Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Character development on Wall Street

Woah...haven't been in here for a while...

So, the new Wall Street film came out, and before it did I got a chance to watch the old one (made in the 80s). I loved the 80s "Wall Street" film, the filming was good, the acting was great, the characters were interesting and the plot pulled it all together.

I enjoyed the new one as well, but for some reason it wasn't as good. I didn't enjoy it as much. And this morning in the shower I suddenly realised why I didn't enjoy it as much. Nothing to do with the plot, or the filming, or Shea Labeouf (although all of those could have been improved) but to do with character.

Heres the thing I realised: In the new Wall Street no ones character ever changes. No character arc, no character development, no character anything.

Spoilers Ahead

In the first film Charlie Sheen is the young upcoming Wall-Street-er. He gets a job with Gecko (who owns a whole wall-street based empire), goes flying up the social ladder, but realises somewhere near the top that he's about to sell out his dads buisness. He freaks, slams Gecko, then gets arrested for insider traiding. At the end Gecko has been arrested and Charlie Sheen is seen walking up the steps to his trial.

In the second film, Shea Labeouf is a young upcoming Wall-Street-er who wants to invest in alternative energy. He's dating Gecko's daughter, and Gecko comes out of prison. He talks with Gecko, and they hatch a plan to get the money Gecko left his daughter out of a Swiss bank to invest it in alternative energy. At the last stage, Gecko bails on them, runs off with the money and makes a huge pile of cash. At the end, however, he returns the (relatively small) amount he stole from them in order to be with his daughter, who has a child.

By the end of the first film all the characters have grown, changed and learnt something about themselves. By the end of the second film all the characters are exactly the same. Shea is still an enthusiastic alternative-energy nut who thinks he knows what his wife wants better than she does, Gecko's daughter is still a fairly likable young lady whose idea of what kind of future she wants changes depending on what Shea wants and Gecko is ... Gecko. Nobody learns anything, with the exception of Shea's mother, who learns that if you try to do fast housing deals you end up stuck cleaning out peoples bedpans. We never know how she feels about that though.

They try to spin it out like Gecko's redeption story, but it seems to pass over everyones heads that the end of the story isn't the triumph of the happy family, but rather the triumph of Gecko, who must be laughing all the way to the bank. He literally ends up with everything; a family, pots of money, clean energy, and he does this by simply giving a tiny amount back from his huge fortune. The moral of the first film was that climbing high on dodgy morals sends you falling hard. The moral of the second film is that it's OK to be greedy, as long as you do a few token good deeds somewhere near the end. Forget sacrifice, or self knowledge, the only thing required for this redeption is to give your daughter a couple a hundred and stare whistfully at a scan of your grandchild.

Greed is good and Gecko has won.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The greatest detective...

Recently I've been watching a lot of episodes of 'Lewis', a new-ish detective show based off the Inspector Morse series. Inspector Morse was about an old police inspector in Oxford and his Sargent, Lewis, who went around solving various crimes. Morse was highly intelligent; liked crosswords, puzzles, and classical music and had a couple of mild vices like drinking and not being particularly impressed with forensics.

Morse is the one in front, Lewis is the one behind.

They did a good few series of Morse and then killed him off in the last one. It was fairly standard crime writing, well portayed and acted and with some wonderful filming moments. But then as a spinoff they decided to make Lewis into an Inspector and give him his own show, producing something fairly visionary in the process.

In 'Morse' Lewis is a "steady copper". He's from oop north (not sure it's ever said where but I'm guessing Newcastle). He plays the part of the sidekick that you can relate too, in the same club as Watson and Hastings, while Morse does the brilliant stuff. In 'Lewis' however, Lewis is still a steady copper sidekick, except now he's in charge of the cases. In order to retain the northerner/posh-uni dynamic they give him a Sargent from Cambridge, who does the buisness of knowing odd facts and strange details. Lewis still works out the cases, but unlike Morse (and indeed Sherlock Holmes and even Poirot) he doesn't pull random bits of polished knowledge out of nowhere. He just puts everything together, still in a fairly slow sidekicky manner.

Lewis is on the right and his Sargent sidekick Hathaway on the left.

The most amazing thing about this is that it works. Rather than being a distant insanely-intelligent detective Lewis is someone you can actually relate too. Sherlock Holmes is a force unto himself, Poirot uses deductive reasoning par excellent, but Lewis uses non of those tricks, just his knowledge, experience, and a normally intelligent mind.

