Sunday, March 29, 2009

Not so Great Expectations – Great Expectations

It’s strange how differently Charles Dickens is viewed. Some people find that his work is the very definition of LITERATURE. Others think that he is moralizing, over the top and over-rated. I’ve even heard some people refer to him as the Frank Capra of novels (this coming from people who dislike Capra). Where do I stand?

Well I’ve only read two things by Mr. Dickens that I remember. My freshmen year in high schoool was comprised of reading “Great Expectations” and in my freshman year in University I read “Hard Times”. Ironically “Hard Times” is exactly how I’d describe the experience of reading both novels. I remember watching a couple of versions of “Great Expectations” to help me get a handle on what the story was about.

I also vividly remembered the names of the characters: Pip, Joe, Magwitch, Miss Havisham and Estella. I remembered the basics of the plot, where Pip met the convict, helped him out. Then he met mad old Miss Havisham, and fell in love with Estella. Then he was given a huge amount of money and assumed it was given to him by Havisham, so he could grow up to be worthy of the haughty Estella. After that things got a bit fuzzy.

Well since I have been revisiting some novels I had been forced to read in my youth and found myself enjoying them, I decided to pick up “Great Expectations” again. This might have had something to do with it being December and I had seen three different versions of “A Christmas Carol” but that can be open to debate. Either way I sought out the book and started in.

I was surprised in equal measure at the things I remembered and the plot elements I had forgotten. It made it an interesting read to say the least. Did I enjoy it? I think I did. It took a little while to get into Dicken’s style, and much of it had to do with the style of the times. But he did something intriguing that actually added to the experience.

The novel is narrated by an older and wiser Pip. He tells us of his youth and is basically explaining how he became the man he is now. The funny thing is, we never get a clear scene with Pip as he is now. In fact the only way you can glean anything of his present day mind set is by his response to the memories of his youth. From this we can see that man telling the story is quite different from the arrogant youth of the story.

We end up with a complete journey for Pip but in a unique way. His actions dictate his character (as occurs in all good fiction) but the response of the older Pip define the man’s character. It was interesting and was very effective. As a reader, when Pip behaves like an ass, the older Pip will often declare younger Pip to be an ass and express shame at his actions. You continue the story to reach the point where Pip realizes that his actions aren’t the actions of a gentleman but the actions of a jerk. Only after Pip loses it everything does he realize what it means to be a gentleman.

As for the two endings, I think I prefer the revised ending. I know, blasphemy, but hear me out. Dickens doesn’t give Pip a happy ending, just the possibility of one. Him and Estella are very changed people, and their meeting at the end, even if it is a bit convenient is fitting. The original ending was rather abrupt and not as satisfying. Perhaps it was more realistic (a woman like Estella would get remarried) but in the end I think that for the novel the new ending offers Pip a small nugget of hope that his old dreams aren’t completely gone.

What do you think of Dickens? What do you think of Great Expectations? How about the endings?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Father of Modern Horror? - The Road to Madness

The first time I heard about Mr. Lovecraft was back in Junior High. I had a friend who was a huge reader, and while I was enjoying the "Dragonlance Chronicles" he was delving into Lovecraft. He told me that the guy was better than Stephen King (who I had only experienced via movies). I looked at the cover, with some seriously disturbing artwork by Michael Whelan, and considered it. Unfortunately our library didn't have the book and I quickly forgot about the author (but not that cover!).

I'm trying to remember where I ran into Lovecraft again. It might have been connected to anime or perhaps Mr. King's "Dark Tower" series. I was really into both when I finally got around to picking up a compilation of Lovecraft's short stories, called "Dreams of Madness and Death". It was a tough but rewarding read. Lovecraft's imagination was dark and seemingly limitless. I especially enjoyed the stories that fall into his "Dream Cycle". The blend of the surreal, the ethereal and the dark and decaying captured my imagination. I was inspired by Lovecraft for one of my first attempts at a short story, and he definitely influenced a novella that expanded into my first full-blown novel. So to say I owe some debt to H.P. is accurate enough.

Every year or so, I revisit his work and find it just as obtuse and rewarding as I remember it. For me, the interest in his work comes from the way his imagination worked. The way he conjures up his tales and how he alludes to the unknown and its horror are all very well executed.

