Sunday, July 30, 2006

Movies and Purism
My manifesto on the subject. I worked on this for a week, which isn't too long, since herein may be found the culmination of some thoughts that have been taking shape in my mind for more than four years.

I think it's time to admit that I'm out of humor with purists. For some reason this is a subject on my mind quite a bit nowadays. To begin with, I saw the movie of the first Narnia book, and then sat down to read the only books of that series I could find. I then began reading Lord of the Rings again, much faster than last time but also catching more on the way, and complemented it with a brisk, but not quite end-to-end viewing of the movies. I guess I might as well admit further that I am one of those scorned and outcast creatures who did not read the books until after watching the movie, as is too often my wont. Naturally the comment you'd expect from me on the occasion of my second reading of them would be to say that the books were better than I originally gave them credit for. Though this may be true, and I at least will not gainsay it, the thought that jumped first to mind was actually that the movies were better than I originally gave them credit for.

So much of what is or appears to be amiss in the movies is not without explanation. Many things had to be cut for the sake of time, and of what was left over, much had to be changed to explain over what was cut. This was done very neatly with the hobbits' swords. The Barrow-Downs were cut out, so when the company got to Weathertop, Aragorn summarily gives them four swords wrapped in a parcel. It happens throughout the whole story in dealing with lines. Beregond, Ingold, the gatekeeper at Edoras, Tom Bombadil, and other characters had to be gotten rid of since there was not enough time to meet, deal with, and say goodbye to quite so many people. At the same time, many of them had good lines written for them which would have been a shame to lose, so they were given to other characters. The Gatekeeper's line about "that is one of the Mearas" is given instead to Legolas, while Beregond's lines about "childless lords", "tombs more splendid than the houses of the living" and the "deep breath before the plunge" were given to Gandalf. Some of the lines that I thought were stupid meddling additions, such as "let's hunt some orc" or "do not come between a Nazgul and his prey" were actually taken or closely derived from lines in the books.

Unfortunately, I can't answer all the complaints. The usual objection to the comicalization of Gimli, is, I fear, justified. Many of his lines, such as his contributions to the leaders' debate, are very un-Gimlish, and the drinking contest between him and Legolas takes both of them a little too far out of character. Then of course, there are what I call "the inexcusables", which consist mainly of the tweaking of the dialogue to include the names of the books. But if a movie is good enough, it can still be worth it at the end of the day even in spite of a few inexcusables.

Purists, however, are not going anywhere soon, and we are sure to have bouts of purism every time a well-known book is made into a movie. So far, Narnia was the most recent, and it was given its allotment of purist scrutiny in this review and elsewhere. I found the review to be not a very good one, with too much overstated and many things unnoticed. Lewis wrote a children's book, and just as some things must be changed when pitching an adult story to kids, some other changes must be made when moving in the other direction. The critic's objection to the depiction of Peter rings true on some points, but Lewis' depiction is peculiarly suited to a children's fantasy (in which children place themselves in the shoes of their heroes). It isn't normal to expect instant concurrence when a bunch of talking creatures tells someone he must put his whole family in danger in order to save a country he just found out about. At least some level of reluctance on Peter's part should be expected.

Aslan really does not lose as much as the critic says he does. In the book, the children's nervousness about meeting him is not necessarily due to the fact that Aslan is mighty and majestic. It is simply the reaction we would have at that age (or even now) to meeting a lion we have just been told is not safe. It's all very well to pay close attention to Lewis' Christian symbolism, but there is such a thing as looking too deeply and seeing what isn't there.

The theme of Aslan's executioners balking in terror is not taken out, just a bit reduced. One must remember that children don't grasp subtleties like grown-ups do. They like things overstated, often to the point where they would look silly on screen. This is an important point, and I'll get back to it. Adamson showed at least a few creatures looking scared of Aslan (one backing down and flying away), and that was enough to get the point across. The change in tones in the parley between Aslan and the Witch is really not as harmful as the critic thinks. It simply emphasizes different themes, such as the Witch's insolence in speaking to Aslan (or in her "demand" of an audience, rather than asking safe conduct). On the subject of the Witch's departure, we come again to the fact that things to not have to be as loudly stated as they do in a kid's book. The Witch simply sits down on her chair and is silenced (not to mention jeered at), and we get the point. She does not have to haul ass, and the movie does not lose much from this change. Compare this to the Voice of Saruman. Gandalf (after sounding "indignantly assertive") orders Saruman to come back, at which he casts him from the order, breaks his staff and sends him away. When that parley is over, Saruman crawls away, and if it's more dramatic than the Witch sitting down, it's only because this is the end of Saruman as we have known him. For the Witch, she is simply being silenced (and if Aslan actually does mean to threaten her to the point of fearing for her life, it raises issues of whether he is really respecting the rules of the parley he consented to). We are told that the spell Saruman held over his Rohirrim listeners was broken: "They had seen him come at a call, and crawl away, dismissed." The scene is similar in some ways to the parley in Narnia, and they were both changed a bit in transfer to the screen, but neither suffered greatly, as in both cases the written version was represented well enough for us to get the drift. Finally, this same principle of getting the drift applies to Aslan's walk to the stone table. We can already see how much sadder than usual he looks, so we really don't lose so much from the fact that he doesn't actually stumble and moan, or that he doesn't actually say how lonely he is.

