Mistborn: The Final Empire

final empire

An oddly non-mythological fantasy novel that reminds me of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi (think The God Makers rather than Dune). It’s wonderfully, refreshingly good. So good in fact that my urge to read slowly and soak up everything mostly beat out my urge to race to the end to find out what happens.

Some observations:

  • The back story and world systems (magic, politics, etc.) are effective, not exhausting. They suggest a large and fantastic world without belabouring details.
  • The world feels human because of its limits. There’s no Marvel-style superhero healing. When people are hurt they have to heal and it takes time, leaves scars. Communications operate through mundane systems: letters, messengers. The delays and physicality involved create genuinely engaging tension and open spaces for the plot to develop.
  • The plot is both complicated and complex but never plods as a means of suggesting scope or striking an epic pose. Instead, reversals allow an interplay between the slow and the fast that creates surprise. The war that characters are building for happens earlier than planned, off-stage and once news of it arrives, it has already failed catastrophically. (One character made a believably stupid error of judgment.) The intrigue intended as the set-up for greater intrigue later turns out to have been the real intrigue from the beginning. (The characters misjudged when planning.) Yet everything is built to and motivated. The first out-of-the-hat plot surprise that I can think of occurs in the final pages of the book and, because it’s the only one, is just great great great.
  • The plot reaches completion. The centuries old, omnipotent despot is killed. There is no holding back, no attempt to defer across the de rigeur trilogy format.
  • Story-wise, the book is a heist narrative crossed with a coming-of-age story and two non-sacred messiah tales. That’s a lot of story structure for a few hundred pages, but it’s all coordinated perfectly and develops with grace and clarity.
  • The leader of the rebels insists on smiling when he can do so honestly and understands that there are always secrets behind any secrets he uncovers.  The narrator does too, and it make this book really enjoyable to read.

Richard III

Richard IIIThis version of Richard III was in translation. It was well done and interesting. Yet, somehow, the actors delivered lines in a way that sounded “French” and made me think of this clip. I can’t explain why because the play wasn’t awful. There was just something in the emphasized rhythms of the lines that reminded me of all the performances of Moliere’s plays that I’d seen in Montreal.

Northanger Abbey

Northanger AbbeyWhen I lived on the island, I could get to work by foot, bike or metro. The walk was long, the metro could be annoying, the climb up the bridge across the St. Laurence could be brutal on a bike if there was wind. Still the choice between these options made going to work more like an activity than a commute. They were fun.

That all changed when I moved to the country. Now if I want to go to work—and alas I must go—then I have a half-hour or so commute each way. I’d prefer to use the train—because I love the train—but there’s no station within a practical distance from the school. So I drive, thankfully across (rather than with) traffic.

This commute isn’t difficult and I enjoy having the time alone to bracket my day, but after the first few weeks of making the trip, I wondered if listening to books as I drove might be fun. I grabbed an unabridged audiobook of Austin’s Northanger Abbey to see.

Turns out I love audiobooks, I continue to love Austin, and I found myself too often sitting in the parked car, engine off with the radio running on the battery, listening to the last minutes of a chapter. Austin’s telling of Catherine’s story is glorious. The long early description of what Catherine is not, and the later descriptions of her experience at her first ball and, later still, Henry’s guess at what Catherine had hoped Northanger might be stand out. It was a genuinely funny book.

But here’s the thing: the world disappears when I read. It’s always has. And so, I should have expected it when one day, driving down a two lane road, frustrated by Mr Thorpe’s ridiculous lies and with Catherine’s naïve credulity—I was caught up enough that I was speaking aloud, “He’s lying Catherine. He’s lying”—caught up like this, I blew through a stop sign.

Nothing happened. It was a country road. No one was there. I was fine. But things could have gone very badly, and I was rattled. (Later I found out the same thing had happened to one of my sisters. She no longer listens to audiobooks when she drives.)

