Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Now Playing in Your Living Room: The Hobbit

Heavens to Bilbo, Peter Jackson does go on, doesn’t he? Ever since his masterful Heavenly Creatures (1994), he seems to resist the idea that brevity might be the soul of excitement. Take, for now, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (now available on DVD)

I like parts of many of Jackson’s movies more than their wholes: for example, the giant spider sequence in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was, to me, the best horror movie of 2003, all by itself; the initial arrival at Skull Island in his lumbering King Kong remake--after an unnecessarily long set up--was so atmospheric and exciting, I grumbled when we were strenuously force-marched into the jungle after Kong.

I went to see the full-frontal, IMAXxed, 3-D’d version The Hobbit on New Year’s Day with muffled expectations. Word of mouth had been gray and crumbly. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the brittle, mirthful heart of The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane was melted by The Hobbit, I would have insisted on an afternoon in front of the TV with Charles Starrett as The Durango Kid (cheap, short, and unpretentiously bad).

I read Tolkien’s The Hobbit many years ago while in college and recall liking it very much, though not enough to venture into The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

My wife was enchanted through the film’s 169 minutes. I, however, a troll, a goblin, a vicious naysayer who seeks only to cynically crush the hearts of wide-eyed fanboys everywhere under my spiked and bladed heel, felt less enchanted.

But I’m grateful to say I didn’t dislike it.

More than once, though, my butt fidgeted at me to get up and loosen my circulation; more than once I pawed at my pockets for my cell to check the time, only to remember I’d shut it off like a good patron. Before long, the caffeine in the cola started to wear off.

The Hobbit is often ponderous like a 1950s biblical epic, not a good path to follow for an adventure film. For all the rightful admiration Jackson and other fantasy filmmakers have expressed for the Ray Harryhausen, the Great and Legendary, not one of them have ever caught on to an essential quality of his films—they move fast, with great energy and dash, and never overstay their welcome.

(I also still mysteriously prefer Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects to today’s gleaming unblemished CG, but that’s a ramble down another path.)

The dialogue is often pointed and excellent, especially the scenes between Gandalf and Thorin, but the scenes themselves seemed stretched beyond the bounds of wisdom. Every scene seems to be given equal dramatic weight. The final action sequence is interminable, every possible bit of suspense squeezed out of it, until it becomes like over-chewed gum.

I also wondered how many viewers got the allusion to the Three Stooges. No one under 40, probably. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I load my own work with allusions no one will ever get and it’s fine with me that they don’t. I suspect writers and filmmakers slip them in mostly to keep themselves interested and make the work worth a second or third look. The only crime is when the allusions become the work itself, a post-modern grab bag of allusions to other and better films, with nothing underneath, not even a heart. Call it Geek Pretentiousness.

I really did love Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, as much as I do his Dr. Watson on the Sherlock! series. (Though, I sadly confess, Benedict Cummerbatch’s performance-capture cameo slyly slipped right by me, as he would, the impish devil. Previews indicate he will be front and center in the upcoming Star Trek sequel, enough reason to go.) And of course, the appearance of Sir Christopher Lee (as Saruman) has brightened movies great and terrible for over fifty years and does so again here.

The Hobbit was filmed at a high frame rate of 48 frames per second. Some critics complained that this led to too much clarity—that making every bristle of Hobbit hair visible was distracting and cheapening. I even watched for this, but didn’t find it troublesome. The film is a visual feast throughout.

Diehard fans of the novel may find the lengthening of the story objectionable, but that seems to be Jackson’s way—to pile on as much as he can draw from his fertile imagination, even more than the material calls for. I simply sometimes wish he would clear away the dross to allow the bone, muscle and heart to show.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thoughts on "The Nightcomers" by Eric Ambler

[Spoilers ahead.]

It happened last year, and it has happened again this year: I have stumbled on a book by a favorite author that stumbles; a book that’s not as good as other of his works that I’ve read so far; a narrative that, for a few reasons, did not work for me, and I suspect may not work for others.

The novel in question is The Nightcomers by one of modern thriller fiction’s founding parents, Eric Ambler, whose novels I visit every year. Published in 1956, The Nightcomers (available in the U.S. as State of Siege) stands midway in the Ambler oeuvre, following The Schirmer Inheritance and preceding Passage of Arms.

Here, Ambler leaves post-World War II Balkan Europe for new territory, Southeast Asia and the island nation of Sunda, apparently a stand-in for Indonesia, which was entering into a brutal Communist insurgency at the time.

