The heart is hard to translate; it has a language of its own December 9, 2012Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: books, fangirl, guy gavriel kay, review, reviews, the lions of al-rassan
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I kept flipping incredulously back to the publication details when I was reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. I couldn’t believe it was published in 1995. It was so perceptive, so prophetic in what it was saying, that I was shocked that it had been written in a pre-9/11 world. I guess it confirms what we’ve known all along: that there is nothing new in history, and that people have been fighting and losing the same battles over and over again.
Kay’s books tend to be set at turning-points, at times and in places where a small event sets off a chain reaction and leaves the world an entirely different place. Thus we have The Sarantine Mosaic, set in an imaginary Byzantium around the time of the sixth century AD, and The Last Light of the Sun, set in an imaginary Britain during the time of the Viking invasions. The Lions of Al-Rassan takes place in a part of this imaginary world modelled on Moorish Spain in its dying days.
Just as in our world, Al-Rassan, and the neighbouring kingdoms of Esperaña, are inhabited by people of three different religious faiths – the Asharites (standing in for Muslims), the Jaddites (Christians) and the Kindath (Jews). And just as in our world, people of all three faiths exist along a spectrum of tolerance and extremism (although with the Jewish analogue group, as in Moorish Spain, enjoying a much more precarious existence than their Muslim and Christian counterparts). When life is comfortable, tolerance holds sway, but as soon as things start to get difficult, the extremists find their voice. And things are taking a turn for the worse in Al-Rassan.
We are guided through this this world by representatives of all three faiths: Jehane, a Kindath doctor, Rodrigo, a Jaddite soldier, and Ammar, an Asharite poet, courtier and assassin. For various reasons, all three find themselves exiled to the Al-Rassan kingdom of Ragosa at the same time, and their lives – and the lives of the peoples and kingdoms for whom they are representatives – intertwine in various ways. All three exemplify what is best about their respective peoples, as well as demonstrating the value of the world they inhabit. And all three are powerless to stop this world ending, becoming swept up in the collapse of Al-Rassan and the Esperañan reconquest.
All this makes The Lions of Al-Rassan sound very cold-blooded and distant, and yet reading it is an intensely emotional experience. This is, in part, due to the quality of the characters, who are vividly alive and accessible. But it’s also due to the conflict Kay sets up, and how invested the reader becomes in it. This is not a conflict between Al-Rassan and Esperaña or between Asharites and Jaddites, although some characters think or pretend that it is. Rather, it is a conflict between two world views, which are represented on both sides of the Asharite-Jaddite divide.
‘What is worse than ugliness?’
‘You do not really mean that,’ Rodrigo said. ‘I have part of an answer, though. Worse, is when what little space there is for men to move back and forth between worlds disappears because the worlds are lost to hatred.’
On the one hand we have the historical Al-Rassan, a beacon of science, literature, art, culture and education, and people – both in Al-Rassan and Esperaña – who see these things as valuable. On the other, we have intolerance, greed, anti-intellectualism, and people who hate and fear plurality and empathy. The main characters know that this struggle is at their doorsteps, but they are like driftwood caught up in a flood that they cannot control.
Even if you do not know the history of Moorish Spain, it is inevitable from the beginning of the book how things are going to end. In spite of this, The Lions of Al-Rassan is incredibly tense reading. And while the ending is bittersweet rather than depressing, there is something incredibly hurtful about watching people desperately try to save all the things you hold dear from utter destruction at the hands of people who cannot see their value.
Am I not gritty enough? January 22, 2010Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: books, fantasy novels, firethorn, review, sarah micklem, wildfire
Over the summer, I read a new series of fantasy novels, Firethorn and Wildfire by Sarah Micklem. As I was reading them (and thinking about how to review them on this blog), I realised I was about to commit the cardinal sin of reviewers: I was preparing to criticise the second book for not being the book I thought Micklem should’ve written, rather than reviewing it for what it actually was. I’m sufficiently self-aware as a reviewer to realise that this was completely wrong and unfair, and yet I couldn’t help myself. With that in mind, please prepare to read Ronni’s Completely Unfair And Incedibly Biased Review of Sarah Micklem’s Firethorn Series.
I should probably point out here that there will be spoilers.
Firethorn was one of those books I’d been considering reading for years. You know how you wander into a bookshop, browse idly, pick up a book, read its blurb, hesitate, and then put it back? I did this with Firethorn every single time I came across it in a bookshop for about two years. Something always put me off. So over the summer, when I had access to a decent public library, I finally bit the bullet and borrowed it.
I shouldn’t have been so cautious. Firethorn is excellent. I have very strong opinions about the depiction of war in fantasy novels. Far too many, especially of the high fantasy sub-genre, but some romantic fantasy books as well, seem to glorify war unintentionally. Oh, I’m not saying that Tolkien and his ilk say that war is a fabulous and wonderful thing, and wouldn’t it be great if we had more wars, but they depict war as an inherently honourable passtime, something that enobles people and makes them heroic. When such authors want to show the cost of war, it’s all about the glorious sacrifice of the stoic old retainer, or the raw young recruit finding the courage to save his comrades with no thought to his own safety. If they mention the casualties, it’s always in a highly impersonal way, piles of dead bodies left on a battlefield, mourning the unnamed dead after the battle is won – that kind of thing.