Well, I didn’t have the option of walking away. Catherine’s Henry and Mr. Thorpe problems weren’t done, and poor Eleanor was alone in the Abbey. …would she ever find a true friend? I needed to know.

So I resolved to pay attention to my attention and not just to the story. If I saw myself starting to disappear, I’d shut off the radio.

It worked, and I finished the book without anymore incidents.

So I do like listening to books as I drive, and want to keep doing it. I need to make one change though: I’m going listen to non-fiction rather than novels. I think that will be easier to manage mentally.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max- Fury Road

This was the very best of the movies I saw as part of the blockbuster marathon.

The stakes here are clear and are established without tedious explication. The coherent but enigmatic world is a composite of moods and details built up with small touches across the two hours. Archetypes are evoked to great effect. (A high point are the people on stilts in the fog.)

FuriosaTom Hardy’s and Charlize Theron’s performances are wonderfully physical. Theron’s Furiosa has a psychology as layered as the film’s world. Easily as good a performance as her work in Snow White.

The story itself is straightforward, unapologetic, and without tricks. Characters’ motivations are clear and compelling. Trapped, a group of people try to escape to a better world, but when they get there, that world is no better than where they left. So they go back with the goal of remaking the world they knew. In the process, they bring the narrative full circle, a satisfying conclusion that here, unlike in so many of the other blockbusters (all of which quote early lines late in the film hoping to create the same effect), feels like storytelling rather than gimmickry .

Web Dialogue: A Sample

Mark Bernstein has a long post collecting various thoughts and questions about writing with links. In the longest segment of the post he takes a basic component of most narratives–a passage of dialogue–and then proposes a few seemingly minor transformations that someone writing a hypertext narrative might be expected to do: break the sequence into pieces, resequence the pieces, link to create an opportunity for one sequence to return to the other.

His post arrives as my summer days are dwindling and when I should be finishing up last bits of planning for my courses. But it also made me curious about what these transformations might look like behind the scenes and what would it take to actually do them. So last night I sat down and wrote up something just to see.

My TBX Map
My TBX Map

To get started, I jotted down ten notes that together made a short conversation/conflict. I then resequenced that conversation twice: once to work from the middle backwards with a possibility of either returning to the original chronological sequence or of continuing to the end more quickly, and once to create a completely independent, achronological version.

A Limitation: No Off Switch

All the links in the dialogue are web links and are always on. But not being able to control for repetition is a problem. Yes, repetition can be expressive. It might highlight the looping, unordered manner we speak to one another. In other words, a sequence with possible repetitions might offer an image of “conversation,” the genre of casual spoken exchange between people.

But I wasn’t much interested in that. I wanted to represent an actual conversation and that seemed to mean limiting possible repetitions as I made links. To manage this, I created every note in triplicate and linked from each version sequence separately. Doing this, I began to wonder to what extent it’s even useful to try to create the option of moving between versions mid-stride in a text that doesn’t aim to be a game narrative.

Weren’t the most meaningful choices made at the outset when a reader set off down one of the three available paths? What does the option to switch paths before the end of the convo add? (Note: not rhetorical questions)

Web Expectations

Putting together this dialogue, I worked against expectations I derived from the linear printed book. Reading the dialogue online though, I began to wonder if the relevant expectations–maybe the most important even–actually derived from the web.

I’m struck by how differently the text in TBX and the text on the web read. (I had the same experience with Faulkner.) The web naturalizes disorder. So much so that I find it hard to recognize the achronology of the jumbled versions of the conversations when reading online. Without trying to, I smooth out the problems and jumps. Yes, there are a couple off-tune transitional words that clang badly, but they are easy to delete (because they’re unnecessary).

Overall, I think it’s hard to notice or track differences between the versions. It’s a strange effect.

…or is my dialogue just not very “hyper-textual”?

Back to work, alas

And that’s it. This dialogue was maybe a bit of a throwaway exercise, but it was an interesting one to. And also a nice distraction as school obligations begin to pick up and take over.

