Saturday, April 30, 2011

Frank Ocean - "Novocane"

Hanna


16 year old Hanna has been raised by her father in a forest in Finland for all her life. He has trained her to be deadly, smart, and without compassion. Yet she yearns to experience a world beyond hunting, training and reading. She aches for music. When she is allowed release, let into the real world, the CIA notices and so begins a chase across Europe as Hanna attempts to meet up with her father in Berlin and escape the clutches of their enemies.

Let me start right off by saying I loved this film, but with reservations, which I will get to eventually. This is a gorgeous movie, lovingly shot by the usually solid Joe Wright (of Atonement fame), with a camera that rarely sits still, but doesn't wallow in constant cutting. It's a movie that keeps its title character in the camera eye for almost the entire movie, which isn't a problem because Saoirse Ronan is very pretty, but it's never exploitative of her youth or beauty.

It's a weird movie that wants to say something profound about a young girl being raised in the wild and trained to be something not quite human. There's a funny scene where Hanna goes on a double date with her newly acquired English friend (a talkative and annoying typical teenage girl), and when the moment comes for Hanna to kiss the boy, she tackles him and almost breaks his neck. It's a scene that's supposed to convey the disconnect with the real world, the social world that Hanna is experiencing. However, the scene is a bit of a misfire because while it is funny, it doesn't really say anything about Hanna that we haven't already gleaned from numerous other instances.

This scene in particular is very telling of the flaws of this movie. Wright's desire to hang the aesthetic of the art film onto the skeleton of an action movie is commendable. It's been done before, but that's not really a problem. The issue with Hanna the film is that the skeleton of the action movie remains just that - a skeleton. There's hardly any meat on this screenplay. Everything is implied or just not said. But Wright wants to say important things, about how Hanna hasn't grown up, and her desperation for something - anything, but I'll be damned if I can tell you exactly what Wright's trying to say in regards to this. Is it bad? Is it good? What of it?


He juxtaposes these gorgeous images of Hanna in the wind, in the sun, running, smiling, crying, with the violence and the energy of action scenes. The soundtrack is quiet and thoughtful during non-action scenes, or he uses specific diegetic music like a gypsy singing or a television blaring. The contrast comes when the action is turned up to 11. Instead of introspection and static images of beautiful girls, Wright pumps up the Chemical Brothers' bizarre soundtrack and lets the light strobe and change colour, almost like a dance party but with broken bones.

It's tempting to just talk about Wright's camerawork with this movie. There's a couple instances of Wright's "signature" move: the long tracking shot. In one masterful sequence, we follow Eric Bana from a bus station to a subway station, while being shadowed by American agents. Without a single cut, Bana beats the shit out of all four without breathing hard. Fantastic.

But I don't want to talk about Wright's camera work for the entire review. I want to talk about Wright's lack of commitment to any idea or image. The movie doesn't want to commit to showing real violence. For such a deadly assassin, Bana's character nor Hanna really kill a ton of people. They tend to beat people up, break their bones, but they rarely commit to finishing them off. The same can be said about the movie. Wright never wants to commit to exploring Hanna's disconnection with the world, and he never wants to commit to a straight action movie. Every time there's a tense chase, or a ripping good setpiece, Wright goes back to putting Hanna under a microscope, but it's clouded. We rarely get under Hanna's skin.

Much of the movie's running time is devoted to this epic chase across Europe. Along the way, Hanna learns a little bit about herself and her past. But does she grow as a character? Well, sort of. She makes a new friend, with whom she engages in a bizarre bit of homoerotic subtext. She learns the truth about her genetics. But Hanna's final lines echo the first line, creating a circle, and I don't have to tell you that a circle is not an arc.

Does Hanna learn compassion? Does she learn something other than English teenagers are fucking annoying? I'm not so sure that she does. I think Wright tried really hard to hang the art film on top of the action thriller, but he had higher aspirations than that. I think he wanted to ask questions of the audience. "Here's a beautiful girl that's trained to be a killer - are her actions morally good or bad? She's a murderer, but you love her anyways. What's wrong with you?" This is utterly facetious though. Movie audiences have been separating their morals from their love of good characters for decades. Wright's juxtaposition of violent imagery with a coming-of-age story is one of specificity. It's no accident that a long lingering shot of Hanna's skin and eyes is followed by a few shots of Hanna just fucking up some guy's shit.


You can't even accuse me of reading too much into this movie. Wright's almost pointing out the dual nature of Hanna with specific cuts. He glides the camera from a shot of one side of Hanna's face in the house to another shot of Hanna's face on the other side, but this time in the fairytale-like wintry woods. "Look at this folks, Hanna is more than just a killer. She's a teenage girl" Yes, we know, Joe Wright. You keep reminding us with tracking shots of Hanna walking around and staring at things with her gigantic and stunning blue eyes. She's beautiful. We know.

That's not to say that this movie is bad. Far from it. It's superbly entertaining and it looks spectacular. I just had reservations with Wright's attempts at deepness. Even with these qualms I thought the movie was energetic and always fascinating. Cate Blanchett does a terrific job as the villain of the piece, a plastic fragile CIA agent who's always close to either freaking out or fucking shit up with a pistol. Blanchett just sells the character who hovers sometimes close to parody or caricature, but Blanchett's got good enough chops to keep it in line.

On the other hand, Bana plays his father as sleepy and as stiff as you can imagine. Sure, some of this can be attributed to the character, but if there was ever a colder portrayal, I never met them. It's a slight critique, but nonetheless distracts.

Okay, I will talk about the action scenes. They're incredible. Always coherent, never cutting for the sake of cutting, and always pounding with energy and verve. There's life in every frame of every action scene. I wish competent, visually gifted directors would do more action movies, just to show the hacks that action scenes don't have to be style over substance. I want to know what's happening on screen. If you can't deliver that, then you shouldn't be a director. Wright, on the other hand, is a pretty cool customer when it comes to communicating to the audience - visually that is. As aforementioned, his intent is muddled and morally murky.

Although, and this isn't to sound like some child molester, I could watch Saoirse Ronan tie her shoes and still be captivated. She has such an open and inviting face, very delicate and graceful, but she always gets the emotion across to the viewer. I'm sort of reminded of Lauren Graham, of Gilmore Girls. Both actresses are uncannily beautiful, but have the something extra, that luminescence, that effervescence about them. Always delightful to watch either actress.

Hanna is a great movie, but not without its faults. I still loved it. You should go out there and watch it and enjoy even on the surface, the action movie, and hopefully you'll pick up some of Wright's other motives.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Letters - 1

Dear girl sitting across from me in the common area of school,

Hey. Hey girl. You're somewhat attractive. You're sitting there with your Mac, listening to no doubt hipster music. I shouldn't judge. I'm listening to obscure R&B from an alternative hip hop collective based out of L.A. Holy shit. I'm a hipster too! Oh no. Anyways, girl, you're somewhat attractive. But you could do with a little bit of makeup. Just a little. Enough to enhance what's natural on your face. Also, try buying some trousers that aren't cargo pants. Hehehe I said trousers. That's a great word.

Here's the thing, girl sitting across from me in the common area of school, we're purposefully ignoring each other, working on our laptops, playing with our iPods and checking our phones for texts that are from either: 1) mom, 2) same sex platonic friend or 3) opposite sex friend that we have designs on.

I feel so numb, so isolated from you, girl I don't know. I feel like I want to know your story. Where are you from? Where did you come from? Were you born in my city, or did you move here from someplace interesting? Shit, I don't know. This would involve me having to talk to you. It's not my crippling social anxiety that prevents me from talking to you. Lady, I don't even have social anxiety. You put me in a karaoke bar, and I turn into Eddie Vedder and David Lee Roth combined.

So why can't I talk to you? I guess I'm just not interested. I'm so wrapped up in my electronics and gadgets it's like a comfort blanket. Shit, girl, who you texting? Do you have a boyfriend? Or a girlfriend? What are you like? Would you sing along to Katy Perry on the radio as we drive to BDI for milkshakes in the summer heat? Would you argue vehemently with me on something stupid, like which Back to the Future movie is the best (quick answer: the second 'cause it's batshit insane)? Would you want me to come with you to some silly show where some silly hipster band in ironic beards play atonal noise and we pregame in my car with cans of Lucky?

I'm just curious, girl I'm not attracted to.

Sincerely,
matthew.


Dear mainstream comic books,

Fuck you. Sorry about my anger, but I'm pissed off. I want to review comics, but I can't muster enough enthusiasm to read all of the shit that's being published. Also, comics are ridiculously expensive. I have so much shit in my longboxes already, and I don't want to have to buy a sixth one. This doesn't even count all the shitty trades I have. At least I'm not obsessed with keeping up with titles, like Spider-Man or the Uncanny X-Men. Thank god for that. But I do want to review comics. I like reviewing things. I like writing. But you're making it so hard, mainstream comic books. You're all the same and you piss me off.

Sincerely,
matthew.


Dear fat guy who wears Blizzard shirts all the fucking time,

Hey man. How it's going? You know how we're in class together for all of this semester, and you took this program back in the day, but you've returned for some mysterious reason? You know how you know a lot about Java and this program is simplistic for you? Well... I thought I'd let you know. You're a douche.

Yup. Sorry to have to break the news to you. Remember that time that our teacher offered to give the class a piece of the code for Assignment 5, and you raised your hand, and you said, "Yeah, but, are people going to learn if they get the answer?"

Pal, I gotta tell you. That's my problem, not yours. You're not the teacher. You're just some fat guy who's never been able to get a real job so you're back at school at 34. If I don't learn and I fail the exam (which I ended up doing anyway) that's my fault and not your concern in the slightest.

