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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (1/31/11) 8:41pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Actually posted a day late & backdated, because I'm lazy.]

Movies:  The Asphalt Jungle, Appointment With Crime
TV:  Avatar:  The Last Airbender [2x06-2x13]
Books:  Einstein's Dreams, My Boring-Ass Life, A Game of Thrones

The Asphalt Jungle
This is the first of no doubt a long list of noir movies I will be watching in preparation for the Hideout's noir show.

This is a heist picture.

These days, 'a heist picture' means 'a picture about a heist'.  But for film noir, 'a heist picture' means 'a picture that uses a heist as an excuse to explore something else.'  A modern heist picture is something like the Ocean's Eleven remake, where the movie is about pulling together the team, planning the heist, and then carrying it out -- and, whoa! there are complications! -- but it turns out okay, and we finish up with our heroes enjoying their newfound wealth.  TV shows like Hustle and Leverage also seem to work along these lines.

But The Asphalt Jungle isn't really *about* its heist.  They sort out their team in a single conversation.  The heist itself takes maybe ten or fifteen minutes of screen time, somewhere around the midpoint of the movie.

Instead, the movie works methodically to set up a network of relationships -- this guy works for that guy, who knows this other guy, who's in debt to this third guy, who's adored by this one girl -- that should be familiar to anybody who's played Fiasco.  It sets up the characters with vices, and weaknesses -- oh, this guy will do anything for a pretty girl; this guy is extremely bullheaded; this guy thinks he can double-cross the rest of the team.

In modern movies, the heist is this exquisite mechanism, with bits of technology that all interlock perfectly.  When we're watching the movie, we're watching "competence porn" as this mechanism goes into action, and the interlocking pieces all work flawlessly.

But again, this movie is different.  In this movie, the heist doesn't consist of all these engrossing interlocking pieces, and we don't focus on the heist as a mechanism springing into action.

In this movie, the interlocking pieces are the relationships.  And the heist is just a trigger -- it kicks off a more abstract mechanism, as the double-crossing lawyer tries to grab all the money for himself, and the dogged heavy beats up everybody who tries to nab him, and everyone gradually gets themselves into more and more trouble.

I suppose it's a sign of studio propriety that everybody in the heist gets done in by the vices described in act one.  The stubborn heavy can't be bothered with medical care, because he's going to drive to his childhood home... and that does him in.  The womanizer waits a little too long watching a dancing girl at a diner... and the cops nab him.  The clever double-crossing lawyer can't quite cover his tracks... and his crimes are exposed.

But overall you get the idea that modern film has it all wrong:  a heist is simple.  It's the people that are complicated.  And *that's* where the trouble comes from.

In any case, the cast is busy taking notes on this one for stuff we can rip off for the noir show.

Appointment with Crime
This is an English film noir that I mainly watched because it was called Appointment with Crime, which just sounds awesome.

It's got another pretty standard crime-drama plot:  a "simple job" goes bad at the very start of the movie, leaving Leo, a hard-boiled thief injured and behind bars.  Leo does his time, and then returns to the streets to exact revenge on the criminals who set up the job and left him to get nabbed by the cops.

This, Leo does with simple efficiency and not a lot of adversity.  He kills one of the criminals (the driver), and frames another (Gus Loman) for the crime.  Meanwhile, he establishes an alibi for himself at a local dance hall.  (Note to self:  find any excuse to set a noir scene at the local dance hall.)

But of course, everything gets too complicated.  The criminals decide to bump off Loman, and suddenly Leo finds himself under suspicion from a do-gooder Canadian cop (Sergeant Rogers) and from the criminals, who want to gather up all the frame-up evidence (which implicates Loman's effete boss as well as Loman himself).

This gives them ample chance to torture Leo, and a chance for him to show his tough-guy chops.  And soon he's conniving to just keep from getting bumped off, while still trying to evade the cops and double-cross the criminals.

Avatar:  The Last Airbender [2x06-2x13]
Yup, another bout of illness  equals another batch of episodes of Avatar.

Two things really impressed me about this stretch of book two.

First off, I loved the sheer breadth of stuff that they rip off in these episodes.  Again, this show is the brainchild of two guys that really, really love animé -- but this is an American team putting together the show, and apparently it's a team that watches American TV and lifts the stuff that it likes.  That's how you get "Zuko Alone", which is essentially structured as a season-one LOST episodes, with a sporadic Japanese coming-of-age flashback story informing Zuko's present-day spaghetti-western showdown.

