Sunday, December 26, 2010


Nothing of value really to post but that's one point of blogging right? Some kind of quasi-Beckett nothing to say but will say it anyway attitude.

So - book forewards. My simple rule is never read them in advance for fiction but usually for non-fiction. And the simple reason for the simple rule is the foreward potentially ruining the story. A good example is Pankaj Mishra's foreward to Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (a fantastic and highly recommended book by the way). Mishra blithely reveals the ending of the novel and in a good bit of detail. That may or may not matter in some cases (today most people who read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd know beforehand the identity of the killer) but this is one novel where the resolution is not only in some doubt up to almost the end but has a haunting and effective coda that Mishra also reveals.

It doesn't help that Mishra's foreward is mostly pointless anyway. The only thing of real value is to place Farrell's book in the context of an entire subgenre of Mutiny novels that few Americans like myself, even the Anglophilic ones, are likely to know existed. (Actually I'd guess few Brits do nowadays either.) I also think of Ray Bradbury's foreward to the NYRB collection of John Collier's stories that while a nice little memory of Collier says almost nothing about this mostly forgotten writer. That book could have used a page of biography much like you get with a Penguin Classic. In fact Collier sounds like a full biography would be worthwhile. (And another by the way but those Collier stories are amazing - superficially little twist-ending pieces but greatly imaginative and surprisingly resonant.)

So why couldn't the foreward have become an afterward? In fact why aren't most forewards to novels/short story collections moved to the end? I'd guess it's partly tradition and probably even more marketing. The foreward's author is usually an additional selling point such as Bradbury with the Collier. I'm not really knocking the marketing - NYRB for instance frequently matches an appropriate foreward writer with each book.

B5 / BSG

An episode early in Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica has a shaman-ish person tell the Lucy Lawless Cylon that she will indeed hold The Special Baby in her arms. By the end of the episode that happens.

In the very first episode of Babylon 5 (after the pilot) Londo has a dream that he and G'Kar will strangle each other to death. This makes sense because not only are they fighting each other but they're more or less trying to wipe out each other's race. The dream comes true but it's a couple of seasons later and when it happens means something entirely different than what we originally thought.

This moment in BSG is when I realized just how much the show is if not exactly picking up pieces from B5 then following on ground it had cleared. The difference is that B5 is a richer, more complex show (at least so far - I have a season and a half to go of BSG). In this example I still have no idea why BSG had this little prediction because it means nothing and as far as I can tell doesn't hint at anything greater. It's almost like the BSG creators said "wouldn't it be cool" but didn't think it through. In B5 how the characters move from hatred to their final stage is one of the main stories of the show and thematically parallels the other stories. It's also structurally a strategy frequently used in B5 where a few times we're told what will happen but it's not quite as we'd expect, or more broadly and commonly times when a character changes or reveals something over time. (There are too many of the latter but some worth noting are the comic-relief character who turns out to be the first to stand up to the Shadows, the loyal aide who betrays Sinclair in a moment of weakness, the closest to an actually "evil" person Bester revealing something from his past.)

What else did BSG draw from or at least echo B5? The military vs civilian authority conflict (in fact a major theme of B5 is the proper use of authority and who is able to claim it), the focus on religion (though I'm still not sure where BSG is going with this but B5 is more varied and realistic), an alcoholic character (but then this is a go-to problem for lazy writers - though again B5 focused more on the struggle while BSG seems to have just switched it on and off as needed), the conflict of possibly misguided secret police (in BSG the New Caprica human police story is resolved in a couple of eps but B5 takes the Night Watch story much longer and to some degree more morally complicated) and more. BSG even has an ep where one character thinks that they may have triggered the Cylon attack but then they're let off the hook because it was clearly "thousands" of things that created that result. B5 brings on the person whose misunderstanding caused the Minbari War and thereby almost completely wiped out the human race - in the B5 world nobody gets a last-minute reprieve. (Clearly the BSG creators could have come up with this idea without ever even having heard of B5 but the basic idea is so similiar that it seems almost like a cop or an hommage, depending on your view.)