Let me reiterate that for you. It's not your concern in the slightest. Do you realize how much an arrogant dick that made you sound like? No, I don't think you did. Or when I was having problems with the code, and while asking for help from the teacher, you leaned across the aisle and condescended to inform me that the problem I was having was a lack of a "for loop"?

OH REALLY. Dude, seriously. If I wanted your help, I would have asked you. I fucking hate you. I hate your Blizzard shirts. Listen, go to the mall, go to the Gap and buy a nice collared button up shirt. You don't even need to buy an expensive one. Just get something other than t-shirts.

And fuck right off.

Sincerely,
matthew.

[This is the first in a series of posts where I write letters to people and things.]

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Joe the Barbarian

Man, I am on a roll with comics, huh? So here we go, taking a peek at Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy's Joe the Barbarian. But first, let's get some put this blogger and Morrison together in context.

When I came back to comics after years, Animal Man was one of the reasons why I came back. I had been reading Scott Tipton's Comics 101 on moviepoopshoot.com way back in the day, and he did a series of posts on Morrison's run on Animal Man. At the very same time, I had just gotten into metafiction so it was, like, a perfect fit. I went out and got the three trades and read 'em. I said to myself, I need to read more Morrison. So let's fast forward eight years, and in that montage of those years, the audience can see me read The Invisibles and New X-Men and Fantastic Four 1234 and The Filth. We screech to a halt in 2009 when I read Final Crisis and pretty much stop reading comics after that. It's now 2011 and the few major works I've read in comics have been pretty much documented by this blog. Overall, I am a huge Morrison fan. I love his bizarre anything goes style. I like his absolutely counter-intuitive approach to dialogue. I love his insanity.


This work, however, is not generic Morrison work. While Morrison toils away at his giant Batman epic that has gone on far too long for my attention span, he also wrote this more... subdued work of a boy with Diabetes who goes into a hypoglycemic shock and has hallucinations of the toys in his bedroom.

While the miniseries is 8 issues long, the aforementioned synopsis really covers the entire thing. This isn't a very deep or complex story. It's a fantasy work, but grounded in the real world, an especially real world with political overtones and subtle references to the economic recession that plagues the Western world.

We definitely need to talk about the art before getting into the story. Sean Murphy's art in this miniseries is - in a word - epic. Murphy is adept and comfortable at drawing the biggest action scenes, double page spreads of Godzilla-sized dogs taking on armies, whole fields populated with anthropomorphized rats and toys. But he's also able to draw the more intimate personal scenes, in the real world and in the fantasy world. He has a way with facial expressions and with selling it to the reader. It's really important to connect Morrison with an artist who can handle the crazy shit that he comes up with. You put Morrison with somebody not very good at staging or even communicating basic choreography to the reader, and you've got serious problems. Like the last two issues of The Return of Bruce Wayne are almost unreadable thanks to the terrible art. But anyways, I'm getting off topic.

There's got to be a lot of people out there who dismiss Morrison's more intimate work in favour of his bigger and more ridiculous stuff like Final Crisis or The Invisibles. They say to themselves, "oh the god of all comics is just doing something minor - it's not worth reading - now pass me the Mountain Dew and that stack of Justice League comics." Who am I kidding, these neckbeards don't have anybody to pass them anything. They're forever alone.

But I think this is an intriguing work. Did I like it? No, I didn't. It could have been halved and still remained effective. Eight issues was far too long. But that doesn't mean I'm going to dismiss the work entirely. I mentioned in another blog post about comics that minor works or missteps by established artists are often more interesting because of the way the experienced artist goes ahead with their misstep. The same still applies with Joe the Barbarian. The flaws almost say something meaningful in of themselves. Like, Morrison really needed 8 issues to tell his story of a diabetic boy who goes from the attic to the kitchen to get some sugar to the front door. That's all that happens.

Comics are all about time. Yes. Don't argue with me. The movement of the eye from one panel to the next is supposed to show the passage of time between panels. Like Scorsese says about cuts in a film, how the brain fills in the gaps between the cuts. It's the same with comics. You can spend an infinite amount of panels showing a boy take a step or you can show two panels depicting the entirety of the life of the planet Earth. It's all about the passage of time. So it's very strange that Morrison uses 8 entire issues to show a boy walk down a fucking flight of stairs.

He could have done this with only four panels, and it would have been uninteresting and without a dramatic arc. In stretching the time, pulling the ends apart as far as possible, Morrison creates a story, a rising action, falling action, motive, blah blah basic story skills. It's almost like he challenged himself to tell the most boring story ever and stretch it out until it's good. And that's why this story is interesting to me.

Like I said above, I didn't really like it. Fantasy's just not my bag. Another one of my blog's pet themes is genre, and how I'll defend genre fiction until the end of time. Except for fantasy. Not because I have anything against but because I know next to nothing about it. I remember reading The Lord of the Rings for the first (and only) time and every time I turned the page, I was like, "why the fuck are you idiots singing? Quit smoking the magic herb and get a goddamn move on! And where's Liv Tyler?" So yeah, I don't like fantasy. It's just not my bag. (Obviously I know that not all fantasy follows the paradigm set by LOTR. I know there's a vocal group who wish to destroy the paradigm and start anew - I suppose Joe the Barbarian sort of fits into that revisionist mold - a ha - I knew I'd find a way to fit this tangent into the review) Anyways, there's nothing inherently wrong with fantasy, I just don't like it. When it comes to something so fantastical and whatnot, I prefer the fiction to have lasers and spaceships rather than pseudo-medieval societies and fucking elves. I just find that fantasy is written by neckbeards for neckbeards. But that's me.


What's my goddamn problem with fantasy then, you're asking yourself, if you're reading this blog, which you probably aren't. Well, it's like I said before, they tend to follow a very familiar pattern and this pattern doesn't interest me. Now, the same complaint can be said of sci-fi. Hey, I'm not going to defend homogeneity in genre fiction. Sci-fi is as guilty as anything else. You'll notice that my sci-fi reading is limited to classics and the odd piece here and there. It's the sameness that permeates everything that causes me to go bleurgh at the sight of fantasy. Plus the fact that everything is overwritten, overpraised and overlong. There's very few standalone works of fantasy that are considered classic. There's always a sequel. I've defended sequels before, but you'll notice that I don't defend 8 sequels or the James Bond series. Two sequels? Okay... Four sequels? Meh not so much. Fantasy is guilty of being overlong. All the time. Even Joe the Barbarian.

So there's the length, that's one problem, but what else is there? Well, if you're a regular reader of Morrison, you already know of his sometimes dense plots and his neverending faith in the reader, that the audience will keep up. There's no hand-holding in Morrison's world - you either keep up or you fall back. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I salute it. Good for you.

There's some good points to be had in this series other than the fantastic art and Morrison's lack of hand-holding. The parts of the comic set in the real world are just dripping with pain and sadness and it's spectacular. All the scenes with Joe trying to be normal, and all the scenes with his mom are just great. Well done.

Yeah, this is a weird review of this comic, isn't it? Okay, I'm going to wrap it up. It's a minor work by a great writing with some great art by a great artist. If you like fantasy, you're golden. If you don't like fantasy, well then, it's still okay. End of fucking review.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Watercolours

I tried my hand at painting with watercolours. Here's a grainy photo taken by my phone of my only second completed watercolour. It's not terrible. I found I was struggling to get good brushstrokes going without making it look like brushstrokes. Oh well. It's all practice, I suppose. You'll notice that I changed my header image to that of In Bed: The Kiss by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, one of my favourite painters of all time. I have renewed interest in art, especially 19th century art, which coincides with my nonstop reading of 19th century lit. Anyways, this watercolour is only one of four paintings I've ever done in my adult life. Enjoy


And here's the next one, inspired by the Ithaca scene in Ulysses, which I've made reference to before. This one isn't as good as the other one, I think. I even painted another one, of a mask, but I hate it. It looks like an alien's head. Oh well. It's all practice. Here's the Ithaca painting, starring Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

L'Assommoir

(Warning: my longass stream of consciousness reviews are getting longer)

Quick - what's the most depressing thing you've ever read or watched? Is it House of Sand and Fog? 'Cause that's pretty depressing. Is it The Grapes of Wrath? 'Cause that's pretty depressing. No, I can top all of these and more. I finally read my first Zola book, the seventh book in Zola's 20 part Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, called L'Assommoir. And boy howdy, was it fucking depressing. Let's take a look.


Gervaise Macquart works as a laundress while living in sin with her lover Lantier, who regularly beats her and their two sons Etienne and Claude. One day Lantier decides to leave and take up with a younger woman, leaving Gervaise in poverty. Somehow, over the course of a few years, she manages to work hard to keep her boys fed and she's able to put some money away. She meets the charming Coupeau, a teetotaler who wants to marry her. At first reluctant, Gervaise finally agrees, and eventually, they have a daughter named Nana.

After meeting some good friends and working hard, Gervaise opens her own laundry shop, which is busy enough at first to require assistants. But a work accident leaves Coupeau unable to maintain a job, or rather, it's his turning to alcohol that makes him unemployable. At the same time that he is sinking in alcoholism, Lantier shows up and ingratiates himself back into the family, even going so far as to take up with Gervaise, a married woman.

Things begin to disintegrate as Gervaise gets tired of supporting two husbands, Coupeau's mother, and a host of other problems. She becomes slovenly and disorganized, and she loses her business, sinking into drink as well, while all the time, Nana is growing up and becoming sexually promiscuous. Lantier even leaves her a second time for the married sister of the woman he originally left Gervaise for. Somehow, it gets worse as both Coupeau and Gervaise become doddering starving alcoholics.

