Thursday, July 29, 2010

Art, faith, and film: top 100

This is an interesting list of films folks put together to showcase what they thought were the best films in terms of art and faith.  What does that mean?  They talk about it a little at their site and have links to some longer explanations and discussions. 

I would be lying if I said I hadn't heard of half of them.  (More like 80+ percent since I was familiar with about 17.)  I've seen a grand total of 2 of them (Chariots of Fire and The Burmese Harp).  I forced a bunch of friends to watch Chariots with me.  They weren't very appreciative of the music in general, but I think they enjoyed its story and thought-provoking nature.

The Burmese Harp devastated me for weeks, and it was only #20.  I'm almost afraid to see any ranked higher.  I'm also very curious . . .

How many of them have you heard of and/or seen?  Can you make any recommendations?

(Also, the great library migration is mostly over, so I should be returning to my regular schedule of posting every Monday and Thursday.  See you then.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

To all the "I'm not a writer"s out there

There's a book that just came out with a rather intriguing title.  I liked the first chapter enough that I'm definitely going to have to track it down.  I mean, how can you resist the siren song of Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime?  I read a preview chapter in a magazine, and, though I still don't know where the Suicidal Mime is going to come into play, I did like the rather bizarre premise and the rather awkwardly sad narrator.  I hope he gets a good ending.

A quote I enjoyed from the first chapter.

"All you have to do is write down the things that happened and how you felt exactly the way you experienced it.  As long as you try your very best, the honest words of someone who doesn't usually write can inspire the heart and the appetite so much more than works that rely on technical mastery."

Do you agree?  

Monday, July 19, 2010

Protecting/Defending Innocence

There's a fun discussion about one of my favorite series going on right now, and in this one, several people brought up something that was bothering them: one character seems to be going out of his way to protect the other character's innocence, even to the extent of not wanting the poor kid to learn how to protect himself (by hurting/maiming/killing other people).  This seems very two-dimensional to the readers, like it's turning the protected into some sort of lesser person.

(NOTE: The referenced discussion only covers up to the first third of the work in question; I've read the whole thing, which might color some of what I think.  Also, if you're a Princess Bride fan, you should definitely check out the rather hilarious references that pop up in the discussion, especially if you've read Banana Fish.)

It's true I'm pretty generous with characters.  I work hard so authors don't have to.  It is very difficult to make me believe your characer is two-dimensional; I will do all sorts of extra work in the background to flesh out that character unless you go above and beyond. That said, I don't really think this character is two-dimensional at all.  Out of his depth?  Totally.  Frustrated and helpless and conflicted and protected?  Yeah.  Unrealistically simple?  Not really.

One of the ideas I was getting from the discussion is one that I've encountered before, the one that says it's wrong to protect someone because it's the same as reducing them somehow.  I think that idea comes from the way we protect children from as much reality as we can.  Kids hate that as they grow older; it makes them mad.  I think that anger's still sort of fresh in the minds of disillusioned young adults, especially ones who were raised by people who denied them reality and the chance to face it in a more controlled environment.  I don't think that every attempt to protect someone else's innocence is necessarily like saying you think they're a child.

I'm totally willing to buy that one young adult male might really respect and cherish another young adult male's relative innocence without that reducing the one being cherished and protected.  And of course there's a risk of transforming the one you cherish into an object on a pedestal, a thing that must be protected rather than a person, but I don't feel like that's really happening in this story.

[ASIDE: There's another character who is really irritated by that same character's innocence at least partly because it represents everything he never had (peace, a loving family, a life of relative ease, etc.).  I suppose you could say he's two-dimensional because you can infer all that quite easily (more because the author is skilled than because it's blatantly spelled out).  I don't think that being able to figure out part of what motivates someone renders them less-complex, whether they are fictional or non-fictional.]