That's not to say you can guess the end. You rarely can. But you can clearly see how Lewis gets there, and his experience plays a large part. Hathaway is the Morse-like figure here, intellectually brilliant, fold of crosswords, puzzles, full of random bits of knowledge whenever Lewis needs it, but he lacks the experience and the knowledge of human nature that Lewis has acquired. It makes the balance between them more even as well. With Morse and Lewis (as with Holmes and Watson) the poor sidekick has no chance to be better than the detective at anything. The message of the sidekick is "here is someone for you ordinary mortals to relate too, except obviously it's someone slow and a little dense because you will never be as amazing as the main character".

Lewis has faults as well, and not just the on-screen-harmless 'likes drinking' ones. He has prejudices and dislikes that affect his work (his wife died in a carcrash leading him to be prejudiced against suspects previously guilty of drink or drug driving) and Hathaway gently calls him up on these. Hathaway himself is a marvellous character, funny with dry wit, and amazingly acted. I like watching his face while other characters are talking, little smiles, or sudden small frowns (all very subtle) help to shape the character and the way he sees the world. Conventially, the Cambridge educated, smart sophisticated and intellectually brilliant Hathaway would be the main character, with his occasionally slow and awkward northern superior as the sidekick. But he isn't. Lewis is clearly and obviously the star.

The pacing is gorgeous as well. Once it starts each episode ramps up the pressure, slowly, then warms up slightly quicker and finally hits the last ~15 minutes with sheer fast-paced intensity. The cameras are used really wonderfully as well, with some filming moments which just make me squee at the screen (much to the confusion and amusement of my fiancé). Camera angles and shots are actually used for effect, rather than just to change the view.

But I think it really is the characters that get to me most. In the Holmes/Morse/Poirot school of detective writing the sidekick is just a prop, to hold up the brilliance of the detective. Lewis and Hathaway on the other hand, are truly a team; their faults and strengths compliment each other, and they get along well enough to gently tease about it. Lewis calls the shots, but it is more a partnership of equals than the brilliant detective with his sidekick running to keep up.

(And while I'm on the subject of detectives I must say I loved the recent Sherlock Holmes. It was let down badly by the villains, who were stereotyped-evil and far too unbelievable. Sherlock Holmes and Watson however went straight to my heart and I really hope they make better villains if they make another film).

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Robin Hood and the importance of Genre

The new Robin Hood film is out by now, and I don't know why but I really don't want to see it. On the face of it, it looks like the kind of film I like; Big epic scenery, questy things, gigantic battles etc. The Prince of Persia film (which seems similar) I really do want to see, but somehow the very idea of going to Robin Hood makes me cringe a little.

Probably because every time someone says "Robin Hood" this is what I see in my head:

We're men, menly men, men in tights, tight tights!

Robin Hood has had the piss taken out of him so many times that you simply can't do a serious version any more. Not unless it's really, really good. To get Robin Hood taken seriously you need amazing action, Godfather-style drama, and a quick gripping pace. Which I'm not convinced Russel Crowe's version has. If it's not careful it'll just be a montage of scenes which have already been parodied interspersed with Monty Python Moments and the occasional Blackadder joke.

I think half way through watching the trailer for the third time I finally twigged why it wasn't grabbing me. It's not a fantasy epic. It's trying to be a fantasy epic, it's trying so hard it hurts but it isn't, it just isn't. It's historical fiction.

I'm all for breaking down previously defined boundries, but when it comes to genre some of those boundries are there for a reason. You can have thousands of evil foe being slaughtered to the accompaniment of a cackling evil overlord in fantasy because none if it is real. It's escapism. But you can't get away with that in historical fiction because everyone actually exists (or existed). There are no minions in Historical fiction (although you can get pretty close with Nazis) each dead enemy is a person with hopes, dreams, families and ideologies of their own.

The other problem that comes across is with the way of thinking. In fantasy your heros can have whichever moral leanings they want (such as in the rather hilarious case of Mal in Firefly, who happily kills people but is so utterly anti-slavery). In Historical fiction they are bound by the thoughts of the time, which means when you get Robin Hood standing up and vowing to fight for freedom, truth, justice, womens rights, anti-communism, and the American Way it all looks a tad contrived.

Historical films do not stand and fall on their battle and action sequences, they succeed on strength of character, plot and drama. Gladiator was a political intrigue with awesome acting, very memorable character scenes and Joaquin Phoenix. It was not 'epic' in the sense that it didn't rely on sweeping panoramas or battle scenes to exist. It had sweeping panoramas, of the awesome kind, but it didn't use them as a prop, just to help you sink into the atmosphere created by the narrative. The battles were close and personal and not gratuitous. The action was tight and slick and there was the occasional speech but none of the speeches sounded contrived. It was Historical Drama with a touch of the epic thrown in and it worked.

Robin Hood is a fantasy epic set in Medieval England. I'm not convinced it will work.