Oh boy. Even writing that synopsis has left me tired and exhausted. It's so fucking depressing. Well, this is naturalism, I suppose, and Zola was doing literature a favour by examining his subjects under such harsh light. For a good portion of the book, I was just utterly fascinated by the amount of research the man had to do to create such a realistic world and cast. Each scene of workhouses, mines, buildings in construction, watchmakers, jewelers, and all of these other things are conveyed with such specific detail and attention to fidelity. It's almost an historical document in its portrayal of the working folk of 19th century Paris.


However, it's not a historical document. The novel, and it is a novel, is primarily concerned with two things: hereditary attributes and the ceaseless struggle of the poor. So, specific to the first item, we have alcoholism. I've never read a book where people got this intoxicated so often (and I've read all of Bret Easton Ellis and I've read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). It's neverending and relentless. Each time something bad happens, the cast goes out and gets stinking drunk.

Now, when I say "something bad happens" I mean, when one of the characters make a stupid decision that is somehow inevitable. And it happens all the time. For example, when Lantier comes back, I knew what was going to go down: they would share Gervaise either knowingly or not. Ugh gross. Especially since Zola spends a lot of words detailing how with a little bit of money, Gervaise is getting fat and, I quote, "losing her feminineness" whatever that fucking means. This is what I imagined she looked like, but fatter:


Hahaha. Anyways, so you know that the situation's going to get worse, but the characters keep doing the dumb things they do. Coupeau will get a few francs from Gervaise to buy some lunch during work, but I know as soon as Gervaise gives him the coins, he'll go out and drink wine until he's pissing his pants.

Here's a picture of my reaction for most of the book:

I can't help but be utterly disappointed in these characters. It's not like they're dumb or stupid or what have you. The problem is, and this is one of Zola's points, the problem is that all of these working class folks are just plain ignorant. There's this little motif that comes up now and again of their crazy folk remedies for shit, like swallowing a rat to stop indigestion and stuff like that. It's almost like Zola's nudging us in the ribs and saying, "Don't laugh at these people - they just don't know any better"

And of course, they're fighting a losing battle thanks to their genes, although Zola wouldn't have known them as genes. If there any other writer in the world who advanced the theory that alcoholism is a hereditary disease, I haven't heard of them. This whole book puts forth this idea and excruciating and depressing detail. There's a doctor at the end of the book, dealing with Coupeau's insanity due to drink, and he asks after Gervaise. Does she drink? Of course she does. He shakes his head and admonishes her. She should know better. But she can't help it. There's 20 books in this goddamn series about how she's ultimately powerless in the face of hereditary traits. She was born a drinker, no matter how little she drank in the beginning, and she will inevitably die a drinker.

See what I mean by depressing? I started this book a week ago, but I had to take a break and read Bel-Ami in the meantime. It was so exhausting. But that's not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. Although the word "enjoy" kind of stretches what my reaction was. First, I immensely enjoyed being immersed in Zola's version of 19th century France. It was quite different than the France I've pictured in Bel-Ami and Madame Bovary. Quite different. Like I said earlier, it's Zola's attention to detail that just sells this book so well.

Second, I enjoyed how realistic it is. When you read Dickens, for example Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, both books dealing with poverty on some level, you never get a sense of reality. It's always Dickens' artifice that remains. There's no better way to describe it, though. It's truly an artifice, a fake version of England where people have super fun names like Mr. Melvin Twemlow or Wilkins Micawber. Also, in Dickens' England, things generally do alright in the end. It's an artifice and Dickens never lets you forget it.

In terms of Zola, for sure there's an artifice, a sense of not-reality because Zola's narrator is always up in your face reminding you how poor they are or how dirty they are. 19th century narrators are always up in my grill about shit. Bitch, step off!


I keep it classy on this blog. Anyways, Zola's narrator keeps to reality though. By this, I mean that the characters don't speak the prettiest language and often swear. Yes, this book, published in 1872, features multiple instances of swearing. In my translation, from 1970, contains the word "fuck". A lot.

Oh man, I love the word "fuck". I use it a lot. It always sounds so good. It's perfect euphony really. So when I'm reading a book that's old as fuck, it's super pleasant and super true to life that the characters swear. And talk about sex. And have sex. Not just in the sense that they "make love" or have intense moments of passion. No, in L'Assommoir, characters fuck. They do the dirty deeds.

Why is this pleasant to me? Reality. If David Simon was a writer back in the 19th century, he'd be Emile Zola. Les Rougon-Macquart cycle feels like The Wire, and we all know how I feel about that show, right? This adherence to reality isn't simply about being titillating. No not at all. Did I mention how depressing this book is? There's not much pure entertainment to be had in L'Assommoir, but it is an entertaining book in the same way that The Wire is entertaining. It's important.

Other than shaking my head all the time in disappointment with the characters, the other reaction I had was how would I adapt this to film? It's something that interests me, and I'm always trying to see how to adapt an unfilmable novel into a movie. Well, this can't be filmed. Not only is the timeframe far too long (20 years) but it's also not relevant anymore.

Hold on, let me qualify this statement a little - unpack it for you. It's not relevant because we don't have the same working conditions and even jobs that these people did. Modern audiences wouldn't be interested in watching 2 hours of a drunk laundress with two drunk lovers. The point that Zola is making about hereditary and determinism just doesn't quite jibe with Hollywood's pseudo-Objectivist leanings, where the little guy who tries hard enough can somehow make it on top. Americans love underdogs stories. Love 'em. There's no underdog rag-to-riches story here. All there is in L'Assommoir is a promise from the author that no matter what these people do, they are stuck in a deterministic cycle of alcoholism and poverty.

Ah, determinism, one of my favourite themes, something that pops up in my writing all the time. In fact, a lot of the themes I write about are touched by this book: the social realism, the determinism, the poverty, the substance dependencies. There's a reason why I like this book and The Wire and stuff like this. It makes me feel like I'm involved in something important. Too bad I'm not, and I'm just blogging about shit and putting up stupid pictures of General Zod and pictures of lesbians kissing in bed (thanks, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec).

It's hard to talk about this book in any great detail. It does what it says right on the tin. It's the long involved process of taking a character, putting them under the microscope and watching them squirm. It's not an experiment because Zola knows exactly where these people are going to end up.

A complaint that many people have of Zola is his cardboard characters. I didn't get this. Well, not entirely. Some of the secondary cast seemed a little one-note to me, but they remained memorable in spite of this problem. Otherwise the main cast, Gervaise and Coupeau and Lantier, are sketched out for us in such a manner as to lay bare everything that makes them tick. It's a vivisection, not just of the cast, but of the society.

Let's wrap it up here. So we got Zola's attention to reality, check. We got all of my favourite themes touched on, check. We got Zola's cast, check. We also got lots of swearing and sex and violence (including a brutal fight between Gervaise and another chick - and I mean brutal - it last like thirty pages!) This book pretty much has it all. It's also made me want to read Germinal (which follows one of Gervaise's sons) and Nana (the eponymous daughter of Gervaise) and see how Zola puts them through the wringer, or rather, their genetics does for them.

Okay... next up on the reading list is Stendhal's The Red and the Black. I also have Huysmans' La-Bas on the list, but I might have to take a break from 19th century French lit just so I don't burn out. I have Urban Waites' The Terror of Living out from the library and I might read that, but don't hold me to it. Thanks for reading as usual.

The Weeknd - "Wicked Games"



Absolutely amazing voice. Gives me the shivers.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Dears - "We Can Have It"

Fallout: New Vegas review

I got this game back in October when it came out. It's been a long time - long enough that I think I can do a proper review of it now. I wrote this for Actionbutton.net, but it seems that they aren't interested in taking it. Therefore, I'm publishing it here, on my blog. Caveat emptor, this isn't a normal video game review where I talk about the controls or the graphics or what have you. If you've ever read my blog, you understand that I have higher level concerns with the pieces of art that I deal with. So here it is, my long-awaited review of my most-anticipated game, Fallout: New Vegas.

It wasn’t until I had been playing for a couple months, off and on, that I had a moment of carefree pure fun with Fallout: New Vegas. My (now ex)girlfriend gave me the game as an early birthday present, and I played it non-stop for a couple weeks, until the bugs and glitches and crashes got to me. It got to the point that when I zoomed in with a scope, the screen went rainbow coloured and I couldn’t see what I was trying to kill. I gave up and waited for a patch. When it came, I immediately jumped back on, but this time, I was just looking for challenges. This aforementioned moment of joy came when I found myself in a rock quarry, perched atop a conveyor belt, surrounded by a family of Deathclaws, including the patriarch, a giant motherfucker called Legendary Deathclaw. I was running out of ammo, my sniper rifle, the only weapon with enough range to keep me from being mauled to death, was breaking down. It took me, in real time, about an hour to pick off all of the adult Deathclaws and then another fifteen minutes to scour the rocks and kill the babies. That was the best moment of playing that game, after I gone through the weak story, beat the game, and went back to a previous save point to try and do the crazy shit that is associated with the Fallout name.

