In 2019, three popular fantasy epics “ended” (or so they claim). We had the final season of Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. All three of them disappointed me for largely the same reason. Previous installments had promised something new, but when it came time to deliver, they couldn’t. So they went back to old tropes common in fantasy and played it safe.
I love epic fantasies, but I haven’t been reading them lately, because it seems like all of them--even the ones I like--end in the same way. Kill the main bad guy and poof! all your troubles will be over. Enemy armies will die or be too demoralized to fight. You will never need to contend with a second-in-command or a sizable amount of supporters within the populace. Instead, you can throw a big party and celebrate that good has triumphed over evil.
If killing the Big Bad isn’t enough of a climax, there’s always the heroic sacrifice. The hero dies--or seems to die--to save the world. No surer way to evoke pathos than a tragic death. But the heroic sacrifice need not actually be done by the min character--that would be depressing. The heroic sacrifice can be committed by a character in need of redemption. A former villain, a traitor, a character who gave in to a moment of weakness, a person haunted by bloody deeds of the past. It doesn’t matter if they realized the error of their ways five minutes ago or spent ten years painfully trying to change the course of their life. The only true path to redemption is death.
I hate these tropes. I mean, I understand why they’re used, and I will be the first to admit that when done them well, they can be damned effective. When lazily and poorly handled, however, they can carry a dangerous subtext, one repeated over and over, until it starts to inform our psyches.
Warning: Spoilers and Strong Opinions follow the break. This isn't a review, just me getting some things off my chest.
December has always been a reflective month for me. Blame the holidays. In the rush and chaos of upholding traditions--the gift-buying, the gift-wrapping, the gingerbread house-building--I find I cannot focus on writing. And once Christmas afternoon hits, once the presents are opened and the ham’s in the oven, then there’s nothing but a string of cozy, languid family get-togethers until New Year. By which time, it’s my birthday and I’m another year older. The shift of focus from work to family, followed by a period of lazy rest and the passing of another year (both the calendar and my own lifespan) naturally puts me in the reflective state of mind. And so, inevitably, I spend the bulk of December contemplating what I did in the past year and what I want to do in the next one.
This year, my process of reflecting started after Thanksgiving and continued up to… now, I suppose. And whereas normally I, very business-like, go to my list of stated goals I wrote the previous December and start grading all my tangible accomplishments, this time I didn’t. Because it didn’t matter. The important things of 2019 were not my accomplishments, but the mindsets I learned. It was a year of growing, not a year of completion.
This year, I learned how to take care of kids, how to drive a car, how to get stuff done without a plan or schedule, how to trust myself, and how to let go of the need for validation. For the past few years, I’ve had my ideas of how I should live and what it meant to succeed broken down and re-formed. Of course, I’ve done stuff this year, I’ve written well over a 1000 pages. But the pages are all over the place and the words haven’t yet coalesced into a solid thing, a thing I can show to others and be proud of. But that’s okay. Maybe next year.
After Thanksgiving, I did a double feature at AMC: Queen and Slim in the morning, and Knives Out almost immediately after. I’d never done a double feature, but I didn’t have much choice. Too many good movies come out in the holiday corridor and I don’t always have a spare Sunday to sneak out and see them.
Queen and Slim came on my radar, because I saw the trailer--online or in a theatre, I can’t remember. Queen and Slim is an R-rated romantic drama about a black couple who become accidental criminals and must flee the law. Right away, I liked the characters and the tense situation they found themselves in. The film fell off my radar for a while but came back when the reviews came in and some of my favorite movie pundits recommended the movie.
The movie doesn’t waste time. It begins with a woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) and a man (Daniel Kaluuya) going on an awkward first date. Their names aren’t given until the very end, so I’m going to go off the title and call the woman Queen and the man Slim. Queen is a defense lawyer whose client just received a death sentence. She is guarded and aloof. Slim is an amiable, warm, religious man. The date does not go well. As Slim tries to drop Queen off, he gets pulled over and aggressively searched by a racist cop. Queen tries to record the cop on her cell phone, but the cop shoots her in the leg. A heated fight breaks out between Slim and the cop. Slim grabs the cop’s fallen gun and shoots him, half in defense, half by accident. The cop dies. Before the title card officially drops, they are on the run.
