• WARNING: The following entry features two seemingly unrelated babbles, but I hope they will come together in the end.

    Part 1: THE BEST OF LANGUAGE

    I have recently made a pact with myself to read the novels of Charles Dickens. I met him as a kid, when my dad read to me Great Expectations, which may have given me a false expectation of the writer since my dad, along with my mom who read books to my siblings and me, is one of the greatest readers aloud of books that history has ever known. Both provide pathos in their tone that enlivens the spirit of every character. My particular favourite was the lawyer with the thick fingers, Mr. Jaggers, to whom my dad’s voice delivered a confidence and intelligence that would have left Perry Mason jealous. I then read Hard Times in university (at the instruction of a professor), which I think must be one of Dickens’s few concise works, as it didn’t take long to get through. I recall it being humorous, in spite of its dark themes, but embarrassingly I don’t remember much about the story, so from it alone I still cannot claim to have verified Dickens’s greatness.

    So, this year, I decided to take on A Tale of Two Cities, in part because it is so well introduced by Dr. Frasier Crane in the excellent sit-com, Cheers

    FRASIER (reading to his less literate bar buddies, whom he’s finally persuaded to let him deliver a sampling from Dickens): “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times–”

    NORM: Wait, whoa, whoa, whoa. Which was it?

    FRASIER: “It was the age of wisdom, in was the age of foolishness.”

    CLIFF: Boy, this Dickens guy really liked to cover his butt, didn’t he?

    –but also because I wanted to have the work read to me as an audiobook during my many free times on transit, and the audio version for A Tale of Two Cities was available at a good price on my local internet.

    The book, I quickly discovered, would have been more appropriately given the label of “Hard Times,” both for its characters, and for its reader (listener), as there are many passages of description that baffled my mind. Upon two or three listenings of the bulkiest sections, however, I understood most of it, and whenever the characters spoke to each other, the story soared. Each person in the narrative has a distinct character (and voice provided by the amazing narrator, Peter Batchelor, who proves himself to be a worthy Dickens-reading understudy for my dad) as their lives mingle together with both the nuance of a true story and the unexpected turns of a mystery novel. Dickens’s puzzle pieces fit so well together in service to the grand story, and yet all of the characters act as autonomous beings, never wavering from their individual motivations.

    The finale of the Tale arrived in my ears as I jogged the New Westminster sea wall; with a cool wind in my face, I was stunned as each of the characters collided into a perfect heart-palpitating conclusion. I was forced to come to the following determination: Charles Dickens is the greatest novelist whom I have met so far.

    After the tale was done, I dialed up the audiobook store again, and selected David Copperfield because it was both selling at a good price, and because my new friend and narrator, Peter Batchelor, would be supplying his voice again.

    I was warned, upon this choice, though, that I might find it to be aggravating because, in the novel, Dickens apparently spends much of his time telling stories from the past in the present tense. Uh oh.

    Part 2: THE WORST OF LANGUAGE

    I have been ranting (in my non-blog life) for a while now about the omnipresent usage of the present tense to describe events that happened in the past. I understand that, when telling a story, rendering it in the present tense can sometimes create the impression that the narrator and listener are experiencing it as it happens. However, the trend has turned to a requirement in the media. One of my two radio stations, CBC, insists on utilizing the present tense in all of its documentaries to the point that, when experts join the discussion to give their belated perspective on events, it is often confusing which parts of the discussion are current and which are past. Moreover, interviewers often don’t even give their witnesses the option of using the correct tense.

    INTERVIEWER: So what are you thinking when you first see the dragon?

    SCIENTIST: Well, I’m thinking: that’s the biggest rhinoceros I’ve ever seen!

    INTERVIEWER: And when do you realize that you’re dealing with a dragon?

    SCIENTIST: Well, I’m talking to my colleague, Dr. Expert about it, and she says that rhinoceroses don’t breathe fire, and so I realize I’m onto something. My rival Bernie McSkeptic says it’s the greatest discovery of the 20th century.

    INTERVIEWER: Bernie the dragon skeptic was there, too?

    SCIENTIST: No, he just said that now on his Facebook page. He’s listening to this interview.

    INTERVIEWER: Oh, I see, well let’s get back to the story. I understand you’re worried that your puppy is going to be eaten by the dragon?

    SCIENTIST: Oh, yes, he chases the dragon initially, but he escapes, and I’m totally relieved.

    INTERVIEWER: Me too!

    SCIENTIST: But then he gets eaten a few minutes later.

    INTERVIEWER: Oh, I thought he survives?

    SCIENTIST: He does… initially. And then he gets eaten.

    All right, that’s enough. I realize I may have exaggerated the point a wee bit here, but the fact is: often, when listening to stories on the radio, or in a television documentary, it can actually become confusing at various moments in an interview whether the speaker is describing their current thoughts on a past incident or their past thoughts as they happened in the then-present.

    Thus, I have come to the following demand: all media should desist in wielding this tool completely because they are incapable of using it sparingly in particular incidences where they think it will bring specific tales extra significance. Instead, like underlining every word in a document, they use present tense storytelling almost exclusively, and so the technique has lost both its power and its clarity.

    Conclusion: THE MAGIC OF DAVID COPPERFIELD or PAST TENSE

    David Copperfield begins with the phrase, “I am born,” which sets the tone for a novel that, although it is told from the perspective of a time long passed its events, nevertheless dips into the memory of its protagonist, and so sometimes shares those memories from his perspective of re-living them.

    Amazingly, though, ten chapters into this tale told in two tenses, not once has Dickens irritated me. The majority of the story is cheerfully described in the correct, past tense, but occasionally the narrator zooms in on a sequence and gives a verbal snapshot about what he was feeling at the time of the event. The result is never confusing, but always clearly delineated as an exception. I, as a reader (listener), always know when the storyteller is providing a close-up memory that he is feeling as though it is happening again in the present tense, and when he is panning out from the story and offering his long distance perspective of the past.

    And so I am tempted to reverse my call for a ban on the present tense in past tense storytelling in the media. But not quite. Instead, I will now authorize the following middle ground: anyone in the media who possess something near Dickens’s skill may use the present tense for past descriptions. For future reference, all others must stop immediately.

