Books: The Book of Genesis
Movies: Coco [spoilers], Thor: Ragnarok [spoilers]
The Book of Genesis
Boilerplate intro: this is part of my ongoing project to read the entire King James Bible.
Since I have many friends who are devout Christians, and many friends who are observant Jews, I'll post a warning: I'm reading the Bible as literature, not as a holy book. This means I'll point out what works for me and what doesn't, I'll assess its philosophical viewpoint, and I'll mention what bits of historical context I can glean from pestering Lindsey with questions. If you are comfortable with a sardonic atheist 'reviewing' the books of the Bible, read on -- but if not, please skip this, as I genuinely don't wish to offend.
Genesis is the first book of the Old Testament, taking us from the beginning of the universe to the earliest days of the Israelites.
I'm reading the King James Version -- specifically this Southern Baptist "study guide" version of the book. Its commentary is hilariously, unapologetically biased. My favorite sentence so far (paraphrasing): "There is no reason to doubt the idea that Moses wrote Deuteronomy, apart from the fact that he dies in it." Still, it's a useful perspective on how the devout view the text, as opposed to the more even-keeled, analytical perspective of students of literature or history.
The text itself is surprisingly legible. Early Modern English is never a walk in the park, but the King James Bible was obviously written to be both poetic and clear. It makes you realize how much of the heavy lifting in reading Shakespeare (his work was contemporaneous) was due to his elaborate metaphors, wide-ranging vocabulary, and vexing pop-culture references. Strip that away, and apart from the odd "thee" and "goest", you're mostly good to go. And it's delightful to settle into the rhythm of the language, which has echoed throughout modern English. It's weird to realize that any time an English speaker wants to sound old-timey or high register, they're pretty much trying to emulate this one translation of this one book.
(Which makes it more than a bit embarrassing that I haven't read most of it 'til now. Bad English major, no biscuit.)
With that out of the way, I'm in the odd position of 'reviewing' the Judeo-Christian story of creation. It's hard to assess it, both because I haven't read a ton of *other* creation myths (for context), and because it's kind of like a fish assessing water. I've been "swimming in" this story my whole life, even if I've never believed in it.
But finally seeing the book verbatim, I react with mostly a shrug. Like most creation myths, it actually says very little about the world, and very much about the people doing the myth-making.
It makes reasonable guesses for a primitive society. They make mistakes, overlooking, say, that there are billions of years involved; that everything used to be on fire; or that sharks preceded trees. But those are predictable mistakes, the sort of assumptions you'd expect if someone were just presented with the world and asked, with no further context, for their first-guess explanations. And yeah, if you live in the desert, you might overlook, say, the Great Flood's minimal effect on ducks.
But still, the creation is beautifully written, and I respect an early tribe trying to wrestle with "where did it all come from" as best they can, and come up with something majestic and poetic in the process.
But then, after the creation, there's the historical section of Genesis -- the bulk of it -- which has those long, tedious chains of 'begats' interspersed with bits of prophesy and intrigue across the Middle East. Again, it proceeds how you would expect, with lots of stories boiling down to "God presents a prophesy; the good guys heed it and prosper; the bad guys ignore it and get their comeuppance." Simple, workable story structure.
I can't ignore just how sexist Genesis is. I tried to come at this project with an open mind -- maybe the book doesn't earn the reputation it gets from its most backward practitioners, maybe it's just been misinterpreted. But then the Adam and Eve section reminded me, right, per the book, women were invented as 'helpmeets' for the men. It would take some serious mental acrobatics to treat that as anything but awful, and Occam's Razor would be most unkind to any such reasoning.
But, okay, I thought, unpromising start, but let's see if it can recover. And, whoa, nope. It plays out like you'd expect from an early patriarchal society, with the women more or less moved around like property, with rape being a casually accepted part of life, and only the men mentioned in those long chains of begatting.
And there were other, more awkward surprises, like finally reading, say, the full story of Sodom and Gomorrah, with the Sodomites demanding to rape the visiting angels and Lot offering his daughters in their place -- and then, for heaven's sake, Lot's daughters raping him.
The book is surpisingly rapey.
On the bright side, the language is fascinating, as is its treatment of narrative. To put it very simply: what I expected was a really well-put-together story, but told with complicated language that was hard to understand. What I got was stunningly *clear* language, telling a story that wasn't quite there.
