the director is cross cutting between the mother and daughter, establishing the things they want to say to each other but can't or won't. There's some stuff in the second act that works really well between these two, which leads into the final act. There's a bit of a grinch-like transformation at one point, making me wish there was perhaps a little more meat on the bone of the story, but there's a clear throughline to the plotting that ultimately works well. In a very real sense, the movie is as much about the mother as it is about the teenager (which, again, is a refreshing change of pace).

It's a movie that isn't perfect. It did leave me wanting more - more of the mother/daughter relationship, heck more of the father/daughter stuff, even some more of the little brothers, and especially more of that excellent second act stuff with the bear - but that's not the worst problem a movie can have. Like I said, there's a clear throughline to the story, so I'm willing to go with it. The premise is a bit rote and the transition between acts is a bit rushed, but I think they managed to put enough of a spin on the typical "princess" story that it was worthwhile. The score is fine but the songs are dreadful. That's the one part of the film I don't think I can really overlook. Just horrid.

What we're left with is a very good film. I think it's being a bit unfairly maligned. It's true, Pixar has done better, but that doesn't make this a bad movie. I don't know that it will make the top 10 at the end of the year, but it will certainly be a contender. Well worth seeing, and I think that mothers and daughters will get a lot out of this (but don't worry, there's plenty of action and adventure for the guys). ***
Posted by Mark on July 01, 2012 at 07:02 PM .: link :.

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