Also people are getting more cynical about heros nowadays; random strong-men just turning up, killing people and then talking about justice don't hack it the way it used to. People point out the families of the henchmen, the dubious moral double-standards (Stargate is the best for those). The more recent Star Wars episodes were laced with politics and moral messages, because young lads from the desert flying planes into large state-owned structures based on their own hokey religions just doesn't make such a good story as it used too. Robin Hood is hard enough as a hero anyway, given that he's no more than a glorified thug in a green hoody, and King Richard is hardly the epitome of goodness given that his illegal war in the middle east is the reason his brother keeps hiking the taxes up.

Robin Hood is the guy in the background. And King Richard is the guy in the front. And Nick Clegg is the Sheriff of Nottingham :p

It's very hard, while watching the trailer, to convince yourself that you're not watching Lord of the Rings. There are mistreated peasants being chased by human-looking Uruk Hai, and that obligatory bit where lots of people get mercilessly killed for no particular reason other than to show that the bad guy really is bad. There's a Woman In Armour (TM), Nazgul-type-things in cloaks, very atmospheric woods, the only difference is that the sweeping panoramas are several times more boring because it's England rather than New Zealand.

I can't help thinking though, that if they'd set it in Generic-Fantasy-Olde-England and made it about some guy called Jack Cloak fighting evil King Mark whilst secretly supporting Mark's older brother who was fighting the Romulans or whatever I might be able to enjoy it. That would be pure fantasy escapism, with very little associated moral worries (like - if King Richard is all that good why is he taxing people dry to invade a country that isn't his and try to get all the inhabitants to convert to his religion?) You also wouldn't be worried about all the historical inaccuracies, or be sniggering every time someone inadvertently invokes a Holy Grail joke ("help, help I'm bein' repressed!") because the whole setting is made up and rather ridiculous. You can just enjoy.

I'd appreciate the thoughts of anyone whose actually seen it though. Was it that bad? Or did it manage a passably good story?

Monday, 31 May 2010

Two people with one pulse

I don't know what it is about love poems, and love songs, but somehow they're always a lot better if they don't mention the word 'love'. It's a word which means both too much and too little, especially in the English language, where it can be used to adequately sum up feelings towards things like chocolate, football, or the latest television show. The word 'love' doesn't convey a whole lot in itself, and poems which can most accurately portray the actual feelings of being in love are a lot more beautiful and realistic.

Like this poem
Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.

And they were neither up nor down;
The stream's music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.

The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise -
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.

The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.

Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.

Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.

God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body's peace
God or whatever means the Good.

Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.

"Meeting point" by Louis MacNeice, is probably my favourite love poem (my favourite love song is 'walk the line' by Johnny Cash). There's something about this poem that seems to perfectly capture the feeling of sitting with someone special, someone whose life means as much to you as your own. The feeling that the rest of time has stopped, and that the two of you, for one instance, are locked in a little bubble of one-ness. In the poem, the moving stairs have stopped, the radio sounds are slowing and dimming and the bell has hovered, silently. But that time, the time between the 'clangs' is more beautiful and special than the real noise, in the same way that the time between the times that the lovers are currently in is more special than the surrounding real world.

It's a bit of a surreal poem as well, there are camels and deserts and forests. They aren't seeing the world how it is - of course not, they're in love! There world is a fantastical, magical place, more meaningful if less realistic.

The second-to-last stanza always makes me start sniffling a little. "God or whatever means the Good" is such a good reflection of the way love can feel. It might be God, it might be some other mystical spiritual thing, it might just be two people and the way they feel but there is something other involved in this. Something in love that passes beyond the explanation of science. Sure you can explain why people feel loving feelings, you can point to the various chemicals released by the brain, you can explain how the partnership between two people to bring up a child is evolutionarily important for human survival, but you can't really explain why it feels like that. Or why there's just a connection that happens, with some people and not others. What makes time stop and a coffee shop radio slow to a trickle of water.

I think as well, either consciously or unconsciously it kind of brings up another time that lovers feel. A time when time has stopped, when the world is fantastical, and when there only is one pulse, one heartbeat, and two people feeling one thing at the exact same moment and that feeling is a pure white flash of beautiful empty thought.

It's wonderfully written as well, the repetition of the first and last lines creates a surreal lilting flow. Five lines to a stanza stops the two-four rhythm taking over:
da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM
and THEY were NEI-ther UP nor DOWN
By adding the extra fifth line in there it creates a pause after every stanza, a little space of time to stop the rhythm running away with you. Try reading it without the last line of each stanza and you can see the effect, everything just runs into itself and it creates a running on rhythm that spoils the mood.