Jurassic World

jurassic worldThis movie was terribly enough written that I almost walked out. I didn’t, because blockbuster marathon, but when it was over I was actually angry.

Why is the mother always crying? Why does the opening goodbye scene between the teenagers happen? And if is going to happen, then why have the teenage girl disappear never to return and the teenage boy act like a creep with every girl he sees? Is the point to make his character an asshole? And why does it matter that the parents, who are completely incidental to everything, might be getting a divorce? So we can think “poor, crying kid” at least once before the monsters start chasing them? Do we need that moment to make up for their nastiness toward the aunt who gave them a free, round-trip VIP visit to her park (because she’s not been around, /sadface)? And on and on and on.

That may all sound picky but its just lazy writing. Consider this: there is a helicopter kept on site but no pilot. Why can’t the company guy who is the only person ever to fly it just be a pilot rather than a trainee? I mean you’re making these people up, so just make him a pilot. Yes, you lose the lame joke about the tough female lead being scared when she’s in the air (hahahahahahaha, oh god, that was hilarious right?), but that deletion would probably improve the script by forcing the writers to imagine a legitimate exchange between her and her boss. And get this: nothing says that that exchange couldn’t be (wait for it) … legitimately funny.

My guess is that whoever created this script started from required moments and set pieces and then worked backwards, creating narrative bits that would stitch them together. Same with characters. That’s fine. I have nothing against that process, and when it’s done right, I have huge respect for it. (I love well-done genre pieces.) But in this case everything seems so lazily done that nothing (and no one) can withstand being thought about or considered for even a moment.

Just a terrible movie from start to finish.

Damages, Season 4 & 5

I love Glenn Close too much not to have finished this series, but I hated it more and more each season.

To survive, I watched for “the moments.” Say, Patty drinking red wine out of an enormous glass at her beautiful dinner table or maybe on her white couch. Or Patty sitting with reading glasses in hand, as someone leaves her office, silent, still, but watching closely and thinking hard.

Despite the time I put into watching the show, I’m left with nothing substantial except the two final images: Patty, alone in her limo, riding through the city streets like the Olympian she is, and Ellen, with her child, buying a cupcake or something.

What gets me is that the series clearly thinks that Ellen is the hero.

And that was the problem with it.

Sense and Sensibility

Sense & SensibilityI’ve never liked Jane Austin’s novels. Every sentence always seemed to be written perfectly straight up and down without passion, cold and severe. I dreaded courses where they were assigned, and I’ve started more of them than I’ve finished.

But a retired teacher had great success with Austin in a program specific course I now teach, and I decided last Fall to assign Sense and Sensibility. I regretted it as soon as I did, but it was too late to change and I was stuck.

Here’s the thing: I loved it. More than loved it, I adored it with giddy enthusiasm. Now I’m reading others, and am wondering how I missed the sarcasm, humour and consistent cleverness when I was reading in university.

And those sentences? They set my head straight.

Rereading is great.

Faulkner Online: Breathless First Impressions

The Faulkner hypertext that I’ve been making in Tinderbox and that I’ve spoken about a few times is now online.

It’s far from perfect, but that’s fine. It’s my first stab at this kind of writing and I wrote it as an experiment. I wanted to discover what was involved in writing something that 1) could be read in various sequences, 2) by someone sitting at a computer. I also wanted to find out 3) if I could, at the end, when the writing was finished, produce something that could be posted online. Or was that all-important final step beyond me?

Importantly, none of these had anything to do with Faulkner. So why choose him as a subject? Well, because I already had a text close at hand. Working with it, I expected I’d be able to focus on the three concerns above right away without worrying too much about the basic writing problems involved in going from nothing to something.