Something the critic failed to notice is that the movie also got rid of a few things that actually would have detracted from Aslan's awe. On at least one occasion, he shakes hands (with Peter), and on another, he claps his hands. Both would have looked a bit silly visually. The parley scene also describes him as sitting on a throne, which on screen would have been difficult to manage without extreme hilarity, and impossible to manage without some sort of unintentional visual humor. This at the exact moment when we should look his most fearsome and solemn. Then of course, there is the very silly scene where Aslan plays ring-around-the-rosie with the girls.

Our critic also turns his guns on Father Christmas' line about winter melting in the wake of the Pevensies arrival. The book leaves us in no doubt that this is because of Aslan's power, but that brings up in our minds the obvious question: Why did he not simply come whenever he felt like it, if the arrival of the Pevensies was not needed in the chemistry? Either the children came to Narnia because Aslan was coming and it was time for the fulfillment of the prophesy (which Lewis just barely hints at but refuses to say any more definitely), or Aslan is on the move because there has been rumor of humans in Narnia and this means that things are now in motion that have been long anticipated. The movie clearly adopted the latter view, and I really think this is the one that makes the most sense. If it is true, then Father Christmas' line in the movie is not so inaccurate after all. The arrival of the kids has indeed brought hope to Narnia (the Beavers certainly seem to exhibit a lot of hope in their arrival) and not the least of which has been Aslan's arrival which ended winter and allowed back in the Jolly Old Elf.

As for the critic's issues with the portrayal of winter melting or the reanimation of statues, this is just plain kvetching. Sorry, my bad. I've already seen burning newspaper, and once I read that bit I had a good image fixed in my mind. In the first place, there is only room for so much repetition of the same action in a movie (with the exception of a running gag). The masters were at work in Return of the King when they showed the beacons of Gondor being lit, but that's because it's a cool chain reaction that we get to follow a good part of the way from Minas Tirith to Edoras. Narnia shows us a vivid reanimation of Tumnus, followed by a shot of a great many others in the final stages of the treatment. Then to close out the theme, we get one more vivid awakening of an undistinguished character on the battlefield. Is this not enough? How many more before it gets tedious? This would be like wishing that we got a close up of each individual Nazgul going down in fire. Secondly, not everyone agrees on what the high points of the book are. "Selection within limits", as it is called, certainly allows a bit of choice regarding what to emphasize. The movie chose to emphasize the relationship and interaction of the four children (Lucy's childlike innocence, Edmund's poisonous resentfulness, Peter's protectiveness towards Lucy, Edmund's ability to change and make the best, and the willingness of all three to forgive him), with quite a few extra scenes and dialogue, and some things had to be shortened for this. The river-crossing scene was included for no other purpose than to contrast the characters with each other; Peter uncertain of what to do about a new threat (but nevertheless in a leadership role), Susan second-guessing him (she's now the reluctant one, not to mention naive enough to believe the wolf-cop), and Lucy implicitly lending her supprt to Peter, whom she seems to trust more. Okaaaayyy, so maybe a few more "thaw shots" were in order, but for what it does give, the movie offers it subtly. The melting motif begins with Peter realizing that they have to make it to the river quickly, and it culminates in a charming little shot of Lucy returning the greeting of a tree-spirit she has just seen.

Maybe there was a little anti-climax in the introduction of the professor, but where should it have been taken? In inking it all up, we must remember that Lewis has quite a few things in his book which don't make much sense or are unexplained. The oft-maligned river crossing scene actually makes good sense. Lewis tells us that winter is melting into spring, but just from looking at a map of Narnia, we can tell that they had to cross a river, which is a scene he did not describe. Neither does he ever tell us where the Beavers got all their food for dinner (which includes wheat, potatoes and oranges at least) in a frozen land, or why there isn't foot-deep mud everywhere after such a long winter finally thawing. Spiritually, we must turn a blind eye to the fact that the Witch wanting Aslan dead makes no theological sense, as the devil certainly would not have desired the Crucifixion (which the writers of The Passion noticed and seized upon as a major permeating theme). This isn't to bad-mouth Lewis, but since we can see he too took significant liberties with a lot of things in order to tell a story, we should excuse more on the part of the filmmakers.

