From the archives: December 2004

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Phantom’s spirit and my voice (in one combined)

Thursday, 23 December 2004 — 9:44pm | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

I have seen both The Return of the King, Extended Edition, and The Phantom of the Opera. I’m going to analyse the second one first, because there is perhaps more to talk about – and that’s saying a lot. Mostly it comes of how the 250-minute cut of what was already a heavenly extravaganza solves pretty much every single niggling issue of initial adaptation-induced apprehension I had with the original cut. I quote from what I wrote a year ago:

ROTK may be the most successful of the three instalments in terms of not feeling harmed by its time constraints; but as with the first two, it has clearly set itself up to be a case where the DVD edition can and will eclipse the present cut for good. There are too many things that everybody knows were shot but mysteriously absent – the Mouth of Sauron, Merry being made Théoden’s squire, and at least one Gandalf-Nazgul confrontation – that ensure this will not end up being the preferred edition.

And it’s all there. Gandalf and the Witch-King face off, and it’s perfect. Merry is anointed as Théoden’s squire, and it’s perfect. The Houses of Healing make a brief appearance, and it’s perfect. The Corsairs of Umbar, the march across Mordor, Saruman and Grima’s fates (the omission of the Scouring aside, but to that I am already accustomed) – perfect. The Mouth of Sauron is damn well more than perfect. Like the other two Extended Editions, I am utterly baffled that I was ever okay with how some of these scenes were left out in spite of being filmed, and that Jackson still finds the theatrical editions to be more definitive. They’re not.

I am convinced Peter Jackson is Santa Claus. For three consecutive years, he has given me and countless others the Bestest Christmas Present Ever (or at least, for that particular holiday season). The Extended Edition could marginally qualify as a fourth. As further proof of the Kiwi director’s true identity, I offer the Elves.

But this year, my Christmas wish was for something that Jackson was not in a position to give. This year, the role of Cinematic Santa was entrusted to someone entirely less reliable, whose vision of one Harvey Dent played by Tommy Lee Jones was hardly up to par as far as legendary bearers of half-scarred faces are concerned.

Now, I think I’ve been a good boy all year, and all I asked for was this:

Joel Schumacher: please, for the love of all that is good and holy, don’t screw up The Phantom of the Opera.

This is one of those Christmas moments where I got my wish fulfilled in such a way that I wonder if maybe I should have asked for more.

So to answer the implicit question – no, Joel Schumacher did not screw up The Phantom of the Opera. In fact, it is his best film. (Take that with a grain of salt, as I have heard him acclaimed for Tigerland, which I have not seen.) This is clearly leagues above anything else I have ever seen him do, and as expected. much of it is on the strength of the source material – but that is not to discredit what he contributed.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s flagship musical should stop reading here and go see it. I deliberately leave “it” ambiguous as to whether I refer to the stage production or the film, but know that the latter more than suffices as an endearing introduction to the material, and I think it will last, though you might not come out of it with an understanding of why some people are just so darned crazy about it. But you’ll love the songs.

Before you go, however, I would like to offer this piece of advice: do not expect Moulin Rouge! or Chicago. Phantom is a completely different animal, and the first of its kind to make its way to the silver screen in what history will remember and already remembers as the movie musical revival of the early 2000s. It is not a fun movie. You will not be observing the whirling dervish of “Sparkling Diamonds” or the finger-snapping, toe-tapping vaudeville joy of “Roxie.” Phantom has a closer attachment to reality, and its visual stylings are conventional. It’s supposed to be like that.

That’s the difficulty of figuring out this movie: it feels so traditional, like it treads on a well-worn path, but there’s something almost indescribable that makes it distinct. It’s tempting to say that it hearkens back to the Oscar-winning wide-shot period epics of the sixties, but it is entirely more serious, and in a way, more subdued in the isolation of its setting. Here, there is no Grand Tour of Salzburg (The Sound of Music), New York (West Side Story), London (My Fair Lady), London (Oliver!) or London (Mary Poppins). There is no orchestrally-backed Overture and Entr’acte – something I attribute to the impatience of modern audiences, but that’s a different can of worms entirely. Phantom takes place almost entirely in an opera house, and this actually precludes it from qualifying as a Big Movie, spectacular-spectacular to use the old vernacular. It’s perhaps aesthetically closest to Beauty and the Beast, except in live-action and without Gaston gulping down a dozen eggs at a time.