  • This is another retrospective blog entry. In 2009, the owners of Star Trek resurrected its franchise with a recalibrated young Captain Kirk and friends. It was an audacious and, I thought, brilliant effort. But New Yorker critic Anthony Lane, who had perhaps been passed over for a prestigious William Shatner biographer post, railed against the new Star Trek with scathing wit and predetermined unwillingness to consider what he had witnessed. Enter pre-SethBlogs to the rescue (SethBlogs was not yet born).

    I wrote a review of Lane’s review, attempting to retaliate against the expert moviegoer by utilizing the same red herrings of empty cleverness that he had levied against his prey. I was pleased with the results: Star Trek was clearly vindicated by my Lane-style review of Lane. So I sent the double-edged piece onto The New Yorker, thinking they would surely be amused to print my whimsical retort against their top reviewer. Surprisingly, they did not reply to my cheerful submission.

    Therefore, since SethBlogs was then just a glint in its founders’ (my sisters’) eyes, I was forced to dock the essay until a time when it could find a place to be free.

    Well, in honour of the just-released sequel to the revamped Star Trek (now they’re going Into Darkeness), I believe it is time to finally unleash my review of Anthony Lane’s review of Star Trek. For best results, I recommend first reading his prequel to mine. (Note, it’s a two-page review, so hit the “Next” button when you finish the first page.)

    Read long and prosper.

    HIGHLY (BRILLIANT, BUT) ILLOGICAL

    There is a tendency in the blockbuster-movie universe to let the special effects do the talking: Star Trek: The Motion Picture did it in 1979 as it proudly forced us to look through far too many pictures of its baby, the shiny new Enterprise, as though too adorable for plot. Thirty years later, New Yorker reviewer Anthony Lane relies on a similar technique in his review of Star Trek the 11th.

    With his quill set to stun, Mr. Lane reacts to the previously well-reviewed and well-attended new “prequel” Star Trek film by accusing its director, JJ Abrams, of exactly what I will charge him:

    “He gorges on cinema as if it were one of those all-you-can-eat buffets, piling his plate with succulent effects, whether they go together or not.”

    Replace “cinema” with “review” and you have Lane’s tragic flaw.

    Mr. Lane brings to our table a special demonstration of his ample authorial talents as he describes Star Trek with tasty metaphors (sketching the enemy Romulan ship as “a dozen Philippe Starck lemon squeezers”), along with humorous allusions to both ancient history (noting that the rivalry between Federation Captain James Tiberius Kirk and Romulan Captain Nero “suggests a delightful rerun of first-century imperial Rome… in zero gravity”), and, of course, nineteenth-century English literature (pointing out that Commander Chekov’s confusion between his “v”s and “w”s is “a tongue-slip that Dickens pretty much exhausted for comic value in The Pickwick Papers, but,” he says, “I guess the old jokes are the best”). Lane also teases our literary palettes by deftly accusing the film of anachronisms-to-be (“nice work, Jim,” he says, smirking at Kirk’s earthbound-Corvette, “getting hold of fossil fuel in the twenty-third century”), before filling us up with his main course, the rage-against-the-back-story (flogging it as a “a device that, in the Hollywood of recent times, has grown from an option to a fetish”).

    What a smorgasbord for the literary taste buds! Nevertheless, once one begins to chew through it, an inevitable question comes forward, “Where’s the beef?”

    Mr. Lane’s ability to turn a Star Trek phrase against its purveyors is impeccable (“shields up,” he says in anticipation of a sequel prequel), and yet, after a full scan, I have not detected any substance (or, for the Trekkies among us, grey matter) in his argument.

    Lane begins his essay by questioning the movie’s need to exist: “What happened,” he laments, “to Star Trek? There it was, a nice little TV series, quick and wry, injecting the frontier spirit into the galactic void… It ran for three seasons, and then, in 1969, it did the decent, graceful thing and expired… Except that the story was slapped back to life and forced to undergo one warping after another… based on the debatable assumption that you can take a format designed to last fifty minutes and stretch it out to twice that length, then pray that the thinness doesn’t show. Believe me, it showed. One of the movies was about humpback whales.”

    Whamo! That’s quite the impressive shot: eleven movies and four television series dismissed by one out-of-context reference. Lane refers, of course, to the 1989 Star Trek (The Voyage Home, my childhood favourite in the series because of its comedic placement of the characters in present-day San Francisco where, upon leaving his cloaked spaceship in the park, Kirk remarked—for the trailers—“Everybody remember where we parked”). The whales were required because an earth-destroying whale collector was looking for them—and was unwilling to leave until they surfaced—but, unfortunately, unlike muscle cars, humpbacks had become extinct by the twenty-third century and so Kirk and crew had to travel backwards in time to retrieve a pair of sample creatures as antidotes to the earth’s demise; I suppose this premise could be considered a smidge awkward, but in contrast with the Lane-approved original where go-go-boot-she-aliens and mini-dress-wearing female officers reside, it seems rather tasteful (not to mention environmentally compassionate before its time).

    Lane’s assault, though, is bigger than a squabble over points of plot: he seems to wonder, with a shake of his pen, at Star Trek’s imposition on cinema as though it’s a weed that nobody wants. But surely the critic is aware that people love this star-soaked universe: they watch it; they wear it; they marry to it.

    I’m ready to stipulate that most literature would be best left to its original conclusion because a sequel will undermine its artistry, but the voyages of the starship Enterprise, while perhaps “quick and wry,” are no literary masterpiece whose profound conclusion would be forever tainted by a continuation. Gene Roddenberry’s first vision, as Lane aptly notes, “[manages] to touch on weighty themes without getting sucked into them and squashed”—Aye, aye, Captain! It was an optimistic playground of the mind wherein one was free to bounce around some thought-worthy scenarios. So shouldn’t the question of whether it continues be answered by an analysis of its ability to continue entertaining us?

    Of course, the questions of whether a movie entertains versus whether it is intelligently rendered can have two significantly different answers (as The Matrix series helpfully demonstrates) so I could forgive Mr. Lane if he had merely pronounced the film to be a bad Trek, but, by scoffing at the very notion of the “continuing voyages,” Lane de-cloaks his pre-viewing agenda: his thumbs were down before the curtains were up.