As it turned out, this choice had one additional advantage: I know what it took to pull material from so many different sub-field of research into a coherent, linear structure. I remember the difficult choices required and the pattern I struggled to develop and then to work within. Making the hypertext involved breaking that pattern, undoing those choices in order to create a different structure. The difference was vivid as I worked, sometimes to the point of being overwhelming.

The Hypertext

What I have online right now is not in the end what I expected and my worries are not those that I had anticipated. Still, it’s a first ever attempt to do something like this and I’m fine with it.

My concerns? The hypertext is incomplete if by complete, I mean “containing the information in my dissertation.” I did have dreams early on of having everything, but it was a waste of time to work toward that. I could lose my life rewriting and reordering a text I was done with (concretely and intellectually) years ago. Then a few days ago, I realized I was avoiding number three above: export. Deep down, I didn’t expect to be able to come up with anything usable from my Tinderbox file and that was going to be a crushing blow. I was avoiding the moment when it would hit.

So I bit the bullet, cut materials, linked back from dead ends where I found them, left quite a few long notes I’d planned to break up whole, and then last night (less than 24 hours ago!) sat down to see what I could get out of my Tinderbox file.

It was a revelation.

Tinderbox’s export is jaw-droopingly, amazing. I have never written HTML to create a web page, much less a site. Yet with an HTML/CSS book at hand as reference and few hours work Tinderbox spit out the pages currently online. Are they beautiful? No. But that’s me not having any sense of web colours and fonts (because zero practice, duh). And better yet, export is so easy that revisions of the site are no big deal. I made several before going to bed.

All of which means I now know that I can write in Tinderbox, and Tinderbox will give me sturdy, legible pages to post when I’m ready. That’s a game changer!

Source v. Hypertext

I’ve noticed that the hypertext makes the contribution I offer in my dissertation implicit rather than overt. For my project, I didn’t discover a lost text or dig through a trove of recently discovered letters or manuscripts. I took three marginal segments of Faulkner studies coordinated their linked parts and set the whole within its biographical and historical context. The result was a clarification of how an important but misunderstood part of his development as a writer worked.

Here’s the thing: the hypertext links I created often replaced the transitional material I had used to explain and coordinate material. As a result, what had been a slide show became a room with various things on separate (but related) display. Illustration was in a sense replaced by collage. That’s interesting but leaves the hypertext feeling a bit obvious to me.

I do, now that I’m done, have some concerns about the scholarly apparatus of the hypertext. I adapted my dissertation text with an eye to learning about hypertext, not because of a burning need to create an online Faulkner resource for the globe.I tried to play nice with quotation marks and citations, yes, but I’ve realized that some citations have disappeared in pages I worked on in the early weeks. There are probably others I haven’t noticed, and so, I’ve felt compelled to point out in the hypertext that the dissertation is the scholarly statement not the web site, a hedge but one I can’t live without.

First Impressions

  • Clicking through things last night, I realize that I agonized over structural questions as I was putting this thing together but that on the web, structure is hard to make present. For the moment, the posted text feels like a “resource” rather than an “argument” to me. Perhaps this is inevitable given that as I created possibilities for where to go next, I had to create links for those who arrived without info they needed and I couldn’t assume they had. The result is a link structure that feels very flat to me. The “hubs” I’d created, which allowed me to assume that, whatever path readers took to get here, beyond this point they know at least x, y & z, are largely non-operative. I’d like to think that’s a product of the last few days rapid link-building aimed at closing down the loose ends, but it may not be.
  • The hypertext reads online as much smaller than it is. Shockingly so. This is exciting—because it means there is more space than I imagined to write within—but also, I feel stunned: how much do you have to write to create work that feel large?
  • What I have now, feels readable and navigable (not to be confused with interesting or useful!), which makes me very happy. Until last night I had no idea that I would ever get to the point where I had something I could post a link to.

So yes, I’m very very happy. The experiment is done. I now know that Tinderbox HTML export is unbelievably, mind-blowingly easy and effective.

And so I feel free to sit down and write for real.