The comparisons just aren’t going to suffice, so let’s get into specifics.

I went into The Phantom of the Opera with an apprehension that seemed familiar, the origin of which was difficult to trace. Ten minutes in, I figured out where I had last experienced it: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s an easy feeling to describe once you have identified it. The sets are great, but you would venture that they look a lot better in person on the soundstage. The pace is perhaps a bit rushed, and it’s like the movie is fighting to get to the parts everyone wants to see. The director doesn’t move the camera entirely enough, the lighting is rather static in such a way that the photography lacks a distinct voice of its own, and you wonder if maybe this project should have gone to someone with true cinematic acumen like Santa Claus – er, Peter Jackson.

(In all seriousness, this would have been an amazing Peter Jackson film. Maybe I’m still riding the post-Extended Edition high, but it’s fun to match great directors to musicals that suit their style perfectly, and I think this is a match – albeit one that will never happen.)

The first screening never truly suffices when a film is based on a source that is near and dear to your heart, or has played an instrumental role in defining who you are as a person and what you look for in art. You see it the first time to get used to the methods and madness of the retelling, and unless there are major complaints that you absolutely cannot work around, you see it a second time to get past that baggage as best as you can and evaluate its lasting power as a self-contained entity. To that effect, I think I am beginning to develop a vocabulary of the common sensations that may or may not appear in films of this sort. Here follows a glossary of a few that apply.

Diagon Alley: The moment when a shaky adaptation finally eases you in and makes you think, hey, I think I’m really beginning to like this.

Quidditch: The would-be showstopper that everyone wanted to see, but was not in any way close to being the high point of the film.

The Mirror of Erised: The scene that is definitive enough a representation that it secures the film’s place as the definitive treatment of the source, unlikely to see a remake in a very long time, if ever.

Balrog Moment: The scene that was perfect, exactly as you imagined, and made you sit up in your chair and squeal with glee as you mouth those too-familiar words in sync with the actors on screen.

Hobbit Reduction Algorithm: When a translation to screen creates a perspectival drift that moves the centre of narrative gravity away from the characters in which it lay in the source material; this can be for both good or ill.

You will notice that these are all from The Philosopher’s Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring, but this is for the sake of clarity more than anything else. There are reams of other terms you can graft from the likes of Troy, and historical adaptations can provide a lexicon of their own.

With that brief preamble out of the way, let’s talk Phantom.

It opens in the same way Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ends, but going in the opposite direction – breathing life and motion into a grainy monochrome photograph that defines the aesthetic for all of the twentieth-century scenes. Yes, I said scenes – the 1919 auction is not alone in its depiction of the reminisces of the aging Raoul, though appropriately, it is the only part that features any dialogue. This sets the stage for the transition back to the timeframe of the main story with all the requisite elements – Lot 666, the chandelier coming back to life, and a very nice touch where the opera house floods with colour and the netting of spider’s silk melts away from the seats. On the whole, the transitions from 1919 to 1870 work a lot better than the other way around; fundamentally, they are not something that should be unfamiliar to anybody who remembers Titanic, but they serve their purpose on their own terms.

Through both the auction segment and our introduction to the various characters in the performance of Hannibal, everything was still a bit rushed and unsettled. When Carlotta (Minnie Driver) starts prancing about and being generally ridiculous, Driver plays her as such a caricature that one is unsure of whether it is intentional and praiseworthy or if it is too much. Later in “Notes” and “Prima Donna” the film provides the audience a better sense of where it wants to take Carlotta, but there is some initial discomfort.

Phantom finally shows off its first shining moment when Christine sings “Think Of Me,” and you realize that there is absolutely nothing to worry about on the casting front here. Emmy Rossum owns the role – she has the voice, the looks, the age, the demeanour, the talent. It’s a joy to see her break into song. This is less of a Diagon Alley than the satisfactory clearing of a hurdle that one is right to be concerned about upon entering the cinema, but take it and like it, because there is a lot to like.

“Angel of Music” draws no complaints, and makes for as good an expository device as it does onstage, if not better on account of the movie’s freedom of movement between sets. It possesses a lovely melody to begin with, and when the lights go out in the opera house as we approach the Phantom’s revelation in the mirror, we begin to get a sense of what a lavish and delicate production this is when it tries to be.