The rhythms, the imagery, and the worlds all generate the feelings and emotions inside you that the author is trying to convey. It's the sort of poem which makes me feel both very excited at the power that poetry can possess and the things it can achieve, and at the same time a little miserable because I'm pretty sure I'll never be able to write poetry that amazing myself. A friend of mine put forward that poetry is the purest form of writing, and I think I'm starting to agree with him. Unlike novels, or short stories, poetry aims to use as few words as possible to create true human feelings and emotions. To go from thoughts in a head, to words on a page, to emotions in a mind.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Why I like Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Quick post to relax a bit during revision...

One of the things I've been asked a couple of times, by my English teacher, fiancé, etc, is why I enjoy the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre so much. While I am very much aware that Sci Fi and Fantasy are two different things, I'm lumping them both together here as a very specific type of the genre: anything involving big epic-y quests, silly costumes, names containing punctuation marks, made up words for everyday objects, etc. I'll just generally call it Fantasy, to save on typing.

So why do I enjoy Fantasy so much. In the spirit of keeping my brain in the mindset of revision, I'll make a list:

1) No Relationships.

For those who don't know me, one thing that I can possibly give away without revealing my secret identity is that I can't stand RomComs. Or soaps. Or romantic novels. Or anything that involves romantic plots born of misunderstandings and emotional drama. They drive me scatty and I find them intensely irritating to watch. The authors of fantasy epics seem to feel the same way, because the thing that stands out about most of these stories is the surprising lack of romantic emotional subplot. This is usually achieved by having the majority of characters either a) exclusively male b) basically asexual or c) surprisingly related.

Eragon is renowned for managing all three.

Relationships tend to be formed mostly via the process of elimination - once she's ruled out her brother, Chewbacca, two gay robots and the odd miscellaneous Ewok there's not many people Princess Leia really can decide to marry. Eowyn and Faramir probably deserve some kind of award for this, having decided after a few hours quick natter that they're probably the only single people of the same species left and should therefore probably get hitched. No misunderstandings, slammed doors, or tearful protestations of betrayal feature.

2) Predictability

It's not always the best thing in a story, but one reason that I turn to Fantasy like an old well-worn pair of jeans is the wonderful predictability of the plot. Sure it might have a few holes in it, and be fraying a little at the edges, but there's a sort of comfort value about a nice predictable plot line. The ugly people will be evil, and will probably die, while the pretty people will end up fulfilling their destiny, discovering their true selves and coping wonderfully well with events that in the real world would lead to several years trauma-therapy.

No hobbits were traumatised, despite murdering several orcs, being captured and almost eaten, and watching their beloved friend be viciously killed right in front of their eyes.

And this all leads onto the third point which is...

3) It's Endearing

There's a certain level of Bad that some films, and books, achieve which instead of being irritating and distracting comes out as totally and utterly endearing. The fact that the Fantasy authors seem to genuinely see nothing wrong with people walking away from blood-filled carnage feeling nothing but self-righteously victorious, or forming lifelong relationships based on a few minutes carrying out said blood-filled carnage. Its that slight look of 'oh dear this is so stupid' in Alec Guinesses eyes as he plays Obi-Wan Kenobi, the aliens created by people glueing old egg-cartons to their foreheads in old SciFi films, the fact that you can replace the names and skin colours of the characters in Eragon and end up with another, probably published, Fantasy book.
For me, this kind of picture sets off the reaction usually seen in normal people presented with small puppies. Lookattheliddleevilscifiguy! And he's called Ming the Merciless. Seriously :D

Of course all of these work best when the author is aware how godawfully silly the whole concept of their story is, which is why Flash Gordon was one of the best SciFi films ever made (apart from Star Wars, obviously). Or when the author, either on purpose or by fortuitous mistake, actually creates an amazing character in the midst of the Generic-Quest, which gives you something to enjoy focusing on while the rest of the story trundles on happily in it's beautiful cocoon of Generic-Fantasy.

4) Escapism

This is the big one, and probably the main reason I first got into Fantasy in the first place. It allows me to escape from the real world, which is full of problems and unexpected volcanoes and things. In Fantasy that doesn't happen, everything is ordered and organised. Unlike real life there are rules to how the universe works. Mysterious old men will be wizards, young eager farm boys with a tendency to stare into the middle distance will be heros, people who show you a picture of their kids before a battle will end up dead etc. You can run away to a world that is more exciting, more understandable and more fun to be in than this one, which quite appealing when you're twelve, and no less so as you get older.

I know I'm not the only person who sat up waiting for this on their eleventh birthday!

Friday, 7 May 2010

My Favourite Poem

Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas. It is possible to read the rest of this post without clicking the link and reading the poem but a) it will be harder to follow and b) you will miss what may be one of the most amazing poetical experiences ever.