I was – am – a huge Fallout 3 fan. It remains my favourite video game of all time, despite (and sometimes because of) its numerous flaws. The engine is weak, the facial expressions stiff and robotic, the ending disappointing, and the plot somewhat laughable. But I could not get enough of crawling through the endless sewers, the open terrain, the broken streets, and the creepy vaults. I could not get enough of accumulating crap that I didn’t need, like cutlery or cups or lawn mower blades. I could not get enough of waltzing right into a gang and taking them all out with my unique shotgun I found. When the “Game of the Year” edition came out, I played that as much as the original, but this time, played with a different style character, and I played for different objectives, like being the most badass motherfucker in the entire Wasteland. I succeeded. I started playing the game in late 2008 and I still haven’t achieved 100% completion. Part of me doesn’t want to for the heartbreak of finally beating the entire game.

So why was I so disappointed with Fallout: New Vegas? Why did it take so long for me to just enjoy the game? I’m sure a good portion of the dissatisfaction was due to high expectations. If Fallout 3 is my favourite game of all time, any follow-up is sure to miss the benchmark of entertainment, even though I hoped against hope that it would surpass my beloved post-apocalyptic RPG. However, a good amount of blame is to be placed at the feet of the game and its developers. The glitches and bugs, while annoying, aren’t the most egregious of crimes. It’s not even the re-use of a tired game engine that’s the worst offense.

It’s the story. I don’t think there are enough words to convey my feelings that story is the most important thing in the world. Just call me Neil Gaiman, but without the accent and without the entire wardrobe of black. Story is the most important element because that’s how humans communicate with each other. Yes, you could argue that stories are built of words, so it’s actually words that allow us to express concepts, but whatever. Stories are humanity’s bread and butter. So it’s all the most awful when a story is poorly told, or even worse, if it’s just a bad story. Unfortunately, Fallout: New Vegas has a bad story, and it’s poorly told to boot.

You’re a courier boy who has this weird giant poker chip to deliver, and you get shot for it by some Rat Pack wannabe. When you wake up, the chip is gone, but you have some clues (and some ticks on your radar) to guide the way to getting back the package. On the way, you need to either align yourself with the New California Republic or Caesar’s Legion. Or, you could fly solo and take over Vegas yourself, should you choose, but that outcome seems the same as siding with the NCR. No matter what, the idea is that you’re going to take over all of Vegas using the giant poker chip.

This means that the story has a nice branching structure. Or at least, superficially it does, because ultimately, it doesn’t matter what side you choose, or even what your karma is, but in this game, it’s called reputation rather than karma. It doesn’t matter because the story flows into the same corners despite your best efforts to throw it a curve ball, like killing somebody important to the story.

These things don’t seem to affect the story, as it just trudges along at the same wooden pace. Go here, install this, come back, kill that guy, win this gang’s loyalty, etc etc etc. While it may seem bizarre to complain of this Fallout’s main mission, as it’s roughly the same as Fallout 3’s main story (in terms of mechanics) but that’s exactly it. I already played this game, and the story wasn’t even better or worse.

The player will never care about either side of the war, either the NCR or the Legion. The player will never care because it never affects the player directly. It’s just one army or the other, and the developers based the entire game around this dynamic that’s categorically boring.

Of course, the best part of the game is the freedom, and not just the freedom of the open world, but the freedom from the story’s stranglehold on the game. When you ignore the main quest, and focus on the little things, here and there, like a cave that just randomly houses a nest of coyote/rattlesnake hybrids. Or the airplane lying at the bottom of a lake. Or the batshit insane butterflies that scared the crap out of the me the first time they killed in three hits. It’s the open world that makes this game even remotely entertaining. When the game wants you to go pick up scrap metal to fix a solar power array, or when it wants you to fetch a pressure cooker, then you’re going to get bored. The freedom from the linear story, from the wooden characters, from the obvious choices in dialogue, that’s what makes the game good.

There’s just not enough of that. The Nevada/California wasteland is big, but it’s not as big as the Capital Wasteland. You could easily get lost in Washington in Fallout 3. There are a million subway lines and a million sewers. One day, when I was taking a subway line I didn’t recognize, I found myself in Georgetown, which is a real area in Washington. I had no idea that it was in the game, and I had owned the game for a year at this point. There’s no moment like that in Fallout: New Vegas. What you see is what you get. All the ticks on the map are either empty shacks or caves with animals in them. There are no mazes, and every building you can enter is way smaller than you think it is.

I suppose that this discovery is a microcosm of the game experience itself. It’s just not nearly as big as you’d think. The story is asinine and small in scope, and the stakes never get any higher than “will I still be in control of the hydroelectric dam when this is done?” If that’s your primary concern, then maybe this game is for you. As for me, I’m not interested in gaining property or controlling casinos. No, I’m a big game hunter, and there are more “Legendary” status creatures out there for me to kill. It’s not about the XP, it’s about the experience.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bel-Ami

It's really fascinating to read 19th century novels and wonder how the authors got away with saying the things they said. Like in Madame Bovary. Or in L'Assommoir (which I'm halfway done so far). Or in Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant, who was apparently a protégé of Flaubert. So let's dive into Bel-Ami, and continue our summer of classics.

Georges Duroy has two things going for him: he's devastatingly handsome, and ruthlessly ambitious. But the problem is, he knows nobody in the city of Paris and he's working a dead-end job, living in a slum, and he can hardly afford both prostitutes and food. It's not until he meets an old friend from the army, Charles Forestier, who hooks him up with a job as a gopher at La vie francaise, a low end newspaper. Through guile, perseverance and his cockmanship, Georges moves up the ranks of the paper, and of the social ladder.

Let's be honest here. This is a sexy book. There's lot of sex. Pretty much every chapter has Georges trying to, and succeeding at getting laid. It's not hard to conclude that Georges Duroy is - yes - a douchebag. He's ridiculous. Here's Georges Duroy in 2011, just posing with a bunch of his bros.


Yup. That's Georges on the far right. Or in the middle. Or second from the left. I can't tell. Anyway, Georges is a huge douchebag. Now the important question is whether or not we should be rooting for him. He's the protagonist after all. Don't we read books to root for the good guy and see him succeed? Ah, I'm so glad you asked. If I hadn't known Maupassant learned at the feet of Flaubert, I would have accused him of biting the same style and ripping off the same tricks.

Georges' rise to power through seduction and manipulation is a story as cynical as Flaubert's handling of Emma Bovary's irritating, self-centered and vain flights of fancy for a more interesting life. Bel-Ami is almost gritty in his portrayal of how corrupt this fucking douche is. How am I even supposed to enjoy this book if Georges is such an unlikable fellow? Well, it's like I mentioned up above: it's all about the technique.

Madame Bovary and Bel-Ami are almost archetypal stories. Both characters are desperate to trade for another life. Emma sleeps with interesting people and then commits suicide because she's over dramatic and an idiot. Georges sleeps with interesting people and goes up the social ladder because he's an idiot and over dramatic. But in both cases, in both novels, the style and technique keeps us invested in the story.

Okay, you're saying, what's so fucking good about this goddamn style? Alright, calm down. I'll tell you, but only about Bel-Ami, 'cause I've already spent too many words talking about Bovary in a review about a Maupassant novel.

Maupassant performs a very subtle and amazing trick in this book, all through technique and style: at no point in the entire novel does Georges think he's doing something wrong. And it's not like people don't tell him that he's a dick and a douche. His mistresses never fail to tell him the truth about his character. "Oh," Georges says to himself, "they're just ladies being ladies." Alright, Georges, you won't listen to mistresses... but will you listen to the author himself? In a very clever and - again - subtle trick, Maupassant even has the narrative find ways to point out to Georges the awful truth, but Georges never takes the fucking hint.

Of course, if he did, it'd be a pretty awful book. The reader would wonder why Georges realizes he's a terrible person but keep making the same mistakes. Not that they're mistakes, per se. 'Cause really, Georges is amazingly successful. When I say that he sleeps his way to the top, I'm being somewhat facetious. Georges is quite a skillful manipulator, and manages to push some people around enough to get himself to the head of the food chain. He even manipulates his boss into letting him marry the boss's virginal and beautiful teenage daughter. But the punchline? Georges' mistress is the boss's wife! Yes, this is a despicable inhuman unfeeling guy. But shit is this guy entertaining.

There's a super entertaining episode in the novel around the midpoint, where Georges has found his new career, and he's working for the paper, and he just got promoted to running the gossip column. It's no spoiler to say that Georges gets into hot water by faking items and twisting facts into outright fiction. A rival newsman calls Georges out through the paper, in a public and embarrassing way. By the standards of the day, Georges has no choice but to get into a duel with the other guy, who he's never met, doesn't know what he looks like, and Georges has never been in a duel before.

What makes the episode so masterful is how Maupassant gets into the head of his character, shows us how damn scared he is, how sweaty his palms are, but he gets into the duel anyway because that's what you have to do. In the day before the duel, Georges is supposed to practice shooting in the basement of this house, but instead he sits around moping and wondering how the world is going to react if he dies. It's a fucking brilliant scene. It's funny and painfully embarrassing for Georges and therefore entertaining for us.


Maupassant didn't seem to have a very high opinion of the world he lived in. It feels like Maupassant thought everybody was a crook and a cheat and a hypocrite. That anger seems to have given birth to a work of fiction that just excoriates Parisian society. He just eviscerates the whole thing. No character is safe from the poison of his pen.

I wish I could have lived in the time that this novel was published. Not because I want to live a "simpler life" like some idiotic hipster, but because I want to see how high society reacted to this. I wonder if women and men were just outright offended and scandalized by Maupassant clearly making fun of them. I can imagine the women sitting around a hearth in a beautiful salon, some of them playing cards on a small card table, one woman defiantly smoking a cigarette, and the subject of the titillating work comes up, and the women, one by one, and then together, exclaim how awful that Monsieur de Maupassant is, and how the "de" was probably just added on for "airs". I would love to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation and thousands like it.