Another more recent pop-culture example I've been considering is from the TV show Chuck.  Chuck ends up with a head full of government secrets and all kinds of danger his nearly-completed engineering degree and several years in retail hell have really not prepared him for.  He is kind of goofy and adorable, and he has a huge heart and is a good guy.  People like him, even spies.  They like his innocence and his willingness to trust and his desire to do the right thing.  And they don't want him to change.  They are there to protect him from the bad guys, but at least one of them is also interested in protecting him from becoming just another spy.  And one of the bad guys is even very concerned that he'll turn into just another jaded public servant putting his rights and freedom on the line every day to protect the rights and freedoms of others.

(Apparently, in season three when he comes into some special skills, he starts acting like just another spy.  The more cognizant viewers saw what the writers were trying to do; the less-cognizant just got mad because Chuck wasn't good-ole' sit-com Chuck anymore.  And while the show has always had a healthy lot of comedy, it's never been a sit-com because the characters are in flux and changing as they go, you know, like people.  People don't always make the right choices; sometimes they choose very poorly, and we have to watch them live with the consequences (and often share those consequences with us).  That doesn't make them less realistic.  Perhaps it makes them more realistic and thus less funny.  :)  And we wouldn't want any reality in our science fiction because it's all just supposed to be brainless genre-fluff anyway, right?  Riiiiiight . . . )

Anyway, do you have any thoughts on protecting someone's innocence and/or what makes a character two-dimensional for you?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

My music man - silent movie music and Diary of a Lost Girl

Once my manager at work passed off a problem phone customer to me.  He was a lonely old man, and he was difficult to understand.  In the end, he just wanted to talk, and she's not good with people, so he was pretty irritated when I picked him up off of hold.  He talked for an hour and a half, and when he hung up, he was happier than he'd been in a long time, from what I could tell.

He used to play the organ in movie theaters back when silent movies were the only kind.  All his recordings were out of print and very rare, but I wanted to hear what they sounded like.  He hadn't been able to play for years, of course, but I wished I could have heard him play.  He gave me his address and asked me to stop by some time.  He was, as you might imagine if you can do the math, pretty old then, and it's been a few years since, so he may not be alive any more.

I thought of him recently when I was watching The Diary of a Lost Girl.  Sometimes, the music they put in was just terrible, obviously a synthesizer, not a real organ.  And an organ in a real, drafty, old theater would have sounded different anyway.  There were some very sweet moments in the music, though.

It's unlikely my music man ever played for that movie.  It was cut in half here due to its scandalous nature, and it basically only played in the art theaters of its day.  I guess what was left to the imagination (pretty much everything) was considered scandalous if it came from Germany at that time.

The ending was maybe a tad forced, but it worked mostly because of the force of Louise Brooks' talent pushing it back.  She really is astonishing compared to, well, everyone else.  Pabst (the director) was pretty amazing, too.  He just let her be natural and not overact, and the result is that you identify with her sympathetically as she makes really bad choices. 

I was impressed by how clearly she communicated (without overacting) even though she was acting surrounded by people who didn't speak English.

"It's a silent movie," my mom said, exasperated.

I couldn't quite articulate why I was so impressed, but if I were trying to act natural surrounded by people speaking gibberish to my ears, it would be hard.  It's a subtlety thing.  It's disappointing that she was so self-destructive because I kind of wish I could see all those films she didn't make.  I guess I'll have to settle for Pandora's Box, the other Pabst film she illuminated.  It was supposed to be even more scandalous and much more melodramatic.  I hope the music is better.

I wonder what my music man would have played and what it would have sounded like in that theater all those years ago.  He would have gotten her subtlety, I think.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Let's have a poetry jam session even though none of us are poets

A former co-worker of mine who coaches high school debate was helping a student who wanted to perform poetry.  Being the extremely bright person he is, he did tons of research.  A few times we had lunch breaks together, and we talked poetry, everything from theory to history to terminology to interpretation.  He told me that he dug the old kind of poetry, the kind that was popular entertainment, education, art, and history all mixed up.

He decided he'd like to get a bunch of flexible, creative people together and have poetry nights at his place, so he did.  (That's pretty much the kind of person he is.  It's awesome.)