"Fern Hill" is one of those poems (and there are many) that deals with the loss of childhood and more importantly the loss of the world that you live in whilst a child. A world of half-reality, half-stories, where everything is new and bright and wonderful and you are immortal. Many poems have been written about this theme, but for some reason Fern Hill is something more, something amazing. I can't read it without tearing up a little. It's the lilting style, the rhythm is sings with, and the words, the beautiful half-meaningless worlds, that just transport you back to childhood. When you read it you feel like a kid again, running around in breathless excitement with the words tumbling out of you, still not fully understood. Everything is held together by images, it's a poem that paints pictures in your mind as much as it makes words sing in your head.

I think the thing that particularly stands out with it for me is the colours. I love colours. They each have a meaning and a theme and a hundred ways of interpreting. Different cultures and languages use them in different ways, they are something personal, and dictate such a large and sometimes under-appreciated part of how you view the world. And the colours in Fern Hill paint everything in childish sweeps of poster-paint primary colours. The world is green and golden, the wind is bright sky-blue, even the fire is "green as grass". You can almost see the colours on the page, making it shine, making it meaningful. There's a trail of symbolism you can trace right through them as well:


So many words, so many thoughts and images and feelings, all from one colour! The feelings of youth and excitement, along with the naivety and innocence, all tinged with the regretful sadness of loss.

The thing I love most about this poem is that there are so many ways to pull it apart. Colours are (for me) the most exciting aspect, but there are so many themes to grab and tease out you could spend all day writing about it. There's a biblical thread, a very strong one, running through beginning to end. There's also an animal thread, a sound thread, a taste and smell thread, and at least four different ways of viewing Time. But unlike other poems (Keats is a good example here!), this one is special as it doesn't change it's meaning depending on my mood. It has a feeling of solidness, of certainty, every time I read it I know exactly what I'm going to get (mostly the sniffles), I just don't know what new facet I'm going to see.

I'll probably come back to this poem in the future, possibly comparing it with others. But I would definitely recommend reading it. It's six small stanzas, and it shines like a jewel.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Zorro and Batman

I've just handed in my dissertation. I think I deserve this :)

Zorro and Batman are both very similar. They fight for justice and freedom, they wear black cloaks and masks, they respond to cries for help, they have costumes which reduce their peripheral vision, they keep large caves in the basement where Batman stores weapons and machines designed to help him in his fight against the crimes of the city while Zorro stores a horse.

Zorro does not need anti-shark spray

The other thing they both have in common is that unlike the X-men, or the Fellowship of the Ring, they have almost no connection to the people they are fighting so ardently to protect. Batman is a rich multimillionaire trying to stop crime in what must be the most crime laden city in the world, while Zorro is a rich Spanish Don (Don Diago de la Vega) fighting to protect the native Californians from anyone who happens to be oppressing them (i.e all the other Dons). In both cases, this seems a little screwed, how much can you genuinely admit to be representing a people living in a world that is totally alien to your own.

(I probably give Batman a little more stick for this, but only because I actually like Zorro. Me and my sister went through a phase of watching the old Disney TV series when we were about 14 and the dodgy acting, complete melodrama, bad jokes, and totally fake-looking sets utterly sold it too me. Those series were amazingly bad and I loved every half-hour installment of them).

Starting with Batman then. His drive (as it were) for protecting the crime-ridden masses is that he lost his parents at a young age. Notwithstanding the fact that loosing any close family member must be one of the most horrible experiences ever, even the most grief-stricken experience does not exactly make you an expert about the life of people on the street. The people he is fighting to protect are going through hardships and experiences Bruce Wayne can barely even dream about. The big bad guys he's fighting might be sociopaths with bad dress sense, but the people working under them are just likely to be desperate in ways that Bruce will never experience. Added to which, Batman gets to come home each evening, to a warm bath, something to fix his injuries, and plenty of food. Anyone who might have suffered any collateral damage due to Batmobile crashes, brawls or shifts in the underground economic situation is left to starve to death on the streets of Gotham.

The only source of income for three children getting punched in the face.

Zorro is slightly better, because he's usual quite clear about the fact that he only attacks the rich or corrupt, and because there's only so much collateral damage you can do with a sword and a horse. In fact I don't think anyone actually ended up dead throughout the entire TV series (the films and comics are another matter) mostly because the people Zorro ended up fighting were the people that Diago de la Vega was friends with.

Which raises what is probably the most worrying consideration for Zorro: he can achieve quite a lot by fighting with his mask on, but you get the feeling he could achieve even more by taking it off. He's a rich influential Don, if he placed his support firmly with the local populace and used his actual money and influence to make a difference rather than just his sword he could probably have a much greater positive affect.