Then we get to the title song, “The Phantom of the Opera,” as the Phantom leads Christine into the catacombs. This is, in a word, Quidditch. In fact, the sequence retains something that the film should have dispensed with, which is the original orchestration. In my mind, it should have kept the organ, but none of that percussive eighties texture with a hint of electric guitar. Film gives you the ability to use a much better orchestra than the one you can typically afford to deploy in the pit, and it is puzzling that Phantom takes advantage of it almost everywhere but here. Some of Christine’s lines are also done in voiceover, almost with the air of internal monologue, and it lacks that visual drawing power of the lips that most take for granted until it is gone.

In the Phantom’s lair comes his signature solo, “Music of the Night” – and it is safe to say that depending on how discerning a listener you are, this is the make-it-or-break-it moment insofar as Gerard Butler is concerned – that is, if you have already gotten over just how young he is. His voice is haunting enough to set up the Phantom as a character, providing him with the emotive capability that he cannot express facially because half of his visage is concealed under the mask – but haunting does not equal powerful, and it is easy to wish the Phantom had a bit more stage presence.

For “Music of the Night,” though, Butler does his job. The real concern in this scene is a cinematographic one. The lair is lit by hundreds of candles, but even so, it had no business being that bright. This scene needed some shadow. In fact, it begged for it. It looks like the Hogwarts Great Hall, and it needed to feel much, much darker. The brightness does not stop the scene from being magical, though, and when Christine faints in the Phantom’s arms, the softness pays its dues.

And then we come to “Notes.” This is Diagon Alley, the turning point where Phantom gets so good that it drains away that tendency to criticize everything about it, no matter how good a time you are actually having. “Notes” is superb, and André and Firmin (Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds, respectively) are an electric pair here and for the rest of their numbers in the movie.

At this point I want to skip ahead and identify what I think is as much of a Balrog Moment as a member of the audience, Lloyd Webber buff or otherwise, is going to find in this movie. There’s snow on the rooftop when Raoul and Christine make their way there, and it sets the stage for the glorious perfection that is “All I Ask Of You.” The full orchestra swells, just as I asked. The song is as beautiful as it always was, one of the most memorable duets to see the light of Broadway. But it’s the ambience of the mise en scène that takes a great song and weaves it into a truly beautiful scene. The number is simple, but lovely, and is probably the most outwardly romantic scene in any movie this year, with the possible and highly arguable exception of Peter Parker and Mary-Jane with their backs to the web near the end of Spider-Man 2.

“All I Ask Of You” captures exactly what it is that makes the best movie musicals shine: not only does the film capture the spirit of its source material, it adds to it and makes it better by taking advantage of a certain cinematic freedom, and sets the song to pretty pictures. Here, the film cries out with a voice of its own beyond what Lloyd Webber so generously provided, a voice that had up to that point been largely kept to a whisper.

You will notice that there is no mention of a chandelier so far. It falls, but not when you expect; this is actually not a reprehensible plot change at all, given that the lack of an intermission would have dulled the effect of a midpoint chandelier disaster anyhow. The repercussions are hardly noticeable.

“Masquerade” is as grand an ensemble offering as it needs to be, but it also shows a lot of restraint. More than anything, it demonstrates that Phantom is a song musical, not a song-and-dance musical. There is no showstopping choreography, but whether or not it would fit in the first place is a different matter. Upon the Phantom’s disappearance in a burst of flame like a certain Wicked Witch of the West we know, there is the interesting filmic addition of Raoul attempting to follow him, but winding up in a hall of mirrors that brings Enter the Dragon to mind. Yes, I kid you not – The Phantom of the Opera has a visual reference to Bruce Lee. But when you consider the mirror motif in the play, which translates exceptionally well to the film version, it makes a lot of sense.

Weirdness abounds when we get to Madame Giry’s retelling of her first childhood encounter with the Phantom, a story she recounts to Raoul. It is not one of the better scenes in the movie. While the visual rendition of the backstory is a serviceable substitute for generating sympathy for the Phantom’s condition – as opposed to it emanating wholly from his presence onscreen – it is not an example of the wonderment that occurs when movies augment what is provided by their sources. This is a very different kind of augmentation than the atmospheric direction of “All I Ask Of You,” – a less effective kind.

I am a completely satisfied customer with the entire sequence at the cemetery, for much of the same reasons as I was with “All I Ask Of You” – again, there’s snow, pretty colours, Emmy Rossum’s sonorous voice, and some images worth framing, or at least adopting as your computer desktop wallpaper. This is the “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” like how the mixed bag that was The Philosopher’s Stone delighted us with the Mirror of Erised. A beautiful song, a beautiful scene – but with two adaptation issues to note. The first is that the Phantom does not shoot fire. Instead, he engages Raoul in a duel – good fencing in a movie where you don’t expect to see good fencing, though the way it ends is maybe a tad sloppy.