This next bit finishes up the critique (and is also worth being the only part I actually quoted): "All these missteps add up to the difference between what could easily have been one of the greatest family films of all time, and what is, instead, merely a good one." I dunno. I'm trying to imagine the movie with all of this guy's corrections put in place, and I don't see it making too much of a difference in how the movie will stand the test of time. I don't see it being more short-lived than it should be simply because a few things were changed. I make it no secret that I dislike some of what are considered the "greatest family films of all time", such as The Wizard of Oz and It's a Wonderful Life, and it yearns me not if some parents give it a lower place because it lacks the glurge level of some of those movies. I have a different standard, though, and I consider Lord of the Rings to be a family movie, its violence notwithstanding. As for Narnia, it was very well received by both those who knew the books and those who didn't, describing it as upbeat and "hope-filled". It has a good message which was delivered well, with truly outstanding acting, great direction, and the special effects didn't hurt either. That's enough to secure it a place in the top family movie club. What I see in the future for this movie (and most likely, its sequels) is for it to dwell hereafter on most families' DVD shelves not far from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Although it may be ever the last of these three, it will share that fate with its seven leafy counterparts.

Of course, "purist" is a label people seldom if ever consent to bear. It's probably a little like the guy who talks really loudly on his cell phone; nobody's ever him, but he's everywhere. Sure, purists sometimes object even to departures from the text, but the real characteristic of a purist is one who expects the movie to be almost a carbon copy of the book. In ancient times, long before movies, people were used to the idea of stories being told in different ways. One only has to read some historian such as Livy or a biographer such as Suetonius to see this. Livy has at least two versions of why Romulus and Remus fought, as well as countless other stories of which he tells us there are too many versions for him to write down. Suetonius likewise has numerous versions of, for example, Nero's death, and he was writing about more recent history. In such times, this was partly because technological backwardness made the news more liquid, but it also happened in the case of mythology. Many myths had different versions, and this was at least in part because people had a sense that some stories were too good to be told in only one way, and it never did any harm if details were changed or different themes were emphasized.
Heck, even Tolkien himself never had a problem with the fact that his own hobbits had multiple versions of every story.

Much of what is in the movie Troy is excusable on these grounds, such as the dropping of the gods and the apparent agnosticism on the part of some characters. Getting rid of the gods opens the way to a very interesting story told in completely human terms, which the movie utterly failed to follow through on. It is or should be understood that when you downplay one aspect of the plot, you're supposed to make up for it by elevating and emphasizing another theme. That's rather the point of selection within limits. Moreover this is certainly the way selection within limits was practiced by Peter Jackson and Andrew Adamson. Jackson chose to emphasize the relationship of Arwen and Aragorn (which at times is a mistake) and Eowyn's infatuation with him. He chose to play very heavily on the theme of tension between Sam and Frodo over Gollumn, even to the point of having Frodo make the wrong choice between them. This is certainly justifiable, as it creates a pinnacle of tension and makes victory all the better when it happens (or as Sam would say "when the sun shines, it'll shine out the clearer"). Adamson chose to cut a bit through some of the descriptions of things and show us more scenes with the children interacting and at times arguing. As a result, I found them a bit more realistic than in the book. He chose to get rid of the frolic scene to show us more of the battle, and to shorten some other stuff in order to make room for a long beginning sequence which not only provides a good setup for why they were shipped off to the country, but also creates a stronger platform for the numerous and sometimes clever references to the wartime situation: "Mum hasn't had a dress like this since before the war", "Narnia's not going to run out of toast, Ed", or Lucy's willingness to have tea with Mr. Tumnus provided he has sardines (According to World War II "Even in Britain, the wartime diet was far from ideal, however, being short on protein and Vitamins A and D" most of which can be found in sardines, which would have been scarce in England because of blockades).

Purists tend to spoil people's enjoyment of a good movie, with the better ones objecting to many changes in emphasis or focus, and the less mature ones seeming as though all they want is to show off their knowledge of the book in question. The simple fact is that, yes, Jackson and Adamson did in fact take liberties with their materials, but they are reasonable liberties, and they retell the story with enough fidelity to be good, but enough selection within limits to make it look a little fresh. The end result is that we feel almost as if we were watching at once an old story and a new one, and yet when we blink, it's all one story again. If this vexes people, we ought to remember that the best story that ever was or will be told was originally told in at least four different ways, with details and emphases slightly different from one to the other. There were posers, charlatans, and forgers in those days to interrupt that work, but there were no purists.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Of all the ships that were sunk at Pearl Harbor, only two remain unsalvaged, and these only because, with so many still trapped in them, it was deemed more fitting to let the lay there as memorials.

Now here's something I didn't know: The water is so clear that the USS. Utah and the USS. Arizona are visible in satellite images.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Let facts be submitted to a candid world.

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