This book must have caused a stir back then. But does it cause a stir now? Is the book any good? Does it hold up? Well, you can't really tell by my word count, as I seem to spend the same amount of time demolishing something as I do praising it to high heaven. Yes, Bel-Ami is a fucking great book. It's funny, it's shocking (still to this day) and it's fairly cynical. I found to be rather modern in its sensibilities and how close Maupassant sticks to his protagonist. There's an academic paper to be written here, about Maupassant's narrative voice and how neutral it stays, although I'm sure such a paper does exist.

Of course it's not perfect. It's far too episodic and a lot of the episodes are fairly similar in structure and content, so the third quarter of the book tends to feel a little same-y. It picks up with the last part, when Georges' awful awful awful plan comes to fruition. No, I'm not going to spoil a 125 year old novel, but suffice it to say that the ending is flawless and effortless, like Maupassant had it planned from the beginning. It's gorgeous.

Yeah, it's hard to fault this novel for being episodic. I'm not going to check my sources on this, but I'm going to say that Bel-Ami was serialized like most books of the time, so there's a tendency to forgive the episodic nature of the beast. However, I must add that when I say episodic, I don't mean there's an irritating cliffhanger at every chapter like some other 19th century novelists (I'm looking at you, Dickens)

(Here's a great drawing by Kate Beaton of some famous Dickens characters. Only tangentially related to this review, and not related to the novel in question. Just thought I'd add some love for Beaton.)

So anyways, Bel-Ami is a great book. But here's the most important question of all - does it match, surpass or come close to the majesty and perfection that is Flaubert's Madame Bovary? Well... it comes close. Bovary just has all the right jokes, all the right images, all the right techniques, and Maupassant is good, but he ain't no Flaubert. It's a shame to compare them, but I'm doing it anyway. It's my goddamn blog.

You should read Bel-Ami. It's entertaining and funny. It's got a lot of sex and heaving bosoms, and Maupassant is never poking you too hard in the ribs so you keep up with his funny jokes. And there's literary merit to it, as well, beyond just the author's skill. There's some haunting imagery, and don't forget to take note of Georges' physical description, and the description of the acrobat later in the book.... Like I say, there's literary merit to this. It's a good book. Thanks for reading my long bizarre review of Bel-Ami.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fathers and Sons

Russian literature. Amirite? It's dense, it's cold, it's obsessed with the relationship between people and God - people and classes - people and grand themes like crime and/or punishment. Every time I pick up a big fat Russian novel (there are no other kinds), this is how I feel.


Except without the terrible shoes. And the weird briefcase. But anyway, this is how I feel. I've tried Anna Karenina and got maybe 150 pages into - how long is it? - one million pages. I got maybe 50 pages into War and Peace. I almost finished Crime and Punishment, but then I lost the paperback I was reading and I never got the willpower to try and figure out where I was. I have Vasily Grossman's mammoth Life and Fate sitting on my nightstand right now, jeering at me, laughing at me, making me feel inferior. I don't know why. I've read Pynchon. I've read Joyce. I've read Gaddis. I've read David Foster Wallace. What's wrong with me?

This summer, among a thousand other projects I want to do, I thought I'd read some more difficult literature than I normally read. In 2011, I've read 24 books, and probably only four of them were "classic" or "difficult" works. I've been slumming it. So that's why Life and Fate sits there taunting me. It's also why I have A Guy de Maupassant book beside it, two Emile Zolas and one Stendhal. Those are all French though. I also had Ivan Turgenev's most famous novel, Fathers and Sons, which I gave a read yesterday, because it was a nice relaxing day for me.


Fathers and Sons is a character study of one father, Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, his son, Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov, and another father and another son, Vasily Ivanovich Bazarov and Yevgeny Vasil'evich Bazarov. Both Eugene (as it's translated in my copy) and Arkady have just come from university, with Eugene studying medicine (like his father) and Arkday studying whatever. When they arrive at their old country homes, their fathers are shocked to see the boys have decided to be Nihilists, in the sense that they respect nor acknowledge any authority.

The fathers are liberal, forward-looking men themselves, creating a new form of business with the serfs and peasants in an attempt to bring Russia into the 19th century. However, this isn't radical enough for the sons.

While Eugene sticks to his beliefs, even in the face of falling in love with a beautiful widow, Arkady struggles with his loyalty to Eugene when he falls in love with the sister of the widow. Meanwhile, Nikolai's brother, Arkady's uncle, Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov, aristocratic bourgeois, cannot stop arguing with Eugene, and the arguments escalate and escalate.

I'll be totally honest with you. There are only two reasons why I grabbed this from the library. One, it's considered a classic of Russian lit, and often considered the first modern Russian novel. Secondly, it's only 200 pages long. I would have avoided this if it had been any longer. Not only does the subject matter not interest me, it's predictably Russian in its obsession with class and the internal life of the cast.

Nonetheless, I'm glad I read this. At first, I was a little put off by the strange wandering point of view. For the first third of the novel, Turgenev follows any character at all, just going off in all these different directions, to the point where you are not sure who the main character is. No matter how tangential it seems, Turgenev follows it and pins it down, and watches it scurry on the pin. There's a (thankfully) brief episode where Eugene, Arkady, and one of their irritating friends goes to visit a modern Russian woman if only because she'll give them free booze. (It's champagne in my translation, but I'm suspicious of this. As much as the Russian aristocracy loved to pretend to be French, I doubt that champagne (real champagne) was so easy to come by in rural Russia.) It's an annoying scene because of the weird nonsensical political discussions they have. Eugene and the friend even go out of their way to denigrate women in front of their female host. I get what Turgenev is doing, I just didn't like it.

However, by the halfway point of the novel, Turgenev seems to have focus. He's slid the pieces around, and back, to try and find something he likes, indecisive for 90 pages, but then he's got it, and he lets loose. When Arkady and Eugene end up staying in the country manor of the widow named Anna, the true part of the novel begins. While Eugene is brash, cold, unfeeling, arrogant and misogynist, Turgenev shows that no true Nihilist is immune to the powers of love.

For a book of only 200 pages, there's a massive psychological depth to Eugene and Arkady. It's almost hard to describe how perfectly drawn these two were without needing another 1500 words to explain it. Eugene is a character that you can see and smell and sense in the room with you. He's an arrogant little prick, but Turgenev never mocks him. He never mocks any of his characters. Even the foolish ones. Turgenev has oodles of sympathy for his cast, he cares about them, and wants them to be themselves. He's not like Zola, putting detailed people in scientific experiments to see how'd they react - nope, nuh-uh. Turgenev already knows how they're going to react. That's the beauty of this novel.

Arkady and Eugene forsake their fathers' ideology and their past for a new radical thinking of modern science and modern philosophy. They are the new Russians. But Turgenev isn't trying to say that kids are getting worse. No, not at all. Because Turgenev puts them through a situation that makes them both re-evaluate their Nihilism, re-evaluate their priorities and then they - frankly - grow the fuck up.

So it's all the more satisfying when Arkady and Katya, the widow's sister, fall in love and get married and be happy together. Arkady deserves it. He's a good dude who just got up in the wrong crowd. But he was never disrespectful to his family. He was just disrespectful to their way of life, a huge distinction. When he receives his "reward" of a beautiful love of a beautiful woman, it's emotionally satisfying. This, my friends, is a sign of two things: a complete emotional and story arc for a character, and secondly, the sign of a good writer.

I've mentioned time and time again on this blog a few pet themes in my reviews. One is immersion, one is social responsibility, and the other is a writer's ability to put you into the characters, to make you care. We're a cynical bunch these days. Most American art is about sneering at those who have fallen. It's not quite the same in other parts of the world, and it's not quite the same for 19th century literature. When somebody falls, you're supposed to feel bad, not good. And when somebody succeeds, in spite of background or plot contrivance, you're supposed to feel great, not the instinct to roll your eyes. Turgenev is a product of his time, surely. He makes you invest in his cast, and then rewards you and the cast for going through it. Reading is supposed to be entertainment, not a punishment, or at least that's how 19th century literature looked at it. If they can teach you a few lessons while they're at it, then awesome, but paramount is entertainment. Fathers and Sons succeeds where other Russian books I've tried to read have failed.

Fathers and Sons is still dense, just like Russian lit should be, but it's psychologically dense, rather than impenetrable. It's entertaining because Turgenev is a solid craftsman who invests in his cast and his own beliefs: the future of Russia is not in radicalism, but in sticking together and getting through it as a family. Not only does this appeal to me as a political thinker, but it appeals to me emotionally. So it's a win win for all of us.

But is it perfect? Oh, I'm glad you asked. No, unfortunately, it's not perfect. I sort of touched on this up above. The first third is confused about what it wants to go and where it wants to go. It's a slow start, which can be fatal for a shorter work. I get the feeling that Turgenev just had these characters in his head, and when he started writing, he wasn't quite sure where to put them or what to do with them. The other problem is the ending. I don't want to spoil anything more than I've already spoiled, but the ending smacks of stereotypical 19th century fiction. I thought that by 1862, when this was published, the ending in this book was already a cliché (considering that already, in 1856, Madame Bovary was making fun of the stereotypical ending). Anyways, this isn't a fatal problem. This is just typical problems of the literature of the era. Hard to fault people for being of their time, isn't it?