My first reaction, fresh out of the theatre, was that Queen and Slim had a lot of elements that reminded me of a good fantasy movie (my favorite genre), even though it clearly wasn’t fantasy. Queen and Slim was an unexpected journey which ripped the characters out of their normal lives, brought them to interesting places and people, forged deep bonds, and forced them to contemplate deeper meanings of existence, destiny, and legacy. It was Romantic with a capital R. Not only did Queen and Slim fall in love, they expressed what love meant to them as individuals so beautifully and poetically, it made my heart twist.
(Warning: Although I try not to spoil anything in particular, I do mention details that take place halfway through the movie. If you are sensitive to these thing, you may not want to read.)
A little over a year ago, my sister introduced me to The Good Place. I thought I could safely watch a few episodes on Netflix. I was wrong. I binged two seasons in two days. This is why I stay away from T.V. I have an easily-addicted, nay, obsessive personality.
The Good Place is an NBC-airing half-hour comedy about a woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who died. Fortunately, she ended up in the Good Place. Immortal-being Michael (Ted Danson), architect of the perfect neighborhood Eleanor will inhabit for all eternity, congratulates Eleanor for being such a stellar example of humanity and introduces her to her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a professor of ethics and moral philosophy. As soon as Michael leaves, Eleanor drops a bombshell on Chidi. There’s been a mistake, she’s not a good person, she’s not supposed to be here, and she’s afraid if anyone finds out, she’ll be shipped off to the Bad Place. As weird events in the neighborhood threaten to expose her true identity, Eleanor enlists Chidi’s help to become a good person and earn her place in paradise.
There are so many things I love about The Good Place, from the characters, to the relationships, to the concepts. It is a unique fantasy/ speculative fiction, which creates a fully functioning, well-developed world, while contemplating the big questions of good and evil, life and death, and what makes us human. It teaches ethics and moral philosophy, name dropping famous philosophers, summarizing core concepts, and integrating the lessons into each episode of a continuing story arc… and it’s funny! The Good Place is something that feels like should not exist, let alone be any good, let alone have people watch it… and yet it does. I’m amazed.
As we head into Season 4, the final season, The Good Place has evolved into what I am convinced is the purest definition of epic fantasy. It may be disguised as a quirky comedy, but when you have a tight group of friends making terrible personal sacrifices in the service of world-shattering stakes--yeah, epic. This is what I want from fantasy. Not just the same old magic, dragons, and elves. I want something original, something that takes risks, something that tackles complicated issues while still giving me reason to hope.
So as I was watching re-runs of Season 4 on Hulu early in November, I got to an episode where Eleanor and friends are discouraged. They’ve just had a huge setback, but they’re re-grouping and trying again. I finish watching and go out to walk the dog, and I’m thinking about what it means to save the world. In The Good Place, the stakes are huge, and yet all that needs to be accomplished, when it comes down to it, is for certain “medium persons” to become good. Which made me think. If the souls of humanity were riding on me being a good person, could I do it? Could I be, not even great, but just a little bit better?
On November 24th, I faced a crisis.
Since the month started, I had been doing National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo, for short), a challenge where you write a complete novel of 50,000 words (approximately two hundred pages) in the thirty days of November. Since I write thick fantasy books, I wasn’t thinking of completing a novel. I wanted to write three good chapters for the climax of The Originals, a sequel to my epic fantasy, The Changelings.
Three good chapters. Didn’t sound so hard.
November 24 arrived, and I crossed the 50,000 word mark, 6 days ahead of schedule. Great. But I hadn’t written my three chapters, no, not at all. I’d written about one and a half. And good? Forget good. The writing was all over the place. I’d mope around with my main character’s feeling for a paragraph or two and then swing wildly into politics. Or I’d spend 30 pages figuring out how to set up a battle and summarize the actual fight in about a page. I’d go one way, go back, and zig-zag the other way. It was--it is--a mess. An unreadable mess. And yet it was all good stuff that I needed to write.
Some authors have a vision of their novel in their head, or at least on their outline. Not me. I have to write and write and write until I see that vision. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, but the ideas are nebulous things and pinning them down is like pinning down vapor. I write until I see what I want. Once I have my vision, I can work to make my writing good. I organize scenes, condense the plot, dramatize emotions, expand the good parts, delete the bad parts, and make the words ring pretty.
I know that all this messiness will eventually turn into good (or at least readable) writing. I know because I’ve done it before. Having spent twenty years writing novels, I can start to say I know what I’m doing. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. I look at my 50,000 words, and I think, It’s too much, and at the same time, It’s not enough.