    Consider his contempt for prequels in general as he growls at Batman Begins, asking, “What’s wrong with ‘Batman Is‘?” “In all narratives,” he says, “there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely, there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and, like plaintive children, demand to have everything explained. Shakespeare could have kicked off with a flashback in which the infant Hamlet is seen wailing with indecision as to which of Gertrude’s breasts he should latch onto, but would it really have helped us to grasp the dithering prince?”

    I find this critic-angst to be brilliant and funny—I’ll admit to being amused by the thought of Hamlet pondering, “To left, or not to left?”—and yes!, far too many screenwriters coddle and condescend their viewers with justifications for behaviours we would have gone along with anyway. The only (tiny) trouble I can see with the argument is that it’s fired at the wrong film. Star Trek is not a flashback built within a movie to help us understand; we already took Kirk’s status as Captain for granted—we were okay with Spock’s pointy ears, and nobody wondered how McCoy got through med-school; in fact, we were so comfortable with taking the universe as it was that we kept on flying with it through all those other series. Star Trek does not seek to answer a chorus of confused Trekkies who have always wondered about Scottie’s curious accent; instead, the film is a treat for Star Trekkers who are so enamoured by Roddenberry’s universe that a little hint into their heroes’ pasts makes their wee hearts grin.

    More importantly, although it has all the titillations of a prequel, this Trek is not actually telling us what happened before the other episodes: instead it is the consequent of a post-Kirk Vulcan blunder that found its way back in time and killed a butterfly (Captain Kirk the 1st) just as Kirk Junior—our Kirk—was born. The result is a universe similar enough to allow our favourite Star Trek characters to still exist, but altered sufficiently to tweak their histories and personalities. The back-story here, then, is more than just Trekker-gratification: it also allows us to grasp the new rules in the adjusted-for-butterfly universe before we start re-Trekking our steps. Thus, the film is not a prequel, but a requel.

    Lane regrets this “dose of parallel universe.” “Come on, guys,” he rolls his eyes, “you’re already part of a make-believe world in which mankind can out fly the speed of light. Isn’t that parallel enough for you?”

    This sounds like an impressive accusation; however, is it not the case that every science fiction movie (in fact, every movie, and, for that matter, every fiction ever invented) presents a parallel universe where the characters and sometimes the rules of the world are, to varying extents, different from our own? Lane seems to be suggesting that if we already have one fantastical element within a single film, we cannot have another. I’m not exactly sure why; a world that includes speed faster than light seems to me to be the most likely one to also include time travel.

    Sure, time travel is irritating on film (How come someone from the future can still exist after he’s changed the past? and all that); nevertheless, can we not acknowledge that the Star Trek industry has boldly gone where no one has gone before? The authors of the film have, in essence, erased their universe and are set to begin a new stream of the same water. As a moderate fan, I am saddened to think of the many previously-witnessed voyages that will no longer happen in Kirk’s life, but, as a connoisseur of consistency, I am awestruck: Star Trek can persist, beginning again with the icons that brought it, without having to worry about matching up story lines. If they want Spock to be captain instead of Kirk, he can be; if they want the half-orphaned Kirk to be cockier than ever, the sky’s the limit!

    I will leave the question of whether this do-over offering is the right course for Star Trek to more addicted fans than myself (and it seems that they have reported in with their support), but, to ignore its creative moxie is another symptom of Lane’s unwillingness to consider this movie long enough to pay attention to what it is doing.

    Recall his complaint that Chekov’s funny accent was merely a regurgitation of an old Dickensian joke. Maybe, but I think the Star Trek writers and fans were also laughing at the original Star Trek for having such a silly-voiced character. (Which, in fact, was likely a necessity of the cold warring time in which Chekov was created: he signified Roddenberry’s utopian view of future earth relations in which he predicted the Russians and Americans would have long patched up their frigid dispute. He even paralleled the anticipated truce with a pledge from the Star Trek future itself that his own rivals, the Federation and those over-gruff Klingons, would eventually become allies—a promise he fulfilled in Star Trek: The Next Generation. But, in order to ensure that Roddenberry’s “preferring to be dead than red” audience would go along with his super-truce, he designed his Russian symbol to be silly.)

    Indeed, this requel teased several of our beloved: McCoy gave us one fantastic “Damn it, man! I’m a doctor not a physicist!” and Scotty, in his own unwieldy accent, complained that the ship didn’t have enough power to comply with Kirk’s demands. I am confident that the audience with whom I attended were laughing not because the lines themselves were so funny; instead we appreciated the unapologetic wink towards our corny original. I doubt Dickens’s Pickwick jokes were meant to satire himself.

    But, if that doesn’t convince you that Lane’s review is a triumph of skill over substance, consider one final point: Lane’s review of Star Trek contains “humpback whales.” Enough said.

  • (Thank you to both Tom Durrie, of the Tom & Seth Operatic Society, and our associate and opera scholar, Natalie Anderson, for aiding my understanding of opera sufficiently to write this blog entry; my conclusions, however, do not necessarily match either of theirs.)

    I’m not an opera connoisseur, but—with wide eyes and ears—I have been attending operas in Vancouver (and occasionally Seattle) for the past ten years under the expert instruction of my friend, and opera aficionado, Tom Durrie. I was excited, this past Saturday, to take in my debut viewing of The Magic Flute, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. My pleased anticipation was based on two factors:

    (1) Tom says that Mozart’s music is simply the greatest. Evidence for this claim was illuminated at our Tom & Seth Operatic Society preview party in which Tom played recordings from previous renderings of The Magic Flute; we were treated to songs so gentle that even opera-fearing people who view most arias as glass-breaking shrieks might not have been offended.

    (2) Vancouver Opera had revived its 2007 production in which they set the story in a historical and supernatural First Nations landscape. Refitting operas for alternate settings is common, and The Magic Flute, Tom explained, is a perfect candidate for such reinterpretation, because it is a simple tale set in a forest with magical characters, and so lends itself to any culture that possesses supernatural myths.

    To warm up for the event this past Saturday, our group was treated to a pre-show backstage tour with VO’s charismatic Development Manager for Grants & Proposals, Joseph Bardsley, followed by the the customary (and always informative) pre-show talk by the VO’s Marketing Director, Doug Tuck. They explained that the production we were about to witness had been created with careful collaboration with experts in the First Nations community. The sets, costumes, and dancing were all developed through the advice of a special First Nations advisory council, while the script was altered to fit a First Nations perspective, and included thirty words from the Coast Salish language. Everything seemed to be in place for a magic ride into an unfamiliar world.