The second is that when Raoul rides into the cemetary, and the Phantom’s voice is speaking to Christine, he warns her, “That is not the ghost of your father!” The problem is, in the context of the film, none of us thought it was – and that makes it a curious line, as it is the only trace that remains of a slightly more explicit motif in the play, something that had to be eliminated by necessity here because the Phantom is so much younger.

And so we come to Don Juan Triumphant and “The Point of No Return.” Here the major difference between stage and film comes out. On stage, what part of the action you see is up to you and your decision of what to focus your eyes upon. On film, the editing room is in control, and seeing the reaction shots adds a lot of tension. Now, Piangi and the Phantom look so different in this scene that there is absolutely no believable way anybody could confuse the two, but the film works around this in an interesting way. The implication seems to be that gradually, everybody – André, Firmin, Raoul, the police – realize that things are getting wrong and wronger, but they sit in their boxes utterly powerless to do anything about it. Christine is the only one who can, and when she pulls off the mask, you get the tension-and-release dynamic of a well-staged sequence.

As Phantom nears its conclusion and the title character takes Christine into the catacombs one last time, there is the obviation that Gerard Butler’s best scenes are with the mask off. The scarring is subdued – again, the Phantom is no Harvey Dent, and rightly so – but enough that it amplifies Butler’s range of expression and finally encourages some audience sympathy for the broken man he portrays. After spending most of the movie relegated to a minimal role by a Hobbit Reduction Algorithm of sorts, the Phantom finally takes centre stage.

It all comes together very well, though as in “Music of the Night,” the Phantom’s lair is very brightly lit. In the play, it is just as full of candles, but the thing about a stage performance is that everything around the stage is shrouded in darkness, and it produces a certain level of intimacy that is not missing here, but certainly subdued.

One expects the credits to roll after the score hits its final cadence, the Phantom exits and everything fades to black – so it’s a shock when we are suddenly thrust back into 1919, with the old Raoul visiting Christine’s grave. It is at first a questionable decision, but is actually a very nice bookend of a touch when you see what Raoul finds there.

So, with that out of the way, let us formulate a holistic impression.

The cast ranges from arguably good (Butler as the Phantom, Carlotta) to perfect (Emmy Rossum as Christine, André and Firmin). Patrick Wilson as Raoul is a mixed bag – he’s great when he sings or plays off his chemistry with Rossum, but when he speaks, he is less effective. But whether or not a Phantom fan will like this adaptation really depends on his or her comfort with Gerard Butler, be it his youth, the timidity of his voice next to Michael Crawford’s more thunderous moments or how little screentime he has.

Phantom is different from most other musical adaptations in that it is told almost entirely in song. Whereas screenwriters such as Ernest Lehman once added clever and quotable lines aplenty that fleshed out the exposition, and the Fosse duo of Cabaret and Chicago were not all-out musicals so much as they were regular films with the occasional stage act, Phantom has little to no spoken dialogue. Aside from the chandelier and some cosmetic things like the lack of pyrotechnics at the graveyard, the film version hardly ever diverges from its source – but at the same time, it adds very little. Whenever it dares to infuse a scene with a personal touch, as it does in “All I Ask of You” and “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” it amazes. “Notes” draws part of its elegance from Schumacher’s willingness to spread out his cast across his lavish sets, move them around, and move the camera with them.

The end result is that the film omits almost nothing, but adds very little – and that is perhaps its greatest source of disappointment. This is a very good movie, and one that I could see myself treasuring for some time to come – though further viewings will test that theory. But most of what is so good about it rides on the coattails of what Andrew Lloyd Webber already created. That is fine in the sense that I would imagine that Lloyd Webber is very satisfied with the end result, and most of the Fan Base of the Opera will be as well, depending on how militant they are about Butler not having Michael Crawford’s voice. It is really too bad that Schumacher offers such a faithful rendition already, but like Chris Columbus in The Philosopher’s Stone, sticks to the source in such a way that he does not dare offer anything for film buffs who find joy in movie magic beyond what the medium of origin has to offer – and this time, Alfonso Cuaron isn’t going to hop in and do it right two films later.