I’m trying out a new section of my blog called “Writing Stories,” where I’m going to let you in to how my writing process works. Last time I talked about preparing for Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month, and the struggles of brainstorming in a way that was both disciplined and spontaneous. Well, I finished October on a strong note, having written 26 pages of notes and decided that I was going to tackle the end of Sylvie's arc (3 chapters) in The Originals (sequel to The Changelings), and, if that didn't take up enough words, the middle section of Company. With that in mind, I sat down to write...
Friday, November 1, 2019
I pull up my computer and stare at my blank computer screen. I shouldn’t be scared, because I’ve done this a million times, but I can’t seem to start. It’s late in the evening, around 7:00 PM, and my room is a mess. I’m still tired from Halloween, I’m thinking of how baby-sitting my nephews on Saturday is going to cut into my writing time, I’m thinking about how I’m going to finish these chapters.
Even if I ignore all the stuff on Company, even if I just focus on three chapters of The Originals, it seems impossible. I’m supposed to supposed to write structured scenes. I’m supposed to be in the moment. Which moment? There’s a million of them? I don’t want to re-write what I already have—but I can’t remember what I have. Should I re-read everything? It seems overwhelming.
When I was in high school, I saw a little movie called Gladiator. I loved it, but for all the wrong reasons. Rather than cheering for the (supposedly) heroic, stoic, and (in my opinion) boring Maximus (Russell Crowe), I found myself rooting for Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the murderous, incestuous, and emotionally turbulent villain of the story. I knew he would lose, but I didn’t care. He was interesting, and, despite all the bad stuff he did, I still related to him far more than the hero. Thus began my fascination with twisted, crazy, creepy, villainous characters who more often than not take the form of pale-skinned, blue-eyed brunettes.
Joker is the origin story of Batman’s greatest foe, set in a realistic version of 1980s Gotham. In it, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill man, working a menial job as a party clown and taking care of his ailing mother, Penny Fleck (Francis Conroy). He has dreams of making it as a stand-up comedian and idolizes talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Nero). However, a series of events leads him down the path of violence, chaos, and villainous glory.
Naturally, Joker was going to appeal to me. It’s a movie that takes the kind of character I always root for anyway and puts him in the spotlight. The fact that they got Joaquin Phoenix to star in it only made it that much more delicious to me. Before going into the movie, I was keenly aware of the supposed controversy surrounding the movie, about whether or not the Joker was the “patron saint of incels,” and whether this made Joker a movie we needed to watch or a movie to avoid at all cost. I watched it on Sunday of its opening weekend, and my reaction was, as usual, not the right one.
I thought Joker was fun. I enjoyed it. I was thoroughly entertained.
And because my reaction seems inappropriate, I feel the need to explain it. So here I go. First, and most obviously, I enjoyed Joker because Joaquin Phoenix did a heck of a job acting, and I was completely mesmerized by his performance. I could watch him over and over again. Second, I not only empathized with Arthur, I related to him, and there was no moment where he ever lost my sympathy. Third, within the specific context of this movie, moral justice is upheld—the wicked are punished, the powerless become powerful, and society achieves a warped sense of balance. In that way, the conclusion is emotionally satisfying.
I think it’s ironic that most of the fuss revolves around what the movie says about society, how it will influence society, and whether it’s important to society. Joker isn’t a movie about society. It’s a movie about the individual. Joker portrays an individual breaking free from society, with all the joys and pains that liberation incurs.
(Warning: The following analysis reveals key character deaths. If you have not seen Joker and want to be surprised, do not read ahead. You’ve been warned.)
Hi everyone. I’m trying out a new section of my blog called “Writing Stories,” where I let you in on how my writing process works. I have no idea if this will be of interest to anybody, but I thought I’d try it out.
I grew up hearing that would-be writers are undisciplined. They moan about Writer’s Block, chase inspiration like butterflies, and never get work done on time. I didn’t want to be like that. For many years, I tried to be disciplined. I set goals, broke my goals into measurable tasks, and tried to accomplish my tasks by a reasonable deadline.
Results have been mixed.
On the one hand, I can now sit down and write almost anywhere with little to no angst. I write every day, and when I need to, I can write for hours. I have a clear idea of how long it takes me to accomplish a goal and how that goal needs to be broken down into other stages.
On the other hand, I’ve learned, rather painfully, that trying to force out chapters sometimes means I miss out on genuine moments of inspiration. While trying to accomplish a single concrete task, I often lose sight of the bigger picture. Constantly doing work leaves me no time to think, learn, and reflect.
