Thursday, November 30, 2006

Boom Goes the Dynamite: Scattered Veronica Mars Thoughts

How much do I love the decision to split Veronica Mars's third season into mini-arcs? Not only has the shift in format completely re-energized the show, it gives me three convenient stopping points from which to take stock of the show's progress. And, since I share producer Rob Thomas's fears about the likelihood of a fourth season, it's probably best to take advantage of the opportunity to do some guilt-free criticism while I still can.

Before I get to the criticism, however, I'd like to reiterate that the show is re-energized. After a well-intentioned but deeply flawed second season, Veronica Mars is back in top form. The show's opening plot arc was tight, tense, and compelling. The characters, even when they made choices we couldn't condone or changed in ways we didn't care for, were vibrant onscreen presences (except, that is, for the ones who didn't get nearly enough air-time like Wallace, Mac and Weevil). There are, obviously, still some problem areas: as it did in its second season, the show continues to rely on idiot plotting--sometimes dumbing down the characters (Logan brings Veronica home from campus drugged to the gills, and Keith doesn't make the connection to the campus rapist), and more often simply setting its stories in an alternate universe in which a person grows enough marijuana to supply all of Neptune for their personal use, or bone cancer can be treated with a marrow transplant--which, in a detective story, is a serious flaw, one that is more likely than any other to wear away at the audience's indulgence. There's also been an increasing tendency to use pop-culture references and mug-for-the-camera acting to get laughs, which has quickly become tedious. All that said, the third season is shaping up incredibly well, and I for one can't wait to tune in for the next arc.

All of which is not to say that the rape arc has not had its problematic aspects--in fact, it is probably the most contentious story the show has ever told, and a great deal of vitriol has been spilled over the writers' choices in depicting the various groups involved in investigating (and hampering the investigation of) the serial rapes on the Hearst College campus. Chief among the complaints is that the portrayal of the Lilith House feminists--who, in their eagerness to take vengeance on fraternity members who hurt and humiliated their friend, fabricate rapes and commit sexual assault--is stereotypical, and that the revelation that two of the five reported rapes were faked hurts the real-world cause by cementing the perception of rape victims as unreliable and vindictive.

I agree that, as a story about rape and its consequences, the third season opening arc is, at best, deeply flawed. What I don't understand is why anyone is surprised at this, since compared to the first and second season's treatment of rape, the current season's problems are almost insignificant. The date rape storyline in the first season was, by far, the season's weakest aspect. When I first heard about Veronica Mars, I was intrigued by the notion of a character who was a victim of rape but for whom that victimhood was not a defining characteristic, but the show's writers went too far in sidelining the storyline. After bringing up her rape in the pilot, Veronica proceeded to ignore it completely until an accident of fate provided her with the opportunity to solve it--this while constantly referencing the other traumatic events in her life and obsessively investigating not only Lilly's murder but also Lianne's disappearance and Duncan's odd behavior. As much as I liked "A Trip to the Dentist" as a piece of storytelling, there's no denying that it prioritizes its noir-inspired message--that Veronica was raped not by a person but by a social class and a mindset--over any sort of engagement with the issue of sexual assault and its resultant trauma. And then, of course, we have the second season finale trotting out a last minute revelation of rape as a way of further cementing Beaver's villain-hood (while simultaneously undercutting the message of "A Trip to the Dentist"). So, yes, the third season once again treats rape as a means to an end--this time that old noir chestnut, everyone is guilty of something--but it is by far a more deft and delicate treatment of the topic than the show has thus far demonstrated.

More importantly, the notion that Veronica Mars, or any television show or work of art for that matter, has a duty to advance a certain social agenda, even one that I agree with, leaves me profoundly uncomfortable. The argument has been made that it is irresponsible, given the difficulties that women still have getting law enforcement officials to believe them when they complain of being raped or sexually harassed, to tell a story in which rapes are fabricated, and in which the most voluble critics of the rapes are shrill caricatures of the worst that the feminist movement has to offer. To a certain extent, I find this argument compelling, but only until I realize that if we were talking about almost any topic other than rape, I would reject it outright. When art sublimates itself to a political agenda, we get Battlestar Galactica. I was irate at the abortion storyline in that show's second season not because it ended up espousing a political opinion that I don't approve of, but because it did so by lying to its audience. In this one instance at least, Veronica Mars hasn't lied to its audience. False reports of rape do happen. People do allow political convictions and personal vendettas to cloud their judgement to the point of fanaticism. Ultimately, I think the show's portrayal of the sexual politics on campus is a great deal more nuanced, and far more sympathetic to the feminist viewpoint, than many of its critics have given it credit for. Two of the rapes were faked, but the other three were real. Faking the rapes turns out to be motivated by the desire to avenge a brutal campaign of harassment which ended up costing a student her mental health (although, and bringing us back to the issue of idiot plotting, it should be noted that if Claire hadn't kept her mouth shut in 2003, Patrice Petrelli's family could have sued the university and gotten the greeks tossed off campus then and there), and the perpetrator of that campaign is unchastened by the assault perpetrated on him, and even conspires to enable more rapes.

Finally, the resolution of the rape plotline more than makes up for any problems in its setup. Veronica once again needs to be rescued (although she does her fair share of fighting back, even while under the influence of GHB), but in a neat reversal of her failure to prevent Parker's rape, that rescue is effected by Parker. Even better, the people who ultimately save Veronica are not the men who know and love her, but strangers. "You actually think people would come a-running, huh?" Veronica wryly asks when Parker gives her a rape whistle, but at Parker's cry of "Rape!" the men of Wallace and Piz's floor do come running. Complete strangers to both Parker and Veronica, they stop to help when they realize that something isn't right. Even in Veronica Mars's noir universe, in which everyone is guilty, there are instances in which everyone can be decent. It's almost enough to make you believe in humanity.