Which again leads to another consideration that both Batman and Zorro never seem to consider. They are very rich. The people they are supposedly fighting for are very poor. Could Zorro not have built just one school? Batman not paid for a few social workers, or less-corrupt policemen? At the very least he could have given those policeman that could be trusted (there must have been at least one) some of his amazing bat-related weapons.

You throw it into the sharks mouth and then fire!

But they never do. The money gets saved for yet more inventive ways to kill people (in the case of Batman) or even more overdone ornamental waistcoats (in the case of Zorro). Batman continues to try and control a city of crime-lords and desperate people by violently attacking them, totaling their cars, blowing up their buildings and spraying their sharks, while Don Diago continues to plot by night to kill (or maim and humiliate in the TV series) the people he's friends with by day. For both of them it comes off as a bit of a rich boys hobby because they can both just stop any time they want. They don't of course but the fact is that they could and, because of the whole 'hidden identity' issue they are never, ever, at the risk of facing any actual consequences for the actions they carry out in costume. Batman never has to cough up car insurance. Zorro never has to pay for new trousers for the hilariously-fat Sergeant who rips at least one pair every episode. They can continue wrecking trails of destruction through peoples lives and then retire at the end of it to a nice big meal in a nice warm house.

It's an interesting thing to notice that the more recent films of both of these characters immediately try to redress these balances. Zorro stops being a Spanish Don, and becomes Antonio Bandaras, whose actually meant to be one of the local populace, and is therefore fighting for his own freedom. Bandaras-Zorro also doesn't have to maintain a second life as a Don. He pretends to be rich and famous at one point, but it's not a life that he has to maintain, it's as much of an act as the Zorro is and far more temporary. Likewise Batman becomes a bit more accountable and in 'Batman begins' they play around a lot with the idea that Gotham would probably be a fairly similar place to live if Batman were to vanish one day, after all, he's been in Gotham for decades now, and the crime rate there isn't exactly going down.

The newer, grittier, more-screwed-up Batman is a lot more realistic, and even if he does come off a little as a rich boy playing at being policeman (but a more cool policeman) he's at least wearing trousers now. But I think I'll always prefer Zorro, despite the fact that he comes off as a lot more sociopathic and selfish in his insistence on remaining masked. Batman has an entire bat-cave full of top-weaponry and dangerous toys and at the end of each story-arc Gotham is as crime ridden as ever. Zorro has a sword and a horse, and by the end of the Bandaras film he's saved an entire American state and married Catherine Zeta Jones.

I'm smiling at you now, but tonight I'll be sending your mail coach plumetting into the ravine!

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Victorian Literature

I have a confession to make. It's a hard confession for someone who likes books and reading, and who would very much like to be a literature student in a different life, but the truth is I really am not a fan of Victorian literature. I can appreciate the important role of Vic-Lit in the development of the novel, the exploration of themes, the effect of the sudden influx of female writers and, in later works, the slow movement away from the rigid straightjacket of Victorian Christian morality. The influence Vic-Lit has had on later works is priceless, and the books themselves make for a prime source of information about life and peoples attitudes during the 1800s.

I just really don't like reading the stuff.

I find Dickens one of the hardest authors to read in the world. I can just about stick Bronte, and I've never actually managed a Jane Austin so can't comment (and she's pre-Victorian anyway) but I studied "David Copperfield" for A-level and found it almost impossible. There were several chapters near the end I actually missed out, I was getting that bored of it and just relied on the BBC serial for my knowledge of what I'd missed. I read "Great Expectations" as well, in the hope it might turn out to be better, and almost read "Nicholas Nickleby" before realising that I had better things to do with my life.

I can't stand them. I can't find a single reason to recommend Dickens apart from the fact that some of the jokes (once they finally finish) aren't bad. The writing is stodgy, getting through a paragraph in Dickens is like wading through porridge and to call the characters 2-dimensional is to give them two more dimensions than they actually possess. The storyline relies on a number of massively improbable coincidences (everyone you bump into on the street is likely either to be an old friend or an unknown relative) and entire story arcs are dropped in the middle of the book, or occasionally spring up out of nowhere.

Writing within a straightjacket of the surrounding morals is not something I take issue at. Every writer does it, and it can sometimes produce beautifully complex and thought-provoking characters like Shylock or Heathcliff, that teeter on the bring of acceptability (either by being an 'evil' character saying things that could be good or a 'good' character behaving in ways that are conventionally evil). But Dickens embraces the straightjacket; all his evil characters are called things like "Mr Badde-Personne" and you can tell their evil because they routinely torture small children, and because it usually says so in the text. Inevitably, of course, the evil characters will die, or end up miserable or maimed while the good characters all end up happily married. Apart from characters who are too good of course, and they end up dead, presumably in heaven.