(Interesting personal history: during this same period, my father, accompanied by my mother and two older brothers—but not I, as yet unborn— lived and worked as a scientist on a rubber plantation on the Indonesian island province of Sumatra. This took place, as I heard later, in a jungle of dangerous conditions, from foot-long scorpions hiding in shoes through near-fatal malaria to Communist insurgents.)

Ambler’s protagonist this time out is Steve Fraser, a British consulting engineer heading up a government-sponsored, an American and British-funded dam project in the steamy northern jungles of the country.

Fraser seems somewhat more level-headed than some other Ambleresque heroes, less desperate than say, the unemployed Nicholas Marlowe in Cause for Alarm. His project, though challenging thanks to numerous cultural misunderstandings, has gone well. Fraser will be sailing home on a comfortable bed of cash.

After a very weedy setup of his circumstances, Fraser has only one more night to spend in the nation’s capital, housesitting for an Aussie pilot friend who’s out of the country. And, he figures, why not start celebrations early with one night of whoopee with a high-class hooker named Rosalie whom he meets in a high-class bar (frequented by various dubious types)?

Unfortunately, there’s a little matter of a military coup d’├ętat—who, interestingly, with an Islamist bent--to keep him from safely leaving the country at dawn.

The coup leaders strike just before Fraser is about to leave the apartment for the airport. They take over the building he’s been bunking in because it’s also the only communications center in the capital. As a result, Fraser and his paramour become prisoners in the apartment bedroom.

And prisoners they stay for the bulk of the novel. Rockets and mortars crash around Fraser and Rosalie and a heated romance blossoms between them. Fraser is forced by his captors to help fix the basement generator so they can continue to broadcast their propaganda. Alas, while the revolutionaries have much passion, they don’t have as much sense and cunning as the government they’re rebelling against. Soon they are under siege and, in addition to a traitor in their midst, they’re also at odds with each other.

There are the usual apt and interesting perspectives you find in Ambler novels including tart observations regarding cultural miscommunications and the strains of post-World War II colonialism for the colonized and the outlook of those caught in the middle: “We did not win our independence from the Dutch,” one wily pragmatist says. “Force of circumstances delivered it into hands which were unfit to receive it.”

The romance between Fraser and Rosalie the prostitute is touching and the atmosphere often vivid and humid—we learn that, among other things, starvation is one problem Southeast Asia didn’t suffer from, at least back in the 1950s. But The Nightcomers, in addition to being didactic, is a trifle boring, especially for an author as charged up and engaged with the world as Eric Ambler.

The action is static, the forward movement lacking. This may be problem inherent in with a siege scenario. In this novel, Ambler appears to have stacked the deck too high against Fraser, painted him into too tight a corner, leaving him nearly helpless to make his own escape or rescue. He reacts, but is unable to convincingly cross the hurdles that block his way.

Ambler’s best novels, such as Cause for Alarm, are cat-and-mouse chase novels through the backwaters of twentieth-century intrigue, but with The Nightcomers, the mouse is almost completely walled up and the cats have about covered every hole. As result, the novel also feels limited in its perspective on the world it wants to know. It needs to get out more.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

To Hell and Beyond, Through Far Away Eyes

It was time for my annual trip through Western literature’s canon, and so, because its settings and themes are similar to those smoldering under my work-in-progress, Butchertown, I pulled on my reading boots and took an epic hike through The Inferno of Dante (or Dante’s Inferno as it’s more commonly known).

The Inferno is the first part of The Divine Comedy trilogy, written by medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the 14th Century. The poem has undergone many translations. I chose a 1994 dual translation (Italian on the recto page, English on the verso) by Robert Pinsky, a former U.S. Poet Laureate. This version also contains atmospheric, impressionistic illustrations by Michael Mazur.

The Inferno casts a blazing light throughout Western literature. Followed by two volumes (or canticas), Purgatorio and Paradiso, it was written between A.D. 1308 and 1321. Up until then, most books were written in Latin. Dante wrote his epic in his everyday Tuscan dialect, which eventually became the official language of Italy when the nation assembled itself five hundred years later.

The Inferno explores numerous themes, but first and foremost, it’s a vivid journey through humanity’s fractious relationship with God, as seen by a medieval eye. Threads of Florentine politics are weaved throughout the poem, as well. Dante was what we might call an activist, caught up in the violent civil struggles between competing factions for control over Florence. Unfortunately for him, he was on the losing side and was driven from his beloved city. Like many great works, from Machiavelli’s The Prince to Nabokov’s novels and stories, The Inferno was written in exile. It’s a cry of pain and very violent revenge.