When I'm asked to recommend some of his work, I am hesitant, and that's because he is not an easy writer to enjoy. I find that most people either enjoy his work in spite of his style or are completely turned off by his style. I can't blame them. Reading Lovecraft requires patience, a willingness to dig beyond his clunky prose and bad dialogue and find the nuggets of horror within.

What is interesting is that he is compared with Poe. To me, Poe had a greater skill with words and a clear grasp of the Gothic nature of horror. His stuff is very traditional, but at the same time very poetic. The age of the material is what gives it the style it has. If Poe was writing today, he would be more approachable in language, but I think his words would be just as carefully chosen. On the other hand, I think that if Lovecraft was writing today, his work would still be clunky and affected. That's just the way he chose to write.

One more comment about Mr. Lovecraft. His work is definitely a closer reflection of modern horror than Poe is. As I noted, Poe is rooted in the Gothic, ethereal ghosts, treacherous mind games and fear of the dead rotting corpses (and the memories they bring). Lovecraft is based more on horror via discovery. His protagonists are usually souls who delve too deep. Their desire for knowledge often causes them to unleash something sinister. There is a basis of science in most of his stories (even the fantastical ones start with the main character attempting to seek knowledge before being thrust into a fantasy world). This makes Lovecraft much more "real" to modern readers. The fact that the protagonists are attempting to discover truths and facts gives them a legitimacy. So when the horrors arrive, we are in tune with them and that is where the uncanny and unsettling comes from.

What do you think of H.P. Lovecraft? Is he over-rated, under-rated? Do you have a favorite horror author? What do they do to make the horrors in the story "real" for the reader?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Oh... good idea! - The Inhuman Condition

When it comes to Clive Barker, I've enjoyed his short story work more than his novels. Granted I've only read two of his novels so far, but I found both of them to have lots of great ideas, but seemed to lack in the execution. His short stories work much better for me, delivering the horror in concentrated bursts and with a streamlined delivery that is very effective. However, I ran into a short story that seemed to be something else - a polished outline for a longer work.

The story is called "Down Satan". It's fairly short, and covers the life of a powerful businessman who will do just about anything to meet God. It get’s it’s point across in five pages, but there seems to be so much missing. It reads like a story idea, not a full story itself. The characters are fleshed out just enough to convey the theme, but they also give you enough to be interested to find out more about them. The idea of going to horrifying lengths to meet God is an intriguing one, and there is plenty of room to make things a bit more interesting.

So being a storyteller myself, I began to wonder how I could take this nugget make it into something more in depth. It was an interesting exercise. I saw where things could be fleshed out, a solid two part novel coming together, with new characters falling into the framework easily and the delivering the same theme. Of course, I couldn't actually write this novel, at least not in it's current state. I think Mr. Barker might object. But how about an adaption of his short story into film? Hmmm, that's an intriguing idea. Barker has a pretty solid fan base both in books and in films (I still know lots of fans of the "Hellraiser" series).

I just thought it was intriguing to see where some ideas will come, often from other sources, but sometimes in a ways you never really saw coming.

Have you read "Down Satan." What did you think of it? Have you ever been inspired by another writer's work, enough to see some way of improving or elaborating on it?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Shattered Story – Boogiepop Phantom

One of the final complete television series I reviewed for was “Boogiepop Phantom” and at the time it was one of my highest rated series. The show came at a time when anime seemed to be moving out of its more interesting phase of the late 90’s and into the more commercial phase of the 00’s (not to say that all anime isn’t made for commercial reasons).

What I enjoyed about “Boogiepop Phantom”, other than the completely ridiculous name, was the fact that it’s story was told in a different fashion. The first episode deals with a high school girl who obviously has some serious problems, including compulsive washing and painful shyness. A key scene in the episode occurs when she meets a boy in the school nurses office. He offers to grope her chest to remove a spider from her heart. She freaks out and leaves this obviously disturbed young man.

The second episode starts with a boy in the same school. After a strange incident leaves him with the ability to see people’s pain in the form of spiders, he goes around attempting to remove these spiders from people’s hearts – and then eats them.

The rest of the series continues in the same fashion. You get a new character in each episode, and each one is a separate story, and yet the characters all intertwine, each story affecting the other. And soon a larger story emerges, one that ties into a fateful night and the birth of the angel of death – Boogiepop Phantom.