What a pity, then, that Veronica is unconscious during this display of communal vigilance. The second most common criticism leveled against the rape arc is that Veronica's combative distrustfulness has gone from a winning personality quirk to downright annoying, and Buffy alumni can be forgiven for fearing that the show's heroine is being made into such an extreme version of herself that soon it will strain credulity that anyone would actually be willing to spend time with her. An equally vehement response to this complaint has argued that Veronica has always been bitchy and unpleasant, and that people complaining about her attitude in the current season have forgotten what show they were watching. To which I say: yes, Veronica has always been a bitch. And no, she's never been this much of a bitch, and never with so little justification. The third season's opening scene, after all, has Veronica behaving like a total prat. "Try not to piss anyone off this time around" she muses in a voice-over, and promptly proceeds to show off to her classmates and humiliate a TA who rubs her the wrong way.

The problem, I think--and hopefully this is where the writers are headed too--is that Veronica is still locked in the high school mindset. In that carefully stratified environment, the people Veronica met were neatly and clearly divided into those with and without power. The former were the popular kids, the rich kids, the gang leaders, or simply the people in positions of authority. Veronica was unique within Neptune High for being able to game the system--in spite of the fact that she wasn't rich, wasn't popular, wasn't a gang member, wasn't a faculty member, she had power over everyone. Coming into college, Veronica unthinkingly assumes that the rules are the same. What she doesn't realize is that her new environment is a far more complicated system, not as rigidly stratified by either class, wealth, or temporal power--it's actually a very clever play on the familiar story of freshmen unthinkingly carrying their high school preconceptions with them to college. In her new environment, Veronica is by no means the only person capable of gaming the system. There are plenty of other Veronicas on campus--the most notable ones being Nish and her cohorts, and the aforementioned TA, Timothy Foyle (who I really hope turns out not to be a villain--his interactions with Veronica have made for some of my favorite scenes these last nine episodes)--and in fact, as a freshman, Veronica is actually less qualified than they are to manipulate her surroundings, although she's certainly working hard to bridge the gap.

Being who she is, Veronica is of course not eager to let go of her established world-view. She doesn't even seem to have noticed that her 'everyone is out to get me' mindset is a little out of date, especially when one considers that in college, a new criteria for differentiating the powerful from the powerless is established--as a straight-A, curve-destroying teacher's pet on a full ride scholarship, Veronica yields a great deal more power than the average freshman. However misguided it may be, I don't think we can expect a change in Veronica's attitude any time in the foreseeable future. As Television Without Pity's Veronica Mars recapper, Couch Baron, puts it in his recap of the arc's penultimate episode, "Lord of the Pi's" (and by the way, if TWoP's go-to SF guy, Jacob, ever wants to find out how to incorporate a healthy degree of analysis into a recap without rendering it entirely humorless or unbearably pretentious, he could do a lot worse than study Couch Baron's recaps):
The reason [Veronica] was so evasive and brittle [when Piz asked her why she solves crimes in the season premiere]? She doesn't know. She doesn't know what's driving her, and this is one of the more interesting things about her character. Is it that she feels the world is a bad place and it needs all the help it can get? Is it a need to prove to people that you can't trust anyone (as the A-plot of "Of Vice And Men" would suggest?) At this point, it almost doesn't matter, because Veronica is unwilling truly to examine why she is the way she is.
As I've argued in the past, I think Veronica's unwillingness to examine herself derives from a deep ambivalence about her own nature. Veronica is painfully aware that the very qualities that make her strong and capable also make her hardened and unlovable, and fearing the weakness that might accompany any livable compromise (or the discovery that such a compromise is beyond her capabilities), she chooses to ignore the situation. Hence the insistence that nothing's changed since she moved to college, hence the conviction that everyone is out to get her, hence the tendency towards arrogance, prickliness, and downright unpleasantness. I have to believe that the show's writers are taking us down this path intentionally--there are too many instances of both the plot and the other characters calling Veronica on her misguided attitude, culminating in the breakup with Logan in this week's episode. The real question is whether the writers intend for Veronica to end up a fundamentally damaged person--capable of fixing the world but not herself--or whether they plan for her to find some happy medium between the detective and the teenage girl.

The mention of Logan brings me to the third most common complaint against the rape arc, which is that his character has become boring. I have to say, if an interesting Logan means a return to last season's parade-o'-torture, then I'd rather see Jason Dohring off the show. I do agree that Logan hasn't had enough to do so far this season, but what little we've seen of him has been nothing short of marvelous. Yes, Obligatory Psychotic Jackass Logan is fun, but as the second season taught us, he gets tedious in a hurry. The Logan we've been getting has been less flashy and amusing, but in his moments of emotional honesty--confronting Veronica about the unevenness of their relationship in "Witchita Linebacker" and "Lord of the Pi's", gently and broken-heartedly ending their relationship in "Spit and Eggs"--he has been no less intense, and great deal more interesting, than that tortured class clown ever was. Now that he and Veronica have broken up, I hope Logan gets his own storyline, and maybe starts finding his own path in life rather than defining himself by his relationship to others.