Micklem joins a small group of exalted authors who choose to present combat in a much more realistic way. Whether it’s Jo Walton, whose Tir Tanagiri Saga contains endless scenes of tactical planning sessions, arms training and conversations among quartermasters about food caches and supply lines, Kate Elliott, whose Crossroads trilogy shows the way ordinary middle class people cope with and react to war or George R. R. Martin whose A Song of Ice and Fire so brutally portrays the inhumanity visited upon everyone who gets caught up in a conflict, there are some authors who bother to get it right when it comes to writing about war. Firethorn is another such book.
The causes and major players of the war are unimportant. Firethorn is concerned instead with its eponymous heroine, a ‘Mudborn’ (in a world where people are either – shades of J.K. Rowling – ‘Muds’ or ‘Bloods’) who attaches herself to Sire Galan, a noble warrior as a sort of wartime concubine. Note that in her world, this is the best prospect she has of escaping her squalid circumstances. Firethorn deals with the relationship between Galan and Firethorn in a realistic manner. The word ‘love’ never passes either one of their lips. They both recognise that theirs is a relationship of convenience and compromise, with each getting something out of it. They are both practical, unsentimental people. Against this unconventional, unromantic backdrop, Micklem explores the effects of war on ordinary people, conveying with great accuracy the ways in which such people struggle to survive and flourish in trying circumstances. Hers is a world of cooks and armorers, laundresses and camp followers, all of whom orbit around their more elevated companions, living a kind of desperate, hand to mouth existence where every day is a gamble and where ingenuity, evasiveness and flexible morals are required in order to survive. It’s refreshingly honest, both in the handling of the relationship between Galan and Firethorn, and in the depiction of life on campaign.
Why oh why, then, did Micklem feel the need to write a follow-up novel that nearly destroyed all my good opinion of her as an author?
Wildfire, the second novel, sees the campaign actually begin. Firethorn herself had been packed off to an estate that Galan gave her as a present at the end of the first book, but she was determined to follow him to war. However, after being struck by lightening (and left with supernatural abilities), Firethorn and Galan are reunited, only to be parted again when she is captured by the enemy side. So far, so redeemable. But then things start to get a little bit odd.
It’s almost impossible for me to fathom Micklem’s authorial choices from this point on. Why, for example, does Firethorn suddenly turn into an utter Mary Sue, beloved by all around her, possessing over-the-top magical powers and randomly winding up meeting (and manipulating) just about every powerful person on the enemy side? Why does Micklem see the need to create a society that’s half-Greek, half-Japanese, and entirely Orientalist? Why would Firethorn’s captors see the need to train her as a kind of geisha? It’s as if Micklem got overawed by her powers of worldbuilding, and forgot the strengths of the previous book: solid characterisation, gritty, realistic depictions of war, and a focus on the ‘ordinary people’.
The sudden switch in focus and tone from one book to another really bothers me. It’s rare that I find a series where the first book is everything I could hope for, and the second is something that sends me fleeing for the hills, but that’s the case with Firethorn and Wildfire. I’m reserving opinion of the series until the third and final book is published, but I fear it will take an author more talented than Micklem to turn this trilogy around.
The past is always tense July 24, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: books, fangirl, harry potter, harry potter and the half-blood prince, review
I’ve been told that this is necessary: SPOILER WARNING FOR THE ENTIRE HARRY POTTER SERIES. Sorry to anyone who might’ve been inadvertently been spoiled.
When shall I be dead and rid
Of the wrong my father did?
How long, how long, till spade and hearse
Put to sleep my mother’s curse?
This quote comes from A. E. Housman’s ‘The Welsh Marches’, and also serves as the epigraph to The Witch In The Wood, the second book in T. H. White’s Arthurian cycle The Once And Future King. But it could just as easily serve as an epigraph to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
I sense confusion may be emanating from my readers at this point, so I will elaborate. I’ve been participating in a bit of discussion on the Republic of Heaven since the Half-Blood Prince film came out, and one conclusion that I reached was that, for me at least, the Harry Potter books ceased to be about the magic a long time ago.
We all take different things from books, and for me, Harry Potter is above all a story not about magic, not about growing up, and certainly not about the Campbellian hero’s journey. It’s about family and history.
When Book 3, The Prisoner of Azkaban came out, focusing as it did on Sirius Black, I decided that Rowling was a genius. She’d taken a ‘throwaway reference’ to a ‘minor character’ in Book 1 and woven a whole new strand of the story around him. By the time we’d got to Book 5, however, I realised that the reference was not quite as ‘throwaway’ as it might’ve seemed. No, Rowling had planned, right from the beginning, to write a story about (for matters of simplicity) three generations. The ‘grandparent generation’ (Dumbledore, Grindelwald and Tom Riddle, whom I’m including in this generation although he doesn’t fit into it perfectly) caused the problems. The ‘parent generation’ (Harry’s parents, Sirius, Remus Lupin, the extended Black family, and, above all, Severus Snape) were unable to make common cause in the face of the problems and thus exacerbated them. The ‘present generation’ (Harry and his friends and nemeses from Hogwarts) is thus forced to deal with conflicts and problems that have been accumulating and intensifying for more than two generations.