Other than this Fathers and Sons is a pretty damn good read. It's got great real characters, a couple of whom will stay with me for a long time, longer than the cast of The Grapes of Wrath, that's for sure. It also manages to make its complex points in under 200 pages, something I admire greatly. Too many 19th century novels went with quantity over quality and circled over and over again, grinding the themes into the reader over and over again. Not Fathers and Sons and not Turgenev. This is a good way to start a summer of classic non-English literature.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

I never had to read Steinbeck in high school. We read 1984 and Animal Farm. Which sucks, because when I got to university, it was assumed that I was already familiar with Steinbeck, so there was no point in reading him. Now, it's 2011, and I'm 26 years old and I just read my first Steinbeck novel.

Here's a graphic I made outlining my thoughts on The Grapes of Wrath.


You'll notice that the Bible features in the column "What I Got". I had no frigging idea that The Grapes of Wrath had so much religion and religious symbolism in the book. Even the final paragraph of the book is a reference to La Pieta. I'm not a religious person in the slightest, so whenever I read something so spiritual, I don't really fall head over heels for it.

If you don't know, this book is about the plight of the family Joad, farmers from Oklahoma, driven from their farm and seeking work, any work, in the alleged promised land of California. Led by the ex-convict son Tom, the family sets out on a long and perilous journey across the States, only to find prejudice, violence, and less work than they thought in California.

The overall reaction I had to this book, which was surely intended, was that it was wearying. I was exhausted every time I put this book down. Steinbeck never relents in his onslaught of details of how terrible these people have it. Page after page after page of the Joads trying to maintain a strong constitution in the face of imminent starvation and destitution, and it never ends. Each camp they arrive at, each farm they try to work at, it just never gets any better. The wages they're being paid are halved almost every day to the point where even one man couldn't afford to eat, let alone a whole family.

This book is a fraught emotional journey, worrying and wearying. I don't think I'll ever read this again, 'cause it was just too damn depressing. That isn't to say I didn't enjoy it, but I can't honestly say I loved it. Part of the problem is the folksiness of everything. To paraphrase one of my friends, an avid Steinbeck fan, you can practically hear the banjos every time the family gets in the car. Everything is dripping with that homespun good ol' country vibe, and that saccharine sentimentality and sincerity. Everything is just so goddamn sincere.

There are only three kinds of characters in this book: the Joads, who are perfect and Madonna-like, the racist prejudiced violent rich people, and Okies who are just trying to survive and are given no development beyond that they are poor. When I say the Joads are Madonna-like, I don't mean "Life a Virgin" or "Express Yourself". I mean Madonna like this:


They're just so perfect and saintly. It's just so irritating. Tom Joad, ostensibly the main character, goes through an emotional arc whereby the end, he's become a Christ-like figure, and he realizes the best thing to do is to put his soul out there, and help his fellow man. Yes, this is a man who has killed two people by the end of the book, but he finds redemption in social justice, and all is forgiven. The cast bend over backwards to forgive Tom for the crime of fucking murder. Everybody says how the victims deserved it, and Tom assures us, again and again, that if given the opportunity to go back, he'd still commit murder. Am I the only one who finds it difficult to compare Christ and a murderer? Am I the only one who thinks this is bizarre?

I took this university course in my second year that was called Canonical Conundrums. Pretentious course title aside, it was about the difficulty of judging what should be included in the list of undisputed classics. In the first half of the course, we looked at obvious books like The Odyssey and Frankenstein and god knows what else, cause I didn't pay attention in the first half. But in the second, we looked at more... questionable works, such as The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, The Awakening by Kate Chopin and even the first Harry Potter book. These are works that are good, even great (except Harry Potter), but when you put them up against things like the Scottish play, or Great Expectations or Middlemarch, then you have problems.

I'm going to say something inflammatory and controversial. I don't think The Grapes of Wrath should be considered an undisputed classic novel. I think it's a good book, and I think what Steinbeck was trying to accomplish is fantastic and he mostly achieves it. But I just don't think this novel is as good as they make it out to be. The Grapes of Wrath is completely successful in portraying desperation and ceaseless struggle. However, it's unsuccessful in portraying a family of real farmers who are desperate and are ceaselessly struggling.

The greatest crime committed by this book is not developing its cast. The matriarch of the family doesn't even have a name. The best the characters get, other than Rose of Sharon and Tom, is one character trait repeated ad infinitum and constant reminders from the cast themselves. Al, the sixteen year old, just loves cars and girls. Ruthie, the twelve year old girl, is rambunctious and always getting into mischief. Uncle John carries the burden of guilt and only ever wants to drink. And Pa Joad is constantly undermined by his saintly and perfect wife, Ma Joad.

At the end of the book, the family arrives at this camp, and they meet the Wainwrights. I guess in a matter of days, Al and Aggie, the daughter, end of deciding to get married. Yay. Good for them. Do we know what Aggie looks like? Does she have any dialogue? Does she even have a character trait other than being "growed up"? Nope. Not at all. Why does Al like this girl? Why does he keep by her side, forsaking his family for her? Well, we'll never know because Steinbeck was too busy in the last couple chapters co-opting images from the Bible to elevate the Joads from common farmers to parables.

Tom was interesting to me because of his reaction to everything. He was rarely shaken, and in times of serious trouble, he was described often as "chuckling", like he's laughing in the face of danger. He seemed the most real out of any of the cast because he would give into anger, when cops harassed him, and he would give into pleasures of the flesh. He was a real person being pushed around. It's only in the end when Steinbeck hoists him up to metaphorical heaven to become the mouth of Christ for the farmers that Tom loses his realistic edge.

I can totally see Henry Fonda as Tom, with those big ol sad eyes he has. Henry Fonda has the epitome of the open face, where all his emotions are right there to be read. I can see this. Tom never hid his true self from the world. He puts it out there for all to see. That's what makes him so interesting.

Up above, I mentioned that Rose of Sharon is the only other character to be interesting, and go through an emotional arc. But I'm fudging a little here. For four fifths of this book, Rose is super annoying, always crying about this and bothering people about that and getting all worked up. It's because she's a child, but the burden of motherhood and adulthood has been thrust upon her, and she is being forced to grow up. Only at the end, when she has lost "everything" does she open herself up to the world and make the sacrifice needed. It's actually a pretty cool transformation and it means a lot for the text. If Tom decides to open himself up to the world in the name of social justice, which is all figurative, by the way, not literal, then Rose is doing the same thing, but in the most iconic motherly and feminine way of all: La Pieta, as seen above. I don't want to spoil it, but she performs a task without being told to, in a very beautiful and epic moment. Like I say, it's pretty cool and quite satisfying in terms of reading the text and in terms of catharsis.

I wanted to mention the chapters between the main plot. The Grapes of Wrath has an interesting structure in that every other chapter takes a macrocosmic view of the migrant workers, and uses a rather Modernist style of stream of consciousness, but not in the individual, rather in the collective. It's kind of interesting at first, and performs a sort of chorus like job of painting the whole situation. At first, they're engaging and well-written, and you can see what Steinbeck's trying to do. But when you reach the two thirds mark of the book, it tends to just be more of the same, reiterating themes and images that we just saw in the previous chapter and the previous interlude. We get it, Steinbeck, the land is beautiful, but I was just tired of them by the end. They were running over the same ground again and again: the workers are getting cheated, the workers are suffering with their heads held high, and then at the end, they take to stealing and fulfilling the prophecy predicted by the Californians.

But like I say, I liked the book, but I didn't love it. It's eminently readable, engaging, and sometimes shocking, and always harrowing. Just for the audience reaction alone, this would be a monumental achievement. If Steinbeck had put more care into his cast, or minimized the cast, the novel would have been more emotionally engaging rather than just simply effective in portraying destitution. While I don't think The Grapes of Wrath is the greatest novel I've ever read, I would never in a million years proclaim it to be bad. It's just, it's hard to like this book when there's so many others that are better. This book has its flaws and people are doing themselves a disservice by not acknowledging them.

And so, another book on Time Magazine's 100 Best Novels is completed. I'm still at only 40%.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Check out my story

I posted my first story for "asleep and the city" a blog co-authored by my friend kevin and I. Obviously it's not my first story, but it's my first story for that blog. The theme Kevin chose for this iteration is identity. I like my story, but it's needs something else, and I can't quite put my finger on it.... Oh well. Read it if you want.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Union Dues

When I was in high school, I read Adbusters and Naomi Klein's NO LOGO. When I got into university, I thought I had grown too old for such childish silliness. I looked down on what I considered dirty hippies. Of course, in my youthful arrogance, I hadn't considered that there is a spectrum of political ideology, and that all hippies are not created equally. Faithful readers will have no doubt noticed a tendency in my writing to look outwards, rather than inwards. I've become more interested in my own society and the problems facing it. This shift in my perception has come about because of a many factors, most notably (and most entertaining) The Wire. Another factor is my growing awareness that I haven't contributed anything to the planet, other than snarky blogging, a ton of terrible fiction, a couple newspaper articles, and a constant sense of entitlement. In my desire to learn more about my own world, I've been looking at more socially aware works of art. This brought me down the path to John Sayles and his 1977 novel, Union Dues.



I've never seen a John Sayles film, or at least, not knowingly. I've seen Piranha, but that can hardly be called a Sayles work. He's an interesting figure in Hollywood, choosing to do work-for-hire jobs in order to finance more personal pictures, but rarely do these personal pictures garner much outside attention. It seems Sayles is a filmmaker's filmmaker, in the same way Richard Yates and Alfred Bester seem to be writer's writers. However, I understand that Sayles' personal films are political in nature, something that normally turns me off. But I wanted to read something "important", something that spoke to the socially aware writer inside of me. I chose Union Dues for this task.