Speaking to the language first: the King James Bible was translated from the Latin (which was in turn translated from Hebrew [Old Testament] and Greek [New Testament]) in 1604. This puts it squarely in the age of Shakespeare, whose Othello hit the boards that same year. This also means the book is written in Early Modern English, the 400-year-old version of our language that is often just damn impossible to read. Shakespeare is hard. Milton is hard. Donne is hard. The early seventeenth century is not a walk in the park when it comes to understanding what the hell British people are going on about.
So I was pretty well shocked to find the Book of Genesis to be eminently readable. It's like "Baby's First Early Modern English". Sentences are simple and short. Vocabulary is simple and understandable -- once you pick up on a few of the quirks, like "seed" for "descendants", you're good to go. The Book of Genesis reads like a series of short, simple telegrams relating a lengthy piece of news to a time-strapped audience. "He took the stone and he carried it to a hill. And he named the hill 'Stone Hill,' because it had a stone." And so on, only expressed in beautiful, sonorous prose. It might be a written outline for a more elaborate oral performance -- it feels a bit like a quick outline for a proper first draft. Or perhaps, their source precedes elaborate sentence structures or figurative language.
And that kind of leads into my second point: this story comes from a time before stories. Or, more precisely, before storytelling as we know it. Interiority -- that is, using prose to explore someone's thoughts in detail -- is not a thing. In fact, the Book of Genesis reads something like a screenplay, in that it painstakingly limits itself to what people say and what they do -- rarely, if ever, how they think or how they feel. Now, of course you can *infer* how people think and feel by reading between the lines -- that's perfectly reasonable; it's what actors do, after all, as soon as you hand them a screenplay. But as for what's strictly in the book: it's just the telegrams. Joseph did this. Joseph said that. Joseph went there.
I would go further and say that *character* is not a thing here, either. All dialog everywhere sounds the same -- the same utilitarian telegrams as the prose. There is no word about what anyone looks like, beyond occasionally saying that someone was good-looking. As above, there's no thoughts or feelings related about the people in the story. And you could infer, say, Lot's character from his actions, but I think that's a very underdetermined system. You're given a few details -- "He did this. He went there. He said that." -- and you can infer wildly different Lots from that. But the text *determines* very little. It's not like Iago is getting indelibly imprinted in your mind just from reading the script. That might seem like a brutally unfair comparison, but again, this was contemporaneous with Shakespeare, and he might have even been a co-writer here.
If you don't have characters in your story, that's bad. And it leads to cascading failures.
For example: if you don't have characters, you can't really have a plot.
Sure, you can have a series of events happening, but without any characters -- people, where you have a sense of who they are and where they're coming from -- that's not a plot. That's just a pile of events. In modern western storytelling, *plot* goes beyond that -- it's a series of events where a character has their status quo upset, and then pursues an outcome that matters to them, and transforms over the course of that pursuit, and reaches an end that definitively answers whether the character gets what they want. Without a character -- without a person with clear objectives and a personality -- this can't happen.
Without character, you never have the sense that this story had to happen to *this* character -- the sort of 'worst-case scenario' that's emotionally gripping. There's no sense that *these* events pose a particularly difficult trial for *this* person in particular. And then afterwards there's no feeling that the story changes the person -- the sort of growth we go to stories looking for. The people in Genesis just don't transform. Noah starts virtuous and ends virtuous. Lot starts virtuous (pimping his daughters notwithstanding) and ends virtuous. Joseph starts virtuous and ends virtuous.
And the lack of character even ruins the stakes of a story. Without people we can connect to, whatever adversity the plot offers feels vague and impersonal. Noah faces down the destruction of the world, but... what's at stake for him? What does Noah care about? Who even *is* Noah? Like Arthur Dent facing the demolition of earth, the stakes are just too large, too monstrous, for us to relate to them in a meaningful, emotional way.
And then without a plot -- without a series of events where you, as a reader, are drawn in and hoping things turn out for the best -- you don't really have a story. You have something that's more like a wikipedia article -- it contains all the facts you want, but it doesn't really *do* anything. It doesn't do what stories do.
And so it is with the historical stretch of Genesis. You get wispy lists of things happening, and you could fill in the gaps, if you wanted, with the missing components. But what's there, to a nonbeliever, feels half-assed and unengaging.