Then after that, they turn around and do "The Chase", which is (as far as I can tell) their take on BSG's "33", with relentless pursuers surprising our heroes over and over and over past the point of exhaustion.

By the time the story settles inside the walls of Ba Sing Se, I wasn't totally surprised to see eerie nods to 1984 start cropping up.  A lot of the fun of this show is the sheer variety of western stories they're willing to transpose into their magical wuxia world as they go from episode to episode.

Also, I love that they're continuing what's basically a dual storyline.  They regularly switch between Our Heroes and our erstwhile villains, Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh.  Remember that Zuko's original purpose was to stand around, be ominous, and basically twirl his nonexistent moustache and sneer, "I'll get you next time, Avatar!"

And then, all of a sudden, he wasn't that guy.  And then he was on the run from his own country.  And then... well, they were doing something else.  They shifted gears, put a squabbling Fire-Nation Teen Girl Squad in the main-antagonist role, and moved Zuko from the antagonist of the A-story to the troubled hero of his own B-story.

And Zuko's story is now less about pursuing the Avatar and more about struggling to survive.  Or at least, on the surface it's about surviving, and deeper down it's about Zuko coming to terms with feeling betrayed by everybody who was supposed to care about him -- except for Iroh, who seems to embody everything the show believes about virtue.  Which is weird, since he's one of the bad guys.

In any case, Zuko's rage, which was taken for granted in book one (as something that kept the plot going), is now picked apart and examined in book two.  Can this guy ever chill out, or is he just permanently broken?

Side note:  I was happy to see some well-done CGI cell animation in the eponymous machine from "The Drill".  I'm always happy to see that technique, whose first major success was as a cost-saving measure in The Iron Giant, find productive use elsewhere.  In this case, it gives the machine a hash, precise look that contrasts with the simple, clear character animation and the impressionistic nature imagery.  This machine is... Other.  And we do not like it.

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
This is a book about a series of dreams Einstein has while working on his theory of relativity, exploring different ways that time might work.

Perhaps you can think of this as the short-story-collection version of Braid -- every chapter has a new kink in how time works, and that chapter serves to explore how the world would be different if, say, time went slower as you approached a single spot on the map, or if causality worked inconsistently, or if memories did not exist.

I admit, most of the time the book bugged me from a world-building angle.  For instance, in the world without memories, "the butcher has to guess at how to carve cuts of meat."  (I'm paraphrasing, badly.)  But naturally my brain responds with, "But without memories, we wouldn't have butchers!  Heck, without memories, we probably wouldn't have moved beyond a small population of African hunter-gatherers -- mammalian evolution may have been completely derailed for that matter, since most animals rely on memory to some extent...."

So instead of thinking about the implications of a different notion of time, I would instead kvetch along the lines of, "But the world wouldn't *work* like that."  Instead, it works along the lines of "What if the people of 1905 Vienna woke up to find that time worked differently, and they all accepted that time worked differently, and they all thought that it always *had* worked like that, but now they had to make adjustments to account for it?"

That's dream-logic for you, I suppose.

In any case, it's a tiny little volume, a quick read, and a neat collection of ideas.  I was amused to see that one of the 'fanciful' chapters was basically just Einsteinian relativity, with some of the constants altered to make the relativistic effects more extreme.  Wikipedia reports that, in fact, several of the chapters work along those lines.

My Boring-Ass Life by Kevin Smith
This is basically Kevin Smith's blog from March 2005 and December 2006, printed out and compiled into a roughly five-hundred-page book.

For the last year or so, it's been my 'stopgap book' -- the book I grab after I've finished one book and while I'm waiting for the next one to show up at the library.  So every few weeks or so, I briefly check back in with 2005!Kevin to see what he's been up to.  It's interesting, because Mr. Smith in the book is the same age as I am now -- so it plays out as some sort of alternate reality.  Here's how things might have turned out if I had discovered a dream job and decided that I'd wanted a family.  There was something reassuring about coming back to the same mundane details of day-to-day life:  grabbing food here, taking care of a school thing there, watching such-and-such DVDs before falling asleep.

