freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It's remotely possible that being a total and irredeemable geek is my Seekrit Weapon, curriculum-advice-wise. If nothing else it gives me innocent joy to assist a student with a tangled curriculum and then spend 20 minutes, as I did a month or two back, dissecting Fallout 4 and our respective experiences over multiple play-throughs. (You were quite correct, Fallout-playing-student. Survival mode, while extremely tricky at lower levels and ultimately requiring minor modding to saves to make it non-frustrating enough for sustained play, is a deeply satisfying thing, I'm so happy you persuaded me to try it. I hope you have a tiny, untraumatic curriculum problem soon so I can tell you all about it).

Today's one was a rather beautiful inner arm tattoo which made me go "oooh, is that Tengwar?!" in girlish excitement. The student got this sort of soul's-awakening look - momentary shuttered expression, you could see him gathering himself to explain the context to a tragically unhip middle-aged administrator, followed by dawning realisation as my actual comment penetrated and he identified against all likelihood a fellow geek who didn't just recognise Tolkien, but the actual script. I wish I could have taken the hat-trick by translating, but alas, my Tengwar is beyond rusty. ("The crownless again shall be king", apparently. Somewhat classic.) At least I could respond, when he said in some relief, "Oh, you're a Tolkien fan!" by pointing wordlessly to Lúthien Tinúviel dancing on my wall.

It's a tiny subset of geeky students to whom I can appeal, but it does help to feel that moment of actual connection. Some things do cross the generation gap.

I fear that geeky consolations are necessary at the moment, as the university landscape is a bit doom-laden. It's all quiet; once again, too quiet. Lectures are suspended for the term, but students are able to access the library and labs, and the buses are running, so technically they are all finishing the semester's work and preparing for exams, which start next week. But it's entirely likely that the protesters are imitating the action of the rake in the grass and will erupt into life as soon as we incautiously step on their tines by trying to actually congregate students for examination purposes. At which point it'll all go to hell in a handbasket. However, I should note for posterity that "tines" is a lovely word. So specific. Precision in language is a very particular pleasure.

Quick Hobbit update: he's still OKish. He didn't respond at all well to the scheduled reduction of his cortizone dose after a week, his condition took a sharp dive, so we had to up it again. This means that the time left on his personal feline clock is probably measured in weeks rather than months; the cancer must be far enough advanced to resist the low doses already. Increasing the dose is giving him a bit of an appetite, at least, although in true feline and hobbitish fashion he is milking this for all it's worth by turning his nose up at expensive kidney-improving kibble. He only becomes truly enthusiastic about food if I hand-feed him bits of cooked chicken from my plate, at which point he snatches them somewhat impolitely and bolts them. I don't feed my cats people-food under any circumstances, usually, but right now I will feed him the blood of the living if that's what it takes. Let's hope it doesn't get that far. (Also, he infallibly bites me when I pill him, so he's getting a reasonable daily dose of blood anyway).

(My subject line quotes "Beren and Luthien", because that level of poignant loss seems vaguely appropriate on a number of levels).
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I went back to work yesterday, after three weeks of holiday1, and more or less as a last desperate splurge before going back to work I gave myself a slightly mad Tuesday during which I saw two movies in actual cinemas and everything. The first was by cunning plan, viz. braving the holiday crowds for a morning show at the mall to see The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, which I have unaccountably missed seeing earlier. The second was a random last-minute invitation from Pam & Lloyd to see Gravity with them, which was a splendid idea.