When I wrote about Veronica Mars's second season last spring, I concluded that the show's greatest challenge was finding a way to balance a detective story with a coming-of-age drama. Were Rob Thomas and his staff writing a mystery, I asked, or a story about a girl who happens to solve mysteries? At the end of the third season's first plot arc, I'm not sure that the writers have come to a conclusion, but I do think they have managed to successfully incorporate the dilemma into the show itself by highlighting the insufficiency of either answer. Veronica the person can't be happy as regular drone, playing by the rules and keeping her head down, but gaming the system carries a cost, and may mean that she can never achieve true happiness. As the third season rape arc closes, Veronica is maybe being confronted by the realization that a compromise between the two possibilities is necessary for her to be a good person, but for Veronica Mars the series, the compromise seems to have already been achieved--and the result is a very good show.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

"Magic for Beginners" by Kelly Link

Last spring, when I reviewed the short fiction nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards, I wrote briefly about Kelly Link's novella "Magic for Beginners" (which won the former award, and scandalously lost the latter to a forgettable and humorless piece by Connie Willis). It was clear to me at the time that Link's story was one of the finest and most fascinating pieces of short fiction I'd read in quite some time, but it was with some trepidation that I said so in my Hugo and Nebula roundups because, as I wrote at the time, I didn't feel qualified to say why. Which is fairly typical of my reactions to a lot of Link's writing--I like most of her stuff, and I can see that her stories are sophisticated, with a hell of a lot going on under the surface. Most of the time, however, I really don't get what she's trying to say.

A big part of my difficulties with Link's fiction has to do with the fact that I keep trying to read her as a fantasist, when actually she's a surrealist. When a fantasy writer introduces non-realistic elements into their fiction, the conventions of the genre dictate that these elements be taken at face value--in the Harry Potter universe, cars can be made to fly and certain magical creatures can conjure flashbacks of one's worst memories--or as a fairly straightforward metaphor for mundane objects, situations, or states of mind. Because she's a writer rooted in genre fiction--and, more importantly, because her stories evince an almost obsessive attention to detail and are usually written in a coldly analytical, matter-of-fact voice rather than the more dreamy attitude I tend to associate with magical realism--my kneejerk reaction when reading Link's fiction is to look for either an internally consistent fantasy world or a fairly obvious key that will allow me to decipher--to transform--her stories into everyday terms (this attitude probably has something to do with the fact that my favorite pieces in Link's first short story collection, Stranger Things Happen, were the ones that retold and remixed traditional fairy tales. Perhaps wisely, Link has moved away from this style in her more recent fiction). If you've read any of Link's fiction, you'll guess that I am, more often than not, frustrated in my search for either of these easy solutions. When I call Link a surrealist what I mean is that it's the gestalt effect of the fantastic elements in her stories that I should be reading for, the ambience that they--combined with her dry, almost journalistic authorial voice--create that is the point of her fiction, not any specific detail.

Which, to a genre reader, can be an extraordinarily frustrating attitude to be asked to espouse, especially when one considers that the surreal aspects of her stories require Link's readers provide their own emotional onramps into her fiction. Matt Cheney writes about Link's story "Stone Animals"--in which an urban family moves to the country and begins to experience a haunting that ultimately alienates them from each other and themselves--that it 'both employs and parodies the basic elements of suburban psychological realism, the sort of scaffolding John Cheever and so many other writers hung their words and laundry on.' He's obviously right, but whereas in Cheever's fiction, the use of psychological realism enabled--and still does enable--readers who weren't suburban middle managers and bored 50s housewives to put themselves in his characters' shoes, Link's use of surreal elements creates a barrier between her characters and her readers. Unless you've been where her characters are--unless you've felt the vertigo that comes with not recognizing yourself as a spouse, a parent, a homeowner, like the family in "Stone Animals," or watched your dead-end future come into focus, like the well-meaning retail clerk in "The Hortlak"--you won't be able to get there by reading about them. You'll end up looking at them through a glass, appreciating their predicament, but never quite empathizing with it.

I think the reason that so many genre readers--people like Niall, who's been promising an essay about it for months, and Alison, who tried to get a discussion about it started--fell head over heels for "Magic for Beginners" (the story is, sadly, no longer available online, but it can be read in the collection of the same name, which, in spite of the reservations expressed in the above paragraph, I do recommend, if only for the ensuing head rush) is that, for once, we did have the necessary emotional onramp. The story is as pitch-perfect a recreation of fandom and the fannish mentality as anything I've read since William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, with the added benefit of being as affectionate, and as nostalgic as hell, concentrating as it does on one's first, juvenile fannish experience--the kind that becomes inextricably intertwined with one's own progress towards adulthood.

"Magic for Beginners" achieves this synthesis by playing merry hell with levels of meta-fictionality. The story opens by introducing us to the character Fox, who appears on the television show The Library, but when the next paragraph begins to describe The Library, its protagonist is a boy named Jeremy Mars. Jeremy lives a fairly ordinary life in a small town in Vermont with two parents and a small group of friends, of whom the story says that the two most important things they have in common are a geographical location and an obsessive love of a television show also called The Library. This show does feature a character named Fox, and it does take place in a library. Its storylines involves pirate-wizards, magical swords, women giving birth to snakes, and villains called the Forbidden Books. The Library--the internal Library, that is--is not a regularly scheduled show. It appears on TV at irregular intervals, on channels that usually show nothing but snow. There are no credits and the commercials advertise nonexistent products. Most of the characters--Fox included--are played by a different actor every episode, and are recognizable only by their costumes.