What’s interesting, though, is that none of this is revealed at the beginning of the series. In fact, it really takes five books for readers to gain this information (although clever readers with a talent for riddles might’ve picked up more from earlier books), and it is not until the seventh book that the extent and scope of this theme becomes completely clear. There have certainly been countless fantasy books written about young characters having to overcome the traumas and difficulties of the past, but the difference is that such traumas are explicit from the beginning. A young boy’s father was a traitor: how does he convince everyone that he is loyal? A teenage girl wants to be a seer, but her mother burnt down the seer school: can the girl be trusted? Nothing in Harry Potter is so clear.
Rowling has said that the series is ‘all about death’, but in fact it is all about families: the family we are born into (and burdened with) and the family that we find, choose and make for ourselves. This is reinforced by the wizarding world’s preoccupation with matters of purity of the blood, and the incestuous, tangled family trees that result from many old wizarding families’ racism. Dumbledore and Sirius are born into just such ‘pureblood’ families, and spend their lifetimes trying to repent for this (Dumbledore after a youthful flirtation with a belief in pureblood superiority, Sirius after entering Hogwarts and choosing to rebel from his family in the way most calculated to horrify them). Tom Riddle, Snape and Harry are all, essentially, half-bloods (I’m aware Harry’s mother was a witch, but she came from a Muggle background, and the parallels between these three characters are obvious), and all orphans, and it is their reaction to this that really drives the narrative of the series. Riddle clings to half-remembered tales of his wizarding ancestors’ glories, and in the process becomes inhuman, Snape succumbs to self-hatred, choosing bigotry because it’s easier than examining his soul (except when he has a change of heart, but I’m getting to that), and Harry, in a sense, is left to clean up the mess caused by the choices of these other two half-blooded wizards.
The point Rowling is making is that in life, we all have to make choices, and when we make the crucial choices, we are bound by our families both blood and chosen. We have an upbringing we can accept or reject in making such choices, but any outcome will be influenced by our upbringing (and the beliefs it instills). Dumbledore chooses Grindelwald, and then spends a lifetime making up for it. Tom Riddle chooses, and becomes Lord Voldemort. Sirius chooses, and spends a lifetime extending his middle finger to the Black family. Lily Evans chooses James Potter, and then chooses to sacrifice herself for her son. Snape chooses, and chooses bigotry before Lily, only to be unable to accept the ultimate outcome of this choice – and so he does something odd for characters in this book: he chooses again. He chooses to change sides, hated by all, trusted by none (save Dumbledore), alone. His redemption is not entirely convincing. He does not become a nice person. He does not really renounce his objectionable beliefs. He lives beset by contradictions: he did the right thing to save a dead woman, and ends up sacrificing everything in order to save her son (whom he despises).
Ultimately, it’s this struggle to escape the sins of the past that makes the series so powerful. Rowling’s is a world where history is heavy, constraining and ever-present. To quote Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, ‘the past is always tense’ in the Potterverse. The sins of the father (and the mother, and the grandfather, and the second cousin once-removed) are repeated and passed on, and never properly dealt with. It is only when several characters make incredibly difficult choices that they take responsibility for this history and things are made right.
Tags: fangirl, review, secret life of the american teenager
One of the reasons it’s so easy to watch soap operas is that their characters are undemanding. Instead of being three-dimensional human beings, they are, like modern-day morality-play characters, symbolic personifications of various stereotypes : Innocence Betrayed, Bad Boy From The Wrong Side Of The Tracks, Crazy Christian, Naive Nerd. These kind of stock figures are much easier for writers to move around, acting out whatever lesson in morality they feel the audience needs each week. Come for the drama, stay for the heavy-handed moralising.
In a show framed around the pregnancy of a 15-year-old girl, you can be sure that there will be plenty of moralising, and the Secret Life writers do not disappoint. And although the show’s cringe-worthy anti-abortion message (why is it that American television shows and movies cannot seem to admit that the majority of non-religious middle-class teenage mothers are more likely to choose to have an abortion?) is as heavy-handed as it is inevitable, the writers have managed to explore a couple of interesting themes in between all the angst and woe.
In the olden days, the parents in teenage soap-operas were non-existent. If you were over 30, you had no impact on the lives of the main characters, as if juvenile delinquents and spoiled prom queens sprung, fully-formed, from the cabbage patch. Sometime around The O.C., that changed. Suddenly soap-opera parents were getting their own screentime, as writers realised that the lives of people over 30 actually had some drama, and, more importantly, that parents actually have a tremendous impact on their children’s lives.
Secret Life taps into a rich vein of social commentary that has sprung up in the 40 years since women entered the workforce: if women’s role in the workplace has changed, how should men’s role in the home change. Or, to put it another way, if women are able to do everything, what is there left for men to do? The past 40 years have shown that while women’s roles have changed tremendously, society – and men – have not, as a whole, made any corresponding changes. Despite the fact that the majority of families are two-income, everything in Anglo-Saxon Western societies is still set up according to 1950s standards: men go out to work, women stay in the domestic sphere, and this has had appalling consequences as far as how men relate to their children.
Secret Life picks up this theme and runs with it, arguing, in a rather clunky fashion, that bad fathers cause a range of problems. Every single main character has a bad father. Let’s sum up:
George Juergens, the father of pregnant 15-year-old Amy, is emotionally distant. He has habitually cheated on his wife, his work is his life, and when he is at home, interacting with his family, he flounders cluelessly, seemingly incapable of understanding his two daughters. (Some scenes with the Juergens family hit way too close to home, but that is a post for my Livejournal blog.)