Somewhere during the book, Kevin Smith's Internet tiffs with Southwest Airlines and the film-critic community happened.  Suddenly, I had my eyes out for bits where he fruitlessly took on the Internet.  Apart from one bit where he responded to a bunch of commenters on the "Ain't It Cool" movie site (hey, I remember that when it first happened), I didn't really pick up on anything.

The book shifts gears towards the end.  He gets involved in several film projects, acting in a couple of movies and putting together Clerks 2.  So he's a lot more busy, and we get fewer of the day-to-day minutiae.  Instead, we get sporadic posts about interesting stories from various sets.  Oh, and he picks a fight with a Sarasota-newspaper film critic who made fun of his fanbase.  (Ah, there's that hint of 'taking on the internet' I was looking for.)

It also includes "Me and My Shadow", his story of... well, a back-cover quote calls it his "account of helping a friend kick heroin."  But in a lot of ways it's just the story of watching Jason Mewes spiral into addiction, and the slow horror of realizing that there's really no way he can help.  It's harrowing stuff.

But honestly, I liked it best at its most ordinary.  "Oh.  This is what it's like for this guy, day-to-day, being married and raising a kid."  Good to know.

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
This is the first novel in George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.  In April, HBO will premiere a TV series based on this book.

Where do you start, when you're discussing a seven-hundred-page fantasy novel?

Oddly, and to my own surprise, I find myself thinking of FireflyFirefly is supposedly science fiction, but deep down, it feels like it isn't.  Because science fiction, to me, is about changing something in how the world works, and then exploring the ramifications of that change.  Instead, Firefly holds back from 'crazy sci-fi land' -- apart from the technology for exploring a new solar system, things seem fairly grounded.  The only real crazy sci-fi stuff exists at the edges, with the Reavers and with River Tam -- but even then:  no aliens.  No faster-than-light travel.  No artificial intelligence.

If it *is* science fiction, it's an example that uses the trappings of the genre to tell a story that's just about people.

In the same way that Firefly is science fiction that doesn't really *do* the sci-fi thing, A Game of Thrones feels like high fantasy that doesn't really *do* the high-fantasy thing.

Generally speaking, there's no magic.  Apart from, I think, three specific scenes in this first volume, they just throw magic right out the window.  There are no especially strange flora or fauna -- dire wolves are just a large species of North American wolf that went extinct with the mammoths, and dragons, in this world, are for the most part skeletons and legends.

And let's be clear about one thing:  the main reason high fantasy exists is so that, at some point, you can read about a wizard fighting a dragon.

If sci-fi is about taking one facet of the world and changing it into something counterintuitive, high fantasy is about taking *all* the things in the world that feel counterintuitive and changing them to be awesome.  Dammit, we *should* be able to shoot bolts of lightning from wants.  There *should* be cryptic prophecies that turn out to be true in ways we don't properly understand 'til it's too late.  And all the cool animals we've collectively imagined *should* be rumbling around in the wilderness.

But Game of Thrones doesn't play that wish-fulfillment card.

Basically, the only deep structural aspect of high fantasy that I see in this book is its world-building.  (You could say the analogous thing about Firefly.)  Martin follows characters that are thousands of miles apart, and leverages that to sketch in entire distinct cultures.  We see John Snow, in the harsh world of the Black Brothers of the wall.  We see Daenerys learn about the nomadic culture of the Dathraki.  We see Eddard Stark come to the brutal Machiavellian world of the king's court.

And all along the way, Martin employs the "misty mountains" trick.  This is a phrase coined by the guys who write the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and it describes a scene where (say) some characters pass by some misty mountains, and one of them alludes to the mountains in passing, but we never actually go there.  They just exist, momentarily, in the background of the story, establishing that there are whole swaths of this fictional world that exist just out of reach of this film.

So we see the layers of ancient construction in the Red Keep *implying* this long history of occupation, or we see the few mementoes of the age of dragons, *implying* the long years of intervening history, or we see the huge distance from, say, Casterly Rock to Winterfell, *implying* lots of interesting places in between.  Not only does Martin describe his world in detail, he does it in such a way that it implies a lot of stuff that's left out.

But even then, it's not really *about* the world-building.

So if it's not about the traditional tenets of high fantasy, and it's not about the setting, then what *is* it about?

That's a good question.

