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

Monday (10/3/16) 1:09am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Words on the Move
Movies:  Howl's Moving Castle, X-Men: First Class
TV:  <none>

Words on the Move by John McWhorter [audiobook]
This is the recent popular-linguistics book[1] about changes over time in the English language.

This is one of my favorite books I've read in ages. McWhorter is one of the best speakers in the stable of Teaching Company professors, and his courses on linguistics are second-to-none. Here, he talks specifically about modern English, repeatedly exploring different answers to the question, "Why does English change over time?"

And sure, it covers changes in modern English, but it's using that as a lens to cover advanced topics in linguistics in a shockingly clear and relatable way. Linguistics is, to put it lightly, somewhat abstruse, and once you're getting into topics like pragmatics, "euphemism treadmills" or chains of vowel shifts, most of what's out there into inscrutable academic-speak. Most topics he covers are actually useful in a broader sense. Grammaticalization in English reflects grammaticalization everywhere. Words for "true" (e.g., literally) inevitably march to words for "very" (e.g., literally) throughout the earth's 6,000-odd extant languages. And so on. And not only that, but it puts useful names ('easing', 'backshifting', 'the Northern Cities Vowel Shift', and so on) for concepts that you know about but you can't quite put your finger on.

My objections to the book are few, and slight. While McWhorter makes a convincing case for writing slightly-modernized versions of Shakespeare, it does feel like an odd little peccadillo to devote most of a chapter to. And while the professor is an excellent speaker, his descriptions of vowel shifts kind of got away from me. I want to give it another listen with a diagram of vowel shapes and placements in front of me.

All in all, though, it's a book that's entertaining, beautifully-written, and very, very useful. If you have any interest in linguistics, find it and read it.

Howl's Moving Castle
This is the 2004 Studio Ghibli film about a young hat-maker who tries to break a spell on a powerful magician while she herself has been cursed with premature old age.

I watched this, and I thought about the Romances -- not the languages, nor the tawdry bodice-ripper novels, but the late Shakespeare plays. For a time, Shakespeare wrote histories that plotted the stories of kings, and tragedies that followed great men on the road to self-inflicted ruin, or comedies where everyone got confused and eventually married. And it's kind of like he perfected those forms, going form early attempts that nobody really does any more (hi there, Henry VI) to the confident, mid-career works that every theater performs into the ground as audiences smilingly pretend they understand early modern English.

But then it's like Shakespeare got bored and decided to write stuff that was weird. These are the Romances, which seem to combine aspects of all three styles of play in whatever way he sees fit. They lack the clean efficiency of, say, Macbeth, which streaks by like a paranoiac freight train, but they instead kind of... meander. The next thing that happens in a Romance is not so much 'the next inevitable thing in this story' as it is 'oh, this looks neat, let's go over here'. The Winter's Tale kicks off with a classic tale of a king spiralling into madness, then has a Henry V-style monolog from Time personified, then becomes a rustic country tale, and then there's a magical statue that solves everything. You sense in it the hand of a master who's gotten bored and is trying to keep himself amused.

All of which brings us back around (finally) to Howl's Moving Castle, a movie which centers around a clumsy, ramshackle, Terry-Gilliam-esque robotic castle that seems like a good metaphor for the film itself. Miyazaki, I'm told, does a sensible job of paring down the source material, but he still keeps quite a few story threads, and also crams in a brand-new storyline wherein several vaguely-European powers are falling into all-out war. The movie strains to pack in all the information, giving the story a chaotic, "and-then" feel: there was a girl and then she met a boy and then she was cursed by a witch and then soldiers attacked the town and then she got abducted by a castle and then the sorcerer captured them and then and then and then...

It's still a good movie, mind you: it's a Miyazaki film, so its animation is breathtaking, its world-building is deep and nuanced, and it's got more charm than a hundred slick American productions full of anthropomorphized animals making "the Dreamworks smirk". It's just that, compared to the clear lines of a story like The Tale of Princess Kaguya or episodic but straightforward like Kiki's Delivery Service, or even something utterly dreamlike but still direct and powerful like Millennium Actress, Howl's Moving Castle feels kind of meandering. You often find yourself shrugging and saying, "Oh? Uh okay, well, that's happening now." The resolution comes along, and it doesn't feel like the last piece of the story snapping into place, so much as "Oh. Um, I guess it's time for the end."

But moment-to-moment, the film works. Sophie, the heroine, is charmingly determined even by Miyazaki-heroine standards, and the film leans on the book's notion that Sophie doesn't really mind being disguised as an old lady, even finding it convenient in some ways. The rest of the cast are sharply-drawn, with only Howl himself seeming like a bland bishonen stereotype. (The Witch of the Waste, in particular, is a great Miyazaki villain, cruel and evil but ultimately just confused and childlike.) And so, the plot, like the castle, rattles along in a very charming way. It only gets awkward towards the end, which tries to hyperactively tie up all the plot threads via extensive, but still incomplete, exposition, and add on a happy ending that feels kind of forced and unearned.

But that's the reasonable price you pay for that big, ramshackle plot.