I have a sort of sneaking feeling that I shouldn't really have enjoyed Desolation of Smaug as much as I did. I didn't adore the film utterly, but it was fun, and full of hot dwarves and beautiful landscapes and Martin Freeman being endearing. Even so I'm faintly surprised that its adaptation choices didn't nark me off more than they did. There's some odd stuff going on there, a weird Jacksonesque abandonment of perfectly cinematic bits of the book (the staggered introduction to Beorn, for example. I was looking forward to that. They didn't do it. Phooey. And Beorn himself was simply lame.) in favour of brand new sequences which don't seem to serve any particular purpose (like Thorin and the lads scurrying frantically around dwarven forges for no other reason than because the director wanted an action bit right there.) And the spider battle was frankly pedestrian. I loved Smaug, visually and particularly his voice, although it's effects-ridden enough that it doesn't really sound like the actor (a pity because Benedict Cumberbatch's voice). The dwarven halls of the Lonely Mountain are spectacular. I really didn't have a problem with the introduction of Legolas, it gives a face to all the anonymous wood elves. Nor did I balk at the, hooray!, actual female character such as Tolkien didn't include at all in the novel. Tauriel was pleasingly kick-butt and it's just a pity that her potentially gender-corrective presence was utterly undercut by her immediately being slapped into a love triangle. Because clearly female characters can efficiently kill orcs all they like, they are nonetheless incomplete without a sexual function. Jackson and Stephen bloody Moffat are of the same casually sexist ilk. (Also, is it just me, or are Elven/dwarven relationships simply weird?)

Despite all the whinging above, it's weird that I probably enjoy the film because of its departures from the original, not in spite of them. As with the first film, I love the expansion of the story, the filling in of the blanks - the sense that Bilbo's journey fits into a broader tapestry of history and meaning and plot, with Galadriel and the Necromancer and all - not just the whole world, but Jackson's particular vision of it. Middle-Earth is so huge and rich, the kiddied-down version of it we see in The Hobbit is a glimpse in a tiny mirror, and it's lovely to feel the vistas opening up. I applaud Jackson's vision, even as I wish the result had been slightly less ham-fisted and self-indulgent and, even, thoughtless at times. The project deserves a better execution.


I am kicking myself that I left it too late to see Gravity in 3D, which I believe was spectacular. Even on the Labia's smaller screen and with their scratchy sound it's a phenomenal film, a virtuoso manipulation of tension, narrow focus and narrative control - such a simple, stripped-down plot to be so utterly engaging. It manages to be beautiful at the same time as it's gritty and real, with that minimalism of image and character despite the vastness of its backdrop. I loved the absolute absence of the kind of cuts to flashbacks on Earth which a more popular sort of film would infallibly have interspersed with the references made by characters to events in their past. Those actors had a hell of a task, to establish and maintain their characters with so little to play off. But they are amazing actors doing an amazing job of a highly skilled script, with jaw-dropping special effects that enhance rather than replacing the significance of the characters. The conveniently adjacent space stations all in the same orbit were a bit of a stretch, but the film-makers seem to have done their damnedest to actually replicate the physics of movement in space and the contemporary technology of the station and capsules. Science fiction at its best, if you accept the broadest definition of sf as fiction which is intrinsically about humanity's engagement with technological advancement, although of course [ profile] strawberryfrog's point is valid, that from another angle Gravity isn't sf at all, but the purest contemporary realism. Bugger that. This is the sort of story sf should be telling, and I claim it with pride.

Subject line is from the dwarves' song in The Hobbit, of course - book version, not film. Film is the craft of light. I'm not sure Jackson is good at dwarves, actually: they're too bloody rude and slap-stick, even if the theme of greed and corruption is being nicely developed in Thorin. Dwarven dignity should not turn on and off like a tap.

1   In the exact opposite of celebration of my return to work, a random selection of my muscles have seized solid and my sleep patterns have been shot to hell for two nights. Last night I dreamed Moriarty turned me into a deer because of my refusal to assist in his nefarious criminal activities, resulting in my rude awakening at 5am this morning as I fled through the forests with his pack of werewolves at my heels. Hooves. Whatever. I need a new job.

freckles_and_doubt: (Default)

I fear it's official: I am Peter Jackson's bitch. He has me right where he wants me. It needs only the swelling strains of that Shire soundtrack, and I'm all misty-eyed and lump-in-throat and ready, once more, to be charmed. Which I was. I had very mixed expectations of The Hobbit, and it's a deeply flawed film, but I loved it nonetheless - why, yes, children, you can revisit Middle Earth, and it's just as beguiling as it was the first time round. I am down with this. I participate shamelessly in this shameless manipulation. It's fine by me.

