Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Recent Movie Roundup 19

Spring has sprung, and with it a whole bunch of movies I want to watch have arrived at the movie theater (as well as this bunch, see my recent review of Snowpiercer at Strange Horizons).  Though I haven't exactly been suffering, there's certainly a somewhat fannish slant to my recent moviegoing that verges on the embarrassing--I need to get around to watching some grown-up films, pronto.  Of course, it being the end of April these are nowhere to be seen, and by the time fall and its award-bait movies roll around I'll probably have forgotten this resolution.  In the meantime, here are my thoughts on some the films I've seen recently.
  • Veronica Mars - The Kickstarter-funded return to the world of the beloved TV series proves two things.  One, that it was always a mistake for the show's second season to pick up immediately where the first season left off and try to recreate its "mystery in a high school" plot.  And two, that while the world of Neptune, California and the character of wise-cracking, tiny, blonde private detective Veronica Mars had more life in them than just that first season, it really wasn't that much more life.  The common complaint raised against Veronica Mars, the movie--in which the title character, who has abandoned detective work because of the damage it caused to her family at the end of the show's third and final season, is called back to investigate one last case when mythological ex Logan (Jason Dohring) is accused of murdering his girlfriend--is that it prioritizes servicing the fans (who after all made the film possible) over telling its own self-contained story that might attract new fans and maybe even jumpstart the franchise again.  The film, accordingly, takes place at Veronica's ten-year high school reunion, and features multiple cameos from nearly all of the show's beloved recurring characters (perhaps most egregiously, this includes bringing back Chris Lowell's Piz just so that he can get his heart stomped on again as Veronica and Logan rush back into each other's arms).  But to my mind, the real problem with this film is that it exposes the seams and cracks in the show's original concept.

    The fact is, the high school detective premise doesn't work very well when your detective is ten years out of high school, and yet Veronica Mars behaves as if the problems that plagued Veronica as a teenager are the same ones that will dog her for the rest of her life if she returns to Neptune.  Mapping the class system onto high school cliques was brilliant in the show's first season, but it becomes more and more of a stretch as Veronica and her contemporaries get older and move further away from who they were in high school, a fact that the film fails to acknowledge--which is how we end up with a scene in which Veronica's third-season sex tape is screened at the reunion to the general appreciation and bemusement of her former classmates, because this is something that a room full of 28-year-olds would find funny and appropriate.  Similarly, behaving as if Veronica--who is now a lawyer--is just as powerless before Neptune's power structures as she was as a child is unconvincing, and so the film's "Forget it Jake, It's Neptune" conclusion--in which Veronica's only response to being confronted with the town's corrupt, borderline murderous sheriff's department is to go back to PI work (as opposed to launching an actual counter-offensive through the courts and the media)--feels demeaning to the character's much-lauded strength and intelligence.  It's all very well to tell a noir story, but that noir tone needs to be earned, and this Veronica Mars doesn't do.

    All that said, the things that kept the series going past the point where its story could carry it are back in force here.  Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni are still brilliant as Veronica and Keith, dropping right back into their familiar rapport, which remains as powerful and compelling as it was even in the series's weakest moments.  Logan clearly exists solely to satisfy shippers who can't get enough of his chemistry with Veronica--which is still palpable--and though the story the film offers for his post-series life is borderline absurd, it does provide a justification for toning Logan down, and making him Veronica's love interest and reward rather than the disruptive presence he was in the series.  And though the film's worldbuilding is questionable, it's used in the service of Veronica's own journey towards understanding the kind of person she is.  Though again, I don't find the choice the film offers, between being a successful lawyer away from Neptune and a hardscrabble private detective tilting at windmills in it, terribly believable, the terms in which Veronica Mars chooses to phrase this choice--as the struggle with an addiction to the PI life--are intriguing.  It might have been interesting to see Veronica finally growing up, and embracing detective work from a place of power rather than helpless addiction, but if you take it as a given that Veronica Mars is, like the TV series, trapped by its core concept, what the film does with this concept has enough glimmers of originality to make it worth watching, and a worthy successor to the show's brilliant first season.