    The production is visually stunning as the result of multi-layered projections that function as the set; this fluid, shimmering environment create a visceral feeling of being in a realm that is both natural and supernatural. The show begins with a man wearing modern western attire who awakens in a forest in British Columbia, unsure of how he’s gotten there, but aware that he’s in a mystical land unlike any he’s been to before. My fancy was tickled, as I imagined he was a sort of Alice in Wonderland, or Dorothy in Oz, or the Darling children in Neverland: surely this was the land of the First Nations before colonization, infused with magical creatures from indigenous legend.

    And so began three very boring hours.

    In their noble efforts to check off their cultural obligations, the VO seemed to have forgotten that their ultimate responsibility was to tell a story—to bring together characters in such a way that their various intentions conflicted and coincided to create a compelling drama. Instead, the show was a collage of obscure and disconnected moments, in which the characters were too simple to relate to. (Tom had warned us of the sparse details within the original libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, but he explained that Mozart’s music included vivid characterization, and so it was the job of the dramaturg to enliven and interpret the characters, and to fill in the blanks of the story as it rode along beside the richness of the score.)

    Indeed, given that the VO had re-written much of the libretto of The Magic Flute for this production, they had plenty of opportunity to infuse the text with interesting First Nations characters: between arias, the production team could have provided whatever dialogue it saw fit to tell us about the universe and people they imagined. But instead, most of the characters identified as First Nations are the same person: stoic, proud, and wise, with not a single nuance to separate them.

    The hero, Tamino (our aforementioned Dorothy who is not in Kansas anymore) and heroine, Pamina, are similarly one-dimensional: he falls in love with her over a picture, and she, in turn, falls for him when she finds out that he has fallen for her image. It is a mystery that the writers at the VO did not bother to fill in this shallow aspect of the original plot with greater nuance or depth befitting the universe they were honouring. Moreover, in spite of being the daughter of a blue butterfly creature (the Queen of the Night), Pamina is not blue, and unlike the other inhabitants of this strange new world who are either First Nations people or animal creatures, she wears modern western attire like Tamino, even though she is supposedly indigenous to this magical land. She is both an exotic other and a westernized woman for Tamino’s convenience. (Although, when the couple is finally united at the end of the story, they are suddenly, and inexplicably, dressed in First Nations costume as though the production had identified their hopes to join the culture. This undeveloped retroactive motivation operates in conjunction with the characters’ more apparent aspirations in the libretto for enlightenment. The production thus implies that the First Nations are the sole holders of such profound insight.)

    The Queen of the Night tries to disrupt the union, but we’re not given a hint of her motivation. Again this is a weakness of the original text, but it is the duty of the operatic storyteller to provide at least an implicit explanation within his or her interpretation for why, in this particular world, the Queen of the Night is such an unfortunate mother-in-law. (Perhaps Tamino is of a culture she mistrusts? Anything would have been useful to give her odd behaviours a context worth contemplating.)

    Meanwhile, Sarastro, here cast as a First Nations elder, sets challenges for the couple (such as requiring Tamino to spend a lengthy amount of time being silent around Pamina without giving her any hint as to why he’s ignoring her) in order for them to earn their connection and general enlightenment. Why Sarastro and other First Nations overseers feel the need to test the love of our leads in such a cruel fashion (to the point that the wounded Pamina almost kills herself—before being talked off the ledge by some First Nations youngsters) is not clear, but evidently they are the good guys. Again, Schikaneder may have been equally mysterious in his open-ended text, but this was a lost opportunity for Vancouver Opera to justify its production by bringing new meaning, within First Nations context, to the trials (perhaps through the illumination of a myth or rite of passage).

    Similarly, the story’s official bad guy (Monostasos), who is the servant of Sarastro, and who in this production has rat features as well as peculiar 18th-century European attire, makes little sense: we are left to wonder how he became a servant to a First Nations elder. The colonial power structure is incoherent, and serves only to check off an obligation of ridiculing Western culture.

    Such insistence on announcing to the audience that Vancouver Opera would like to officially distance itself from colonialism is perhaps the weakest part of the production. (I cannot imagine that anyone who believes colonialism was a good thing would be convinced in the opposite direction by such a blunt instrument, and those who regret colonialism do not require such an out-of-place and awkward lecture to remind them of their convictions.)

    Instead, I envy my anticipation of the opera in which I expected to be taken to a pre-colonial First Nations supernatural world. (How often has that universe been explored in modern western art?) Surely there are First Nations myths that allow for pre-existing antagonists in the forest. (Or does every villain have to be non-First Nations, just as every good character either has to be First Nations or become First Nations in the end?) Had Vancouver Opera agreed to draw inspiration solely from First Nations prehistory and myth, then maybe our minds might have felt some sadness, of our own volition, that such a culture had been destroyed.

    It’s hard to blame Vancouver Opera for so blatantly moralizing in this production; it is not easy for a western artistic company to tell a story featuring First Nations culture because the former is in constant danger, no matter how hard it tries to be sensitive and deferential, of being accused of cultural ignorance. Indeed, in the Georgia Straight’s assessment of the production, the reviewer complained that that it contained insufficient references to the evils of European colonialism. (A more bluntly-chiseled castigation of Western culture would be difficult to fathom.) The reviewer also asserted that Pamina’s relationship with Tamino recalled the Eurocentric myth of Pocahontas and John Smith, even though the VO production doesn’t match that interpretation, having Pamina dress in Western garb and both Pamina and Tamino, through the superficial means of a costume change, become part of the First Nations community in the end.

    Clearly, the VO had set itself an impossible task. No matter how much they consulted the First Nations community, and how much they tried to treat the ancient culture as wise and infallible, they are still criticized for being Eurocentric. Perhaps, then, the expected moralizing from the critical audience censored the company from telling an interesting story.

    I find this to be an unfortunate result because Vancouver Opera’s intentions seemed to be to nourish a wounded culture, and to remind us (through beautiful scenery, costumes, dance, and music) of what has been lost, but their rendering is so jumbled and condescending that I for one lost interest half way through.

  • I was surprised to see the “dramedy” Silver Linings Playbook nominated for an Academy Award this year, but then again the Oscar deciders often makes strange choices for my palette. They have a habit, I think, of choosing message over substance.