Mostly, though, I left thinking, slightly weak-kneed, wow but this is going to be spectacular when all six films are done - a seamless, integrated storytelling artefact which even without extended versions will fling at us something over sixteen hours of loving, sprawling, coherent and unified vision. Unexpected Journey is so tightly woven into the LotR trilogy, it's basically meaningless considered separately. This is not a film version of Tolkien's The Hobbit, this is a structuring of a prequel to The Lord of the Rings around the backbone of Bilbo's story, but essentially and intrinsically fleshed out with history, backstory, foregrounding of minor story elements, wholesale ripping off of appendices, logical extrapolation of action for people from LotR, and other acts of gratuitous fannishness. This is a geek's film, built for the joyous recognition of those of us who have altogether too minute a knowledge of Middle-Earth.

This rather elevated project does some very specific things to the feel of the film. It's not about the children's book. It doesn't, other than in some slightly jarring moments, even try for the tone of the children's book: it's in a weird way rather more true to Tolkien's overall epic, rather dark-edged, elegiac Middle-Earth world-building than the children's book ever was. The violence and battle which are glossed with a certain childish innocence in the novel are here given the almost-full LotR grim and grit, and the broader implications of history and event which the book refuses to contemplate are damned well contemplated. If the result is a wee bit schizophrenic, I think that's inevitable, because the book is as well.

Above all, I am completely fascinated with what they've done with Thorin Oakenshield, who becomes the epic warrior hero counterpoint to Bilbo's little guy. Film-Thorin is a brooding, tormented, gothy figure with a Tragic!Backstory well upfront, prone to dramatic, solitary posing against interesting backdrops, à la Draco in Half-Blood Prince. He is an extremely compelling figure, and also ridiculously hot. Ridiculously. The sheer toe-wriggling appreciation of my own viewing experience (brooding intense men buttons firmly hit!) is backed up by a frothing online fandom frenzy approaching Legolas levels. (Fili and Kili are also incidentally firmly in the "wouldn't throw them out of bed for gratuitous bass-line part singing" camp). Most interestingly, I don't see this version of Thorin as in any way a betrayal of the book version. Book-Thorin always was fascinatingly flawed, a complex mix of heroism and dignity and focused intent and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Lonely Mountain which makes his avarice and defensiveness all too likely. Film-Thorin is something of a redemption of the Comic Dwarf elements of Gimli: no-one would dare to think of tossing Thorin Oakenshield, and I'm very happy the film picked up on the book's insistence on his dignity. He embodies "Tolkien Dwarf" both conceptually and physically in a way which at least partially compensates for the broad comedy of some of his brethren, for which, bitch or no, I will not really be forgiving Jackson any time soon.

While I loved the film, it was not an unmixed viewing experience: I don't think it's up there with the LotR movies in terms of absolute quality. It's a sprawling, self-indulgent piece, and some of its attempts to negotiate the clashes between childlike and epic elements are not wildly successful. While I'm still on a bit of a fangirly high, I'm also exceeding even Two Towers levels of slightly enraged incomprehension at some of the adaptation choices that were made. Therefore, a Swings and Roundabouts comparison seems called for. I shall also cut it in case anyone doesn't want to be spoiled for adaptation choices, although if you're spoiled for the novel as a whole I am shocked and horrified. )

All things considered, I am immeasurably relieved. The response to the film has been so mixed, I was rather afraid that Jackson-bloat would have crushed the life out of the world I love. But it hasn't. It's still Middle-Earth, and the visit is still magical. The kind of carping I'm doing is very much that of a fan, levied at the work of a fellow fan with whom I'm comfortable enough to wrangle affectionately when our visions differ. Thank the cosmic wossnames.

Also, hot dwarves. I'm just saying.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Say what you will about Tolkien (I'm looking at you, China Miéville), his worlds do fill your headspace. Having re-watched the LotR films and re-read the books, and The Hobbit, and some random stuff from Unfinished Tales and things, over the last few weeks, I can certainly testify to that: I've pretty much been in Middle-Earth for the last month. It's a nice place to be, even if what you're mostly doing is mentally filling in the gaps and silences in the work. (Am I alone in darkly suspecting that Elven sex, such as Tolkien pretends doesn't actually exist, is probably inventively kinky? You live forever, you have to get horribly bored with missionary. Elven sex toys are probably works of extremely dodgy art. Also, both Denethor and Boromir were absolutely and definitely gay. One of the appendices refers to Boromir as being no lover of women, and talks about Denethor loving his wife as much as he was capable of. Hah. The family dynamics of that particularly fucked-up family suddenly become very clear. Poor Faramir.)