But there's another area where I'm surprised BSG falls below B5 and that's the background and the supporting characters. In BSG we get the initial Cylon attack and bits about the previous conflict but that's about it. BSG has about a dozen main characters with only a few others appearing from time to time. By contrast in B5 we know a lot about the Minbari War which ended before the show starts not to mention the Narn-Centauri conflict, the history of the other Babylon stations, etc. There are also numerous other characters, some who appear very briefly for a specific plot point but others more frequently for other purposes. (One of the most interesting is the Minbari warrior Neroon who appears in just a few eps - initially he's a source of conflict but in a nice bit of writing comes around to the other side without really changing character.) B5 also had a few "gimmick" episodes - many series have an ep done as a news report (MASH for instance). But some of B5's most memorable are these gimmick shows - the one told from the viewpoint of two maintenance men, Neil Gaiman's "Halloween" ep and definitely the last ep of Season 4 (the one that has sections set 100, 500, 1000 and a million years after the main story). BSG mostly avoids the gimmick eps or in one case (the boxing ep) badly botches it.

I think there's a reason for this and it relates to why BSG gathered such acclaim while B5 will remain underrated. BSG was created by TV writers who happen to like SF but B5 was created by a SF fan who happens to be a TV writer. So Straczynski wrote "real" SF - densely interrelated, deep backstory, morally complex. The BSG creators streamlined all of that - fewer characters with a simpler story and only a few sidestories. It feels like no accident that BSG's "other" look completely like humans (with the metal Cylons rarely appearing). Altogether people who don't like SF (or aren't willing to try it) can feel like they're open-minded by watching a SF show while mostly seeing it as an unusual war series. No having to deal with B5's lizard people, Renaissance-excess-looking humanoids, sentient insects, mist people, cyborgs, psionics and so forth. Viewers can also watch an ep or two of BSG and get some of the gist of the show but for B5 you have to watch much more. Much of B5's main point doesn't come together until the end of the first season (on purpose) and it takes nearly the entire show for the full architecture to come out. As I pointed out before B5 is a show where change is the main point - if nothing else the big conflict appears to be familiar Good vs Evil but eventually turns out to be something quite different. I still have hopes that BSG will surprise me and come together towards the end but at the moment am not too hopeful.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bernstein's music meaning

I watched the first two of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. The first is about how music doesn't have any real meaning, that music is only "about" music. Bernstein takes part of Strauss' Don Quixote and comes up with a story about Superman rescuing a wrongly convicted man from prison as an example of how the music could fit a completely different story (though I wonder if rhetorically a better approach would have been to come up with a story that was not obviously the wrong one--and also to not tell the audience beforehand). Then you get the other usual examples such as how a single note doesn't convey anything though adding a second starts a melody and rhythm still without conveying any meaning. And so on.

But the second concert is "What Makes American Music" and immediately I think you can see the problem. If music actually doesn't meaning anything then it can't mean "American". It's impossible to tell whether Bernstein realized this or had another explanation (a shard of pottery might not mean anything but can still be identified as having been created by Greeks or Egyptians). But much of his exploration about the Americanness of American music rests on what has to be called meaning - the "openess" that recalls our West, the "youth" and "vitality" that parallels our young country, the mixing of different styles that comes from our various immigrant traditions, etc.

The second episode also stands out for a current viewer for reasons that clearly nobody then thought about. When Bernstein mentions some countries where our "forefathers" originated and then has kids in the audience shout out their own, well nothing African is ever mentioned. Nor Asia for that matter but it's the jazz that he discusses later that had such a huge impact on American music. I also couldn't help noticing that the orchestra was completely male (a quick search couldn't come up with the first woman in the NY Philharmonic - many firsts but I wanted the first permanent member and didn't feel like spending more than a couple of minutes looking). One oddity is that when Bernstein played some brief bits of music and asked what country they reminded the audience of - one got a roar of "Hungary". I don't know if things were different in 1958 or in NYC or maybe in just the kind of people who would go to such a concert but I don't have the foggiest idea of what Hungarian music might sound like (not counting Bartok or the Galloping Coroners), in fact realized I couldn't even point to Hungary on the map. (I tested it and picked out the Ukraine which is one country over so hey good for an American right?)