To be clear, none of this is to say it's a bad book. I'm judging it by the wrong criteria -- it was never designed to be an entertaining potboiler. But its source material clearly has limitations -- it clearly comes from a time where storytelling hasn't really been invented yet, and that's always going to make it a bit of a slog to read. It's pretty throughout, the creation is appropriately majestic, and some of the twists and turns of Joseph's story are fun. As a student of English literature, I'm glad I finally read it.
But I can't quite recommend it as a good read.
This is the 2017 Pixar movie where a mishap on Día de los Muertos sends a young boy on an adventure through the Land of the Dead.
What's bizarre is, Lindsey had to remind me that this was not the first computer-animated feature film about Día de los Muertos that I'd seen. We had seen The Book of Life, Guillermo del Toro's take on a very similar story. I even wrote a review of it. And then I completely, utterly forgot that it ever existed.
Coco is impressive on a lot of levels, but what leaps out at me the most is that Pixar makes it feel like it would be impossible to tell a *bad* story with this material. As the song goes, everyone you love one day will die. And beyond that, every one of us will one day be utterly forgotten. And so we love each other as much as we can for as long as we can, and then cherish the memories we've got until memory fails, and then we, too, have to leave the party.
If you cannot tell a story that counts for something about *that*, then what the hell are you doing?
And yet, way back when, Guillermo del Toro, who's made a ton of great movies, made a forgettable lagniappe of a movie that used the trappings of Día de los Muertos but wasn't about anything.
Coco does many, many things right. Its musical selections are gorgeous, the animation is literally the best in the world, the casting is dead-on, and the world-building is on par with what Grim Fandango did with the same material. Really, at this point when you're talking about Pixar, you should list the things that *aren't* flawless rather than the things that are.
But what sticks with me is how clearly they understood the power of their source material. Día de los Muertos is about families remembering their ancestors. So they built a plot that hinges entirely on a family remembering an ancestor. I loved its misdirection, first making you think that this was about Miguel needing to reject his family and live his dream of being a musician. The Blue Sky or Dreamworks version of this movie would have been just that. But that take leaves the thematic material of Día de los Muertos on the table. Instead, Coco plays it smart, centering the whole story on how Miguel's family, via almost sitcom-level misunderstandings, refuses to remember and honor their ancestor.
So instead of something cutesy and slight that feels like it should end with a mariachi cover of "All Star", you get an entire audience ugly-crying and giving it rave reviews. I won't lie -- it was a hard watch for me. (Hell, The Book of Life was a hard watch for me, and that movie sucked.) I've drifted pretty far from my own family, and I doubt I'll be remembered too long after I'm gone. But still, you watch so, so many things that make you feel nothing at all, that the sadness is okay.
Beats the hell out of Book of Life, anyway.
Thor: Ragnarok [spoilers]
This is the 2017 Marvel superhero movie that pits Thor, the god of thunder, against Hela, goddess of death, who is intent on ruling Asgard and subjugating the universe to her will.
Except it's kind of a strain to call it a 'superhero movie'. As it happened, the same day I watched Thor: Ragnarok, I watched a short nerdwriter video about Logan that talked about the life cycles of genres. A genre first appears kind of inchoate and formless. Then the conventions get nailed down, and there's a sort of feedback loop -- the conventions work, but moreover, the audience expects them, and so the genre hews closer to that plan. As the films get more homogeneous, the audience expectations get more rigid.
But eventually, the audience gets tired of seeing the same thing over and over again. At this point, the genre sort of explodes -- some films subert the conventions; others dig into it realistically, offering the 'dark, gritty reboot' of the genre; and still others turn towards lampooning the genre. And eventually, you circle around to doing the genre again, one last time, in a way that understands that it's fake and stilted, but explores how we still wind up needing these stories anyway.
And yeah, Thor: Ragnarok is, if not a parody of superhero films, then as close to a parody as a film in the Disney/Marvel universe can get. It takes the Marvel property that is, depending on your attitude, Marvel's most majestic or its most stilted, and undercuts that pomp with humor. And for me, that take worked. I had fun. It may be that I've already seen enough superhero movies to be tired of the basic structure, or it may be that I'm just not invested in Thor. On some level, it's probably just relief -- we've all known forever just how damn funny Hemsworth and Hiddleston and Ruffalo are, and we finally get to see them go 100% comic with this material.