  • Frozen - Six months of the internet falling over itself to crown Disney's latest the greatest thing since sliced bread probably didn't do it any favors with me once I finally sat down to watch it.  Frozen is a good film, but for the most part it recapitulates the plot and structure of Tangled, and does them slightly less well.  There's a bright-eyed, adventurous but sheltered heroine eager to see the world, a cynical and world-weary love interest who starts out helping her for selfish reasons but quickly finds himself won over by her infectious enthusiasm, and a time-sensitive mission they embark on together, during which they fall in love.  There's a little more than this to Frozen, which might be why it's so awkwardly paced--it takes forever to set up its story, then rushes through its most important emotional beats (among them, the development of all its central relationships, including the central romance).  Along the way, the jokes are less funny (though Josh Gad's talking snowman is delightfully surreal) and the songs are less good (even the famous "Let It Go," though a good song in itself, feels weirdly out of place in this movie, a pop anthem lost amid the rest of the musical-style soundtrack).

    The crucial difference between Frozen and Tangled is, of course, the fact that its central relationship--its central love story--is between sisters, not lovers.  Based very loosely on Andersen's "The Snow Queen," Frozen imagines the title character as Elsa (Idina Menzel), a princess born with a power over ice that she can't control, and whose parents have isolated her from the world and convinced her to completely suppress her powers.  When the pressure of keeping herself under total control proves too much for Elsa, she runs away and inadvertently starts a permanent winter, and her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell), who has spent her life hurt and confused by her sister's absence, tries to rescue her--from her own power and from the opportunistic, power-hungry nobles trying to snatch their throne.  It's an intriguing premise, but one that Frozen for the most part fumbles.  The most interesting thing about Tangled was its complex and often ambivalent depiction of the smothering, abusive relationship between Rapunzel and her mother, and Frozen has the opportunity to do the same thing--this is, after all, a film about a child who was mistreated by well-meaning but horribly misguided parents, and the sibling who doesn't understand her family's dysfunction but was nevertheless damaged by it.  And yet Frozen repeatedly flattens what should be Elsa and Anna's complex personalities and relationship.  Elsa should be angry and conflicted towards her family, but because the film kills her parents off in its prologue, there's no one to direct that anger at except "innocent" Anna, which allows the film to neatly solve what should be Elsa's complex issues through Anna's simple love.  Her ambivalence about her powers is similarly very neatly solved--the exhilaration she feels at finally letting them loose in the film's middle segments, and particularly "Let It Go," is replaced by domesticated, safe applications by the film's end, with no sign that after years of confinement, Elsa might want to stretch her wings a little further than making summertime skating rinks (even the glorious castle she builds as a demonstration of her power is abandoned by the film's end).  The result is a character who can only be classified as good because she doesn't feel precisely those emotions that feminism identifies as crucial to self-actualization--anger, and a desire to be powerful.  While it's obviously a good thing that Disney is creating movies about (positive) female relationships, I can't help but feel that there's quite a way to go from where Frozen ends up.

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson's latest bills itself, in its promotional material and closing credits, as inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig.  That's certainly noticeable in the film, which shares several of Zweig's writerly tics and preoccupations--the multiple, nested framing stories, the ornate, storytelling dialogue, the tone of nostalgia for a pre-War, central European world of gentility and fading aristocracy.  But for all this obvious fondness for Zweig and his writing, The Grand Budapest Hotel is ultimately its director's film, which means that the kind of story that Zweig might have told as a melodrama, it tells as a farce.  As fond as I am of some of Zweig's writing, I can't deny that this is an attitude he might have benefited from himself, so I certainly don't have a problem with it in the film, which moves past the dry, absurdist humor of Anderson's previous films to become, at points, uproariously funny.  Ralph Fiennes plays M. Gustave, the implacable, unfailingly considerate butler of the titular hotel, in the fictional country of Zubrowka shortly before the outbreak of something very similar to WWII.  Gustave is the favorite of the hotel's spoiled, elderly, wealthy guests, attending to their every need and basking in their dependence and admiration.  When one of his charges dies suddenly, leaving him an expensive bequest, her jealous family accuse him of her murder, and Gustave and his protege Zero (Tony Revolori) must escape and prove his innocence.