Bob Underwood, the father of Ricky (the father of Amy’s baby), is a drug-addict who sexually abused his son. It’s implied that Ricky’s promiscuity and inability to respect girls is a reaction to his abuse as a child.
Adrian Lee, Ricky’s ‘friend-with-benefits’, is the daughter of a single mother, and the series manages to imply that Adrian’s promiscuity would’ve been curtailed if she’d had a father-figure living in the house with her. (I, for one, was appalled when Adrian’s birth-father appeared on the scene and took her into his custody. This was a guy who’d had nothing to do with her for 16 years, and yet none of the other authority figures seem to raise an eyebrow.)
Grace Bowman is the daughter of a hypocritical Christian doctor, whose dogmatic obsession with his daughter’s abstinence (he makes her wear a promise ring) makes it very difficult for her to have romantic relationships. Grace’s footballer boyfriend Jack’s stepfather (a Protestant minister) cynically pushes Jack into a relationship with Grace so that her wealthy doctor father will donate to the church.
Even Amy’s sweet-natured boyfriend Ben Boykewich’s father has his flaws. What sort of naive person would push his 15-year-old son into marrying his 15-year-old pregnant (by another guy) girlfriend and think it a good thing?
The fathers on Secret Life are uniformly useless when it comes to relating to their teenage children. The show’s writers seem to be suggesting that if fathers took a more active role in their children’s upbringings, teenage pregnancy wouldn’t exist. If Daddy loved you more, you wouldn’t go searching for love with callous teenage boys, apparently. This skirts neatly around the real issue in America, which is the lack of harm-minimisation in sex education. Teach people about contraception, and half your problems would disappear. It’s not exactly rocket science. While I’d love it if fathers were better equipped to relate to their teenage daughters (and sons), it’s appallingly irresponsible to suggest that absent fathers cause teenage sex. Especially considering the show’s popularity among teenage girls.
That’s not to say that it’s all bad. I find the relationship between Amy and her deadpan, monotone-voiced younger sister Ashley absolutely beautiful. The scene where Ashley asks Amy if she’s pregnant made me burst into tears. As the scene progresses, the previously uncaring Ashley’s expression changes from one of scathing unconcern to shock to a empathetic, horrified compassion at her sister’s predicament. In those few seconds, she’s grown up. The fierceness with which the two sisters love and defend one another reminds me of my sister and myself, and it is beautiful to see such a realistic sibling relationship on screen. We’re not all fighting like cats and dogs, you know. Some of us actually love one another and would defend one another to the death. There’s something about sharing parents that makes you close.
Although I was initially very angry at Amy’s mother Anne’s obliviousness to her daughter’s predicament (what mother wouldn’t notice her daughter was pregnant for four months?) Anne redeemed herself admirably when she finally heard the news. It probably says more about me and my upbringing than about the show, but seeing Amy, Ashley and Anne sitting around the table vowing to look after one another in all their various trials was extremely satisfying.
I’m halfway through the series, and ultimately it’s just a bit of popcorn television with a bit of trendy, topical (‘Hey, it was in Juno! Let’s tap into the cultural zeitgeist!’) social commentary. I’m reading all this stuff into it because I am incapable of just reading or just watching something. I have to work out what it all means. It’s very difficult for me to look at things independently of the culture that produced them, even if they are simply a high-drama teen soap opera. They have to matter, somehow.
Also, God help me, I ship Amy with both of them (not at once). If you have watched this series, you’ll know what I mean. I’m clearly going to that special hell.
[You may have noticed this post was very image-heavy. I’m going to be trying to use images in my posts here from now on. They look pretty!]
The unloved corner of the triangle March 19, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: books, fantasy novels, review
I recently read the books that follow Diana Marcellas’ Mother Ocean, Daughter Sea. You’ll recall that I was cautiously optimistic about Marcellas’ odd take on standard romantic fantasy tropes. I was intrigued that the hero and heroine were having an affair, behind the back of the hero’s much-respected wife. I was concerned that Marcellas would try to transform Brierley and Melfallan’s illicit relationship into something more honorable.
I have a sinking feeling that Marcellas may find a way to get rid of Saray honourably and marry Melfallan and Brierley. I imagine she feels that we’re unable to empathise with a cheating-husband and other-woman hero and heroine.
Well, Marcellas didn’t do that. She took the other bad-fanfic-love-triangle-cop-out route. She made Melfallan’s wife, Saray, into an unlikeable harridan.
You see people whining about this on fanficrants all the time. Person A’s canon partner C is getting in the way of A’s steamy relationship with B. Solution: make C a whiny, vicious, thoroughly nasty individual. Why would A like such a person? The answer is, he wouldn’t. Problem solved.
This is what Marcellas did. Saray in the first book of the series was a sheltered young wife who couldn’t understand why she shared no emotional intimacy with her husband. She was not, however, a hysterical harpy. In fact, she was a calm, poised, demure ice queen in public. In private she was intelligent, compassionate and willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Although we readers cheered Melfallan and Brierley in their affair, we felt bad about it because Saray was such a nice person.
In the second and third books, Marcellas sets about changing all that. She makes Saray paranoid, bigoted, stupid and petty. It’s a depressing and entirely unconvincing change. It’s completely unbelievable, and throws the reader out of the story instantly.