X-Men: First Class
This is the 2011 reboot of the X-Men film franchise, showing the founding of Professor X's school in the early 60s. I watched it on the plane to Hawaii, so I only have some quick thoughts about it.

I keep coming back to the notion that maybe superhero movies just aren't for me. Whenever I watch one, even a top-of-the-line one like First Class, I find myself feeling like it's a movie I've seen two or three times before. Okay, in lieu of origin stories we see each mutant demonstrating their powers. And here we are assembling the team. And there's the supervillain. And there's the big splashy confrontation with lots of CGI. And now it's down to a fistfight: yay, who can fistfight harder?! And there's the tag scene with the villain revealed to be planning something for the inevitable sequel.

The lack of surprises gets kind of stultifying. I'm not saying every movie *needs* surprises -- The Tale of Princess Kaguya goes pretty much exactly where you expect, and it's still emotionally shattering -- but it kind of sets an action movie at a disadvantage when you're not wondering "Huh, what'll happen next?" or "How will they get out of this one?" -- instead, at best, you're nodding in appreciation of how they manhandle the plot towards the next predictable action-movie beat.

But none of this matters if other aspects of the movie are great enough to make up for it. And I give the film a shrugging "Maybe?" on that count. The acting is, on balance, very good. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbinder deliver the best performances their material will allow as Professor X and Magneto, respectively. The rest of the cast is solid and serviceable (hi Oliver Platt!), with the only duds being January Jones as Emma Frost[2] and what appear to be two 80s arena stage magicians who follow Sebastian Shaw around. The set and costume design are... fun, if not convincing. Mad Men has spoiled us all with respect to accurate period detail, but First Class has fun playing with enough signifiers to shout "THIS IS THE 60s", knowing that their target audience is at best dimly aware of even the early 2000s.

Thematically, they do the usual serviceable job of playing with 'mutant powers' as a clearly-presented metaphor for, these days, being gay in America, and more generally, being any kind of outsider class.[3] I do wonder, though, if there are more stories to tell than just the conflict between being 'out and proud' and living in the closet. And the way their material leans on the Holocaust borders on poor taste, for me, raising uncomfortable questions like "Is it okay to use the genocide of European Jews as a plot device for your gosh-wow superhero fest?" And the way the X-Men stories seem to come down to "do we destroy all humans or not?" kind of lose the metaphor, for me.

All that said, I'm glad the theme is there to lend the story some weight. The moment of Xavier accidentally "outing" Hank McCoy was genuinely affecting and tender and (a rarity for this film) surprising. And their attempt to play with how Hank's self-loathing for being a mutant gets in the way of having a relationship with Mystique -- there's a good story there, even if they don't quite nail it.

All in all, though, I felt like I was sitting back from the movie, watching it efficiently solve a sudoku puzzle, satisfying the requirements of "being a big tentpole action movie", "fitting in with the known events of the 1960s", and "setting up the initial conditions of the X-Men universe". And it was cute. Cool-ly satifying, like one of those smoothly-presented 90-second cooking GIFs.

For me, the best example of this was the final scene between Xavier and Moira. You realized ahead of time that she'd have to be taken out of the picture, because Xavier is single eventually, and movie audiences can't be trusted to infer, at the end of a film, something like "Yeah, they're in a new relationship now, and it'll last a couple great years, but then they amicably move on." So: the two characters kiss, and then Xavier erases her memory.

And you think, "Huh. That was a cute plot move." And you nod with respect for setting up a scene where Xavier has to let go of the woman he loves. But I *felt* nothing. I had not seen those two people falling in love, so the kiss was a bit "Oh? Okay, that's happening I guess." And unpacking it a bit more, removing Moira's memory without her permission is, well, villainous, and hints at a better scene where Moira would actively *choose* to forget about him. But tentpole movies seem uncomfortable with that kind of emotional mess, so: here we are. A movie that doesn't quite hit emotionally[4], even while it's technically impressive.

Useless side note: I do wish that Sebastian and Erik had reverted to German in their last confrontation. Ah well.

Additional useless side note: there is just no way around the Magneto outfit looking *hilarious* in live action, is there? I don't know what kind of party you're dressing for, Erik, but it's a fabulous one, and obviously nobody else in the film was invited.

For next week: I'm watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising, and having a delightful time watching Adam Ruins Everything when I'm not. I'm reading Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus and listening to podcasts. I also finished Master of None, so I'll have a writeup on that Real Soon Now.

[1] Sidebar: who would have ever guessed that such a thing as a 'popular linguistics book' would ever exist? I really want to send a message back to teenage-me, notifying the sulky teenager that there are things like that to look forward to.
[2] ... and I write that with no joy in my heart. I really *want* to see an actress who got dismissed as a pretty face and a weak link on a dude-centric TV show then turn around and deliver a powerful, nuanced performance when given the opportunity.
[3] Originally I suppose it was going for a Malcolm X/MLK duality -- which makes the apparent absence of any civil rights movement in their conception of America in the 60s a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
[4] Weirdly, even the scene where the Nazis shoot Erik's mother produced an "Ah. Nice plot device." from me. I hope that's some shortfall in the movie, and not just because I'm a cold and horrible person.

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