What’s making me happy 8/15

In an homage to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, I’ve wanted for some time to start at least a semi-regular feature here about what is making me happy. The reason for this is simple: my favorite thing about the podcast is that it is upbeat. They close every show with a roundtable discussion of what is making them happy, sometimes in the form of a recommendation, sometimes something more abstract. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety and like the reminder not so much to take pleasure in things as remember that I do take pleasure in things. So this is borne of both a reminder to myself and a desire to share things I enjoy with others. (Future posts will likely include a shorter introduction.)

What is making me happy: Neil Gaimon’s Ocean at the End of the Lane.

In his middle years the narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral and finds himself drawn to the Hempstock farm, where, in a flash, he remembers something that happened there when he was seven.

That’s the entire summary that I’m giving. Things happen, he had forgotten, but now remembers. I had heard good things about this novel, but really only picked it up on a whim and then read it over the course of the next twenty-four hours. Like the rest of Gaimon’s oeuvre that I’ve read, The Ocean at the End of the Lane bends truth and reality, as well as manipulating folk tales and traditions. This particular story tugs at the nostalgia strings about how one remembers childhood and about things that children know that adults don’t, begs the question of not whether, but how people change as they age, and how worth is adjudged. There is whimsy, there is sadness, and there is pettiness.

Gaimon’s prose is beautiful and sent me on a nostalgia trip of my own, complete with sweet sadness. I also enjoyed the brief interview with the author published at the end of the copy I had, as well as a set of reading group guide questions that pointed to particular features of the story that were fairly evident, but perhaps not articulated by the reader, and also prodded one to think just a little bit more deeply about what was just read.

I’ve been fortunate to have read some really, really good books this year so far and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is up there with the best of them.

James Bond

Elsewhere I wrote that one of my frustrations with Hollywood action films, above even escalating body counts, is the common scene of careless heroes wantonly causing collateral damage in the name of stopping “bad guys.” Yet, when I recently re-watched the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, I noticed the same type of collateral damage and was reminded of similar scenes in past installments, including Brosnan driving a tank through a Russian city, but the damage didn’t bother me nearly as much as in generic action films. Although the studio equation is not nearly so nuanced (boom = $), I wanted to tease out why the message in James Bond films bothers me less than the message in other films, even though the actual scenes are practically interchangeable.

James Bond to me: the perfect embodiment of British imperial hubris. Women, even if they really want to kill him, are compelled to sleep with him first, he has a tendency to tell everyone his name (useful for a spy), and, to the best of his ability, Bond operates as though no foreign government has the ability or authority to impede his mission. Bond is a sort of imperial terminator more than an actual hero meant to be emulated.

Because I see Bond as this sort of caricature, a personified tentacle of the Leviathan, collateral damage is par for the course. Perhaps this is a grim view of the state, and, certainly, government shouldn’t want to destroy cars and buildings, and should respect the territorial integrity of other states, but, well, as anyone checked the news recently? This minor difference makes it possible for my hackles to stay down when watching it on Netflix.

I don’t have anything more profound to say than that. Bond is imperial wish fulfillment. Flipping the narrative or turning the monomaniacal/communist/totalitarian/monstrous villain into a scrappy freedom-fighter would make Bond practically interchangeable with Mr. Smith from the Matrix.

Reflections on Guardians of the Galaxy

I read two reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy before seeing the film and heard two discussions of it since. The judgements, broadly speaking, fall into two camps: terrible soundtrack, shallow, cheesy, interchangeable with other action-comedies OR amazingly funny, clever, and beautifully composed. To these, I say “yes.”

Some bullet-points:

  • GoG was a ton of fun to watch. Chris Pratt was perfect for the goofy-yet-roguish hero (who really just wants people to take him seriously when he tells them his name is Star Lord). There were jokes, both verbal and visual and anytime it seemed that the film was going to fall back into serious mode, something would happen to remind everyone that this was a comedy first. Admittedly, some of the jokes were aimed at a younger audience and so erred toward the juvenile, but there were others, included dated material and topical inclusions, that had the adults laughing out loud and the kids silent.
  • Along similar lines (and as pointed out by the Grantland pop culture podcast), GoG maintained and even reveled in a sense of wonder in a way that is rare for action films.
  • I really enjoyed the jokes they got from tossing the whole story into space and then playing with what could happen when alien cultures bump into an American (well, human, but really American) culture.
  • The backgrounds were usually impressive, but, after the initial euphoria of the film wore off, it seemed to me that the world-building was minimalistic (in part because other off-world settings are usually backed up by extensive canons, such as Star Trek, in a way that this film was not). The approach worked here, but I would want more going forward.
  • GoG is incredibly referential, visually, cinematically, and in terms of plot. One of the reviews, though I forget which one, pointed this out in that GoG had little that was uniquely memorable. I agree with this critique, though I thought that this was by design. Nearly every shot, line, scene, etc referred the audience to something else. Likewise, the music drew the audience back to the 1970s, which I filed under “fun.” In this movie, it worked. I am skeptical that this model can work as a franchise. GoG made Scrooge Mc-Duck money (94 million opening weekend–largest ever in August), so it is guaranteed to be a franchise, of course, and I am sure that the subsequent movies will do well commercially, but I could see this being a reason to for the second film to be a letdown.
  • GoG was decidedly in the vein of good people do good things, bad people blow up things, and, in a refreshing change, they even made a point of having the good guys hold off the assault in almost its entirety until the line came over the channel announcing that the city was evacuated. I liked this. I just wish it had actually been true. First, the announcement came after an impossibly short time; second, in the scene that immediately followed the climactic crash, a crowd of (what looked like) civilians surrounded the heroes for the decisive event. Oops.
  • Saladin Ahmed speculated on twitter a correlation between shooter and adventure video games and the gratuitous on-screen body counts in action movies and, yes, GoG had one. For the most part, I think there is a reciprocal relationship between video games and movies and rising body counts, but I was glad that there was no one scene where I thought the sequencing was specifically designed for the video game tie-in.