Hobie McNatt is a seventeen year boy from West Virginia who has run away to Boston, run away to find meaning in his life, run away from his inevitable fate of working in the mines like his father, Hunter. Hobie ends up living with some (small c) communists who want to unite the workers and free them from the tyranny of the oppressing class. Meanwhile, Hunter leaves his job at the mine to follow Hobie, to try and reconnect with his son, to find out why he left. When he arrives in Boston, he ends up working some day labor jobs to make ends meet while he tracks down his son.

While this may sound somewhat small and intimate, a story of a father and a son and poverty, it's actually a rather big book, full the brim with characters and situations and a plot that consistently threatens to get out of hand. Rather, it's the conversations that tend to get out of hand.

This is a book of people talking and talking and talking. It's a noisy novel and any moments of introspection poke their heads out when the cast takes a breath before launching into a new tangential conversation about gambling or hookers. But thinking like this is sort of missing the point of Union Dues. This is a novel about people talking out their problems, and never doing anything about it. Hobie, the son, joins a very stereotypical 60s-style revolutionary group, and all they ever manage to do is talk and argue and self-critique and vote and argue and talk. It's not until the end of the book where the group takes action, and predictably enough, Sayles spends more narrative time listening in on their post-action debrief and sharing of individual perspectives. This is is a community, and the best way to show a community is to show how they communicate and deal with each other.

In addition to this book being about talking, it's also about the strength of community that spontaneously occurs when working class people are put together. Hunter's path through the novel sees him making friends with anybody and everybody who respects an honest and hard worker. But it's not a nostalgic novel. It's hard to tell what Sayles thinks about this lifestyle of revolution. He tends to show them at their worst and their best, equally so. Obviously, Sayles is interested in people who are not in control of society. Sayles is a social realist (and maybe even a socialist realist).

This is going to sound super pretentious, but as I remember it from university, Sayles and György Lukács would have a lot to talk about and not just because Lukács was a Marxist. I think Sayles is interested in conveying the working world because their stories are just as important. Sayles doesn't engage in fancy modernist or postmodernist techniques. Instead he uses the dialectical approach, a dialogue between the reader and the facts as laid bare. He keeps the narrator's voice distant and when he does enter into the mind of one of his characters, the narrator adopts the character's voice (which admittedly is a modernist technique). The dialectical method is a way of showing the class struggle, the overall theme of the book.

Does the novel work, then? With all this political stuff and obsession with documenting the struggles of the workers? Does the novel function as entertainment, whether or not it's didactic? The answer is surprisingly positive. I had a great time reading this book, and not just because it attempts to accurately portray the class struggle. Sayles' skill with dialogue is apparent right from the beginning. He uses authentic sounding speech to make his points, and he uses pages and pages and pages of it.

Of course, it's not just dialogue that makes this book work. There are a few absolutely stunning moments of emotion, sprinkled through the book. The flashback to Hunter's courting of Hobie's future mother, and her ultimate decline into illness, contains frequent spots of genius, a single sentence used by Sayles that conveys all the weight and grief without any of the obvious hand-holding used by lesser authors. It's like flashes of Raymond Carver.

There's another brilliant moment where Hobie and this girl flirt during a lengthy political argument in the household of the revolutionary group. Sayles gets the flirting across with subtlety and then when they end up having sex, it's a spectacular moment of understanding how his characters work. It's tender in its approach.

Union Dues isn't a perfect novel, though. The large and unwieldy cast tends to get out of control. It's almost maximalist in generating its cast. Every person with a name gets a background and a chance to talk. While all of the characters have... different voices, they blur together, making it hard to differentiate them by the end of the book. Some choice editing would have benefited this novel greatly.

Other than this, Union Dues is a pretty solid novel. I liked it, but I didn't love it. As aforementioned, Sayles' skill with dialogue is pretty good, but the cast is too large for any one secondary character to stand out. Does Union Dues speak to the political kid in me? Yes, sort of. It's interesting to see the world of the workers in a very specific time, when machinery and automation were almost done forcing manual laborers out of jobs, when the political climate was threatening to explode, when Vietnam was on everybody's minds. It's a fascinating time period to visit, without the use of rose-tinted glasses. Things were fucked up, and anybody who thinks otherwise is a fool. Sayles wisely chooses to show us a time and place that was messed up and constantly on the cusp of boiling over into chaos and violence. So, yeah, I liked the book. I'm going to read Sayles' newest book, which is supposed to be a 1000 page monster of the nineteenth century.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Neonomicon

(Warning: this is a really long review of a comic book. Both the review and the comic deal with extremely adult situations. Plus the review is like 1600 words long, I mean god, get an editor already)

Here's a hypothetical situation for you. Say you're this writer of comics, and you're one of the most important and highly respected writers ever - of comics that is. And let's say you wrote a few "graphic novels" or whatever that are so popular and so influential that one of them is often thrown in with the greatest works of literature in the 20th century. Now, fast forward, and you go crazy, start saying shit about the companies you worked for, and then eventually, the only place you want your stuff to be published is through independent publishers. Since you're so goddamn important and so influential, you gotta feel the crushing weight of expectations anytime you put pen to paper, right? Yeah, well you're Alan Moore, and you wrote Neonomicon, a 4 issue mini-series for Avatar drawn by Avatar's only illustrator, Jacen Burrows.

It's got to suck being Alan Moore sometimes, what with the celebrity, and the expectations and the history and the beard. No, wait. I change my mind. It's pretty easy to be Alan Moore. He's a genius, he's a great writer, he's funny, he's tall and apparently pretty good looking back in the day. So I shouldn't feel sorry for him when he writes something that is - well - not very good. Every writer is allowed a stinker.

But sometimes, that stinker is extremely interesting. Sometimes when a master of his field produces a turd, it's more fascinating than the regular turds put out by the usual turd-factories. Take for example, one of Scorsese's missteps, like After Hours or New York, New York. Both are very specific styles that Scorsese wanted to try, and while they don't quite work, they're still films worth watching because of Scorsese being out of his comfort range, but bringing his specific style and language nonetheless.


With Moore's Neonomicon, it's definitely a misstep. Let me break down the plot for you. These two FBI agents, a black guy with a wife, and a blonde woman in treatment for sex addiction, are investigating a serial killer copycat, one who has taken his inspiration from a guy who only speaks in a weird language that the blonde agent seems to recognize. Then, they start to investigate the weird sex angle of it, and they find themselves going undercover as a couple who want to engage in weird sex acts inspired by some writer's horror stories. It gets weirder from there.

Part of the problem is the structure of the story. And this is a big problem for somebody like Alan Moore, whose structure is famous for being like clockwork. In the first issue of Neonomicon, we're introduced to the agents, the mystery (who's this serial killer) and a very loose connection to H. P. Lovecraft. Then the second issue has some sort of shootout in a club, unrelated to the copycat killer, and now they're tracking down leads in a weird sex-ring operation. In the third and fourth issue, the blonde agent is repeatedly raped over and over again by some fat white people, and then by a horrific sea creature. You see the structural weaknesses, here?

We're set up for a mystery, but then the story follows a tangential path to things fucking other things. It's all very psychosexual, and Moore is making a very obvious connection between Lovecraft's weird nightmares and the sexual stuff Lovecraft was so creeped out by. As I say, it's painfully obvious and any 15 year old kid who just started reading Lovecraft is bound to make a connection between all the tentacles and slimy things with genitals and sex.


So what then is Moore's point? Why is there an issue devoted entirely to a pretty blonde woman being raped by a sea creature? Is it gratuitous? Is it exploitative? Titillating? Disturbing? Shocking? Erotic?

Honestly? None of the above. Anybody who has seen five minutes of anime knows that this kind of stuff is pretty run of the mill. So is Moore making a point about Lovecraft's creatures then? Now, this is interesting. Cthulu has become so ubiquitous as to remove all fear and horror from the concept. There's plush Cthulu dolls, for Christ's sake. One of Moore's characters even makes this point clear. But here's where Moore missteps and fatally so. Instead of writing a Lovecraft story where shit gets fucked up and gets fucked up fast, Moore decides to keep the horror local and take Lovecraft's implications of sex with sea creatures to its logical conclusion: rape by tentacle. This isn't shocking or disturbing. In fact, it's kind of sweet when the blonde agent jerks off the creature cause she's sore from all the fucking.


If the best part of Lovecraft is the depth of the possibility, then Moore has missed the point. Lovecraft's stories are so good not because of his odious prose, but because of what he implies. Lovecraft makes mention of things so deep, dark and terrible as to turn you insane just from seeing it, or even hearing the words. There's a whole race of evil disgusting space creatures out there with tentacles waiting to do - whatever it is they do, and Lovecraft only scrapes the surface. Moore misses out on this entirely by doing exactly what it is we think Lovecraft's imagination will do: rape by tentacle.

You see how Moore has fallen into the trap of modern horror? Instead of showing, he tells. And by showing, I mean having the reader wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes. Instead, Moore has an issue of blonde women being raped by tentacles.

Or, is Neonomicon some clever commentary on where Lovecraft-inspired fiction has gone? Is Moore making a statement so clever and so subtle as to escape my critical gaze? It's possible. But honestly, if the joke has to be explained, then it isn't funny. If Moore thinks he's making an expert judgement on how far off the deepend horror has gone, he's done so in a blind and foolish manner.

It's hard to say if I hated this comic. On one hand, it's juvenile and sticky with adolescent obsession with sex. On the other hand, it's kind of fucked up and I tend to be very forgiving of things Lovecraft related, and frankly, Moore related.

