Friday, July 1, 2011

A Man, a Plan, and a Red Hunting Hat: THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

Everyone knows growing up sucks. Even though it can be fleetingly enjoyable at times, there is an inevitability to the pain that comes with it. And "The Catcher in the Rye" stands as a testament to that.

The first thing you notice when you read J.D. Salinger's most celebrated novel is the prose. The narrator Holden Caulfield is not impressed with the world and he's not going to lie about it. You get to see the world through the lens of our lovable misanthropic friend. Holden has gone from prep school to prep school, and now he's flunking four of his five subjects - and has just been given the boot out of Pencey. But as subjective as the narrator is, the way he describes the world around him is, in a sense, very real. He wanders off on rabbit trails, he leaves out what he wants to, and he interprets everything the way he sees it.

Holden is in the transition stage between childhood and adulthood. And it sucks. Everything about the adult world is phony, and he doesn't want to be a part of it. But he can't keep himself from growing up, in fact in many ways he already is an adult. His encounter with his younger sister Phoebe towards the end shows us that. The irony is that he is becoming (and already is) many of the things he hates about the adult world.

Like Dustin Hoffman's character in The Graduate, Holden is disillusioned with the 'road to success' and even though the adults in the story give him sound advice to succeeding into adulthood, they are all sacrifices of integrity - that phoniness he hates so much. He knows the path to adulthood corrupts his innocence. But of course, it's obvious that he's already been corrupted.

The red hunting hat is a key visual in this story. He keeps taking it on and off. He's proud of it, he lets it define him, yet he won't let people see him wearing it. It's just like the ways we grow up into our own identity - yet in doing so, people around you will find it strange - they may even scoff if your identity does not match with theirs. Then we become both simultaneously proud and embarrassed of our own unique identity - and yet that's what an identity should be; unique.

The title of the book is taken from a song - to Holden, these words sum up what he wants to be - someone who can save innocent children from the peril of adulthood. Something it seems he has already lost. But Holden finds out that the song isn't actually about a "Catcher in the Rye". If you look into the song's meaning, it's about willingly losing one's innocence and purity - just the thing that Holden shuns. In the end the story of Holden Caulfield is a tragedy - much like Don Quixote - a lost soul in a lost world, dreaming an impossible dream and fighting an unbeatable foe. Everyone has to grow up eventually, and what Holden really lacks is maturity.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Silver Chair

"Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
"I'm dying of thirst," said Jill.
"Then drink," said the Lion.
"May I--could I--would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

It was a rather dull day, and for almost no reason at all, I found myself picking up The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis. It's the fourth book in the Narnia series (if you read them in the correct order like I do), and ever since my mother read them to me as a child, it's been my favorite of the seven.

"Will you promise not to--do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill.
"I make no promise," said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
"Do you eat girls? she said.
"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
"I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
"Oh dear," said Jill, taking another step nearer. "I suppose I must go look for another stream then."
"There is no other stream," said the Lion.

This scene always stood out to me, and the way Aslan is introduced to Jill Pole is particularly iconic. Aslan is no stranger to us if we've read the other books and we know he is a good lion, yet Jill is rightly terrified of him. This is something that the movie versions have never gotten right, is the way Aslan's power instills terror in the hearts of those who behold him. Instead, the movies turn him into a soft, lovable lion that you just want to be friends with. This is NOT the Aslan in the books. In one of my favorite lines from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (cut from the film), Mr. Beaver says, "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

"And now hear your task. Far from here in the land of Narnia there lives an aged king who is sad because he has no prince of his blood to be king after him. He has no heir because his only son was stolen from him many years ago, and no one in Narnia knows where that prince went or whether he is still alive. But he is. I lay on you this command, that you seek this prince until either you have found him and brought him to his father's house, or else died in the attempt, or else gone back to your own world."
"How, please?" said Jill.
"I will tell you, child," said the Lion. "These are the signs by which I will guide you in your quest. First; as soon as the boy Eustace sets foot in Narnia, he will meet an old and dear friend. He must greet that friend at once; if he does, you will both have good help. Second; you must journey out of Narnia to the north till you come to the ruined city of the ancient giants. Third; you shall find a writing on a stone in that ruined city, and you must do what the writing tells you. Fourth; you will know the lost prince (if you find him) by this, that he will be the first person you have met in your travels who will ask you to do something in my name, in the name of Aslan."