But also, I think Thor: Ragnarok does parody right. It understands that for every one time you undercut your genre -- every time you unexpectedly zig where the conventional genre story zags -- you have to have, like, ten times where you stick to the genre religiously. You have to build up the expectation that your parody will do the traditional genre thing before you can undercut it for comic effect. Otherwise, you get mush, like the later Scary Movie flicks, where you have a pile of pop-culture references and no real engagement with the genre -- the form of jokes, but none of the wit.
And so, Thor: Ragnarok plays hard *into* the superhero format. You have the unrelated action sequence that kicks things off. You have the villain intent on world domination. You have the bad guy destroy almost everything your superhero values. You have the superhero build up a team of supporting characters, and then face off the superhero against the Big Bad while the B-team takes on some supplementary villains, and intercut between the two for your act three. You resolve it by having the hero use some secret knowledge (in this case, "Hela draws her power from Asgard" and "Surtur is going to destroy Asgard") to come up with a clever, last-ditch strategy. It's all playbook, playbook, playbook.
With all that in place, the comic moments work, and none of them really derail the superhero plot. When Banner jumps down to the bridge, you get that the next beat is him landing as The Hulk. So that buys you the "Banner splats on the bridge" beat before the Hulk starts beating up the mega-Wolf. Goldblum is at full, 100%, uncut Goldblum, but none of that impedes his role as an adversary that keeps the superhero from getting to the Big Bad. I even love the banter in this movie. I usually *hate* banter -- it's mostly sitcom hack-work where every line is a strained one-liner, and all I learn about the characters is 'they sure like put-downs'. But here, the humor felt like it came naturally from the characters and situations, and the actors projected a giddy delight at getting to do it.
Thematically, the story doesn't really hold together. It has that "palimpsest" feel where you sense several writers went through and did their own takes on the material, and now we're left with a kind of schizophrenic draft that has traces of all of them.
For example: Hela reveals that Asgard was founded on unjust, bloody conquest. And that's a great concept to build a story around -- coming to terms with past injustice and figuring out what it means to be moral moving forward from that is a universal theme that will always relate uncomfortably to the American zeitgeist. But instead, those scenes come and go.
Realizing that you're too attached to a physical place and need to move on is another great theme -- you can build a really clear story around sacrificing more and more to save that one place, only to realize that the attachment itself was hurtful and unnecessary. And you could argue that somehow that relates to the Hela theme above, but it doesn't, really -- and it certainly feels like a change of topic to the audience. Instead, the "burn down Asgard" beat happens at the end as a neat bit of reincorporation of the Surtur plot point. And so it goes, with Ragnarok toying with one theme, and then another, all of them showing potential, but none of them really adding up to a through-line.
But still, I came to this in the mood for a silly comic take on Thor, and the movie absolutely worked on that level. And it was full of nice touches besides. The director's self-insert rock-creature was great, another nice subversion of the "brutal guy in charge" archetype that instantly creates a sharp character just by contrasting your expectations. And thank god, they sidestepped "redeeming" Loki -- instead, Loki remains a utterly untrustworthy villain whose interests happened to briefly align with the good guys. Well-done, Marvel, for not negating the only decent villain in the MCU.
So: come to this expecting Thor: Ragnarok, and you'll be pleased with Thor: Ragnarok
For next week: I still need to write about Jane the Virgin and The Last Jedi, and I'm reading a book about cat care. I'm still watching season two of Stranger Things (so far so good), and I'm still catching up on podcasts.
 Side note: holy crap I think I just figured out why swans are such bastards.
 There are amusingly-numerological theories about him pitching in with the translation.
 Kind of half the game in screenplays is setting up the dialog and action so that it forces one particular interpretation of who a character is.
 Sidebar: why didn't they just name it El Día de los Muertos or something? Why Coco? Well, they wanted to call it Día de los Muertos. And then they tried copyrighting that name. And then people got piiiiissed. And rightly so, I think. So: Coco.
 oh jesus I just remembered that Book of Life had a mariachi cover of "Creep" why why why
 ... unless you're talking about Cars. Because fuck Cars.
 And oh god, it would have had a Dreamworks-smirk version of Miguel on the poster.
 For my part, I put The Princess Bride into this category.
 "... but isn't Asgard a people, not a place?" Quiet, brain!
 As a liberal, I absolutely adore their setting up a storyline of an entire Asgard-load of heroic immigrants coming to earth. Suck it, xenophobic Trump-ites!
Mood: contemplative · Music: none