Not only was this type of storytelling unique in Japanese animation, but I haven’t seen a similar attempt to do this in American television. Some films have done this on a smaller scale, “Love Actually” is one of the most recent ones. But television offers an interesting long form experiment. The big problem is that you never have a true main character for the series. There are a number of characters that appear more frequently than others. In “Boogiepop” , a case could be made that the character Nagi Kirima, is the main character, and her quest to rid the city of the strange “phantoms” is the main plot. But the mysterious “Boogiepop” appears in nearly every episode as well, and you don’t really learn about her motives till nearly the end of the series.
On top of an interesting web of stories, you also get dark moody animation. The main colors are dark browns, deep greys and black. When blood explodes onto the screen it stands in sharp contrast to this dark palate, and it gives “Boogiepop Phantom” a very different look, especially compared to many of the shows that came out around it. If anything this show reminds me of “Serial Experiments Lain”, another bizarre but intriguing anime from the late 90’s.

Music and sound are also used effectively. The soundtrack is a mixture of techno beats, atonal noise and rhythmic uses of static sounds. It works extremely well in the series to build tension, dread and even to get some jump scares out of the viewers.

I recently revisited the complete series again. I had viewed some of my favorite episodes over the years, but not the complete series. I was struck by how well the atmosphere and mood were maintained the series. Certain parts of the story are a little weak and suffer from over-explanation (I think that any good supernatural story should never try to over-explain, but instead just offer enough to keep the viewer interested). I enjoyed the whole series just as much as I did several years ago and still consider it to be a “black jewel” in my anime collection.

Have you ever seen a film or television series with a fractured story told in different parts but adding up to a whole? What is your favorite? Did it not work for you because of it’s fractured nature?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Exciting Conclusion? – Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

George Lucas finally ended his Star Wars movie series in 2005 with “Revenge of the Sith”. For many fans it was a mixed blessing. We finally got to see just how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, but we had suffered through disappointment to get to this stage of the story.

I’ve seen this film around five times now and it does not improve with age. Many of the issues I had with the previous prequel films are in full bloom here. You’ve got horrible dialogue, poor pacing, questionable character development and spectacle over storytelling.

The biggest problem with this movie is the fact that it doesn’t really perform as a grand finale. Compare this movie with “Return of the King” or hell, even “Return of the Jedi”. “King” ties up all the loose ends, delivers it’s climax of good triumphing over evil because of a sacrifice, and then gives us downtime with all the characters to resolve their stories in a meaningful way. “Jedi” brings about the destruction of the Empire, the final confrontation between Luke and his father, and the confirmation of the romantic love between Han and Leia. Sure the Ewoks show up and make everything furry, but the emotional impact of “Jedi” somehow manages to triumph over the hairballs.

“Sith” has to give us the end of the Jedi, the rise of the Emperor, the creation of Darth Vader, and set in motion events of “A New Hope”. On the surface it succeeds, but the emotional impact of these events is pretty feeble. For me the only thing that really works is the last third of the film, where the betrayal of Anakin is in full swing. After Samuel Jackson makes his exit, the movie kicks into high gear and we watch as Anakin makes the decisions that will change him and his world forever. It’s effective because he is trying to do the right thing (in his twisted way). It also works because McGreggor’s performance as Obi Wan. The betrayal actually looks like it is affecting him (even if he goes over the top in a few moments).

However the end of the Jedi is no where near as sad as I anticipated it would be. I suspect that this Is because of the way the Jedi have been handled in the previous episodes. Their dialogue and their performances (for the most part) have been too stiff and formal. In addition we haven’t really seen them doing what we are told they do. The guardians of peace and justice just never seem much more then a bunch of robed guys who’ve been duped and manipulated since the first movie. When things go badly for them, we feel bad because they put trust in Anakin and because the music is sad – not because they will be missed. Did anyone feel bad when Mace Windu was killed? If you did, was it anything close to the way you felt when Han Solo was frozen? The connection isn’t ever built.

When half the movie resolves the conflict of the Jedi against the Sith, and it isn’t effective it makes the movie that much weaker. Anakin’s struggle has to carry the movie, and while it ends up being a success – it is really only a success in comparison to the storytelling failures of the first two films. “Sith” is the best of the three, but it could have been so much more. There should have been a serious emotional connection for something that was supposed to be devastating. In the end, we are only interested in seeing how this movie leads into the next three – the better trilogy.

What is your opinion of “Revenge of the Sith” or the new trilogy in general? Am I too hard on these movies and just need to sit back enjoy the eye candy they provide? Are you like me and secretly hoping that George doesn’t revisit “Star Wars” in an official way again?