There it is, pretty much the entire story laid out for us right there in the second chapter. The quest is quite clearly presented, and now the audience knows what they are in for. Now all the reader must do is sit back and watch the plan go completely and horribly wrong.

These books work for all ages. They were written as children's stories, but they carry that kind of maturity that kids have that adults seem to think kids aren't capable of understanding. I first had these books read to me when I was 7, and they not only made perfect sense to me, they stuck with me and were a big influence on the way I grew up. I would recommend them for any child of any age.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: "The Dark Crystal" (1982)

When it comes to film and entertainment, Jim Henson and Frank Oz are two of my favoritest people on this earth. And before you tell me that 'favoritest' isn't a word, I shall just inform you that neither was "Muppet" before Jim and Frank came around. But their combined contributions (The Muppet Show, the character of Yoda, Death at a Funeral {2007}, the several Muppet movies, The Storyteller... etc, etc.) are a veritable smorgasbord of delight and goodness. So the idea of a dark fantastical myth from them, made entirely with puppets, automatically screams of genius.

And as the film starts, the experience does not disappoint. You are told the story of this world, and the myth unfolds from there. There are the dark and evil Skeksis, the banished yet wise Mystics, and the endangered Gelfling that has a bigger fate that he realizes. This is a short film (90 mins), but the scope is built on epic proportions.

You are soon entranced by the evocative visuals - Henson's and Oz' use of color and scale are unparalleled, and they pull off shots with elegance and texture that we could only dream of seeing in movies these days. The dialogue is mostly on-the-nose and even laughably cheesy at times, but it's easy to overlook because the world is so tactile, the visuals so sophisticated, that you can just swim in it for hours and never want to leave. The music and sound design, when combined, have a profound effect. The puppets (of which there are hundreds), even though you KNOW they are puppets, have a startling life to them that no CGI has ever been able to capture since, and it really is a paramount of beauty to behold. As a warning, however, I'll caution that many sequences in this film are creepy, intense, and the evil depicted is rather disturbing, and I would advise against showing this film to children.

The story continues in excellent mythic fashion, and many scenes seem to feel familiar, as if they were taken from Lord of the Rings, Return of the Jedi, or Harry Potter. But then you realize that this movie came out in 1982, before any of those films came out, and all you can do is be amazed at how influential this little film was on our concept of modern fantasy. The use of color in the film alone is unsurpassed, yet mimicked and echoed in films everywhere today.

The climax reaches an apex as the final confrontation between good and evil comes to a head. And thematically so far the film has been awesome - ideas of life, death, and rebirth - tied to the connectivity of nature, and best of all, a clear division of good and evil, which is refreshing amidst the slew of 'gray area' films these days. And to elaborate, the awesome thing here is that the Skeksis are truly portrayed as PURE evil. It's their very essence to be violent, gluttonous, vile, and deceptive. We're talking about proper good and evil. This is not just popcorn entertainment. This is a thinking movie, that engages you with philosophical ideas. But unfortunately, there is one, huge, major flaw. And I am sorry to say, that in order to hear more, you are going to have to embark into the SPOILER section of this review.

SPOILERS BELOW! If you have not seen this film, please read no further. Or, rather, please do, but only if you don't mind hearing the ending.

Okay. Where was I? Oh yes, the climactic battle of good and evil. How refreshing... until it is revealed that the way the conflict gets resolved is by "the good" (Mystics) COMBINING WITH "the evil" (Skeksis) to become one creature! Hold the phone. Yes, you heard me. Combining. Good merges with Evil, and THAT'S the resolution to the conflict. They mutter something about splitting and past mistakes, and then 'transcend into the ether' and we are supposed to shout "hooray" and be happy? This is where the whole thing devolves into a load of Hippie bull crap. There's nothing more hollow than saying that the solution to the conflict of good and evil is for them to become the same thing. This is exactly the 'gray area' nonsense that we all thought this film was avoiding in the first place.
Am I just asserting my own world view and being closed-minded? Well if we can't agree that pure evil is evil, and ought to be crushed, then what can we do? If we truly believed that, our laws, culture, and entire world would be thrown to the wind. It saddens me to see this film take this turn, because it was doing so swell up to this point. It did everything right until it did everything wrong. And to see this coming from Henson and Oz makes me even sadder.
The trouble is, no matter how well a film is executed, if it's core is rotten, it really stinks up the whole experience. So the film is a very mixed bag for me. I can enjoy the parts that are beautifully artistic, and appreciate the sheer craftsmanship that went into this film, but when I am reminded of the ending, I cannot leave without a bad taste in my mouth.