Wow. I’m going to say that again: I feel free to write. What a great day.

Cartier-Bresson’s Images à la Sauvette

The Beav and I were in Drummondville, he had something to do, suggested I might be interested in the photo museum. I’d had no idea there was one.

(from Musée Populaire de la Photo)
(from Musée Populaire de la Photo)

Turns out there is. It’s in the basement of the church on the main square, and it was showing a selection of photos from the book Images à la Sauvette by Henri Cartier-Bresson. What they’d done was take apart a first edition of the book and mounted a dozen or so of the prints inside. It was a small, well done show, and I enjoyed it.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen these photos in a museum though. In fact it was the third. The first time was at “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century” at the MoMa in 2010.

The second was at the Museo Amparo in Puebla, Mexico in 2013 where some prints were shown in connection with the show “Un fotógrafo al acecho Manuel Álvarez Bravo.” (We showed up the afternoon before the show opened and were ushered in for the grip-and-grin on the rooftop for the hoity-toity of Puebla. It was very cool but very odd.)

Avengers: The Age of Ultron

Avengers UltronMarvel has been everywhere these past few years (and years and years) and have been hard at work importing a large-scale, intertextual, story world from their comic properties to the movies. In doing so, they’ve gone a long way toward recreating their segment of film production in the image of the comic book market.

I’m no specialist (there are researchers who are), but I see the comic-film market as governed by two narrative impulses. The first is an elaborate cross-film machine that builds toward event movies like the first Avengers, which arrived after years of individual films and post-credit teaser segments. The second is the production of episodic filler pieces that may technically contribute to the build up for the next event but essentially “feed the beast” by offering up the cinematic equivalent of a stand-alone comic story.

Ant-Man, with its stock story, is a product of this second impulse; Avengers: Age of Ultron, the first. Or more precisely, it seems designed to move the machine forward while shutting down the event that was the first film. This means dealign with certain problems I suspect are inherent in Marvel’s model of film production.

Production Problems?

Comics and movies are deeply related in practice. Both present visual interpretations of scripts in media that rely on montage and a careful control of point-of-view. A film’s storyboards capture this relationship perfectly: created as a stage in film production, they look like comic books. Yet the two industries are very different too, and I have questions about how those differences play out in the long term.

Actors: Marvel’s success these past few years has rested upon the work of a few talented actors and/or stars. But this is no longer the Hollywood of the 30s, and these actors are not studio property. They are free to work elsewhere, and many of them clearly define success in ways that require they work outside of the realm of superhero films. How much juice can you squeeze from the Johansson-Ruffalo-Downey Jr. lemon, if someone like Chris Evans—a star whose entire career is based on performances in superhero films—condescends to the genre and is vocal about his intent to complete his contract with Marvel and do other things?

Avengers Ultron (1)

Directors: All of contemporary film culture lionizes the director as an artist, a creator. Not every director makes art, but today, that means that those who don’t have failed or are hacks. Marvel has, as with actors, benefited from the contributions of some very talented directors, but Marvel’s overall approach harkens back to a pre-Griffin production model in which the studio is the artist and the marketable name. The director is an employee, talented and respected, but taking direction. Which top-notch directors (and I’m not even talking auteurs here) will accept to work like this? Branagh is probably not coming back. Whedon’s clearly done. Directors make movies that pay in order to make the movies they want all the time, but I’m curious who will make Marvel’s movies in the coming years.

Narrative: How many years can a series of films drag out an single explicit story arc? TV and film have been exploring this limit for at least the past few decades. HBO’s programming like Deadwood and now The Game of Thrones are notable examples, but there are others. Film series that adapt books have been doing the same in cinema, although they have until recently been strongly episodic: think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games (and its imitators like Divergent and now The Maze Runner.)