I am disappointed that The Phantom of the Opera, a great film with melodies you want to sing along with once you have the privacy of a home theatre and the DVD, is not one of the all-time classics in the pantheon of legendary movies. I am disappointed that it doesn’t gut you and rip out your still-beating heart like West Side Story. I am disappointed that it doesn’t stand a chance in holy hell of being a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon to rival the stage production.

But that’s the spoiled brat talking, who leaves no cookies by the fire and still expects Peter Jackson to send a masterpiece down the chimney. In the end, I got my wish. Joel Schumacher did not screw up; far from it, his film of The Phantom of the Opera is a keeper. Do yourself a favour and see it.

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If life gives you melons, make melancholy

Thursday, 16 December 2004 — 5:38pm | Video games

Somebody get a hold of Adam, or anyone who can read Japanese. I have need of your services.

Sources indicate that a Japanese magazine has announced in some capacity that the title of the next Zelda game is Zelda no Denetsu: Yuushuu no Tadzuna. The literal word-for-word translation – recognizing, of course, that the Nintendo of today takes some measures to ensure that the titles of the American releases make sense in English – is reported to be “The Legend of Zelda: The Ride of Melancholy.” There’s one claim that contextually speaking, it should be the Bridle of Melancholy. The most reasonable hypothesis so far, in terms of a translation that also preserves it semantically, is Reins of Sorrow. Then again, the whole thing could be a hoax.

Speaking of Nintendo franchises, IGN has a neat little what-if feature on next-generation sequels, though their idea of what constitutes a revolution in gameplay is mostly limited to “bigger, prettier and online.” Maybe that’s why they’re not designers. Still, some of the concepts make you think. For my part, I’m interested in what the Nintendo Revolution will bring to the table in terms of opening new avenues of design, and game design lies in the nature of interactivity in which the player engages. Not saying I’d have a problem with things being bigger and prettier, of course. As far as online play goes, I still fail to see why the games industry is so hell-bent on putting the cart before the horse. To them I say, get rid of monthly fees and then we’ll talk. (I’m looking at you, World of Warcraft.)

Also on the subject of expanding video game markets is this editorial piece on the Nintendo DS’ potential to uncover an untapped demographic that wants to play games, but without pushing any buttons. Personally, while the DS is as a device a glorious, fascinating system and the developmental epitome of handheld gaming, Super Mario 64 DS is only going to sustain people for so long. Having one competent (nay, really bloody addictive) piece of software on your platform kind of defeats the purpose of having a modular system with substitutable software cards. Mario 64 is doing fine by itself right now, but it’s not going to hold up the system forever. Please, sir, I want some more.

An interesting followup regarding Sherlock Holmes, whom I discussed in my post on The Final Solution:

Holmes solves death of a fan

Maurice Chittenden

The mystery of how Britain’s leading expert on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to be lying garrotted to death on his own bed may have been solved by the author’s greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes.

Amateur sleuths probing the unsolved death of Richard Lancelyn Green believe he took a leaf out of one of the Victorian detective’s adventures.

In one inquiry Holmes deduces that a woman arranged her suicide to look like murder. Friends of Lancelyn Green now believe he might have tried the same tactic in an attempt to get revenge from beyond the grave for an imagined deception.

Read the whole story.

Here’s a neat little theoretical reference for the sci-fi readers in the crowd, or anyone in particular who notices commonplace annoyances in literature of any genre but can’t put a finger on what they are: Louis Shiner’s Turkey City Lexicon (and in case you want more, its elaborated cousin). Plot Coupons, “As You Know Bob,” Burly Detective Syndrome, and my favourite, Eyeball Kicks – read all about it.

On a final note, it’s been two days now, and I can’t believe I haven’t even seen the Extended Edition of The Return of the King, much less written ten thousand words about it.

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Now, if only some of these were in theatres

Monday, 13 December 2004 — 5:28pm | Film

Film awards season is well under way by now with today’s announcement of the Golden Globe nominees. By no means is the Hollywood Foreign Press much of a legitimate critical body, but I follow them for the same reason everyone else does – because the Globes usually turn out to be a pretty good barometer for how things turn out around Oscar time, and also because they have a good track record of giving Pixar’s features the recognition they deserve.

The big story, as it stands right now, is Sideways with seven nominations as well as a sweep across the board in critical circles (including two of the big ones, New York and Los Angeles). Make no mistake – this year is shaping up to be between Sideways and Scorsese’s The Aviator, with the former being the frontrunner. The two aren’t going head-to-head in the Globes, but by the nomination count alone, it’s clear taking their respective categories.