The first meeting was a blast.  We didn't really have any set agenda, but we ended up looking through reference books, reading some poetry, doing some free-writing exercises based on art/drawing classes he took, and passing around some poetry we all contributed a line to.  Also, we played one of the variations of chess that he made up.  (He loves game design, too.)  I lost.

I also found this incredible poem by that master poet, Anonymous.  I am kind of totally in love with it (please ignore the post-script), and I don't even garden.  It should be read aloud to someone else for best effect but only if you can do it without laughing.  Good luck.

There was high-brow and low-brow.  There was laughing.  There was silence and squirming and even some good ideas for essays and short stories.  Also, a great drawing of a stick figure throwing up and some dinosaurs.  It was a totally enjoyable evening, and I'm looking forward to the next one. 

Have you ever done something like that?  Or thought of doing something like that?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Loving the fallen sparrow

We're back from the dead and ready to roll.  Thank you for your concern about my dead computer and lack of internet access for, er, too long.  My lack of access to the net (and several delayed and canceled flights) meant I read a great book lately, and I wanted to tell you about it while I am still gobsmacked.


I loved the characters.  I loved the plot.  I loved this book.  It made me cry so much that my nose peeled from tissue over-use, and I had to do all kinds of wonky things to prevent my awkwardly peeling nose from being what people at my new job remembered about me henceforth. 

This is a difficult and beautiful story.  The characters are lovable and believable and painfully awkward and broken in so many different, normal ways, and that's why this book may break your heart.  It's challenging and moving and heartbreaking and harrowing and full of fragile happiness and despair and death and sadness and tragedy and seeking and surviving and not-finding and truth and grace and faith and hope and love in so many forms.  I can't give you details because it must be read to be understood. 


No plot summary could possibly do it justice.  Such summaries only serve to cheapen it (as I have proven by trying and getting less-than enthusiastic reactions.  This is a tight book, a finely crafted piece of speculative fiction no "literary fiction" reader should feel ashamed of reading.  World and plot and characters are melded to each other.

The parallel narrative structure is pulled off wonderfully.  I've read other books that try to be this good at a parallel story, and I ended up feeling jerked back and forth, always in the middle of things, as if constantly being in media res is a good thing.  No thank you; I don't appreciate the whiplash.  There is no whiplash here, just elegant execution.

Great balance of new information, great use of point of view to control what is withheld and what we learn and what the characters learn without making the readers feel like the writer is toying with or torturing them.  It's all remarkably organic.  We are on a journey with the main character in the present, and we are reliving the past with him.  We are restricted, but it doesn't feel manipulative because it rises from the story itself and the way it is being told.

It deals extensively with ideas and themes I wish more people would think about (good and evil, maturity, change, celibacy, society, community, mistakes, hindsight, judgment [without facts or love], respect, kindness, tenderness, love and friendship, dignity, fate, good intentions, God, sin, nature, and some other things).  This is a smart book with smart characters, and you will think whether you plan to or not.  Also, regard the calm foreshadowing with awe and dread.

The paperback version I read had some extras at the end, including author insights, and I was blown away by Russell's comments about how we look back at the past and judge harshly, as if we are better people now who would not do these things, as if we are not still the same human beings who make the same mistakes ad nauseum, as if we have the right to judge based on our imperfect information and the twisting of facts and historical records.  If you have any smugness in you, it might be beaten out of you by the end.  Read the book before you read the extra bits because it's kind of like being punched (in a thought-provoking way) if you read it in the context of the whole story.


One of the most amazing things about the book is that when you come to the end of the story, having been pummelled and rung out and smashed, somehow there is hope.  This is a miracle.  Don't miss it.

If you've read The Sparrow, feel free to gush or just talk about it or recommend other books people might like.  It's vaguely similar to but clearly better than Out of the Silent Planet and is somewhat redolent of Madeleine L'Engle to me (criticisms I've seen of this work and some of her thinkier works are very similar, and I couldn't help but connect this with The Arm of the Starfish for the sparrow quotes alone).

I'm sorry I waited so long to read this for the first time.  Feel free not to repeat my mistake.