You can see authors like Bronte beginning to break out of this straightjacket (Mr Rochester ends up both married and maimed for example, and Heathcliff is another post altogether). But it never seems to occur to Dickens to make his evil characters anything more than Punch cartoon illustrations.

Redemption is rare. Dickens uses his characters to make social points (like "torturing small children is bad") but he uses them clumsily, like hitting the reader over the head with a brick. At the risk of sounding somewhat heartless and shallow, the effectiveness of this method in causing social change is, in my opinion, another issue entirely. Social change notwithstanding, this is bad writing! It's like Dolorous Umbridge in Harry Potter. Writing a character you call evil and then having them do evil things is just boring. There's no chance of redemption, no character growth, no character arc, no character.

The writing style is probably my biggest boundary, as I said earlier, I just find it so stodgy. Dickens never uses one word where ten will do, never sketches a scene out through the actions and words of the characters but instead sits down at every other vantage point and writes a couple of nice thick paragraphs just so everyone knows exactly what their looking at. One of the reasons that you can fit Dickens books quite nicely into a few BBC series is that several pages of writing can often be replaced by a quick shot of the inside of a room, or a busy street.

The coincidences though, are what finally kill it. While I was studying David Copperfield I decided, in a moment of bored desperation, to try and interpret the story as if Mr Micawber (a random character who is constantly appearing throughout the story and constantly in debt) was actively stalking David, following him through London and Plymouth, tracking him down across the cities and feigning surprise whenever he met him. It actually made for a far more realistic story, if a rather creepy one. I then tried adding Steerforth into the plot (David's old school-friend who he randomly bumps into in London when he's grown up), he too was stalking David, possibly aided by Micawber. There had to be a reason for it though, so I decided (it was a very boring lesson) that Micawber and Steerforth were spies, sent by Her Majesties government to protect David from ... something. That worked surprisingly well, as there's very few places in the plot where he isn't in touch with one or both of them. I was just trying to work Mr Dick into the plot, and Uriah Heep into the 'something' when the bell rang and I had to go to Chemistry.

Anyway. While I can certainly understand the importance of Dickens, and I can even sort of see why some people might like reading it, I find that most of my time reading Dickens is spent daydreaming about other stories I'd rather read. And although Dickens is the worst offender, I find most Vic-Lit, for some of the same reasons, hard to get through. I waded through Jane Eyre more than I read it and although it raises a lot of interesting points, I'm quite glad I know enough to discuss them without having to read the book again.

That post was a therapeutic rant as a break after finishing my thesis. I know other people hold different views, and would be very pleased to hear about them :)

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

That Quote From Keats

Scientists like to use suitably antiquated literature quotes in their work, because it makes them seem intelligent, and fully rounded people rather than just sad little scientists who spend all their time wrapped up in one organism or pathway. Speaking as a sad little scientist myself (whose knowledge of anything other than Streptomyces is currently a little hazy) I approve. The more literature quotes there are in the world the better and who knows, some people might be encourage to go and read the original poem or text, and experience the true awesome beauty of it.

The problem is, of course, when quotes get used out of context, or with twisted meanings. The one quote that gets pushed into service very frequently with science-writing, and is almost always hideously misued, is That Keats Quote:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

The usual meaning the writer is trying to convey with this quote is, "Look at this thing. This thing is beautiful. It must be true!" or occasionally, "Look at how this true thing is beautiful. Poets and scientists both have the same view of how the world is!" Occasionally it's just shortened down to just the first line, or the first few words "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"

Which takes the quote completely out of context and, what's even worse, completely destroys the beautiful subtlety of it. In fact it completely destroys the entire point of the quote in the first place, which is to question the connections between truth, beauty, reality and desire.

The poem the quote is taken from is "Ode on a Grecian urn" which is slightly too long to be reproduced in full, but can be found here and is highly recommended, along with most of Keats. As the title suggests, it's a poem about a Greek pot, more specifically the patterns and pictures around the pot. Examining the frozen scenes (which show a man playing the pipes under a tree, two lovers about to kiss, and a procession of villagers with a calf for sacrifice) allows Keats to return to one of his favourite themes; which is more preferable, a passion that is everlasting but will never reach fulfillment? Or the experience of true and complete fulfillness which must then pass away into decay and death. Basically the Keatsien version of "is it better to have loved and lost or never loved at all?"