But I digress. What's really been hitting me forcefully, particularly after re-reading The Hobbit, is a funny sort of issue of world-building. Tolkien is supposed to be the ultimate world-builder, the man who's lovingly created the full histories and languages and mythology to support his fantasy realm. But he's really oddly unconcerned with a particular aspect of world-building which I can only think of as technological. His various civilisations exist cheek-by-jowl geographically, but actually represent separate stages over about five hundred year's worth of technological development, all mish-mashed together and apparently failing to affect each other at all.

We start out with the Shire, which is really the identification point for the reader. Hobbits live in a sort of idyllic middle-class pastoral haze, whose agricultural lifestyle is simultaneously primitive and comfortable. They have, for example, clocks and umbrellas and pocket-handkerchiefs. I bet you anything you like that they have indoor plumbing. Their gadget-level is approximately seventeenth century at the earliest, as are many of their rituals (tea-drinking, for example, or eggs and bacon for breakfast). This all makes perfect narrative sense, as they represent the quiet, normal, everyday existence against which all the high heroics are going to be contrasted. (They are also partially defined by the children's-story vibe of The Hobbit, and the tone of their doings shifts weirdly in and out of domestic fantasy and high epic across LotR).

But they make absolutely no technological sense at all. The next main civilisation encountered by Frodo et al (apart from Elves, who make even less sense) is Rohan. The Riders of Rohan are, in feel and language, Anglo-Saxonish; they're approximately eleventh century, I'd say, in civilisation and lifestyle. Their traditions seem to be oral and sung, and Meduseld is only a few steps up from a Viking hall. The Rohirrim drink mead and eat bread and chunks of meat; no afternoon tea here. They're a good five hundred years behind the Hobbits. But their nearest neighbours, and the civilisation they most interact with, is Gondor, which is the remnant of the noble Numenor, absolutely the last word in civilisation in Middle-Earth. Even in a fallen state Gondor has highly-developed architecture, more sophisticated armour, a tradition of written learning, and a complicated administrative system with codified laws. Denethor's guests are served wine and cakes, not mead and bread. Nonetheless, I'd define its level of functioning as an idealised high medieval, probably around fifteenth century at most.

So you have to ask what the hell happened here, historically. The hobbits have been sitting fatly in the Shire for umpteen generations, having very little in the way of wars or other contact with the outside world. (The Hobbit is interesting because it posits Dwarves moving freely through the Shire, but the commonplace of their presence has completely vanished by the time Tolkien writes LotR). Hobbits may have inherited something of Numenorean techology, but if Gondor has relapsed from that point, they should have relapsed even further; they've had nothing in the way of stress, war or challenge to kick-start any sort of technological advancement. They should not, in short, have umbrellas and clocks. You can argue that the Dwarves give them those sorts of gadgets, but that's not how Tolkien dwarves roll: they're about as high-medieval as Gondor, with a touch more Wagner.

And I'm not even getting into Elves. Elves lead that kind of mystic, elevated, idealistically pure existence which is all about beauty and miminalist requirements and Tolkien's need to reject metal and machinery other than Bilbo's clock. Elves make me think of Eloi: there has to be a huge, complicated mechanism churning away under that society to make it work at all. A few Elven smiths dicking around with forging rings really doesn't cut it. You're forced to do what Tolkien did, which is to mentally sub "magic" in as the unexamined, catch-all motivating force, and it's bloody unsatisfying.

But, of course, in many ways it's futile and pointless for me to try and apply this kind of world-building rigour to Middle-Earth at all. Tolkien's world-building is all in terms of language and mythology, not science and development; he recreates these particular historical periods not because they make any sense in a larger idea of Middle-Earthian history, but because those are the moods and tones and settings that his story demands. It's about narrative identification, not technological. In a lot of ways the middle-class comfort of the hobbits is completely out of place in a high-medieval heroic tale, included for contrast, not because a world could actually work like that. The story works brilliantly. The world doesn't. On average, he's still seriously ahead.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Bleah. Sid the Sinus Headache is in residence again, causing me to pop Advil like Smarties for the last three days, and bite more students than I really strictly should. It's all very boring. I shall distract myself, as is traditional, with linkery.