Sideways is currently in limited release at the Uptown in Calgary and City Centre in Edmonton, but I have yet to catch it. It looks very much like the post-examination holiday is going to consist of a lot of catching up; Finding Neverland and Closer are already making a splash, while The Aviator, Million Dollar Baby and Hotel Rwanda are well on their way.

Part of why the various shortlists are so full of movies that have not seen wide release is that this is the second year where the awards season has been bumped up a month, with the Oscars now in February instead of March, and everybody else moving accordingly – but with the eligibility deadlines staying in place. It’s also the first year that this has mattered, since last year was an unstoppable The Return of the King sweep (with a tear shed for the under-awarded Finding Nemo). The only real factor left is the act of seeing some of these films perform, and get a vibe from critics and audiences en masse. It’s usually because of these considerations that independent, small-market releases have never made much of an impact at actually winning the Oscars for which they were nominated.

The first thing I observed in the recent gaggle of awards is that things do not bode well for The Phantom of the Opera. It picked up three Globe noms – one for the new Lloyd Webber number (hardly unexpected), one for Emmy Rossum’s performance as Christine (positively delightful news), and a nomination for Musical/Comedy where it is up against a very tough field including Sideways, The Incredibles, Ray and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. David Poland, who called Phantom a frontrunner upon seeing it last month, is still standing by it – somewhat. However, its absence on this year’s AFI Top 10 is worrisome. (Of course, they did shaft The Pianist back in 2002.)

As far as the AFI list goes, I’m glad to see both The Incredibles and Spider-Man 2 make the cut. Hopefully Phantom‘s on-and-off showing in awards circles so far is more a result of its not having penetrated the market, and it does turn out as well as we hope it will. In the end it’s not about awards, but what these awards tell us about what we can expect from Schumacher and company.

Back to the Globes: House of Flying Daggers and A Very Long Engagement are among the Foreign Language five. Jeunet’s latest collaboration with Audrey Tautou is a wildcard indeed – it could score big in the technical categories that the Globes ignore but the Oscars reward, and its ineligibility in the Foreign Language category could push it into contention.

Speaking of which, I am appalled that A Very Long Engagement has yet to play in Alberta – but at this time of the year, the arthouse screens can only handle so many major-league releases at a time.

Michael Giacchino’s work on The Incredibles did not recieve a nomination in the Score category. This is a crime, a baby-killing shame of a crime.

Other observations: Million Dollar Baby has yet to open in this province either, but I do wonder how it will stack up against Eastwood’s last release, Mystic River – a great film in many respects, albeit standard in others. As for The Aviator, let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be another Gangs of New York – an awards darling early on that heralded the end of the Scorsese slump, only to undergo zero-for-ten Oscar shutout when everybody realized that it was only two-thirds of a good movie. And while I am not one to think awards should compensate actors and directors for previous robberies (see: Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger both receiving their Oscars a year late), it’s good to see both Leonardo DiCaprio and Paul Giamatti place so well. (This would be in reference to their breakouts in Catch Me If You Can and American Splendor, respectively.)

Kevin Kline is rightly recognized for De-Lovely, but what Ashley Judd is doing there is anyone’s guess. Uma Thurman is once again nominated for Kill Bill; judging by that and Eternal Sunshine‘s presence, at least the HFP hasn’t totally forgotten everything prior to the month of November.

In summary – Phantom, please don’t flop.

The Return of the King, Extended Edition, sees release tomorrow. Regrettably, unlike the past two Extended Edition releases, I am not able to be the first on the scene this time; a review in excruciating detail will have to wait at least another week.

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Polly want a cipher

Sunday, 12 December 2004 — 1:10pm | Literature, Michael Chabon

If you are still engaged in the holiday ritual known as Christmas shopping, here’s the perfect gift for literary types: Michael Chabon’s freshly-released novella, The Final Solution. It’s a quick read, spanning a mere 131 pages, but boy, is it ever nice to get Chabon’s words in a package that can be digested in a sitting or two.