The fact is, some films are trash to begin with, and it's no surprise that they fail to reason out an idea to a good conclusion, or fail to illuminate some truth or even merely resolve a conflict the right way. But with other films, and I am talking specifically about The Dark Crystal here, it is very sad to see such beautiful art get squandered on a poor ending. It really is tragic. That said, I still really, really love the other 85 minutes of the movie. And I always will.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Review: "Hanna" (2011)

"Hanna" just came out in theaters. Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), it is an action thriller about how much it sucks to be created to be a killing machine. Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is literally that - a genetically altered human machine, brought up and trained by her father (Eric Bana) for one purpose - to kill a CIA agent named Marissa Viegler. From the snow-covered house in the forest where Hanna is raised to the Big Bad Wolf parallels, fairy-tale imagery is everywhere.

"You're dead." says her father, who has snuck up on Hanna while she is gutting a deer. "I've killed you." With a feral scream, Hanna attacks her father, just as he's trained her to do. We immediately see that her life has been nothing but training, training, and training. Yet there's no sadness for the 'normal' life she could have had - because she's never known anything else. Finally, as her father instructs, she presses a button on a radio transmitter that will tell Marissa where she is - She's ready.

What unfolds from there is a terrifying display of what Hanna is capable of - she quickly and brutally destroys security guards 3 times her size, and escapes from a secure CIA facility as if she were swatting a fly. But the film really starts to get interesting when Hanna happens upon a British tourist family - and with some surprising moments of levity, gets her first exposure to 'the real world.'

There's a lot more to this film than meets the eye at first glance. It's a very well shot action film, and an intense emotional mood piece. It's a tone poem of violence but also a fairy-tale inspired journey - a quest for freedom. Marissa turns into the wicked witch or the evil stepmother and her hired hand becomes the Big Bad Wolf - and you realized that Hanna is not going to get this freedom until the wicked witch is dead.

I would be doing a disservice if I were not to mention the Chemical Brothers' musical contribution here. Eerie and bleak at times, pulsing and intensely rhythmic at others - yet beautiful at the moments of wonder and joy as hanna learns about the world - of simple humanity, of music, and of friendship. It sounds unlike any soundtrack you've heard before.

From what I've read, director Joe Wright wanted to deconstruct the idea of young girls in action heroine roles - so he created a film that isn't exploitative and isn't 'sexy' and instead went for the character story. It's violent, it's intense, but it never becomes vulgar or mindless. It's not created for kids, and if you have a weak stomach, you may not want to subject yourself to this experience. But it is not sensationalized and the characters are true, and they are explored for their humanity. The result is rather beautiful.

SPOILERS BELOW! If you have not seen this film, please read no further.

I feel like I must add this, because I was off-put by it at first, and I'd like to offer what I've gleaned from thinking on it.

At first I was surprised at the final shot of the film - and the oddness of the smash-cut to the title, once again. The first obvious thing that you think of is the call-back to the opening title, when Hanna kills the deer. You could take that to mean that the hunter (Marissa) has become the hunted. It's a shocking sensation to see, but that's actually a good thing - the sight of a young girl killing without emotion ALWAYS SHOULD BE shocking to us. That means the film is doing a good job.

But back to the odd title placement. If you think about it, that title only appears in two places - both of them at the immediate point of death as Hanna kills her target. The gunshot and the projection of her name over blood red background creates an interesting connection - killing IS her identity. She was created to be a killing machine, and even her final act, an act that will essentially give her her freedom, is an act of murder. But it's not sensationalized, not glorified. It is not only done out of self-preservation, it's done with empathy. "I just missed your heart." She says, and politely puts an end to the suffering of her victim.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Here are a handful of sketches that I've been doing as concept art for the next show I'm working on.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tragedy and Comedy

"Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude; ...performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions."

"Comedy is an imitation of inferior people - not, however, with respect to every kind of defect: the laughable is a species of what is disgraceful. The laughable is an error or disgrace that does not involve pain or destruction; for example, a comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not involve pain."

- Aristotle, Poetics

Monday, February 14, 2011

Send in the Clowns

My friends Nathan and Michelle got me a present for my birthday, and I took a photo of it to give you a clear idea of the humor of the gift.