  • Less boringly, The Roundhouse on Friday night was great. Expensive, but great.

  • This is a very chilling, very beautifully restrained, very, very good piece of writing. Zombies and politics go together surprisingly well.

  • This is a dread warning for [ profile] smoczek, courtesy of [ profile] schedule5. Apparently we're in for a potato shortage, and serious potato-fiends may want to think about growing their own. I've now filled all my veggie boxes with other veggies, and am out of space. Maybe I can plant some in the disused wing of the Evil Landlord's bed. The one Fish used to sleep in.

  • I'm motoring through yet another re-watch of The Lord of the Rings, which is proving instructive. Still enchanting and emotional; cast still pleasingly hot. However, at this distance the lame dwarf jokes are a lot lamer and more dissonant with the mood than they were in the heady days of first love, and the whole thing makes me realise, slightly horrified, that in purely ideological terms China Miéville was right. There's truly nasty stuff here in terms of reactionary conservatism, racism, class-consciousness, symbolic reductionism and what have you. However, Miéville appears to have recanted his earlier "wen on the arse of fantasy" comment, and apparently liked the films. He nails, I think, the reason why I could finish Two Towers last night and still love the movie, despite a ten-minute fulmination to the Evil Landlord on the bloody Osgiliath detour and how poor Faramir was shafted: it's because the adaptation takes the text so seriously even when its choices are, to my mind, not entirely defensible. Miéville argues that Jackson "cares passionately, even about something as flawed as Tolkien's work, and commits to it totally. The film is rich with this integrity." It's why, I think, I'll be returning to these movies for a happy re-immersion at regular intervals until the end of my eccentric tea-drinking cat-lady days.

    Which, of course, raises an interesting point. When I'm an eccentric 86-year-old tea-drinking mad cat lady, which I fully intend to be, I'm planning to while away my happy sunset years by immersing myself in the vast range of film, TV and books which I'm assiduously acquiring even now. As an activity it will, I'd think, occupy pretty much the same space that knitting or growing roses or climbing the Himalayas1 does for old ladies in our day and age. The question is, what the hell are all the younger generations going to be doing which will make it old and odd and passée for me to be drinking Earl Grey and vegging out in front of the internet or Buffy or Lord of the Rings? Boggles the mind, it does.

1 My view of the probable activities of old ladies has possibly been unduly skewed by my mother, who is going to kick butt when she eventually does consent to actually get old.

the problem of Susan

Tuesday, 1 July 2008 03:25 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Curse you, Peter Jackson! You have ruined us, ruined us, for all post-LotR cinematic fantasy. Prince Caspian, like the earlier The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not a bad little film1, but it didn't blow the top off my head and fill it with trees, mountains, creatures, swords, epic battles and dishy men2, and now I'm all spoiled and think it should. Further random analysis follows. )

1 Although I don't actually think it qualifies as a good little film, either. Perhaps we should stick with "little film".

2 It does fill it with dishy boys, but I'm getting a bit old for that.
. )

My First Meme

Wednesday, 22 June 2005 06:16 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I got memed! I have Arrived, blog-wise. I was pinged by evil scroobious, naturally, who is a veteran of my literature seminars, so I suppose it's inevitable. I warn you, though, I shall cheat, and in some cases treat a whole series as a book. Rules, so boring.

The Number Of Books I Own. Good lord, now I'm going to have to count them. *pauses to fortify self with tea and toast*. Actually, probably a good idea to count them, anyway, for purposes of insurance, in case the Evil Landlord and I ever decide to burn the house down...

Okay. Fantasy/sf collection: just under a thousand. Fairy-tales and criticism: 200 or so. Plus the stuff in my office on campus, another 300 or so. Medieval history: almost 100. Detective fiction: 250ish. Mainstream novels, i.e. not sf/fantasy, around 500. Oh, and the PG Wodehouse in the living room: another 50ish. What's that? In total, I must own around 2500 books. Pshaw. Paltry. (If I count cookbooks, actually, that's another 100 or so).