If The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was at its core a tribute to Jack Kirby, then in The Final Solution, Chabon pays his respects to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Set in 1944 wartime England, it follows an eighty-nine-year-old former sleuth that has retired into beekeeping as his powers of deduction are enlisted for one last case involving a mute Jewish refugee boy from Nazi Germany and his parrot, Bruno. The protagonist is only ever identified metonymically as “the old man,” but he is clearly implied to be Sherlock Holmes in his twilight years. In this respect the premise is similar to Unforgiven, where Clint Eastwood’s William Munny is an obvious throwback to the Man With No Name he played in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, only here in Chabon’s book, the decay explored is intellectual rather than moral.

The mystery itself, on the plot-summary surface, is fairly standard, and befits the complexity of a short story. The twists lie not in the deductive process of revelation, but in the solution at which we finally arrive. Where Chabon excels, as he always does, is in his total mastery of the language.

Today’s literary environment exhibits a widening division between serious art literature that you read for the majesty of the words, and non-serious escapist literature that you read for fun regardless of how it’s written. Michael Chabon bridges the chasm like nobody else (as if that purpose, the celebration of escapism, were not already the explicit theme of Kavalier & Clay). For those who care about good writing, you can bathe in his words and yet derive a sense of dream fulfilment from his romantic fantasy backdrops. For those who dabble in comic books, Baker Street investigations or (in the case of Summerland) a union of Norse mythology, Native American folklore and sandlot baseball, you have the rare privilege of lauding the storyteller not just for the story, but also for the telling.

In The Final Solution, this is very much the case. It’s a simple, perhaps even unremarkable Sherlock Holmes story to begin with, but it’s the telling that makes it all worthwhile. If we recognize that Chabon has already mounted the summit of the fun, artsy novel, here he conquers the fun, artsy novella. He does some remarkable things with his prose; an exquisitely detailed scene of the old man working the hives, his first sight of a war-torn London, a climactic chapter written entirely from the perspective of a parrot – a dazzling feat of animal personification, even by the high standards of someone who has read William Horwood’s Duncton Wood.

But that’s already saying too much. This holiday season, give the gift of a good book.

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First impressions of Gorgonzola cheese

Wednesday, 8 December 2004 — 11:30pm | Literature

Rejoice, ye citizens, for here be a literary post.

A series is an interesting thing to commit to (terminating preposition fully intended). Theoretically, the easiest to get into are the ones that lack an overall narrative arc, where the brand-name power resides strictly in a central character or characters. If you take Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, you don’t necessarily have to start with The Mysterious Affair at Styles to have a grasp on what the Belgian sleuth is up to in Murder on the Orient Express (though admittedly, a familiarity with Styles is a necessity prior to tackling Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case). In fact, someone who begins with Orient Express will notice nothing familiar about it being told in the third person rather than narrated by Poirot’s analogous Watson, Captain Hastings.

The trouble with these, of course, is knowing what to read first. I keep hearing people tell me how well Pratchett and I would go together, but they all scurry away as soon as you ask them where to start. It’s always tempting to start with the earliest-published work, but it’s like trying to evaluate Star Trek: The Next Generation based on the first season – you risk an unfair appraisal because often, the author has yet to find his footing. Occasionally you will have a genre-defining maven like Raymond Chandler who had his rhythm in order right away (that being Philip Marlowe’s debut in The Big Sleep), but that’s hardly a common occurrence. Sometimes the first book in the series is a really good read, but lies prior to the establishment of any conventions that only come out through repetition; this is the likeliest explanation of why Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale has yet to be adapted to film, the Peter Sellers-starring spoof aside. And sometimes, an author’s early work is just plain bad; of this, there are too many examples to list.

The type of series you hear a lot more about nowadays is the one where each successive volume may have a self-contained unity of its own, but claims as its primary purpose to develop an overriding story arc where each entry keeps you guessing about the next. As before, sometimes it takes a few books for an author to really start delivering the goods, but the constant here is that in order to make heads or tails of what is going on, it is in your best interests to start with the first one. The overriding continuity drives both the story and the sales.

This creates an interesting trap. Let’s say an author builds moderate success with his first few books and establishes a dedicated fan base that expands via word-of-mouth. He opens up a number of dangling plot threads that yearn to be resolved, and pull you onwards. The series reaches a saturation point where every new release is going to sell. Once an author develops this hit-churning momentum, the editors offer less scrutiny. This can lead to one of two things: either the author refines her craft and sharpens her wit like a knife, adding dimensions to the story that are unexpected, yet insightful and consistent (see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix); or conversely, spirals out of control and goes patently nuts for several hundred content-free pages at a time, but compels you to read on anyway because those plot threads remain unresolved (see any of Robert Jordan’s later works – the exact point whereat he falls apart depends on how much you let him tax your patience).