Music has always notoriously been the most abstract art and consequently often seen as the most pure. ("All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.") And I think it really doesn't have meaning in most instances - that music is really just a tool for thinking about music. But it can have a somewhat provisional meaning from repeated uses in certain contexts. How many of us whenever we hear pizzicato strings think of somebody tiptoeing? Or interpret certain kinds of ambiguously tonal music as tense or scary? Use in movies and cartoons (and I'd guess before that in opera, theatre and program music) creates an assigned meaning to certain music even if in practice it may not last. (Bernstein uses the William Tell Overture as an example because it brings to mind the Lone Ranger which was more true in 1958 than today - I haven't seen the show in probably 35 years and that overture really no longer brings up any cowboys for me.) Whether music can create or evoke or recall emotions is an even trickier topic though Bernstein apparently assumes it can. I just think of all the free jazz fans I know who claim that such music is pure, unmediated emotion which to me seems almost completely wrong. You have to learn to interpret say Brotzmann in such a way and to me much of this doesn't seem to have the same emotion than other fans hear (it's usually funny to me while they often think it's angry). And that's not even getting to the Ornette/Braxton branch of free jazz.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Can Hollywood make comedies any more?

If this was one of those thought pieces beloved by Sunday paper editors I could come up with reasons that there seem to be so few decent comedies coming out of Hollywood but most of the time those pieces seem either too obvious or too implausible. So let's just look at some recent misfires:

I Love You, Man (John Hamburg 2009) - The basic idea is to make a genre-pure romantic comedy but based on a male friendship, something Friends did once or twice but in much less time and to much greater effect. I'm really not sure if the genre itself can't support a feature based on this idea or if just that this film can't. If there weren't some people visible on screen I'd almost think the entire film was written, shot, edited and scored by computers and nowadays maybe the machines just created the people-images as well. It's never good when the supporting cast upstages the front line folk and in this case people like Thomas Lennon, Jon Favreau and JK Simmons do just that. They're about the only time the film doesn't feel planned on pure, predictable conventions.

I Love You, Beth Cooper (Chris Columbus 2009) - Yep another "I love you" film and one that I watched because somewhere I'd heard the book was actually good. The movie is not. It's basically an 80s teen comedy minus the nudity - guess "basically" should really be "almost exactly". It's the nerd, the popular people, the violent jock, the late-night highjinks, etc. Still the entire thing feels off, like it was shot completely on a back lot (actually Canada which is the same thing). It doesn't look like anywhere really and the characters don't act like anybody particularly. In fact the film is so badly done that I didn't even get much of the basic premise until almost halfway through - the nerd has an idealized version of Beth in his mind and the movie is supposed to be about how the reality doesn't meet the ideal except that the "reality" is she's a bad driver (played for laughs), has an abusive boyfriend (more or less also for laughs or at least plot complications) and the most un-ideal thing she does is kiss a store clerk so she can buy beer when she's not old enough (which apparently in the book is something a bit different). None of this comes across as ideal-shattering unless maybe you're a completely blinkered nerd who didn't pay attention to nearly anything.

Date Night (Shawn Levy 2010) - Middle-class folk lost in the big city or lost in a comedy of errors. Either way it feels some like Scorsese's After Hours which isn't exactly an achievement. The most interesting aspect of the film is to see Tina Fey actually cracking jokes and realize how far romantic comedy has fallen from the screwball era - back then we got individual, strong-willed women like Harlow or Hepburn sparring with equally sharp men but today it's almost timid women like Katherine Heigl being taught the true meaning of life by some "unconventional" man. (See the next two films.) In any case it's not that Date Night is so implausible and apparently takes place in a NYC as small as 24's LA but that there's so little, well, comedy. A bit where Fey and Carell pretend to be Euro-trash at a restaurant feels like an SNL sketch plopped into the film and while it's nothing special more like that could have helped. Again there's some good bits by supporting cast (James Franco, Mark Wahlberg).