So this past year, instead of planning my tasks months in advance, I decided to wing it. I was going to listen, day by day, to my own feelings and write whatever appealed to me the most. This meant giving up some of my control over the writing process, but it also meant I wasn’t beating my brain against a computer screen (metaphorically). I’ve enjoyed the process of giving up control, and I feel like the quality of my work has risen as a result.
This brings me to Nanowrimo.
My cousin, Nathan, who has good taste in movies (unlike me), recommended I watch Nightcrawler. He said the film was excellent, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting was superb. One day, while sifting through uncased DVDs at a thrift store, I found a copy of Nightcrawler for 25 cents. I triumphantly brought it back to my home. I was going to savor this movie, so I made popcorn, poured a glass of wine, and waited until it got dark. To kill time, I watched Jupiter Ascending, and let me tell you, it made for a weird double feature.
In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unemployed man with loose morals and a huge business vocabulary. After a chance encounter on the freeway, he decides to pursue a career as a freelance crime videographer. He listens to police radios, races to the scene of a crime, tapes the gory footage, and sells it to a local news channels, headed by Nina (Rene Russo). Finding his calling, Lou intends to grow his freelance business, but to do so he’ll need to take greater risks and push the boundaries of the law.
Nightcrawler is tense, tense, tense, to the point I frequently had to stop the movie just to take a breather. It was well-crafted on every level: great acting, beautiful cinematography, complex characters, tight plot, and clear themes. Granted, those themes are extraordinarily dark and cynical--but damn if the movie didn’t know what it wanted to say and hammer in that point. It was a brilliant film that I never want to see again because it was just too hard to watch.
(Although I try not to include any major spoilers, my review does mention key details and give away the ending to Nightcrawler in a very general way. I recommend watching the movie first.)
It was a gloomy Saturday afternoon, and I had notes to type, so I scanned Netflix for a movie to put on. I wanted something that would not be involving, something that could function as background noise. I spied Jupiter Ascending. I had never seen the movie, but I knew its reputation--oh, boy did I know. A $176 million dollar bomb by the Wachowskis, it was eviscerated by critics and audience alike. I had already read a long and snarky, point-by-point summary of it and seen enough parodies to know the general plot, so I figured it wouldn’t take up too much of my attention.
I should have known better.
Jupiter Ascending is the story of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a poor Russian immigrant living in Chicago, who finds herself unwittingly caught up in a power struggle that spans the universe. A powerful race of advanced humans have discovered a way to keep themselves young and beautiful forever by using other humans to create an immorality serum. This is a lucrative industry, with the Abrasax family “seeding” planets with humans and “harvesting” them when the population reaches its peak. Earth currently belongs to Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), the eldest of three siblings, who plans to decimate Earth’s population in the near future.
But there’s a wrinkle. Jupiter Jones is the genetic match of the now-deceased matriarch of the Abrasax family, the matriarch’s “reincarnation,” so to speak. As such, she can stake a claim to the Earth--provided she can survive the plotting of the three Abrasax siblings. Aided by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetic “splice” of human and dog DNA, Jupiter Jones learns what makes her special (her genetic code), finds love, and learns to appreciate the miserable life she has on Earth.
Jupiter Ascending is an uneasy mixture of Star Wars and Twilight, with a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey and dollop of Cinderella. It has way too many ideas and most of them are under-baked. It doesn’t know what it wants to be or what it wants to say. Without a core to hold it up, it stumbles from one incident to the next. The characters are cardboard-thin. Jupiter gets the most development and the most sympathy, but also spends most of her screen time being a damsel in distress, getting tricked, and/or trying to flirt with Caine using cringe-inducing banter. The action and cinematography have the glossy competence of a Hollywood blockbuster, and the sets and costumes are absolutely beautiful. It’s not good, but it’s also harmless and forgettable fluff.
What ended up tearing my attention from my typing and forcing me to watch the film was not so much the movie itself, which, for all its explosions, was pretty boring. No, it was the meta question: “What went wrong?” Because skimming the surface of the film, it seemed like a pretty standard movie. A high concept idea, generic action set pieces, a forced romantic subplot, pretty visuals. About midway through, I started getting into it. I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie, but it’s a movie I had some affection for, unlike, say, The Meg, which I found generic, dull, and unambitious. Yet Jupiter Ascending was ridiculed and reviled. Why?
(From this point on there will be spoilers. I will not be doing a point-by-point summary, but I will give away the ending. You have been warned.)
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.