What Marcellas shows with this is that the complexity and freshness of her story was only superficial. Romantic fantasy has been stuck in a bit of a rut for years now: taciturn man meets damaged girl and together they save the world. By making her taciturn man already married, Marcellas seemed to indicate she was pushing the boundaries slightly. If she had figured out a way to resolve the love triangle without killing Saray or making her into such an unlikeable individual, she would have succeeded. As it is, however, the final two books are a most unsatisfactory conclusion to a series that started out with such promise.
I watch the Watchmen March 19, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
Tags: evil, fangirl, review, watchmen
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‘Just saw Watchmen! Sociopaths! Capes!!! Noiry New York!!!! Heavy-handed literary allusions and (ir)religious metaphors!!!!1!!one!!’
That was my Facebook status on Monday night, when I came back from watching Watchmen. It has been far too long since I liked something enough for it to completely knock me over like that. This is how it used to be when I was a child and teenager, though. I’d read a book, and it would chew me up and spit my heart out, and I would have to read it RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT, ALL AT ONCE, OR ELSE THE WORLD WOULD END. As an adult, this level of intensity is harder to come by. But when I watched Watchmen, I felt like I’d been hit by a train. Wow, I can feel things, I can actually appreciate stuff, I thought. Quick, hit the internets! Find new LJ icons! Read the graphic novel! Bore everyone stupid about it on #btts! Hurm.
Three days on, and this level of hysteria has not abated. I went out and bought the graphic novel yesterday, and read it in the kind of desperate rush that used to characterise my reading patterns. I joined some related LJ communities. And I tried to think what I could say, objectively, about a very flawed movie.
This city is afraid of me. I’ve seen its true face.
While talking to a friend of mine on #btts, I made the inevitable comparison between Watchmen and The Dark Knight. You may recall that I was pretty much outraged by The Dark Knight‘s faux attempts to be edgy and gritty, its juvenile writhing in ersatz moral ambiguity.
The new villain (the Joker) has no discernible motivation (this is shown several times when he gives different ‘explanations’ for his scars) for his ‘evil’. Thus, the ‘good guys’ decide, he revels in chaos – in fact, he’s chaos incarnate. And this new breed of evil, one that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be controlled in the usual way. The law is powerless to stop it. We need a new kind of hero, a ‘dark knight’, one who is prepared to descend to the same evil level to defeat the evils of chaos. In other words, terrorists have no desire or motivation other than to spread chaos. They want nothing, they have no grievances, therefore we have carte blanch to use all manners of evil, extra-legal methods to defeat them.
Which strikes me as morally abhorrent.
Watchmen shatters through The Dark Knight‘s ridiculous illusions in less time than it takes Rorschach to break down Dan Dreiberg’s door.
A hero, as any student of folklore or mythology will tell you, is liminal. He or she sits on the margins of society, on the boundaries between natural and supernatural, order and chaos, empath and sociopath. He or she does not have to descend to the violent, vicious level of evildoers, because he or she is already there. Heroes are not nice people. They are not empathy-inspiring.
We are society’s only protection.
Heroes are not saving the world because of some accident of fate, or some upstanding quirk of character. To be heroic is to love violence and sublimate this into fighting the good fight (the Comedian), or to be forced into the family business (Silk Spectre), or to be a parodic, terrifying, sociopath with a black and white sense of vengeance (Rorschach, the inkblot face that launched a thousand misplaced fanfics), or, at its most extreme, to be an uncaring clockmaker who has the power to control the universe and the apathy to be completely oblivious to its fate (Dr Manhattan). Only Nite Owl has some semblance of humanity, and even he sits quivering in his basement, banished to the underworld, that most liminal of locations.
To be heroic is to be inhuman and inhumane. The film version of Watchmen gets that. The graphic novel even more so.
When I was trying to talk to one of my friends on IRC about this, she said that she doesn’t see films in my literature student way. She sees plot and characters and decides whether these are well-articulated, and themes and analysis come later. For me, it’s different. The themes, the literary allusions, the stylistic techniques (I especially appreciated the score in Watchmen. Every song was perfectly chosen. They made their presence felt with all the subtlety of a blasting trumpet) – these things jump out at me instantly, demanding that I take notice. It was the same with The Dark Knight. I saw the September 11 subtext, and was unable to see anything else.
And thus, I adored Watchmen. Its message of heroic liminality is already something with which I was familiar through my studies, while its ‘if there is a God, he’s not watching, and he doesn’t care’ theme is one of my most deeply held beliefs. Not one image, from the grimy lights of 1980s New York to the recurring, glaringly symbolic clocks, was out of place. I’ve already said I adored the score.
And yet, and yet.
The end is nigh?
After reading the graphic novel, I have to say that the film gets one thing wrong. The comic is perfect because it is completely, and utterly, and unapologetically of its time. It is not just the story of superheroes, or of the history of comic books. It is the story of the Cold War.
Sitting here, having been born in the 80s, it is difficult to understand just what it was like to live in a Cold War world, and I may be getting this completely wrong. From what I’ve been told, though, life in the frozen heart of the Cold War could be utterly terrifying. I don’t think we 90s children quite understand how petrified people were of complete nuclear annihilation. People living in those times lived in an era of stockpiling vast quantities of nuclear weapons. It was the age of Mutually Assured Destruction, paranoia, deterrence. It was the age that brought us Dr Strangelove, after all.