My Life in Ruins (Donald Petrie 2009) - Yep overworked career woman taught to be carefree by a carefree man. Or in this case two - Richard Dreyfuss provides a mental shakeup while some Greek hunk takes care of the physical. (I'm sure in a century viewers will make fun of our era - "Did they think everything could be cured by sex?") I never saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding and so have no idea whether Vardalos is really just a supporting actress stuck into a lead or if this film is just a misfire. It hardly matters. Probably the NPR-ish take on Greece should grate but at some point the whole thing feels like some pointless sitcom passing by while you zone out on the couch.

The Ugly Truth (Robert Luketic 2009) - And yet again a career woman etc etc. I'll admit that 27 Dresses had its moments but not this one. The idea seems to have been to replicate Knocked Up and thus a fairly standard PG-13 romantic comedy got laced with so much graphic sex chat that even Kevin Smith might have asked to dial it back a bit. None of that adds anything at all to the film and this is one case where if the filmmakers had trusted the genre conventions to do most of the work they could have turned out a better film or if not better then at least less annoying.

Night at the Museum (Shawn Levy 2006) - The only career woman this time is barely in the film but maybe that was a mistake. After successfully ignoring this for a few years my brother suggested I would like it. He was wrong. As a big-budget, fx-driven event film this is no more imaginative or entertaining than you would expect. It takes forever to get going, runs like thudding clockwork and for a film that ostensibly has some historical content seems to have no actual historical work done. Just think what Terry Gilliam might have done with it. And with Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon credited as writers I bet there's a much better early draft of the script somewhere.

Monsters vs Aliens (Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon 2009) - Maybe a kids movie doesn't go here but since the default setting for such is comic I'm going with it. Despite a few nice film references at the start (House of Wax, etc) this pretty quickly falls into a routine misfits-save-the-day story that rarely bothers to take advantage of the potential in such a premise. If for the titles only Monsters Inc is an obvious comparison but the whole thing feels like the script was a draft away from being truly finished.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Poor ole literary fiction

Edward Docx has a piece in The Guardian today which "argues that even good genre fiction doesn't bear comparison with works of true literary merit". His targets are primarily Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown which is really the low-hanging fruit but Docx of course is going after the whole genre idea. He at least is very clear about the reason which is that all genres are "by definition a constrained form of writing" and he's absolutely right because that is in fact what makes a genre a genre just as a fruit, say, contains seeds or a train by definition travels on a predetermined track. You could say this is a kind of straw-man argument and point out that "literary fiction" is itself a genre in the sense that it is also constrained (middle-class life dramas told in mostly straight-forward but "elegant" prose with of course small wings of magic realism for fantasy-that-dare-not-speak-its-name, historical (he mentions Mantel and Roth) for variety, experimental for imaginative approaches, etc). Now I'll admit his snide comments on Lee Child's statement are somewhat funny (even if I think the reason he mentions Crime and Punishment as a thriller is because he doesn't actually know what a thriller is) and that most genre fiction is purely a way to pass time at best - but then isn't most literary fiction also a way to pass time for people who don't want to read about gunfights, vampires or unsolved murders? And certainly some such readers believe the mere presence of gunfights etc means that the story is of less value than one about a middle-class life drama. Because sometimes those genre stories can deal more effectively with certain subjects or ideas or emotions than "literary" fiction - in fact at some point the genre story is literary rather than just output of the publishing business. My guess is that Docx doesn't want to deal with work on such a case-by-case basis and it's hard to blame him completely - I'd guess that in the romance section of my bookstore is something of value but there's no way I'm spending the time to sift through it. (And I have to wonder about Docx including Robert Harris among Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel - on this side of the Atlantic I get the impression that Harris is considered of a higher level - if nothign else I thought his Imperium much more substantial than Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety which I'm comparing only because they're both historical novels by writers mentioned in this article.) Roger Ebert often says something to the effect that he doesn't care what a film is about but how it is about it. Sure a genre is more than the story but also how it's told - from my experience thrillers or mysteries tend towards a blunt, terse style while some SF and fantasy can use a more lush even long-winded style even to the point of a broad vocabulary that most "literary" writes would be afraid to use. But Docx would just as soon not deal with any of this.