Despite overall problems with the comic, there are a few bright spots that make up for it. One of them is the aforementioned bond that grows between the raped woman and the sea-creature. Another is a particular moment in the second issue that's a fairly stock scare, but manages to be very effective in its execution. Even though I spoiled most of the plot, I'm going to refrain from spoiling this specific moment.

As well, you almost have to give Moore a little bit of credit for not showing Cthulu or any of the Old Ones. Lovecraft inspired stuff nowadays tends to shoot its wad immediately with gratuitous money shots of tentacled monsters. Moore keeps the Old Ones reined in, something I almost didn't expect.

No, I didn't hate this comic, but I certainly didn't love it. I only read it because of Moore's name, and I kind of like Burrow's style. I tend to avoid Lovecraft inspired work because I've found to be, like I say, sticky with adolescent obsessions with sex. Like the only real fear that we have left is violation by creatures unknown. I could continue with this thread and start my usual "sex isn't bad and the more we talk about it the less it's taboo" but this review is already over long, considering it's only a 4 issue miniseries.

This being said, it's an interesting failure because it's an Alan Moore comic. I wish the man would write more, so that the weight of his infrequent contributions to comics would be lessened, and there wouldn't be constant sighs of disappointment anytime he chose to publish. I really like Alan Moore, and I own the majority of his collected works. I am a staunch defender of his adherence to rigid structure and for the little things that his critics tend to miss, like his fairly awesome dialogue and ability to mimic everyday speech. This comic has those things, notwithstanding the weak structure, so it's worth reading. If you like Lovecraft and hate sex, that is.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What's up with you?

I know it's been a rather content-lite month, loyal readers. I understand. This post is a bit of a catch-up post so everybody can understand what I've been doing with my life.

1.
I've lost about 25 pounds since January. That's pretty sweet, don't you think? Here's what I'm doing in terms of exercise: every weekday I do 20 minutes of cardio, usually running. Then I do some strength training. Nothing to strenuous. I don't want to be bulky, but I don't want to be fat. I'm already seeing some pretty decent definition in my arms. I'm a pants size down and two notches down in my belt. I eat fairly healthy, mostly salads and fruit and chicken, with low calorie tabasco on everything except my apples and oranges. I still reward myself here and there with Thai food or Subway, but no other fast food and no candy and no pop and no red meat. Yes, I said no red meat. Haven't had any since February.

2.
Today, it was plus 14 in the city, perfectly sunny and gorgeous. So I rode my bike to the library, my new bike that is, took out a couple books, and then rode to Assiniboine Park. Took me about 25 minutes to get there. I sat on a bench and started reading. More on that in the next point. Anyway, I rode back and beat my time by 5 minutes. Pretty impressive, no? I've been riding to school every day, but that's only a 5 minute ride, so it's not that spectacular. But all this riding and running is doing great for my lung capacity and cardiovascular system.

3.
I'm trying to read Gravity's Rainbow right now, but it's slow going. I'm having problems starting books and then I can't focus, so I lurk on message boards or watch movies. I'm trying to fix this by reading a couple different books. Inspired by my more social awareness, I'm reading Union Dues by John Sayles. I'm also trying Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, which is said to be one of the best Vietnam novels ever. I'm looking at starting Paul Scott's Six Days in Marapore, a brief early work by one of my favourite authors of all time.

4.
I'm thinking of painting again this summer. I haven't painted in almost four years. The only work I ever completed hangs on my wall right now. I'm very proud of it.

5.
I'm designing a standing desk, like a podium. It will help with my posture. Hopefully my father will help me build it, as I suck as carpentry. Although my design isn't terrible, I don't think.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

How to Train Your Dragon



Okay before we get into the questions, what's with the bizarre review format?
Good question. Inspired by the Ithaca episode of Ulysses, I'd thought I would try a catechism style narrative - essentially an interview between an unknown locutor and me, as the interlocutor. This is also a chance to do something different for the blog. So on to the questions.

You've mentioned before that Pixar is one of your favourite "celebrities," but you never really mention any other animation studio or projects. Why is that?
Pixar remains the best singular movie studio working in Western film right now. Each project is amazingly complex and mature, and more often than not, are better than prestige pictures designed for maximum Oscar collecting. Because of their success, there is often imitators. Dreamworks being one of them.

How to Train Your Dragon is a Dreamworks film. Why did you want to see this?
Honestly? Its Rotten Tomatoes score was in the 90s. The only other recent animated movies to crack that number are the Pixar movies. A movie with a high enough score warrants a view, in my opinion.

What is it about?
There's a village of Vikings, and they are constantly at war with dragons of all shapes and sizes, most of whom are scary and steal livestock. Hiccup, the useless son of the chieftain, accidentally downs a Nightflier, one of the rarest dragons of all. When Hiccup confronts the downed dragon, he sees more intelligence and emotion than expected. He befriends the dragon and begins to train it, and hopefully help avoid the inevitable assault on the dragons' nest by the chieftain.

What did you think of it?
I thought it was pretty amazing, to tell the truth.

What made it so amazing?
It's got a fantastic voice cast, some great action setpieces, and a rather tender boy and pet story that takes rather poignant turns near the end. Almost choked me up.

What about the voice cast? What made it so fantastic?
Most of the actors are veteran voice actors, with the exception of Gerald Butler, who manages to transform his regular Scottish brogue into humanity and tenderness as the village chieftain and disappointed father of Hiccup. Jay Baruchel, a Canadian acting veteran, plays Hiccup with just the right amount of sarcasm and emotion to sell the relationship between his character and a non-speaking dragon.

You said it was poignant and tender - did it not seem mawkish or twee?
Not really. Maybe it's because I'm a pet kind of guy, but often, movies about children and their pets hits me in all the right emotional places. Even though I had an idea of where the story was going, I was still swept up in the emotional arc of the main character, a sure sign of good writing. I was immersed.

You've spoken before on this blog of immersion in film. What makes this so important?
Think about this way. You're sitting in bed, watching a small box with flickering light on it that shouts at you. Your phone is buzzing with texts, there's traffic noises outside and your vaguely Middle Eastern neighbours are engaging in another one of their family get-togethers, where everybody they know arrives. It's extremely important that a movie transcend all these distractions and keep you focused. A movie shouldn't fight with the outside world, it should just take over.

And this movie did?
It sure did. Totally captivated me.

Was it just the characters?
That's a major element, but no, it wasn't just the characters. Certainly the cast was full of great nuanced acting and writing, but it was also the amazing setpieces. The movie tries really hard to convey the beauty and wonder of flight, and it succeeds. Any scene with Hiccup riding the dragon was wonderful and tense and exhilarating.

This is a pretty glowing reception from you. Was there any problems with the film?
Yes, actually. Something bothered me about it, something just below the surface. I mentioned pets.

Yes, you said it was a boy and pet kind of dynamic movie.
My problem is that the dragon is eventually subjugated by the white privileged boy. The dragon that he brings down is handicapped by the act, so the boy fashions a secondary wing for the injured tail. Sounds okay, but then the boy fashions a saddle and a steering mechanism so that he can control the dragon. What makes this more uncomfortable is that the dragons turn out to be subjugated by a Leviathan who commands the nest. The dragons eventually team up with the Vikings to dethrone the Leviathan, and then are subjugated entirely by the white Vikings. As if the dragons, whom we are told are far more complex than assumed, are desperate for a controlling and ruling class.

Is the film explicit about this?
No, not at all. This is just me reading into things a little bit too much. It's just that the film purports to be about the hidden lives of our enemies, how animals are deeper and more emotional that we expect them to be, how these dragons are the equals of the Vikings, and then at the end, the climax, all of the main characters ride the dragons, and the film pushes the personalities of the dragons to the far back. There's room in this film for more exploration of how the dragons react to the humans. We have only one dragon who we see have an emotional reaction to a Viking other than trying to eat him.

Other than this problem, which you say is implicit, is there anything else?
Yes. Who keeps giving Jonah Hill roles in movies? He plays the same character over and over and he's always distracting in his role. Always.

Anything else?
Yeah, and again, this is me being sort of overly political, but America Ferrara, an Honduran-American actress, plays the role of a blonde blue-eyed teenager. Sure, she plays the voice role extremely well, better than most young actors could do, but I was a little put off by the fact that a talented actress who isn't white, has to play a conventional white character. But, this is very slight.

Sigh, is there anything else you want to complain about?
Why do the Vikings have Scottish accents? That's just nonsensical.

On the whole, how does this film compare to other animation movies of this era?
Very well, I have to say. This is worlds better than Shrek or Over the Hedge or Madagascar or whatever. How to Train Your Dragon relies on well-written characters and an organic flow to the plot rather than stale pop culture jokes or references to So You Think You Can Dance, or whatever. Here's a kid's movie that doesn't pander to either of its audiences, adults and children alike. It's a movie that wants to tell a meaningful story and it doesn't pull any punches. Especially the end.

Should I expect to cry at the end?
Maybe. I didn't, but I think I'm emotionally drained from Toy Story 3. But it's not the neatest more perfect ending in the world, and I think that's important. There are consequences to our actions and there is a cost to be paid. I admire a movie that wants to say this.

Okay. I think I understand. So overall, would you say you liked it?
Yes, I loved it. Truly worth its high score on Rotten Tomatoes.

But better than, or as good as a Pixar?
No, not quite. The animation's good, but it's not Pixar-level good. But it's really damned close.

That's very high praise from you, don't you think?
Yes. Only Miyazaki comes closer to Pixar than this. That's saying a lot.

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
I had a blast, thank you.