Watchmen, the graphic novel, perfectly captures that mood. It was, after all, written during that time period. Watchmen, the movie, thinks that we can make the Cold War stand in for the War on Terror and nobody will be able to tell the difference. Even though the film is still set in the same alternate-1980s, the references are to a time two decades from then.
Oh, superpowers are still trusting in bristling arsenals of weapons to deter their enemies, and we still know that they’re doing it, but the difference is in generational attitudes. People in the Cold War era knew that they stood on the brink of utter destruction, and were terrified about it. People now, if they ever think about it, know we stand on the brink of utter destruction, but they don’t worry about it. That kind of apocalyptic terror simply isn’t part of our worldview. We know that the world is in a critical situation, and the collective response is a sarcastic, world-weary quip about lying politicians, a shrug of the shoulders. Meh. The times they are a’changing indeed.
Five minutes to midnight.
If you want to enjoy Watchmen the film, take off the ‘post-9/11’ blinkers and watch the film as a reflection of a very different period of history. Alan Moore’s comic nailed the mood of the 80s perfectly. Its film adaptation, when it stops trying to wrestle Cold War material to fit a War on Terror mindset, does a pretty good job of it too.
I want the fire back February 15, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
Tags: dollhouse, fangirl, joss whedon, review
So, unless you were hiding around an internet-variety rock, you’ll know that Joss Whedon’s latest show, Dollhouse, aired for the first time on Friday night. I think it must have been the most eagerly anticipated show in the history of television; no other TV writer seems to generate as much slavish adoration as Joss Whedon. As a fellow Whedonista once commented on Whedonesque, ‘you realise if Joss were to tell us to take to the streets and riot, our only question would be ‘torch or pitchfork?'”Whedon’s fans are not only devoted, but also incredibly skeptical of the networks, in particular Fox. We worry, with good reason, that the mercenary Network Executives In Suits will fail, yet again, to recognise Joss’s genius and mess his latest show up, making it impossible for it to succeed. When we heard about the rewrites, about Dollhouse airing in the ‘dead zone’ of Friday night, we knew we were in trouble. ‘Save Dollhouse‘ campaigns sprang up even before the show went to air.
Now that you have all that background, I hope you’ll understand the near-insane levels of excitement among Whedonistas on Friday night. As one we (or at least those in the US and those watching online) sat down to watch the latest creator of our beloved Joss.
Is it possible, from this perspective, to view the show objectively? I’d say no. Our mindset is already ‘In Joss we trust’. Joss can do no wrong.
This is why it’s so painful for me to say that I was completely underwhelmed. The premise of Dollhouse had sounded amazing: people with their personalities removed have new personalities implanted so that they can fulfill assignments for clients. The whole thing’s meant to be a metaphor for being an actor, how to be a successful actor one must be an empty vessel into which a writer and director can pour whatever personality is required. The show also stars Eliza Dushku, who has worked with Joss before, bringing the character of Faith to life with great pathos and poignancy. It should have been a winning formula.
But something is missing. Where is the snappy dialogue? That’s what I look for in a Joss show: the witty one-liners, the trademark slang, the mixing of pop culture references and literary allusions, the slightly different lexicons that distinguish one character from another. It’s the dialogue that sets Joss shows apart from their more mundane cousins. It’s Joss’s way with language that makes his shows the thing that other TV series can only aspire to be: shows with a heart.
I fall in love with Joss’s characters for their humanity, and it is through their words that this humanity shines through. Without memorable language, they’re nothing more than the mechanisms that drive a plot. It’s language that distinguishes River Tam from Cameron Phillips, Angel and Spike from Mick St. John and Cordelia Chase from every other queen bee to be found on the TV screen.
It’s not enough to have a cool idea, even if your previous cool ideas included:
- being sick of horror movies where the little blonde girl got killed by the bad guy (usually in ‘punishment’ for being promiscuous), and created a series where the blonde girl chased the bad guys into the dark alleys and beat the s*** out of them. Oh, and having the bad guys represent the horrors of highschool;
- a vampire with a soul seeking redemption by acting as a supernatural private detective in the anonymous, uncaring streets of LA;
- what the Star Wars prequels should have been: a band of lost souls looking out into the blackness of space, all seeing very different things; and
- an aspiring supervillain charting his quest for a place in the Evil League of Evil in a vlog.
- oh, and releasing the story of said supervillain in three acts, streamed free online and later available for download, made on the smell of an oily rag and bypassing the grasping networks altogether.
These brilliant ideas have earned Joss a crazed, hopelessly devoted gang of fans, who will love him no matter what. Whether we love Dollhouse, will, unfortunately, be another matter.
I’m reserving judgment until I’ve seen more episodes. And if I do end up being disappointed, I’ll likely blame it on the meddling of the Fox network. But I’d really like to have another group of characters whom I can care about as much as I care about Buffy and the Scoobies, Angel and his gang, Mal and his crew and Billy/Dr Horrible, Penny and Captain Hammer the Corporate Tool (whose fists are not the hammer). Here’s hoping.