These idiosyncrasies aside, there's nothing that's not familiar about the all-consuming devotion with which Jeremy and his friends incorporate The Library into their everyday lives. They watch--and re-watch--the episodes together, as a communal experience, discuss and analyze the events of each episode, and dress up as their favorite characters. I don't imagine there are many people reading this post who can't sympathize, or offer an example of similar behavior. For me, it was The X-Files, but I imagine there are people my age who might offer up Babylon 5 as their first fannish love, and folks a bit older who first geeked out over Star Trek: The Next Generation. Whatever television show it was that once captured your heart to the extent that it became part of your life, "Magic for Beginners" will read, in some ways, like excerpts from your own adolescence. The events of the story are jump-started by an episode of the show-within-a-show-within-a-story in which Fox appears to die, and the question of whether that death is real (for the kind of negotiable value of real we tend to attach to the deaths of fictional characters) is as consuming to Jeremy and his friends as any of the real events of their lives.
What Jeremy likes about showers is the way you can stand there, surrounded by water and yet in absolutely no danger of drowning, and not think about things like whether you fucked up on the Spanish assignment, or why your mother is looking so worried. Instead you can think about things like if there's water on Mars, and whether or not Karl is shaving, and if so, who is he trying to fool, and what the statue of George Washington meant when it said to Fox, during their desperate, bloody fight, "You have a long journey ahead of you," and "Everything depends on this." And is Fox really dead?
What we forget--what Link encourages us to forget--while reading "Magic for Beginners" is that there is an extra layer of fictionality between us and Fox. Jeremy is the star of his own television show, this one a naturalistic family drama about a kid dealing with such prosaic issues as an imperious best friend, two girls who might be interested in him, and his parents' imperiled marriage. As the story progresses, the two fictional layers begin to pancake into one another. Jeremy's mother prepares to take a break from her marriage by going on a road trip to Las Vegas, where she has recently inherited a phone booth and a wedding chapel, with her son (the reason for the quarrel between Jeremy's parents is yet another conflation of fact and fiction; Jeremy's father, a horror writer, wrote his son into a novel and then gave him a brain tumor. "I figured I could save you--I'm the author, after all," he tells his son, "but you got sicker and sicker"). This decision obviously precipitates a catastrophic shake-up of Jeremy's life, and it is yet again typical of Link's deft understanding of the importance that a fannish love can have in a person's life that the possibility of jeopardizing a nascent romantic relationship with a girl is held up as an equally gruesome side effect of the road trip as the risk of missing the next installment of The Library. As the date of the trip approaches, Jeremy begins to have dreams in which Fox asks for his help. He calls his phone booth and the character answers, urging him to save her by performing certain tasks. As the story approaches its end, the two shows come together into a Buffy-ish blend of soap and supernatural (and at the risk of sounding facetious, I think it's possible to argue that Kelly Link would be writing very different stories if Buffy the Vampire Slayer hadn't existed).

I've read responses to "Magic for Beginners" that criticize the story for cutting off just where a traditional fantasy about children sucked into their favorite imaginary universe would kick off. Jeremy performs the task necessary to save Fox's life--stealing certain, apparently quite dangerous, books from a library in Iowa and leaving them in the phone booth for Fox to find--but we never learn whether Fox was really there, whether she exists in the universe of Jeremy's show. The story ends with Jeremy in Las Vegas, on the phone with his friends in Vermont as a new episode of The Library starts. We don't get to see whether Fox is really dead, and if she isn't, we'll never learn whether it's Jeremy's actions that have decided that outcome. But, of course, the point of Link's novella wasn't the story but the story about the story, about how we appreciate, become obsessed with, and fall in love with stories. However much remains opaque about "Magic for Beginners" (the title, for instance, is leaving me entirely blank), that much is obvious. Link leaves us in a state of fannish anticipation, and it is to her credit that by that point, we are fans. Whether or not we got there by bringing our own emotional baggage to the story, once we're able to penetrate the glass surrounding Link's fiction, we can't help but be won over. "You've never seen The Library on TV, but I bet you wish you had," Link's narrator tells us at the story's beginning. By the time we turn the last page, this is very much the case.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Well, They're Not Back

Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh report on The Hobbit movie:
Several years ago, Mark Ordesky told us that New Line have rights to make not just The Hobbit but a second "LOTR prequel", covering the events leading up to those depicted in LOTR. Since then, we've always assumed that we would be asked to make The Hobbit and possibly this second film, back to back, as we did the original movies. We assumed that our lawsuit with the studio would come to a natural conclusion and we would then be free to discuss our ideas with the studio, get excited and jump on board. We've assumed that we would possibly get started on development and design next year, whilst filming The Lovely Bones. We even had a meeting planned with MGM executives to talk through our schedule.

However last week, Mark Ordesky called Ken and told him that New Line would no longer be requiring our services on the Hobbit and the LOTR 'prequel'. This was a courtesy call to let us know that the studio was now actively looking to hire another filmmaker for both projects.
The person who posted this on is treating the news as if it were the end of the world, but I'm less fussed. For one thing, I'm wary of the attitude, which has become all-too-common in Harry Potter fandom and which I was hoping that Tolkien fandom would be wise enough to avoid, of inextricably binding the films to the novels. I liked Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings precisely because it wasn't exactly Tolkien's novel. The core narrative was the same, but there were enough individual touches--changes both good and bad--for the work to stand on its own, as an alternate version of the book. If the director New Line hires botches The Hobbit and this vaguely described prequel, I won't feel that the books have been tarnished in any way, any more than I think Christopher Columbus' Harry Potter movies reflect poorly on J.K. Rowling's novels (and anyway, let's not pretend that Jackson and Walsh's involvement would have guaranteed a successful adaptation--remember King Kong, AKA the most expensive nap I've ever taken?). That said, I suppose it's possible that I would be less sanguine if the work in question were one that I were more attached to--I'm fond of The Hobbit, but I don't feel that Jackson's trilogy is incomplete without it.