With HBO's TV adaptation of this book coming up, some TV critics have compared these books to The Wire; you could argue that show is fundamentally about Baltimore, which it depicts as a huge system that's excellent at preserving the status quo.  Yes, it's a status quo that keeps most of its people improverished, uneducated, and imprisoned, but the system does a perfect job of preserving that state of affairs.

And woe to the person who tries to change that.

So maybe A Game of Thrones is, deep down, about the opposite sort of scenario:  Westeros is a system where the status quo is untenable.  This is a system with a weak king, with rapacious would-be usurpers, and with supernatural threats just out of sight.  This is a world barrelling towards war.[1]

And again, woe to the person who tries to get in the way of that.

And so this massive war creaks forward and gets going, and we watch about fifty or so characters get caught up in its gears.[2]  Some people find ways to momentarily finesse the situation to their own advantage, but most of them are just wrecked.  Soon enough, we're watching all our viewpoint characters struggle to stay alive as the world falls to pieces around them.

This is the first volume of a projected seven-volume series, so it doesn't really build to a resolution.  The war starts, and... stay tuned for book two.  Daenerys has her own little storyline among the Dathraki, and... never really joins the main story.  (Her chapters won an award, when collated as a distinct novella.)  So nothing ever really pays off at the end, but it's exciting while it lasts.

And this audiobook edition is especially well-read by Roy Dotrice, who juggles the dozens of characters and accents admirably.

That said, I feel no need to rush off and read the next volume.  The series won't be finished for years yet, and I trust the remaining volumes are similar in tone:  horrible things continue to happen to morally-gray people.  There will be time enough to catch up on it.

For next time, I'm reading Dark City, a book about film noir.  I'm also watching more noir films, starting with Murder, My Sweet.  I'm off of audiobooks for the time being -- instead, I'm catching up on a few months of Sound Opinions podcasts.

[1] ... specifically, towards the War of the Roses, in some form.  Commentators have pointed out loose similarities between Stark and York, and between Lannister and Lancaster.

[2] ... and such a range of characters!  In particular, I'm impressed with how he writes his child characters.  Time and again, you understand perfectly the bit of kid-logic that motivates some action, and you understand perfectly why it's misguided, and you spend entire chapters waiting for a situation to blow up in a kid's face.

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Date:Tuesday (2/1/11) 11:24pm
In a Song of Ice and Fire he builds up the fantasy very slowly. If more of the "wish-fulfillment" stuff would satisfy you, then stick with it and it'll be absolutely worth it.

I feel in a way like he "earns" his fantasy, if that makes sense... Anyway, I adored the whole series on audiobook, then read them later.
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Date:Wednesday (2/2/11) 12:55pm
If more of the "wish-fulfillment" stuff would satisfy you, then stick with it and it'll be absolutely worth it.

Nah, I'm cool with it as is -- mostly I was just trying to put my finger on what felt different with this book as compared to a lot of the fantasy novels I'd seen.
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Date:Wednesday (2/2/11) 2:12am
Re: A Game of Thrones-
Roy Dotrice is fantastic. It's a crime that the fourth audiobook (I think) gets read by someone else. For me, the books are impossibly tied up in his excellent reading. He's by far my favorite audiobook reader, and I've listened to A LOT.

Also, I think I can safely say this without really spoiling things... the fantasy elements come more to the forefront as the series progresses. Whether that's good or bad, I dunno.

Re: Avatar-
Uncle Iroh is my favorite character, by far... probably my favorite animated character, period.
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Date:Wednesday (2/2/11) 12:57pm
Uncle Iroh is my favorite character, by far... probably my favorite animated character, period.

I would happily watch a spin-off that was just Uncle Iroh running a tea-house.  It could be like the Avatar version of Cheers. :)
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Date:Wednesday (2/2/11) 1:02pm
Roy Dotrice is fantastic.

According to wikipedia, he appeared on Beauty and the Beast while George R. R. Martin was writing for that show, and was due to appear in the HBO series until health issues forced him to cancel. :(

Whether that's good or bad, I dunno.

*nods*  It's interesting to see how carefully he parcels the supernatural out in this first volume.  On the one hand, sometimes I'm a bit, "Where are the fantasy elements?"  On the other, they have real weight when they *do* show up.  Plus he doesn't have the 'fantasy out' w/r/t plotting:  "... and then a magical eagle-bear flies in, casts a spell, and saves our heroes!"
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