I just finished A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin‘s first volume in his saga A Song of Ice and Fire (currently consisting of three volumes, with a target of six). It was recommended to me by someone who reads a lot of fantasy, but would benefit (as I believe everyone would) from being a cross-genre reader who dabbles in everything. To his credit, this was one recommendation that was on the ball. I came out of this first book with a very positive impression, and I think I know why. Martin captures everything that worked for Robert Jordan – the backroom squabbling of prissy nobles in overvalued estates, pre-Westphalian kingdom-to-kingdom “international relations” if you will – and dispenses with most of the annoyances.

What Martin has that Jordan doesn’t includes, but is not limited to, the following: controlled shifts in perspective that present new information in a logical manner; conscious discernment between characters who matter and characters who don’t; no silly names with random apostrophes; seven hundred pages of action and development, not ten at the beginning and ten at the end; minimal internal monologue that does not beat the reader upside the head; chapter endings that keep you interested without trailing off in ellipses; the conspicuous and welcome absence of Mary Sue; an overall narrative flow that contains the polyphony of stories being told; a demonstrated ability to write prose.

(Admittedly, Jordan does have Martin beat when it comes to video-game boss battles. I say that flippantly, but it is honestly and tellingly one of The Wheel of Time‘s recurring highlights.)

On that point about the silly names with random apostrophes: the consistency with which Martin’s nomenclature falls into a schema that reminds one of Middle English (yet demarcates cultural distinctions in language, as with the Dothraki) is quite remarkable. Mind you, this is something that we should normally be able to take as given, but nomenclature in modern fantasy is so wildly out of control nowadays that it’s a relief to see an author do it in a way that doesn’t outright suck.

His prose is fairly standard fare, and while it leaves a lot of room for study, style is not in any way the locus of his literary depth. Martin’s storytelling manner won’t wet a critical reader’s pants, but to its credit, it fails to annoy. This is clearly the kind of book where the narrative is at the service of the plot. As far as thick paperback tomes go, A Game of Thrones is highly readable, and part of it is because the plot is so well constructed. It’s a risky, gutsy story that treads in a murky sea of moral ambiguity. The best kind of plot for a Romantic tale of this overarching scope is where it feels very much like the author tossed all the characters in a cauldron and let them boil amongst themselves; the reader should never see him stir. If you start caring about certain characters that meet untimely ends (and in this book, do they ever), it comes off as your own damned fault.

I hear that in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, Martin stays on track. I’ll evaluate that claim soon enough, but classify it as good news.

The other series opener I just read was the first in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (The Bad Beginning). Apparently, the upcoming film will also incorporate events from The Reptile Room and The Wide Window, which isn’t entirely surprising, given the brevity of the first book. That is to say, it’s really short. On the upside, it’s also the soul of wit.

Snicket (or would that be his “representative,” Daniel Handler?) writes at a level that is readable by an audience younger than Rowling’s, but his control of the language (even amidst self-imposed limitations of length and vocabulary) is masterful. But that’s only one aspect of what I managed to glean from 162 pages in large print.

Maybe this comes from writing a recent paper on the assessment of performative speech acts in “Signature, Event, Context” – but I can’t help but feel that Lemony Snicket is Jacques Derrida for kids. I kid you not. In the key sequences of The Bad Beginning we see a fictitious enactment of precisely what Derrida says in celebration of contexts for performative acts (in this case, the classic example of the “I do” of a wedding ceremony) that J.L. Austin dismisses as parasitic. This isn’t even a matter of analogy – the example comes directly from Austin’s claim that a theatrical performative isn’t valid or legally binding, and Derrida’s response that we would never recognize it as felicitous in the first place were it not a repeatable formula.

Then we get to Violet’s coup de grace at the climax of the novella, which I will not spoil here, but hearkens back to what Derrida says in the same essay about the validity of a written signature acting in the absence of a speaker. This isn’t just kid lit, guys – this is a tour de force of twentieth-century thought condensed into the most deceptively elementary package imaginable.

In conclusion, I really should have started reading Lemony Snicket a long time ago, because I could have written a much, much better term paper. I do plan to get through the rest of the series soon in conjunction with the considerably more voluminous second and third parts of A Song of Ice and Fire, among other books – The Bad Beginning is short, sweet and readable in one easy sitting, and its ten sequels don’t look much longer.

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