What does worry me, however, is the unspecified prequel. I assume the plan is to adapt one of the Middle Earth origin stories from The Silmarillion, and the potential for disaster in that case strikes me as being far greater than in a botched adaptation of The Hobbit. There's a hell of a lot more wiggle room in The Silmarillion--the plot, after all, is more or less missing. A hack writer could easily introduce elements that don't belong in Tolkien's Middle Earth, and create an unholy mess.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Recent Movie Roundup 3

The fall doldrums are finally clearing away, and there's been a surprising number of interesting films at the movie theatre lately (on the other hand, The Prestige doesn't seem to have an Israeli release date yet, and I strongly suspect I'll have to wait for the DVD). Missing from the list below is Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, a film I liked well enough but have nothing to say about--which seems appropriate for a film that manages to be intelligently-made without being intelligent. Niall Harrison at Torque Control has a good review, as well as some links to others' thoughts.
  1. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) - Bog-standard family comedy masquerading as an indie flick. It's hard to decide what's most remarkable about this film: the deft way it integrates an utterly conventional premise--the dysfunctional family learning to work together and appreciate each other--with enough quirky idiosyncrasies--the Proust scholar uncle who tried to kill himself when his boyfriend left him for a lesser Proust scholar; the Rand-ian son who has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his goal of becoming a test pilot; the foul-mouthed, coke-snorting grandfather--to seem fresh and irreverent, or the fact that, however mild and ultimately inoffensive, these idiosyncrasies are enough to ensure that Little Miss Sunshine could never have been a product of the Hollywood studio system--not without having its individuality carefully filed away. There's absolutely nothing subversive or experimental about Little Miss Sunshine (even its pointed criticism of the children's beauty pageant circuit caters, I believe, to the majority opinion), but it is remarkable simply for being exceptionally well-made: smart, well-written, uproariously funny, and impeccably well-acted by every single member of its cast. We seem to have reached an absurd situation in which 'independent' has come to mean 'not made of plastic.'

  2. The Departed (2006) - A farce masquerading as a crime drama. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are excellent as, respectively, a policeman in the pay of Jack Nicholson's crime boss and an undercover agent in that crime boss's organization. Unfortunately, Damon and DiCaprio's performances are about ten times as intelligent as the film containing them, which repeatedly reaches for a sombre, introspective tone and hopefully some meaningful discussion of the question of identity, only to fall back on increasingly ludicrous violence. Like a bad production of Hamlet, the film's ending, with its rapidly accumulating pile of bodies, elicits guffaws rather than the stunned silence I imagine it was aiming for, and only Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, as the only two straight-talking characters in a film rife with lies and equivocation, manage to walk away from the story with pride--both figuratively and literally.

  3. Syriana (2005) - Non-fiction masquerading as fiction. I hadn't known that Stephen Gaghan was involved in this multi-threaded tale of lies and corruption in the Middle Eastern oil trade, but I certainly wasn't surprised to see his name pop up in the credits. Like Gaghan's Traffic, Syriana is nothing if not preachy. Also like Traffic, that preachiness targets the intellect rather than the emotion, which, although it by no means lessens the film's betrayal of its artistic integrity, is at the very least a refreshing change from all the other preachy films out there. And there's certainly a hell of a lot to be interested by in Gaghan's lecture, which travels back and forth between the U.S. and the Persian Gulf, charting the ways in which the short-sighted interests of a wealthy few on both continents create an environment in which moderates are brought down and fanatics of all stripes prosper. Matt Damon has a lot less to do here than he did in The Departed, but he's a breath of fresh air as the only character willing to speak truth to power, and Deep Space Nine's Alexander Siddig is a revelation as his boss, a progressive emir struggling to use his country's priceless natural resource wisely before it runs out. The plot is often confusing--it certainly doesn't help that so many of the characters mumble--but following it is interesting, which is really the best word to describe the entire film.

  4. Casino Royale (2006) - Standard spy film masquerading as a Bond flick, or perhaps vice versa. Over the course of four films, the modern incarnation of the Bond franchise struggled to translate to the age of irony a character so cool that he goes straight through cool and out the other end into campy. Casino Royale attempts to reboot the franchise by offering us an origin story, in which the character learns to develop the so-cool-I'm-laughable attitude. The result is a film constantly at war with itself--an entirely earnest story about the creation of an utterly ridiculous man, which segues from its kinetic opening scene, best described as James Bond vs. Spiderman, to a furious M chastising Bond for getting caught on camera killing an unarmed suspect and arousing the fury of the international press. During its first 2/3, the film coasts on its charm and style (neither quality, unfortunately, is apparent in Daniel Craig's blank performance, although this is probably due at least in part to the film's mandate), but then the necessities of getting Bond to where he needs to be force the introduction of what feels like an entirely new plotline, with the film taking so long to wrap up its story as to make The Return of the King's ending seem downright rushed. Still, this is by far the most intelligent Bond film I've ever seen, and the only one of the modern films that comes close to successfully examining what makes Bond tick. Also, Judi Dench's M is worth the price of admission all on her own--her character is finally given the chance to have a bit of fun, and walks away with the entire picture.
Finally, and on a slightly movie-related note, has anyone else noticed that The Leaky Cauldron seems to have gone entirely apeshit? I'd long ago resigned myself to the fact that the site had become a Harry Potter film news service, reporting primarily on the status of the various adaptations as well as on every public appearance, interview or sneeze by every actor or crewmember even tangentially related to them, but the hysteria surrounding the release of the teaser trailer for this summer's adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is moving into the realm of absurdity. Here's a report on which film the trailer is going to air with. Here's a recap of the trailer. Here's a screen capture from the trailer. Here's a high-definition version of that screen capture. Here's a 30-second commercial containing 2 seconds of material from the trailer. Here's a recap and some screen captures of that 2-second clip. Have we mentioned that the trailer is coming soon? Don't get me wrong. I'm going to watch the trailer and probably the film too, but for God's sake, people, have a little perspective.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Good News, Bad News

The good news: according to two different sources, Veronica Mars has received a full season order.