The Last Books I Bought. Lemony Snicket, number 8, The Hostile Hospital, which, incidentally, is probably the best so far. Advance payment on the new Harry Potter. A. S. Byatt, The Little Black Book of Stories. Wait, I've just put in an Amazon order, so I suppose absolutely the most recent books I have bought (but not the last by a very long way) are The Sun, the Moon and the Stars (Steven Brust), The Family Trade and Singularity Sky (Charles Stross), and Distraction (Bruce Sterling).

The Last Book I Read: redundant question, on this blog, which mostly seems to be cultural criticism. As you know if you've been reading, it was Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, Haruki Murakami. Or, if you want to count graphic novels as books, the first four in the Fables series. (I don't count all the Dick Francis. That's not reading, it's distraction).

Five Books That Mean A Lot: like scroobious, I meep plaintively, "Only five?", but, unlike her, proceed to cheat.
  • JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings; simple and obvious, but true. I read this first in the car travelling down from Zim to a holiday on the Wild Coast. I was 12. It completely overwhelmed and possessed me, despite the fact that I actually didn't understand a lot of it. I have re-read it an average of annually ever since, including sharp frequency spikes in my first year at UCT, when I was miserably and horrendously homesick and re-read it three times, following the action on photocopies of the maps. (Probably the first time I actually worked out what was happening in a tactical sense). I also re-read it four times over the three years during which the movies came out. This book, she says with calm understatement, means a lot to me.
  • James Thurber, The Thirteen Clocks. Not for nothing are my cats called Todal and Golux. I deeply rejoice that I possess a first edition, which used to belong to my grandfather, who introduced me not only to Thurber, but to Tolkien and to sf in general. Look what he started. Any other Thurber fairy tales are also much-loved, especially The White Deer, but Clocks is my favourite.
  • A. S. Byatt, Possession. And, in fact, the fairy tales in The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye and Elementals (the story "Cold" has huge resonance for me). Her writing is an endless delight because it's so layered, complex and evocative of other texts. Also, Possession both articulated and validated my very profound enjoyment of romance structures; it can't be that guilty a pleasure if a Booker prizewinner also does it.
  • Sheri S. Tepper. Everything by Sheri S. Tepper. (This is where I cheat). I can't actually select one favourite above all the others. Her novels are important to me because they express feminism and ecology wossnames which are really important to me. She also has a highly acute awareness of story/narrative/structure. In fact, she pushes most of my buttons. Clever lady.
  • Charles Dickens, Bleak House. I adore Dickens generally, and re-read them all frequently, but for some reason Bleak House has always been my favourite. I can't even say why.
Five is a ridiculous number. Left out of the above are a bunch of really important writers and books, including Jane Austen, Dorothy Parker, Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series, and all of Terry Pratchett. I reject that five. I spit upon it!

Looking back over that list, it's interesting that I've managed to bring three of them into my PhD, and one into my Masters thesis. Cause-and-effect wise, it's not that they're important to me because I've worked critically with them; it's that I've chosen to work critically with them because they're important to me. I possibly have the world's coolest job.

One Book I Wish I Could Burn: scroobious pipped me on the Stephen Donaldson one, so I shall have to think of something else. Probably George Eliot's Middlemarch, a book for which I have a largely inexplicable, deeply passionate loathing. Or Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being, although that antipathy is simply about circumstances of reading. Actually, thinking about it, I wouldn't actually want to burn either of the above; let's say a suspended torching, effective as soon as anyone tries to make me read either one again. I'm not generally big with the book-burning. I suspect that, given another year or two, I may be advocating it for JK Rowling and all her works, however...

You’ve been pinged. So I have. Now pinging... oooh (surveys blogdom with eye of connoisseur). d@vid, you're pinged. Stv (comovedy), so are you, because I don't know much about your reading taste other than Murakami ;>. Thak, you're pinged; stick it in a comment, if you don't want nameless hordes* rushing over to your blog.

* this is clearly a hopeless exaggeration. Dammit, scroobious, you've infected me with footnotes!


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