First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up December 18, 2008Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: alt-history, books, fangirl, jo walton, philip pullman, review, roma sub rosa, sally lockhart, spoilers, steven saylor
Wow. Just, wow. It’s been a while since I finished a book and then sat in stunned silence, but that’s what happened today after I read Jo Walton’s book Farthing, which is the first in a trilogy. I’ve loved Walton since her alternate-universe Arthurian series, The Tir Tanagiri Saga, which I regard as the best Arthurian retelling I’ve ever read. While a lot of other Arthurian stories manage to take the familiar plot and make it say something about their own times, very few manage to get right to the heart of what the Matter of Britain really means. In Farthing, Walton takes another set of well-known genres (in this case, the country-house murder mystery, and the ‘what if the Nazis had won’ alternate-history) and gets straight to the heart of them. However, she is clearly using them to say something about our own times, too.
This makes her the most recent in a chain of authors who use (and subvert) the conventions of historical crime novels to make important points about the times in which we live. If you pick your crimes carefully, you can make them stand as metonyms for the crimes and iniquities of a whole society.
Steven Saylor has been doing this for years with his Roma Sub Rosa series. These are pretty much my favourite crime novels. They’re set over about 30 years (and counting), from the last days of Sulla’s dictatorship to the end of the Republic and Caesar’s rise to power. I expect (or at least hope) that they’ll continue on after Caesar’s assassination, since the last few books seem to have been building up to that point. Each book follows the narrator, an Everyman called Gordianus the Finder, who acts as a detective (if such a thing had existed in ancient Rome) to Rome’s rich and powerful. Each book takes place at a turning point on the road from Republic to Empire (the brief rise to power of the demagogue Catalina, the murder of Clodius, Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, to name a few examples), with Gordianus become more and more cynical, more and more privately outraged at the slow erosion of everything that made him proud to be a Roman. Saylor’s point is hard to miss: in sacrificing democracy (or at least the semi-democracy that existed in Rome) for security, we end up with a society neither democratic nor secure, and a society not worth saving. By the time we get to the latest book, The Triumph of Caesar, published in late 2007, Saylor’s outrage spills over into his Author’s Note:
Erich Gruen has speculated that the statue of Cleopatra in the Temple of Venus Genetrix was placed there not by Julius Caesar (as Appian explicitly states), but later, by Augustus, as a trophy after the queen’s defeat and death. This is an eminently sensible idea; nevertheless, I prefer to take Appian at his word. Caesar’s installation of the statue presents us with a puzzle, to be sure, but so do many actions taken by our own leaders. Because an act by, say, a president of the United States did not make sense to a reasonable person does not mean that the act did not take place. I would suggest that the type of man who thinks he can rule the world is not, by definition, a reasonable man, and the actions of such men inevitably leave us with vexed questions that defy explanation by sensible historians.
-Steven Saylor, Author’s Note to The Triumph of Caesar, pp. 270-1.
So, yes, Caesar is Bush, Rome is the United States and Egypt can be made to stand in for the modern Middle. East. And all the time we have poor, decent, outraged Gordianus, an old-fashioned Roman who just wants to live in his lovely new Palatine house and endure his beautiful wife’s appalling cooking and watch his grandchildren grow up, constantly dragged out into an increasingly cruel, heartless world of political manouvring that the word ‘intrigues’ is too tame to describe.
Jo Walton appears to be doing a similar thing with Farthing. The book is set in a subtly different Britain, one which did a peace-deal with Hitler that kept the carnage (and the genocide of the Jews) out of sight across the Channel. In 200 beautifully written pages, she attempts to answer the question that has been plaguing us for over sixty years: how did decent people allow this to happen?
The answer, as usual, is a combination of indifference and self-interest. Remember that little parable (if that’s the right word) that you’d often see stuck up in school counsellors’ offices as a warning against being a bystander to bullying? ‘First they came for the Jews, but I did not speak up, because I was not a Jew…etc.’ That is half of the answer. The other half of the answer is provided by Carmichael, the police detective charged with investigating the country-house murder of a rising political star (the negotiator of the ‘Peace with Honour’ with Hitler). I can’t say much more here without revealing major spoilers, but anyone who reads the final chapter without their heart breaking for the man clearly didn’t have a heart to begin with.
Philip Pullman did a similar thing in the final of his Sally Lockhart Mysteries, The Tiger in the Well. This is certainly the best of the series, and it, like Walton’s book, uses persecution of the Jews (in this case in late 19th-century Europe) as an analogy for the contemporary indifference that allows for cruelty to the contemporary avatars of the persecuted Jews.
I’m thinking here of one particular moment. Poison-tongued agitators have whipped up the poor of the East End into an anti-Semitic fury, and Daniel Goldberg, a Jewish socialist and journalist, confronts the mob. He’s been awake all night, he’s been running around London trying to find his ally Sally’s kidnapped daughter, he’s been shot, and yet he calmly walks up to the mob and gives one of the greatest political speeches ever found in a work of fiction. I don’t have my book with me, so I can’t quote it word for word, but in it he manages to address the reasonable fears of the mob, show them how those fears have been manipulated by those who caused them, into hatred of the Jews, who did not, and redirect their anger back at the casual, indifferent cruelty of the rich. In a few glorious lines, he turns the blood libel, the ancient anti-Jewish slur, into an attack on the rapacious cruelty of 19th-century capitalism. “Of course we should hate people who sacrifice children,” he says, “but ask yourselves, who sacrificed your children?” (or words to that effect). I still cry every time I read it.