Marvel is pushing things further by not directly adapting established books and by replacing a long-running series of films with a large-scale network of films. This is fascinating. Is there any other instance in the history of cinema of an entire studio’s production being devoted to the development of a single story-world?. But it’s also potentially exhausting. Who can (or will) keep up? I’m actually pretty bored with the post-credit teaser of Josh Brolin in purple-face trying to sound ominous and am lost regarding what he’s supposedly plotting. I think it had something to do with the ice-people in the first Thor movie way back in 2011?

The latest Avengers directly addresses the first and last of these concerns. The story both cleans out the stable of actors who are going elsewhere and introduces those who will fill the team in coming instalments. This last bit is, I presume, the first tease in the buildup for the next major event-movie in the cycle. The star power of those leaving and those arriving is shockingly different though. So I’m curious how that plays out.

What’s interesting

All that said, a few things about the movie itself stuck out for me, so I want to note them.

Avengers is a war film. By that I mean, I’m surprised how heavily it draw on the conventions of the war film. How many of the earlier films did the same? They are certainly all obsessed with the military and militarism. (cf. thoughts about epic fantasy while reading Battle Cry of Freedom.)

Ultron is clearly a place-holder villain of the sort you see in one-off instalments in comics. Freed of the burden of surviving and becoming an On-going Threat To Our Very Existence®, he gets to have a wacky plan to kill everybody “wwhahahahahaha!” And I liked that. I also LOVED that when he is finally defeated, he is destroyed off-screen, a nice and oddly respectful touch that avoids glorying in his death.

This movie has so very many parts, all in the air at once, all needing to be juggled, and somehow Whedon holds it all together and it works. It was exhausting, but I’m very impressed by what he pulls off. With smart writing and clever direction.

This was the first film I watched in my blockbuster marathon.

Battle Cry of Freedom

Battle Cry of FreedomIt’s hard to comment on the explicit content of an 800 page history of the Civil War. What I’ll say instead is that I read it as a follow-up to What Hath God Wrought, that it was a page-turner and that I was fascinated.

Why did I not have a better knowledge of the Civil War from school? I was a talented student, industrious and eager to know everything, and yet, here I am reading this book and realizing I knew next to nothing.

On a separate note, reading this book, I had an odd thought: epic fantasy it seems to me is oftentimes something like mythologized, military history for people who want to imagine a world rather than know the past. That sounds like a judgment, but I don’t mean it to be. I’m just noting that formally, the narrative of Battle Cry and the narrative of something like the first Shannara book have a lot in common, even if the latter is much less complex.

Movie Log: Ant-Man

Ant-manI almost didn’t watch this one because I really wasn’t interested, but I forced myself because it was on my list for the blockbuster marathon, and I was aiming for completion.

Story-wise, a smart-ass in a suit has to deal with an asshole in a suit. In other words, this is a remake of the first Iron Man.

I’d call this factory product, something I wouldn’t have said about many of Marvel’s movies for the past few years (even those I didn’t like). It does the job, but it’s hard to remember details. In that regard (but for very different reasons), it’s a bit like the Avengers.

Summer Blockbuster Marathon

The second week of my Montreal vacation, I decided to see all the summer blockbusters I’d never drive into the city to see. My list was:

So how was it? Well, there were thrills, yes, but there was agony too, and at one point, I faced defeat. But I made it, and now the logs are coming.

Apart from the marathon, over the course of the week I also watched A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Madame Bovary, and The New Rijksmuseum with the Beav. So it was a pretty movie intensive visit to the city.)

Honest Links

I’m working on Faulkner. That text is an argument but also a description of a situation and a history of its context.

Working, I’ve discovered that links can lie.

How?

The jump from one thing to the next can suggest a logical connection between the things without specifying it. And the lacunae can be masked by the page change and clever writing.

Definitely a temptation to avoid.

The flip side of this: any page text will likely be (should be!) the target of multiple links, each suggesting a different logical relationship with that text. So specifying the nature of a connection can be hard.

The goal: honesty without logical constriction.