The bad news: the CW has ordered only 20 episodes instead of the expected 22. In the short run, this means Rob Thomas and his writing staff will have to scramble to rewrite the season's final plot arc, which will end up getting the least screen time--only four episodes. What really worries me, however, is whether this decision bodes ill for the show's chances of being renewed for a fourth season.

Loving this show is not easy.

Still, this is mostly good news.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Moving Into a New Circle of Hell and Other "A Measure of Salvation" Thoughts

One of the problems with Battlestar Galactica's premise is that given the Cylons' opening gambit--the extermination of all but a tiny fragment of a civilization that once numbered in the billions--there was nothing, absolutely nothing, the humans could do that would measure up. Gina's mistreatment, all of the indignities visited on Sharon, Hera's kidnapping, Leoben's torture, the bombings on Caprica, old and new--none of them come close to evening the scale. For a show supposedly more concerned with exploring the darkness inherent in the human psyche, this was a major hurdle. Which is why, I suspect, the writers came up with the possibility of reciprocal genocide.

Now, just to be clear: there's still a difference, and not a small one either, between committing genocide against an unsuspecting population who are barely even aware of your existence, and committing it against a species who has previously committed it against you, and who you know are dedicated to finishing the job. For the humans to use the genocide weapon would obviously mean buying real estate in a new circle of hell, but the Cylons would still have a much better view of the frozen lake and Satan's three mouths.

That said, the decision is not clear-cut, and I appreciate the way the writers express that ambiguity. That is to say, on the macro level, I'm pleased with the range of opinions expressed. On the micro level, I'm not sure I buy the mouths those opinions are coming out of. Lee's sudden decision to deny the Cylons' personhood, for instance, doesn't work for me. Granted, we've never seen him express any feelings to the contrary, but two and a half seasons into a show's run is a little late in the game for the writers to announce that character X's opinions about subject Y, with which they are confronted daily, are as violent and as intense as Lee's are in this episode. I can't help but wonder whether Lee's stance originally belonged to Tigh, although obviously I'm glad to have the character talk about something other than his weight.

It makes sense for Helo to stand for a complete moral rejection of the weapon, although his 'what if there is but one righteous man in the city?' argument might have carried more weight if our recent glimpses into Cylon society hadn't made it abundantly clear that no, there is not. Which brings me to the sole exception, and I don't see how I can be expected to believe that Sharon will do nothing to save her people. But then, it's not as if any of the Sharons have been getting consistent characterization this season. One of my problems with the very ending of "Lay Down Your Burdens II" was my difficulty in believing that the Boomer we saw in "Downloaded"--who was, by far, the most human Cylon we'd ever seen--would so calmly accept that traveling to New Caprica and subjugating the humans there could ever end well. In "Occupation"/"Precipice," however, it turned out that Boomer had gone completely plastic. Her conversation with Cally, however brilliant an example of two people speaking the same language and not understanding each other at all, had almost nothing to do with the Boomer we'd known for an entire season, and certainly not with the angry, self-righteous young woman we met in "Downloaded". Along those same lines, I simply don't see what could have caused the transformation in Sharon during the missing year that would instill in her such a violent loyalty to her adopted people. Until the show bridges that gap, I won't be able to connect with the character, and her scenes in this episode therefore rang hollow.

In a lot of ways, "A Measure of Salvation" is strongly reminiscent of "Resurrection Ship," in that in both stories the leaders of the fleet are faced with a choice between morality and expediency. To choose the former is to risk not only their own lives but the survival of their species, and the condemnation of later generations is ameliorated by the knowledge that those generations might not exist if a morally untenable choice is not made. As she did in "Resurrection Ship," Roslin chooses to bloody her hands (and where, might I ask, are Adama's 'we have to deserve survival' scruples when he calmly accepts that decision?), and just as in that earlier episode, the decision is taken out of them. Like "Resurrection Ship," "A Measure of Salvation" cops out in its ending, choosing to have its cake and eat it too. In "Resurrection Ship," Adama decides not to kill Admiral Cain, but Gina does the dirty work for him. Roslin chooses to kill the Cylons en masse in "A Measure of Salvation," but Helo belays that order. Both episodes choose to maintain a static perception of a character's moral standing--Adama is staunch, Roslin is flexible--without forcing them to face the real-world consequences of their choice--Adama's might have doomed the fleet, Roslin's might have cost humanity its collective soul.

It's a cowardly solution, and to be perfectly honest, not even a necessary one. It would have been possible to release the genocidal weapon and still continue the show's story--after all, the Cylons' genocide wasn't 100% effective. Wouldn't it have been fascinating to watch the ragged remnants of the Cylon nation pursuing Galactica, looking for vengeance and their own chance at a new beginning? I can't help but wish that Galactica's writers had been willing to take us down this path, and truly tell a story about a war in which neither side holds the moral high ground.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

A mere three books into a fantasy series which by now spans more than thirty, Terry Pratchett laid out the fundamental rule guiding the use of magic in his invented world, the Discworld: don't do it. Magic, in Pratchett's universe, is a toxic substance whose effects are highly reminiscent of radioactive waste (it is probably no coincidence that, at the time that he was writing the early Discworld books, Pratchett was employed as a publicity officer for a board overseeing three nuclear plants), with the added complication that, in concentrated amounts, it can rip through the fabric of the universe.