    Silver Linings Playbook features three major characters with mental illness. So, like the Oscar voters, I am happy to see this less-funded area of health have some quality time on screen. However, it seems to me that part of the job of an award show dedicated to rewarding great story telling is checking in on both the accuracy of the character depictions (especially went it comes to a misunderstood illness) and the coherence of the plot.

    The Playbook characters with mental illness seemed cartoonish to me as their symptoms were most pronounced when the plot needed either comedic or dramatic relief. For instance, the lead male (played impressively by Bradley Cooper) had a broken social filter and so would often say whatever inappropriate things that he was thinking, but this only came out when it would benefit the script; when the plot required some discretion on his part, he managed somehow to subdue himself. Indeed, most manifestations of his illness were grand gestures for us to easily recognize (when he didn’t like a book, he smashed it through his second-floor window, as opposed to throwing it on the floor).

    Moreover (and I’ll be vague on this one, as I don’t want to give away a major plot point for those who haven’t seen the movie yet), one of the mentally ill characters made a decision (unconnected, I thought, with his/her mental illness) which in most movies would have been considered ethically questionable, but no such scrutiny surfaced in the film. This struck me as condescending as it seemed to suggest that mentally ill characters need not pester themselves with pesky matters such as ethics: we’re just glad to see them doing well.

    But maybe I’m missing the silver lining here: perhaps I should be happy with the rarest of all Academy Awards results: a semi-comedy is being considered for their usually unamused top spot. And, given we live in a time where raunch comedy rules the comedy screen, I’m content to see that a somewhat grounded comedy has been selected.

    Subtlety, it seems, is a dirty word in popular movies today. Comedy writers take turns trying to out shock each other. I look forward to the day they realize that the audience is now expecting the supposedly sweet elderly citizen to utter a raunchy phrase: we would actually be more surprised if the writers let the characters talk like people instead of pawns in their gross-out humour games.

    Similarly, there is a trend in action movies (particularly action-dramas) to be cartoonishly gory. Murder isn’t enough: it has to be gruesome, and it has to be relentless. Consider Gangster Squad whose violence is so aggressive and so soaked with blood that it became (to my weary eyes, at least) like a video game whose characters are toys.

    There is a dramatic danger, I think, whenever gory violence (or raunch comedy) becomes an end in itself. Recall the great television drama, Law & Order, whose action moments were so rare and realistic that they meant something.

  • On CBC radio’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi, I find that the host’s brand of cheerful, introspective inquisition usually succeeds in bringing out the non-pretentious side of his guests; however, in a recent Q leading up to the London Olympics, Jian interviewed the billboard brandal, Scottish poet, Robert Montgomery, who fought through the host’s friendliness and managed an impressive level of condescension.

    Montgomery’s “brandalism” project, that of superimposing his poetry, along with other art, over billboards (including recent Olympic advertising) is interesting; as he says, cities decorated on all sides by commercial imagery could be exhausting to the psyches of the inhabitants, and so many city dwellers may prefer a quiet poetry break. Nevertheless, I was intrigued to hear how the poet would tackle the notion that the places on which he places his wares have already been paid for by law-abiding citizens. Montgomery’s personal preference for his ideas over corporate products sounds lovely in theory, but what gives him the right to overrule the message of the legal tenants of the space?

    I mean the question sincerely. As anyone who’s ever taken a philosophy of law course knows, Martin Luther King argued, while in jail, that some laws are in such violation of human dignity that they should not be considered valid. That’s compelling to me, so I was ready to be persuaded that Montgomery’s brandalism is confronting an oppression that the corporations have no right to inflict upon us.

    Yet, instead of making any attempt to suggest the intrinsic immorality of the original billboards, Ghomeshi’s guest simply explained that most people seem to enjoy the respite from the noise of commercialism. Is that really all the argument that is required to overrule the law? That people would prefer it? I’m sure most people would also rather go without parking tickets, so should we tear them up if we get them?

    Presumably the proceeds from billboards go the city (or at least the economy), which can then pay for infrastructure for the citizens. I’m happy to hear an argument that the billboards are nevertheless immoral and so must be fought, but Montgomery’s follow-up defence that he is providing his fellow humans with a kind of therapy is wholly insufficient, and incredibly paternalistic. Despite his poetic pedigree, I’m not convinced that he’s necessarily equipped to provide such collective psychological treatment.

    All of this I would have forgiven were it not for his hubris-riddled anecdote in which he described being caught in the act of brandalism by a police officer, who, happily enough, enjoyed the poetry and told our hero to carry on. “Not all police officers are stupid,” the poet concluded. So, along with providing therapy, Montgomery’s poetry has the ability to test the intelligence of its readers? If you “get it”, you’re smart; if not, sorry, you’re not too bright. (Moreover, whether or not the officer was smart, since when are individual members of the police supposed to ignore the law because they happen to like the sentiments expressed by the criminal?)

    I am more than happy to be persuaded that brandalism is a worthwhile enterprise, but I think Q should consider bringing on a defender who can see far enough past their own ego to be capable of taking on the genuine question at stake here: when is it okay to forsake the law for what you perceive to be the greater good?

  • I’m currently reading Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mystery,The Case of the Daring Divorcee. It is enlightening to spend time in Gardner’s 1964 sensibilities and discoveries (including a strange “tape-recording answering machine”). Most intriguing, though, is the mind of our heroic defence attorney, Mr. Perry Mason, who wields a refreshingly logical brilliance.

    I find that the authors of most modern brainy heroes don’t let us in on how their characters arrive at their profound conclusions; instead, we are to watch as they form their elusive epiphanies, but have to wait for a dramatic moment to be let in on the fun. Mason, though, is methodical and breaks down events right in front of us. Although don’t try to think ahead of him! He’s always one step ahead.

    Consider Perry Mason vs Lieutenant Tragg regarding Mason’s client Adele Hastings. Perry anticipated that Tragg would bring Mrs. Hastings in front of a witness, who had seen a woman matching her description do something suspicious; so Perry had several women, of that same description, arrive in the meeting room just before Hastings was about to be identified.

    The result, as Perry had planned, was that the witness picked out the first women to arrive—-not Adelle Hastings—-as the suspicious person. Lieutenant Tragg immediately intervened and told the witness to look at all the women: which one who was the women she had seen? Now the witness wasn’t sure: they all looked like her.