It’s indifference, then, and fear. We care too much about ourselves, and not enough about others. And for every Carmichael, every Dan Goldberg and Sally Lockhart, and every Gordianus the Finder, outraged every time that man’s inhumanity to man confirms his suspicions about human nature, there are millions of us, indifferent and terrified, to push our society that much closer to repression.
Tags: adagio, banquine, cirque du soleil, dralion, dual trapeze, fangirl, hoop-diving, juggling, review, trampoline
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Yep, I went to Cirque du Soleil’s show Dralion tonight. If you don’t know what that is, aren’t prepared to look it up and don’t know why I might be almost beyond coherence right now, then get the hell out of my blog!
So, I was looking forward to Dralion almost as much as I’d looked forward to Quidam, which is for me the standard-setter of Cirque shows. I’d seen Dralion on TV years ago, when I was still in high school, and always considered it to have the most consecutive good acts. (Most of the other shows are a bit patchy. As my mother said to me, ‘Once you’ve seen one person doing aerial contortions in silks, you’ve seen them all.’) I also like the music of Dralion, the grand operatic sweeping vistas-ness of it. Here’s an example, with the old singers. The look of the show, the story (which is the story of the Earth, based on interplay between the four elements, and time, all represented by dancers) is just perfect, too.
So what about the acts themselves? Here is where I’m not sure it is a good idea to know the show off by heart before seeing it live.
The first act was hand-balancing. Not a great, ‘with-a-bang’ start, but competent. The performer is brilliantly talented, it is incredibly difficult to do what she’s doing, but I’ve just seen so much hand-balancing already. Luckily, the show picked up the energy with the next act, which was a bunch of guys twirling, tumbling over and juggling Chinese poles. Incredible music, it got the heart thumping, in preparation for the heart-stopping trampoline act, where acrobats bounced off trampolines to run up 10-metre-high walls, leaping from one trampoline to another. No wires, one crash mat, 20 guys spotting on the floor below. Curt barks of ‘Going’ to alert their fellow acrobats of their movements. Don’t try this at home, kids. This is where the title of this post comes from – the annoying guy sitting next to Mimi, exclaiming ‘Aww, what?!?!’ every time the performers did something particularly gravity-defying. The juggling act was brilliant, although now that the amazing Victor Kee has left, it’s lost some of its punch, but I can still remember the day Mimi and I spent analysing it as a text about the end of innocence and growth of maturity, and so it has a warm place in my heart. I know it off by heart, to the extent that when one of the SURCAS guys at Sydney Uni did a juggling act at a Theatre Sports Grand Final, I recognised it as the Dralion act.
Then there was the final act of Act I. Duo Trapeze. Dear God, I can’t even write about this one, I’m reduced to a gibbering mess at its down-smiting awesomeness. So why don’t I show you?
INTERMISSION: During which time our three intrepid heroines reminisced about old Cirque shows, established that if working on the principle that babies see everything from their mothers’ uterus, all three have all seen exactly the same number of Cirque shows, since Le Cirque Réinventé was viewed when the mother of the three was pregnant with her second daughter.
So, the second act opened with a lengthy and moving song by the male singer, and then segued into the aerial pas de deux…er, pas de une??? Where was the male acrobat? This is what I mean when I say that it’s a bad thing to know the show off by heart – you notice mistakes and absences. But it was a ‘messing about with silks’ act, not one of ‘mine’, so I didn’t care too much. The singing was still beautiful, although a bit out of place…all those ‘mi amores’? In the absence of her partner, what was the acrobat’s ‘amore’? The silk?
Then there was the ballet dancing on lightbulbs. This is the kind of act where Cirque shines: take an ancient circus classic (in this case, adagio) and then add a crazy, mind-bendingly incongruous addition (in this case, put the bases in ballet shoes, and have the whole thing take place on lightbulbs). Beautiful.
The act with the dralions and ball-balancing was good, apart from a few misshaps, and the hoop-diving act was out of this world. However, sometimes I wish I didn’t watch so closely (I like to see all the technical, ‘behind the scenes’ stuff, like which performer is calling the act, who is spotting whom, how the performers keep each other aware of their movements), as I saw one acrobat completely baulk at his leap through the (rotating) hoops, and the Gaya dancer have to dance out while the hoops made a full rotation and got back to the original, baulking acrobat. But God, the energy of that act was insane! I wanted to leap up and dance. They had us all clapping and screaming and cheering along with the music.
As Mum said, it might’ve been better to end with this act. The finale, a skipping-rope act, was great, but it lacked that breathtaking, heartbreaking beauty that had characterised the hoop-diving.
Interspersed through all this was some amazing clowning, definitely top quality. I’m not a huge fan of clowns, and normally feel like they’re something to put up with before getting back to the point of the show, but these guys were great. I can’t say much more without writing a massive spoiler, so I’ll shut up, but trust me, the clowns were cool.
Overall, I’d say Dralion had some great acts. The trampolining, hoops, lightbulb ballet (because I’m an adagio fangirl) and dual trapeze made my heart sing, dip, dive, dance, and stop beating altogether. The look and sound of the show was amazing. The opening dance between the four elements, with the soaring, ethereal singing, actually made me cry. (Not my first tears at a Cirque show. I cried when I saw Banquine in Quidam. It just says everything about life in five amazing minutes.) I loved its hopeful, ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ message. It’s not Quidam. It won’t top Quidam. But it’ll feed my Cirque addiction for another year, and that is enough.