As the Discworld series progressed, this internal story reason for not using magic gave way to a moral-philosophical argument, a transition which coincided with a shift of focus from one kind of magical practitioner--the wizards of Unseen University--to another--the witches of Lancre and the Ramtops mountains, led, however unofficially, by Granny Weatherwax. According to Granny (who makes her first appearance in the aforementioned third Discworld book, Equal Rites), magic is to be avoided because it rarely solves problems and often creates them. Yes, magic could be used to do away with minor inconveniences and drudgery, but the psychological costs of being able to get whatever one wants at the flick of a wand would be disastrous, and all the while the real problems of the human condition--pettiness, misery, greed, cruelty--can only be magicked away by making people something other than human.

As opposed to the flashy, fireballs-and-dragons brand of magic employed by wizards, witches' magic is practical, often to the point of being entirely mundane and even unmagical--herb-lore, medicine, and plain common sense*. Witches serve as their community's social workers--they tend to the sick, attend births and deaths, sit up with the dead, settle disputes, and generally keep the peace. It's probably no coincidence that the Granny Weatherwax sub-series is second in its endurance only to the Watch novels, whose protagonists are also hard-working, under-appreciated guardians of society. And just as the watchmen must watch themselves for the urge to take justice into their own hands, to declare themselves above the law and become vigilantes, so the witches must guard against the temptation to believe themselves their community's leaders instead of its servants. Pratchett calls this state 'cackling'--the belief that one knows better than anyone how people should live their lives. The central dilemma of the witch novels is the search for a way of using power responsibly--the duty of an intelligent person to respect the right of others to be stupid.

The Tiffany Aching series, which began with 2003's The Wee Free Men, continued in 2004 with A Hat Full of Sky, and to which Wintersmith is the most recent addition (according to Pratchett fan-site L-Space, a fourth book in the series, tentatively titled When I Am Old I Shall Wear Midnight, is in the works, and Pratchett is planning to wrap up the series after four or five volumes. This, however, is the same man who for ten years kept saying the next novel was going to be the last entry in the Discworld series, and finally stopped because no one was taking him seriously anymore, so it might be wise to take these claims with a grain of salt), offers a fresh perspective on this quest for balance and the witchy mentality. First, by broadening the story's scope. Whereas the Granny Weatherwax novels revolved around the same three or four witch characters, the Tiffany novels describe a large, vibrant community, with cliques, rivalries, political squabbles, and a broad spectrum of attitudes and skill sets, from a young witch skilled in the handling of pigs to Miss Tick, the witch finder, who first identifies Tiffany's aptitude. More importantly, the Tiffany novels chart the process by which one becomes a witch, at the heart of which lies the acceptance of a grave responsibility and a lifetime of service. Perhaps not surprisingly, the series finds Tiffany recoiling from her destiny as often as she embraces it, as she gains a greater understanding of what being a witch is and of the sacrifices that the life entails.
[The necklace] lay in Tiffany's hand, on the strange white scar. It was the first thing she had ever been given that wasn't useful, that wasn't supposed to do something.

I don't need this, she thought. My power comes from the Chalk. But is that what life's going to be like? Nothing that you don't need?
The Tiffany novels are ostensibly geared towards young adults**, and Pratchett therefore maps this process of repeated and increasing commitment to a lifetime of service to the landmarks of the journey towards adulthood. In The Wee Free Men, Tiffany's adversary is the queen of fairies, who kidnaps children and keeps them in a state of perpetual childhood. Tiffany rejects this stasis (whose results, as demonstrated by the queen's longtime prisoner Roland, are nothing short of monstrous), and simultaneously recognizes within herself the ability to become a witch. In A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany is possessed by a hiver, a being of pure selfishness which causes her to behave with typical teenage self-absorption (where did you go? Tiffany is asked after succumbing to the hiver's possession. Nowhere, she replies. What did you do? Nothing). In Wintersmith, Tiffany is confronted with the possibility of romance--with a monster of her own creation.

Acting on impulse, Tiffany interrupts a ritual honoring the change of seasons, and dances with the title character, the spirit of winter. In so doing, she takes the place of summer, and leaves the dance altered and having altered others. A bit of humanity infects the Wintersmith, and he falls in love with Tiffany. Being an elemental spirit, something a little less person-like than a god, even, he lacks the full humanity that would allow him to comprehend and properly express his feelings, and so he courts her with livestock-killing blizzards and icebergs shaped like his beloved. Pratchett very deliberately draws a comparison between the Wintersmith and an adolescent boy trying to impress his first crush--flexing his muscles, pulling stupid pranks in order to get her attention, making grand gestures that never turn out as planned.

Unfortunately, whereas in The Wee Free Men Pratchett's choice of fantastical adversary dovetailed perfectly with his theme of rejecting childhood and embracing responsibility, the later novels in the series evince the same artificiality which had begun to infect the adult witch novels. At some point, all of Granny Weatherwax's antagonists became metaphors for dehumanizing forces robbing people of agency and will--stories that bent reality and altered lives to suit a predetermined path, fairies whose glamour places all who see them in their thrall, vampires whose bite turns their victim into livestock. The witch novels became repetitions of the same idea. A similar thing is happening to the Tiffany novels, which repeat their theme without complicating it. The novels' plots are sublimated to this theme, internal story logic giving way to Pratchett's moral-philosophical agenda.

In order to stop the Wintersmith, the real summer must be brought back to take Tiffany's place so that she and winter can resume a relationship that is anthropomorphized, but not human. Pratchett therefore has Granny announce, only a few chapters before the book's end, that summer is being held prisoner in the underworld, and that a hero must be despatched to retrieve her. This task is given to Roland, the fairy queen's prisoner from The Wee Free Men and Tiffany's human love interest, who is by far the most interesting character in Wintersmith, even if Pratchett has to engage in some industrial strength retconning to get him there.