    Don’t be impressed yet; watch what Mason does to Tragg next:

    TRAGG (to the decoy women): You can go, all of you.

    MASON: All of you can go. All of you.

    TRAGG: Hey, wait a minute. I want Mrs. Hastings to say.

    MASON: All right, which one is Mrs. Hastings?

    TRAGG: Don’t pull those tricks on me.

    MASON: Pick her out if you want her.

    TRAGG: You’re talking to an officer, Perry. Don’t try those tricks.

    Tragg then successfully identified Mrs. Hastings.

    TRAGG: What the hell were you trying to do? Make a monkey of me? Did you think I couldn’t pick Mrs. Hastings out of that group?…

    MASON: No, you didn’t have any trouble picking her out. That’s all I needed to convince any jury that the test was a fair one.

    Brilliant! Like a magician, Perry had misdirected Tragg and I to assume that he was trying to further demonstrate the fallibility of witnesses by showing Tragg that even he couldn’t pick his client out of a lineup. Well, Tragg and I could prove that wrong: we could easily identify Hastings! And, just like that, Perry pulled the rabbit out of our testimony as he proved, that if his client really was the one who had been witnessed, she would have been identifiable even amongst a crowd of lookalikes.

    Next time I’m on trial for a crime I didn’t commit, I’m calling Perry Mason!

  • I am often tempted by what I’ll call “Sudden Magic Premise Comedies” (in particular those starring adults) in which our (almost always) male protagonist is successful and charming, but possesses a seemingly tragic flaw (an overabundance of ego, shallowness or shyness) and so is suddenly given (or cursed by) a magic power (perhaps being able hear women’s thoughts), limitation (he can no longer tell a lie) or situation (he has to relive the same day repeatedly). In almost every case, when our hero meets his magic circumstance, we begin with his slapstick comedic reaction to his plight (this is a good reason to hire Jim Carrey or Bill Murray for your lead as they can handle the humour gracefully), but the situation will eventually turn dire to the point that he will lose almost everything in his life, including, apparently, the affection of the female lead. Her role is key as she is almost unanimously unencumbered by personality or humour, but possesses an understanding of the true meaning of life and family; it is precisely that outlook that the protagonist must adopt if he`s going to escape his magic premise.

    I am often seduced by these magic premises, as I am curious as to how the hero will handle what seems to me to be an intriguing situation. For instance, before viewing Bruce Almighty, in which the great Jim Carrey’s character temporarily acquires the powers of God, I was intrigued to see how he would deal out his deity magic to those around him. Unfortunately, I need to be reminded before I purchase my ticket that these movies are not meant to be philosophical or ethical commentaries: JC’s character did not, as we might hope, spend his powers on curing major illnesses in third world countries; instead, he focussed on the petty preferences of his own life. And so I was disappointed by what seemed to be empathetically-challenged behaviour from our hero, but that was my own fault for mixing up the genre for something that it’s not.

    Sudden Magic Premise Comedies can – in SethBlogs’s opinion – be very good movies, but it’s important to remember their function before going in. I forgot this rule once again last night when I was drawn in by the Magic Comedy Premise of A Thousand Words, in which the protagonist, played by Eddie Murphy, is given only a thousand words to live. Intrigue me! How exactly would he ration them? What clever strategies for handling the problem would he invent? But, once again, I should have realized that this wasn’t meant to be a thought-provoking movie in the way that I’d hoped. I was therefore displeased by the results. My bad once again.

    As with all genres, there are both good and bad Sudden Magic Premise Comedies (so long as we are willing to remember the limitations of the genre). If you are considering trying one out, I am at your service. Below are my rankings of the non-kid-led Sudden Magic Premise Comedies that I can remember at this time. (I will update the list as I find additional members of the genre.)

    1. Groundhog Day (1993)

    Directed by: Harold Ramis
    Screenplay by: Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
    Starring: Bill Murray
    Bland Lady Love Interest portrayed by: Andie McDowell

    Magic Premise: I don`t want to give this one away as this movie is best witnessed without awareness of what is about to befall our hero.

    SethBlogs Analysis: This movie is already highly ranked in several prestigious SethBlogs categories, such as “Best Comedy Film,” “Best Bill Murray Movie,” (tied with Quick Change) and “Best Overall Movie.” The dialogue is overflowing with wit, the comedy has impeccable timing (leaving every joke before it becomes tedious), and the existentially superior love interest possesses a rare hint of a personality beyond the requirements of the genre.

    2. What Women Want (2000)

    Directed by: Nancy Meyers
    Screenplay by: Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa
    Starring: Mel Gibson (while he was still one of the world’s most charming people)

    Not-So-Bland Lady Love Interest portrayed by: Helen Hunt
    Magic Premise: Our charming, but somewhat chauvinistic hero is given the ability to hear the thoughts of all women.

    SethBlogs Analysis: While there is some silly gender humour in this film, SethBlogs found the characters to be much more nuanced and human than we normally encounter in Sudden Magic Premise Comedies. As a result, the world in which these characters interact seems more believable and three-dimensional. Even the morally superior female lead possesses rare personality and even unprecedented self-doubt. Consequently, the plot is not as gimmicky as the genre would normally forgive.

    3. Liar Liar (1997)

    Directed by: Tom Shadyac
    Screenplay by: Paul Guay & Stephen Mazur
    Starring: Jim Carrey
    Bland Lady Love Interest: Moira Tierney (of the champion sitcom News Radio: this role is a tragic waste of her considerable comedic skills)

    Magic Premise: A double-talking lawyer’s neglected son successfully wishes that his dad lose the ability to tell lies.

    SethBlogs Analysis: This one’s all in the Carrey. Without Jim, its silliness would be too slapstick for viewing, but in the face and charm of the master, I pronounce it worth seeing.

    4. Yes Man (2008)

    Directed by: Peyton Reed
    Screenplay by: Nicholas Stoller and Jarrad Paul & Andrew Mogel
    Starring: Jim Carrey
    Not-So-Bland Lady Love Interest: Zoey Deschanel (SethBlogs categorizes her as not-so-bland because she is a free spirit with some evident charm, but given the movie’s role is to teach Jim Carrey’s character to lead a more spontaneous life, she still fulfills her genre duty to take the moral high ground and to inspire him to do better)

    Magic Premise: In this case, the lead’s tragic flaw is not that he is over-confident, but that he is under-existing. He is thus sentenced to say “Yes” to everything anyone ever asks of him (if he doesn’t, bad things happen) so that he will learn to take on life more aggressively.