The urn represents agelessness, the unchanging and fixed scenes. The lover's cannot kiss and the piper cannot go home, but will be "for ever piping songs, for ever new". In the second and third stanza (paragraph) Keats seems rather wistfully jealous of this state of affairs. The lover's might not be able to reach fulfilment, but they've been locked in their embrace for several hundred times his lifetime. In the forth stanza however, he briefly touches on the downside of changelessness, namely that everything remains unchanged. The villagers will be in continuous procession, but likewise their village will always be empty, for the rest of eternity.

The final stanza, brings it all together, but it ends it with a big question, not an answer. Keats has no more answers than we do as to whether the timeless yet unfulfilled nature of the Grecian urn is preferable or not. All this of course, leads up to the final quote:

Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! 45
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

The final quote! Which isn't even said by Keats. It isn't even what the poet thinks, it's a final summery of the point of view of life from the Grecian urn. Keats is still teased out of thought, but he takes some comfort in the fact that the urn will always be there. No matter how crazy or insane life gets, the world of the Grecian urn will always be beautiful, and always be truthful. Not the real world, the real world is changeable, ugly and false, that is why the urn remains a source of comfort. Preferable or not, the "Cold pastoral" of the Grecian urn will by its very nature embody the truth, beauty and permanence that the rest of the world does not.

If those last two lines are a comment about anything, it's the nature of art, rather than the nature of reality. Art, or at the very least things that are pleasant to look at because they make you forget the uglyness of reality (Keats = proto-emo), should be things for which beauty and truth are equal. A piece of work which is both true and beautiful. The definition of truth at this point is another matter entirely, in the case of the Grecian urn my view is that 'true' means 'revealing some deep truth about the world' in this case the struggle between permanence and fulfilment.

Either way, it's certainly not "Keats on the nature of reality". Which is how it's so often used.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Iambic Pentameter

Starting off in style with Iambic Pentameter, the meter used by Shakespeare, Keats, and apparently various ancient Greeks. The Iambic foot is a pattern of stresses: an unstressed sylabble followed by a stressed one:

da-DUM - as in "but look!" or "You see"

Iambic pentameter therefore means five iambs in a row:

da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM
If MU-sic BE the FOOD of LOVE play ON.
Now IS the WIN-ter OF our DIS-con-TENT
But SOFT what LIGHT through YON-der WIN-dow BREAKS

It's a lovely meter to use, as it creates a lilting flowing style, longer than conventional poetry but shorter than free-flow prose. The iambic flow helps to carry the speech along (especially helpful during somewhat long-ish speeches), and five beats per line gives it shape and form.

In Shakespeare's work the strict iambic form is occasionally deviated from, for example the famous "to BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUES-tion" ends in a weak stress known as a feminine ending (and even then the stresses don't quite work, the mind naturally wants to say "to BE or NOT to be THAT is the QUES-tion). However the meter still flows, and during the speeches, or suitably poetic discussions between high-class characters, the flow is all. Free prose (with no stresses, so just said as people normally speak) is reserved exclusively for lower-class characters during humorous interludes, such as the drunken porter in MacBeth. The sudden lack of poetic meter signals to the audience that this part is not relevant to the plot so much as an excuse for bawdy or topical jokes and probably a fair bit of slapstick.

A question often asked is how much the meter should be stressed during performances, obviously you don't want an actor who overstresses every second syllable, but performances where the meter is ignored completely and the whole thing spoken as prose always seem to me to be lacking something. The best performances are usually by those actors who can speak using the iambic stresses but make it sound like that's how they normally speak. The wonderful soaring flow of the meter makes grand speeches grander, desire more beautiful, pledges of love more real and meaningful, and pretentious idiots who think their in love sound even more deluded and pompously grandiose than normal "If music be the food of love!"

Sunday, 25 April 2010

New Blog!

At school I had two main subjects I loved doing (and ended up doing at A-level); Biology, and English Literature. A bit of an odd mix maybe, but I loved both of them far too much to drop one and commit to just-science, or just-english. When it came to university, I spent several agonising months trying to decide which one to go for, eventually deciding that a career in science would be more interesting, more fulfilling, and more likely to actually get me a job.

But I miss literature, I've missed it for the last four years. I've missed studying it, discussing it, interpreting it. I've missed poetry and Shakespeare and those weird edgy short stories that are dotted around in 'modern' literature. I've missed following a thread of symbolism right through a story, drawing out character arcs, teasing apart themes, enjoying the sounds of words and what those sounds can represent.

I've missed reading. Reading things that I didn't have to pretend were true.

So I decided to start another blog, for the Book Worm side of the Lab Rat. Here I will write about Shakespeare and Keats and probably even Terry Pratchett occasionally. There won't be any of my own stories, but there will be lots of other peoples. I may occasionally take a look at a film, if it's symbolic enough. I'm not sure who will read this blog, but I am certainly looking forward to writing it!