And yes. It is a one-handed wind-up clown in a box that plays an eerie rendition of 'Send in the Clowns'. First of all, I want to say, if you are deathly afraid of clowns, and have just suffered a heart attack, I am most dreadfully sorry. And yes. This is by far the creepiest birthday present I have ever received. But on the other hand, there's something rather nostalgic about the way this doll is crafted, a harkening back to a time gone by.

And then the unthinkable happened: The song got stuck in my head. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I looked it up, and found that it is actually an extremely sad song.

Isn't it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.

The song was written by Stephen Sondheim, for a musical called 'A Little Night Music'. It was adapted from an Ingmar Bergman film called 'Smiles of a Summer Night'. The song is about a woman, Desirée, who reflects on the ironies and disappointments in her life, primarily with regard to a man she had an affair with, which subsequently ruined his life. The woman he is with now is not good for him, yet he nobly presses on.

"The Clowns" are of course not actually referring to circus clowns. It is a reference to a practice in theater, where if things weren't going well, they would send in the 'clowns', or fools, to tell jokes and salvage the play. But there's a second meaning, in which Desirée knows that she's been foolish and is sorry for what she's done.

Don't you love farce?
My fault I fear.
I thought that you'd want what I want.
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don't bother, they're here.

Sometimes we look back and see things that could have been better, had we only had the wisdom to do it the right way the first time. "Fools rush in" as they say. I think that's why our culture is enamored with the science fiction concept of time travel. We regret things in our past, and we wish we could change them. We're flawed, that's part of our human nature. We screw things up. That's what we do.

Send in the clowns.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Advice to Writers: Finding Your Voice

"You ask how a writer finds their voice. Now that's a question! Everyone has a voice, in life and in print, but finding it in print takes time. There's no technique to finding it... Yes, imitate like hell. Everyone does. Gaining a voice, whatever that is, comes with experience and practice - and the writing, again, is indivisible from the person. I never - never - just sit here, thinking, what's my voice? You might as well ponder, who am I? It is, in fact, the very same thing. You can wonder your whole life and never get an answer to that.

"So the voice exists simply because you exist. You find your voice by writing. By experience. It doesn't matter what exactly you're writing, just that you are writing. Then one day someone will say, 'You've really found your voice with that piece', and you'll think, eh? Really?

"Everyone should find their own way to write. You must. Thing is, copying isn't just copying, it's selecting. It's not just a dumb process. You can be aware of the fact, yes, but what you're not so consciously aware of is the stuff that you're choosing not to use. If you happen to like my one-line-pause technique, you'll know you lifted it off me. At the same time, you'll have discarded techniques from my scripts that you don't like. That's not merely copying, but selecting, editing, and adapting. It's a good, intelligent process of choosing, not imitating. So grab it all. From anyone. Read scripts, lots of them.

"If you're thinking of writing your first script, well I know what it's like. It's so easy to put off. Maybe you just don't write until you're ready, but I worry that's too easy an excuse, because then you could spend your whole life being not-quite-ready. You've got to start. The kids writing Skins are in their teens and early twenties! There's no time to waste! The whole world is full of unwritten scripts. Don't be stifled or strangled."

- Russell T. Davies

Saturday, February 12, 2011

New Things and Neo-Newness

What? Is this a new blog design? What for? What is that about? Why now? Who are you? Who am I? What is existence? One of these questions will be answered by the end of this blog post. Maybe.

So what's with 'Rocket Ship Blues'? Well, mostly, I just like the way the words work together. First of all...

I like rockets. Specifically, the rockets of classic science fiction. When elegance or imagination overruled functionality or realism. Or like Jules Verne, when they didn't fully understand the concept of outer space.

Then: the blues. Perhaps the musical style to best sum up the human condition. I mean, let's face it. Life is full of suffering and sadness. But it's also filled with energy and beauty. And the blues knows that like no other. The words are melancholy, sometimes angry but the music is melodic and upbeat. It's not just about being emo. It's about expressing yourself with style. As the old adage goes, you can't SING the blues, you gotta HAVE the blues.

You stick those words together, and I dunno. I kinda like the result.

Why the change? I opened my internets this morning and my website told me I could. Does this mean I'll be returning to the art of blogging and posting regularly? Am I finally going to crawl out of my safe place of silence and spill my heart to the world? I make no promises. But I feel that writing is about sharing. People sharing thoughts and ideas with each other, and learning and discovering together, as we travel our weary road called life. It's good to write. And my mother always taught me to share.

Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
- Bob Dylan