    SethBlogs Analysis: There are some painfully silly moments in this movie, but Carrey’s standard brilliance, along with a likeable collection of co-stars provokes approval from the SethBlogs staff.

    5. Bedazzled (2000)

    Directed by: Harold Ramis
    Written by: Peter Cook
    Starring: Brendan Fraser
    Bland Lady Love Interest Portrayed by: Frances O’Connor

    Magic Premise: This time our hero’s tragic flaw comes from his dorky demeanor, which is stalling his efforts to attain his dream girl. Thus he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for seven wishes with which he hopes to improve his manliness so that he can impress his love.

    SethBlogs Analysis: There is some confusion about human tendencies here (for instance, when Brendan’s character wishes for the ability to be the sweetest man on earth, our hero becomes annoyingly sickly sweet, but of course a truly sensitive person would be aware of how to avoid being annoying.) However, some genuinely funny moments combined with Brendan Fraser’s incomparable pathos make this a worthwhile viewing, in SethBlogs humble opinion.

    6. Bruce Almighty (2003)

    Directed by: Tom Shadyac
    Screenplay by: Steve Koren & Mark O’Keefe and Steve Oedekerk
    Starring: Jim Carrey
    Bland Lady Love Interest Portrayed by: Jennifer Aniston (another colossal misuse of a comedic talent here as Anniston’s character lacks even of a hint of the personality that the actress is capable of portraying)

    Magic Premise: Bruce gets to borrow God’s powers for a while.

    SethBlogs Analysis: This is one of the most silly in the genre that’s still worth seeing. While it is philosophically agonizing to watch, the cast – led by our Jim – is charming and funny enough to keep the SethBlogs’s eyes on screen.

    7. Shallow Hall (2001)

    Directed by: Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly
    Written by: Sean Moynhan & Peter & Bobby Farrelly
    Starring: Jack Black
    Bland Lady Love Interest Portrayed by: Gwyneth Paltrow

    Magic Premise: The lead’s tragic flaw in this case is right there in the title: he’s so shallow that he only sees women for their looks, and so he is given the power/curse to see women only for their inner beauty.

    SethBlogs Analysis: As always, the writer-director combo of the Farrelly brothers mix some offensive humour into a comedy with heart. Shallow Hall is both mildly insulting and compassionate to the less fortunate in appearance, and so has just barely earned SethBlogs’s approval.

    8. The Invention of Lying (2009)

    Directed by: Ricky Gervais and Mathew Robinson
    Written by: Ricky Gervais and Mathew Robinson
    Starring: Ricky Gervais/David Brent
    Bland Lady Love Interest Portrayed by: Jennifer Garner

    Magic Premise: Gervais’s character lives in a world where no one has ever thought to lie; everything changes when he suddenly one day realizes the power of deception.

    SethBlogs Analysis: This movie is all premise and no pay off. The writers confuse the inability to tell lies with an insistence on oversharing. Gervais spends time being funny, but as with all of his roles, he eventually returns to his most famous persona, David Brent from The Office (which is always enjoyable, but distracting when he’s supposed to be playing a different character). SethBlogs does not think this movie is worth seeing, and yet the premise is so interesting, that even now we want to go back to that world to give it another chance.

    9. A Thousand Words (2012)

    Directed by: Brian Robbins
    Written by: Steve Koren
    Starring: Eddie Murphy
    Bland Lady Love Interest Portrayed by: Kerry Washington

    Magic Premise: Murphy’s charming, but double-talking literary agent persona is taught a lesson by a magic tree who limits him to approximately a thousand words for the rest of his life.

    SethBlogs Analysis: Perhaps the promise of the premise has led me to unfairly dislike this film for dealing with its intriguing thought example in such a silly way. For instance, to facilitate the comedy of a particular moment, Murphy’s character repeatedly wastes many precious words to complete the scene’s comedy, but for the drama of another situation, he refuses say a word to stop his simple, but pure wife from misinterpreting him to catastrophic results. Nevertheless, Murphy plays the part well and there is one scene that got the whole SethBlogs team laughing.

     

    10. Evan Almighty (2007)

    Directed by: Tom Shadyac
    Written by: Steve Oderkerk
    Starring: Steve Carrel
    Bland Lady Love Interest Portrayed by: Lauren Graham (once again, this is a mighty waste of talent as the ultra-funny Graham stays on formula and never utters a breath that isn’t morally superior and devoid of personality)

    Magic Premise: In this rare Magic Premise sequel, Bruce Almighty’s rival, Evan, gets to play a Bible character as God sentences him to be a modern-day Noah.

    SethBlogs Analysis: This is one of the top ten worst movies that SethBlogs has had the displeasure of witnessing. It is relentlessly silly and contrived without a hint of funny.

  • As far as I can tell, there are three major classes of standard action movie:

    (A) Pure action: in this case, like a musical, every moment is a set up for the action aria. Usually, a pure action movie will feature an actor known for his (and very occasionally her) martial arts skills or bubble-muscles (or both), such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Jason Statham, Vin Diesel, Jean-Claude van Damme, or all-time leader, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The dialogue often features wooden pre-and-post-violence-catchphrases such as “Time to take out the trash”, or “That hit the spot”. At the same time, such films are often sanitized in the sense that there is a small amount of blood and gore in proportion to the impressive volume of shooting and killing; as a result, the victims of the violence are not sympathetic figures, but instead merely stunt men. The relationship between good and bad, meanwhile, is cartoonish, but satisfying to those of us with simple hearts.

    (B) Situation action: here the scenario is king as our hero is caught in a tricky situation that he (or occasionally she) has to escape or resolve. The action can be impressive, but is directed by the necessity of the plot and so makes each obstacle that our hero must defeat exciting and significant. Our hero’s moxie, however, is more crucial than his martial arts skills. Consider Die Hard or much of Harrison Ford’s work. Once again, the good guy is juxtaposed with a bad guy who does evil things to people’s grandmothers, but since the focus is as much on the brains and personalities of both sides as it is their swinging back kicks, it is easier to invest oneself in the characters. And our hero and villain’s humour is usually more wit than punch-line-based.