That sentiment of exile is plain in the poem’s famous opening lines, which still ring mournfully six centuries later, words I first heard at a former girlfriend’s funeral years ago:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself

In dark woods, the right road lost.

And so we open with Dante the poet lost and in peril, as three hungry beasts closing in. Just in time, in sails the spirit of Dante’s literary hero, the Roman poet Virgil, who has been sent by Dante’s great love, Beatrice. Virgil has come to guide Dante to where Beatrice awaits him in Heaven.

There’s a catch though: to get to Heaven, they’ll be taking the scenic route, all the way down through Hell and up the other side. No shortcuts to Heaven, then or now.

After passing through Hell’s vestibule (“Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here”), a purgatory for the morally uncommitted, Virgil leads Dante step by step down into the bowels of The Infamous Other Place.

Dante maps Hell with precise and vivid geography and achieves a genuine feat of imagination, boisterous and colorful, flatulent and gory, even by the standards of the Hostel movies and Comedy Central. If Hell exists as Dante describes it, the poem would be a useful travel guide (provided you can keep it from getting wet, catching fire, or shattering when its gets cold).

The route leads relentlessly down through circles nested within circles within sub-circles. Each circle symbolizes a particular category of sin, though sometimes Dante’s categorizations break down, overlap, melt together, and crisscross.

The First Circle is reserved for pre-Christian pagans and Jews, waiting miserably for Jesus the Redeemer (who is never mentioned by name) to come down and take them up to Heaven. The next level is for those who suffer from “excess” carnal passions; the next circle, the stingy and the wasteful and so on.

Muslims get their own special circle—a whole city in fact--which clues you in to the tenor of ecumenical dialogue in that era, when inter-religious warfare was the norm and, as it is in every era, un-Godly vicious.

Grotesque terrors and tortures, ugly monsters and dragons, wait around every bend. The end notes credit The Inferno for creating many of the tropes found in horror fiction to this day, making it an Ur text for horror writers.

If you go, you’ll meet many of Dante’s political enemies—including a couple of popes--along the trail, so be ready for plenty of axe-grinding, score settling and vengeful mutilations; as most of these people now live only in the nooks and crannies of history, these sections took patience to get through, especially for one who dislikes didactic fiction, as I do.

And anyone who believes Satan's declaration in Milton's Paradise Lost that it's better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven may need reminding that there is only one guy living free in hell and it won't be us. There ain’t much freedom to be had around these slimy, slummy neighborhoods of Dante's Inferno

Mark Twain once recommended going to Heaven for the scenery and Hell for the company, but there’s no Algonquin Round Table in this Hell, only an endless, relentless shrieking chorus; not much in the way of twinkling wit and knee-slapping humor, unless being permanently impaled on a pitchfork with your head dunked in molten lava is your idea of a hearty chortle. Better a boring harp than a sizzling hot spike up my fundament, that’s my attitude. And I’m stickin’ to it.

Surprisingly it’s not the murderously violent and hateful who burn and freeze in the dens, warrens and bleak ice plains that make up the ninth and bottom circle, but “falsifiers,” “blasphemers”, and liars and betrayers in general.

Hell is a lively action-packed place, but, as the introduction states, there’s one other noticeable thing lacking besides the name of Christ—a sense of forgiveness, which stands very much at the heart of Christianity, then and now. This is a most unforgiving poem. Freezing or hot, those sentenced to Hell are on eternal lockdown, regardless of the shallowness of their sin or sincerity of their repentance. No parole. No probation.

The Inferno is the most challenging book I’ve read in my journey through the world’s literary masterpieces. Uneducated in Italian, untrained in both poetry and the classics, I turned for guidance to this versions’ introduction and end notes, plus articles in Sparks Notes and Wikipedia (though I had to skirt around asides like “Michiko Kakutani declares that, beyond a doubt, Stephanie Meyer is the real author of The Inferno.”). Though I was in safer climes in my bed than Dante was on his abyssal trail, the journey was sometimes stumbling and strenuous.

Dante’s world isn’t mine, but I’m glad I visited, once again to see things through eyes not my own, to live other lives I’ll never know, which has always been the draw of fiction for me. The more I learn how to see other worlds through other eyes in other times, the better my own work seems.

(reedited 4/16/13: I had misquoted Satan's adage, from Milton's Paradise Lost about reigning in Hell, though I swear someone somewhere states it as "live free in Hell.")

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

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Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.