Roland immediately recognizes the role assigned to him as that of a hero in a Discworld myth which commingles the story of Persephone with that of Orpheus's descent into the underworld. "It's supposed to be a love story but it's really a metaphor for the annual return of summer," Roland offers by way of an explanation, and his (and Granny's) reasoning does have a sort of storybook logic. What it lacks, however, is story logic. Tiffany might as well have been told to travel to the scum-pits of Ur, retrieve the scythe of Naftir, and with it shatter the mirror of Epthelimon for all that the story's resolution has any organic connection to its setup, or for that matter to the Discworld's established cosmology***.

The problem, as far as I can tell, is that Pratchett seems to lack the courage to take his theme to its logical conclusion. It's become a commonplace of cop and doctor shows to juxtapose the brief moments of excitement with the long stretches of tedium and drudgery that make up the bulk of public service. Pratchett claims to be conveying the realities of this life, but ultimately he centers his stories around the excitement, around those moments in which a witch does need to use magic. To a certain extent, this is an understandable choice--Pratchett is writing a fantasy, not a naturalistic novel (and anyway, when he tries to juxtapose mundane, everyday witchery with the more exciting kind, as he does in both A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith, the result tends to be bitty and episodic)--but as I've said, his choice of antagonists, and recently of the method of defeating them, is predicated on the desire to express the mundane aspects of a witch's life, not the exciting ones. Pratchett ends up using the exciting as a metaphor for the mundane, in which the coherence of the moral is given precedence over that of the fable expressing it. The result is a storyline at war with itself, trying to be two things at the same time and succeeding at neither.

All of which is not to say that Wintersmith isn't worth a Pratchett fan's time. However problematic the whole, the parts are still of a uniform excellence. Tiffany remains engaging and, for all her prickliness, lovable, and Roland emerges as a worthy counterpart to her. Pratchett deals with the boy's difficult family situation with a refreshing lack of sentimentality ("I'd better go see my father ... If I don't see him every day he forgets who I am," Roland at one point explains matter-of-factly). The Tiffany books are remarkable among Discworld novels for a refreshing degree of emotional honesty--Tiffany's recollections of her grandmother in The Wee Free Men were, by far, the closest the series has come to being stirring--and Pratchett does seem to have developed a lighter touch when it comes to romance, which it had previously been his custom to turn away from demurely. There is yet another expansion of our understanding of the witch community, this time encompassing Tiffany's latest mentor, the profoundly creepy Miss Treason, and the younger generation of up-and-coming witches.

Perhaps most importantly, Wintersmith is very, very funny, which is largely the doing of the Nac Mag Feegle, the tiny, foul-mouthed blue pixies who have adopted Tiffany into their clan, and will do anything to protect her, whether she likes it or not. To be perfectly honest, the Feegle don't have a role in the novel's plot, and haven't since The Wee Free Men (in which they acted as Tiffany's access to, and source of information about, fairyland). They exist primarily as comic relief, and perform that task with great success (the same can't be said of Horace the cheese, another one of Pratchett's idioms-made-flesh. This wheel of Lancre blue cheese is so lively it has to be kept in a cage, and at some point becomes an honorary Feegle. The result is not so much funny as Dadaesque). Between the Feegles and Pratchett's trademark sarcasm, there's plenty to laugh at in Wintersmith.

It's probably unfair to complain that a twenty year old fantasy franchise spanning some thirty novels has lost some of its freshness, and the fact is that even second- and third-rate Discworld is never as bad as other series that have gone off the boil. Still, it's hard, especially in light of the exuberance and, yes, the freshness that made The Wee Free Men one of my favorite reads in 2004, not to be disappointed when Pratchett produces another piece that almost makes it to greatness and then doesn't. Wintersmith is worth reading for the strength of its parts, but here's hoping that Pratchett still has it in him to surprise us another strong whole.

* It's tempting to read this juxtaposition as a commentary about gender roles, especially given that Equal Rites, which first articulates the difference between wizards' and witches' magic, revolves around the first female wizard. To my mind, however, the distinction has a great deal more to do with issues of class. Granny Weatherwax, her fellow witches, and the communities they serve are peasants--farmers, blacksmiths, innkeepers--whereas the Unseen University wizards resemble nothing so much as Oxbridge dons. When Pratchett introduces the concept of witches trying to incorporate wizard magic into their repertoire, they are invariably presented as social climbers, disdainful of their rural surroundings and its inhabitants.

** Which, in practice, means only that the font is bigger, there are chapters and illustrations, and the protagonist is juvenile. After all, most bright thirteen year olds can tackle Pratchett's so-called adult novels.

*** There is, obviously, a connection to our mythology, which is why I say that the resolution has storybook logic. I do wonder, however, whether juvenile readers can truly be counted on to make that connection, or whether Pratchett's ending will seem as arbitrary to them as my scum-pits of Ur, etc. scenario. It's possible that I'm not giving kids enough credit, and equally possible that Wintersmith is one of those YA books actually meant for adults.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Funny, In a Horrible Way

If you love "Calvin & Hobbes," you might not want to watch this video.

(Via Crooked Timber)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

And Now, the Torchwood Parodies Begin

Under Torch Wood: A Parody for Voices
Separate from the government,
outside the police,
beyond the United Nations,
independent of the judiciary,
not voting in council elections,
distinct from the Brownies,
non-members of the AA,
think iPods are rubbish,
cancelled the milk,
no TV licence.
The conclusion seems spot-on, too.