    (C) Gritty action: in this case, the story is once again significant, but it is usually dark and blurs the distinction between good and evil. The action, when it happens, is harsh, loud, and disconcerting. The action hero again doesn’t have to be a black belt in anything, but he (and very rarely she) must be ready to be moody about a dark past. Dim lighting throughout the film often causes the protagonist’s morose mood to infect ours, as does the disconcerting violence, which features grisly death, rape, and torture. The characters are generally humourless (who could blame them?), as they’re rather focussed on revenge at the moment. Films such as Law Abiding Citizen and Payback are classic examples.

    When done skillfully, all three genres can produce work that I like, but it has come to my realization that I generally prefer situation action movies because I find them to be a fun place for my imagination to play. I appreciate the fact that they don’t take themselves too seriously, deriving their humour from wit and personality traits as opposed to the slapstick death of a pawn character or clichéd punch-line. The heroes usually endear themselves to me to the point that I actually care about what happens to them when the action starts. (Rank 1 on the action genre list.)

    In contrast, pure action movies, whilst also not taking themselves too seriously, are rarely able to provoke any connection between the hero, the action, and me. The violence is so constant and unlinked to a recognizable scenario or character I care about that I find myself bored with the constantly flashing movement on screen and the noise reverberating in my eardrums. (Rank 3.)

    Meanwhile, gritty action films work hard to connect us with the characters, but, since they have such ambiguous morality levels, they’re not particularly likeable. And, because the story is told with a dark and pessimistic tone and often involves serious and controversial subject matter, I find myself less entertained as I am sad about the world. The action itself, meanwhile, is so raw and blood-spattered that it’s not particularly pleasing to view. Nevertheless, given the dark story takes on some challenging subject matter, it generally at least provokes my disconcerted brain to have some unexpected thoughts. (Rank 2.)

    These distinctions are helpful, I think, because they can allow us (even if we’re not always conscious of them) to select the type of movie that best suits our taste buds. Moreover, it would be helpful for movie critics to keep genre conventions in mind in order to avoid unfairly condemning a movie for having too much or not enough action, humour, character development, complexity, or gravitas. For instance, when watching a pure action film, it would be unreasonable to expect the same degree of character development as in Citizen Kane, because that is not its function. Rather, a pure action should be judged based on its successful implementation of the genre’s key elements.

    At the same time, it is rather irritating to me when an action movie tries to reap all the benefits of each genre, and ends up being none of them. Consider Safe House, which I took in last night. It brands itself as a gritty action, and certainly it possesses sufficiently dark themes for that (I was definitely good and depressed as I watched). The hero (played by Ryan Reynolds), per specifications, is under-appreciated and faced with difficult decisions in which he has to choose between love and work. And we have plenty of brutal, cold-blooded killing, along with a realistic scene of torture (the actor-victim, Denzel Washington, explained afterwards that he allowed himself to be water-boarded—-albeit briefly—-so as to get the good grit). Fine. Gritty action it is: my thoughts were primed for provocation.

    But then the movie quickly turns into a situation flick where our quick-thinking hero has to navigate the Safe House world using only his brilliant maneuvering, reluctantly bonding with his sometimes-prisoner in a formulaic father-son, mentor-student relationship. And the action itself, while dark and extreme like a gritty movie, is constant, gratuitous, and sometimes even nonsensical, featuring indiscriminate and hopeless shooting by the enemy, lots of fancy fight moves, and virtually pain-free car crashes, all meeting pure action requirements. Thus, even though the movie tries to get the intellectual credit for being gritty, it actually relies on the conventions of pure and situation action to entertain us. The result is an unharmonious blending of genres that is too dark to be enjoyable and too silly to be interesting. Whereas I was initially sympathetic to the protagonist because of the frightening situation he is caught in and the invocation of various situation-action conventions, the paradoxical mixing of gritty with silly eventually deflated my concern as I could no longer take the film seriously.

    EPILOGUE: I also recently watched the situation action movie Man on a Ledge, which officially will get much lower marks from the critics because it is an unashamedly lowbrow movie (featuring some implausible moments and unnecessary cleavage). To me, it’s under-rated redeeming quality is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Instead of genre-hopping like Safe House, it stays consistently in its own lane. Consequently, by knowing its limitations, it succeeds at being something; whereas, by trying to be everything, Safe House fails to be anything.

  • I’ve been asked by one of my loyal readers to defend my claim that “The Reader” (a story “that promotes reading”) is a dreadful movie.

    Let me begin by acknowledging that I do enjoy fighting back against what I refer to, for your amusement, as “Reading Propaganda”. (Even though, that is, I certainly think books are often great disseminators of information and stories, I resist those who seem to believe that they are always superior to other forms of artistic entertainment such as movies and television.)

    However, in spite of my admitted predilection for antagonizing the glorification of books, my quibble with the movie “The Reader” is not so much that it’s attempting to reinvigorate the over-stated claim that reading is the best, but instead my concern is the contrived way in which the plot pushes the point through.

    When the great Jerry Seinfeld character on the wonderfully written television show “Seinfeld” discovered that his dentist friend Whatley had converted to Judaism so that he could have “total joke-telling immunity” against both Jewish people and Catholics (his current and former religions respectively), Jerry complained to a Catholic representative…

    FATHER: Tell me your sins, my son.

    JERRY: Well I should tell you that I’m Jewish.

    FATHER: That’s no sin.

    JERRY: Oh good. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism just for the jokes.

    FATHER: And this offends you as a Jewish person?

    JERRY: No, it offends me as a comedian!

    Hee, hee, brilliant!

    In similar (though less brilliant fashion) my contempt for “the Reader” is an artistic one. If you’re going to promote your dull, unoriginal cause in your movie, at least do it eloquently! – not with contrived statutory rape scenes, followed by gratuitous use of the holocaust to seem like a deeper movie than you are, culminating in the heroic arrival of blessed reading to give the characters’ lives renewed reason for being.

    I’m offended as a writer.

  • Much to my jealousy, JamColouredGlasses strikes (the funny bone) again! This time my rival “Sister Bloggers” are nutritiously brief, but beware: they provide a startling lesson that will make you rethink how you see salade advertisements in future.

Subscribe to Sethblogs

Enter your favourite email address here and sethblogs will alert you whenever Seth blogs.