In sum: GoG was fun enough that most of the cracks only showed through upon further reflection.

[Additional point: I agree with the critique that the film could have used more female characters, but I file this under a problem of Hollywood as a whole more so than this film in particular.]

July Reading Recap

Last month, despite a whirlwind trip, work on my dissertation, and preparations to move, I managed to read four books, which I am both pleased with and frustrated by.

My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk
Reviewed here. This is the fourth book (third novel) of Pamuk’s I’ve read and I rank it alongside Snow in terms of quality, though it is a very different book. The three-headed tale–the completion of a magnificent illuminated manuscript that blends Western and Eastern style, Black’s courtship of Shekure, and a murder investigation–explores the nature of art and reality, love and lust, perfection and value, violence and sacrilege.

The Raw and the Cooked – Jim Harrison
A collection of essays by screenwriter, poet, and food/travel writer Jim Harrison. They essays themselves were hit and miss, some better, some worse and, particularly, the mixture of the high prose and low, gross words (e.g. weenie) were unsuccessful in this context (great writers do this well, here it struck me more as immature or added for shock value). What I enjoyed most was the consistent message of “a life well fed is a life well led,” as well as a joy in good food and good ingredients. Harrison laments the quality of food in American truck-stops and muses on how many Americans eat and enjoy crummy food because they do not know good food. Compare: Orwell in one of his pieces (Road to Wigan Pier, I think) shares an anecdote wherein lower classes preferred tinned milk to real milk because that is all they knew. Overall, I was glad to have read these essays, but came away with a achievable goal of drinking more wine and an impossible one of eating and drinking my way across Europe.

Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon

Even more overwhelming was the discovery, borne in on them in the course of research, that the past had been not only brilliant but crazy.

Reviews of Stapledon’s works often complain that there are no characters. In a sense, this is true for Last and First Men since there are no named characters, rather an unnamed narrator from the distant future spinning a tale through an unnamed narrator in the contemporary period (perhaps Stapledon himself). I disagree, though. Humanity itself is a character. Stapledon weaves a tale about ten million years of human existence into the far future, through multiple collapses, eight distinctive types of “humans,” further subhuman species (one of which gets enslaved by monkeys), emigration to multiple planets in the solar system, and an invasion from Martians. He has a penchant for explaining and evaluating civilizations and natures, and has a clear vision of humanity: self-destructive and resilient, fragile and limited, but aspiring. The core of that humanity, in this vision, is the part that rises above base and bestial natures (expanded upon slightly here).

On a more academic level, a host of ideas in the atmosphere during the 1920s collide in this book. Stapledon is critical of capitalism, picks up on a long-view of history, accepts to a degree geographical determinism, concern (and uncertainty about) nuclear energy, racial characters, etc, etc. I preferred Starmaker, but loved Last and First Men, too.

Mort – Terry Pratchett

Mort is an ungainly fellow who doesn’t fit at the farm and isn’t selected for apprenticeship at the annual fair. That is, until Death arrives looking to bring him on. So Mort takes up the trade of making sure that people die when they are supposed to, which allows Death a chance to relax, take some time off, and try to learn why humans enjoy particular activities and have hobbies (his favorite is cooking, which he is quite good at). Hijinks ensue, and it becomes evident as to why anthropomorphic personifications do personification things and why humans do human things–and why mixing the two is a particularly bad idea.

It has been more than a decade since I was told I should read Terry Pratchett’s books. I picked one or two of the Discworld books up at points, but never made it more than a few pages in. Since then I read and adored Good Omens, but Mort is my first return to Discworld. I laughed and enjoyed the book overall, but very little about it made me think that I should go read more Terry Pratchett novels. The writing is clever–relentlessly so–but cleverness as its own end is something I prefer in conversation rather than in books. It would be fine, too, if the world itself drew me in, but it does not, perhaps because it also strikes me as a relentlessly clever mashup of earth ideas that distracts more than amuses me. Death as a character was the main attraction of this story.

In short: Amused, entertained, have plenty of books I’m looking forward to reading more than another Discworld book, but now it cannot be held over my head that I haven’t read any.

I had hoped to finish James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, but didn’t have a chance to read much the past week or so (for reasons noted above) and thus am only about halfway through it. I also just got a new batch of books in and am looking forward to reading either Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and Sentimental Novelist or Rose MacCaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond next. Later this weekend or early next week I will also be posting a piece on why the relentless and random collateral damage in James Bond films bothers me less than in most random Hollywood hero films.