    Fiennes is absolutely brilliant as Gustave, turning on a dime from romantic sentimentality to foul-mouthed hard-headedness and back again, but never losing Gustave's defining ability to transform the world around him into the kinder, more genteel place he wants it to be by sheer force of his belief in it.  When Zero visits him in jail, Gustave explains, in his typical flowery, didactic tones, that he has "beaten the shit" out of a fellow prisoner who mistook him for an easy mark, then pauses; "he's actually become a dear friend," he adds.  It's a fantastic performance, and I look forward to it being criminally ignored alongside similarly sublime turns in Anderson's previous films, such as Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic.  But like the rest of those films, what contains this performance is on the effervescent side, so much so that less than a day after watching it, very little of The Grand Budapest Hotel lingers in my mind.  The conversation about Anderson, and whether his films have substance to match their distinctive style, is of old standing, and this entry doesn't bring me any closer to an answer--not even the reliance on Zweig can fill the film with meaning, since nostalgia is by its nature an empty emotion.  Still, if there isn't much more to this film than pretty production design and wonderfully mannered acting, it is still an extremely funny story set in wonderfully realized alternate world, and that makes it worth watching.

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier - One of the impressive things about the MCU films--besides their very existence and the megafranchise's success and overall watchability--is how each of the sub-series that make up the universe has begun developing its own tone and genre.  Watching the first Captain America film in preparation for this one, I was struck by how sombre it is, when compared to the Iron Man or Thor films, suffused with its title character's melancholy, first at not being allowed to help those in need, and then at the things that those in power choose to do with his strength.  Winter Soldier takes that approach to--possibly egregious--extremes.  Where The First Avenger was sombre, this film is practically dour.  It's also talky and a little on the long side, laying out a convoluted conspiracy within SHIELD that Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and new character Falcon (Anthony Mackie) have to unravel and then save the world from.  Like Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier is rather bold in calling out the war on terror and the security state as distractions--in this film, an actual villainous plot concealing an attempt to establish a global tyranny--but by its nature this sort of plot doesn't give a character like Captain America much room to change or grow.  His purpose is to be a fixed point of goodness and integrity to which those members of SHIELD who still cherish the ideals of freedom and democracy can flock, but whereas being that sort of fixed point made Steve compelling in The First Avenger, when he still had a great deal to prove, it leaves him feeling rather inert in The Winter Soldier, in which he's so accustomed to his strength that he nonchalantly jumps out of planes without a parachute.  The movie gestures in some interesting directions in its first act when it discusses the difficulties of soldiers returning from war, not just with Steve but with Black Widow, Falcon (an Afghan vet), and even the Winter Soldier itself.  But as the film's plot develops this strand fades into the background, since even Steve's newfound ambivalence about following orders can't justify the mayhem he causes without an additional discovery of perfidy at SHIELD's core.

    More successful are Steve's growing friendships with Black Widow and Falcon (though it's a shame that the SHIELD plot shunts the actual Winter Soldier, and the dilemma that his identity poses for Steve, to the side; this is clearly setting up the next film in the Captain America series, but if nothing else it makes the film's subtitle puzzlingly inapt), but this does nothing to alleviate the feeling that Winter Soldier is centerless--especially as the film eventually comes to seem as if it were as much Black Widow and Nick Fury's (Samuel L. Jackson) story as Steve's.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing--if Marvel is trying to build the MCU as a fully integrated, multi-part story (which is a rather interesting thing to do with feature films, especially in the risk-averse blockbuster division), then The Winter Soldier shakes up the universe's status quo quite impressively and sets up situations that the next several films (and the TV series Agents of SHIELD, which might now require a name change) will be dealing with.  And it does so while delivering several very good action set pieces that flow together much more smoothly than in most MCU films.  I just wish the actual Captain America didn't end up getting lost in the shuffle.

  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - Two movies in, the second Spider-Man series remains the most inessential of today's superhero franchises.  Which is not to say that there's anything actually wrong with these films.  In some respects, in fact, I think that the new series improves on Sam Raimi's trilogy.  Andrew Garfield, though obviously too handsome to play geeky loser Peter Parker, is very good as the wisecracking, irreverent Spider-Man, both in and out of his costume, and manages to convey the frustrations of being a troubled teenager and a superhero without sinking to the kind of depths of angst that made Tobey Maguire frequently unwatchable.  Garfield also has a better rapport with Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy than Maguire did with Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane, and the fact that Gwen knows Peter's secret and assists in his crimefighting helps to balance the film and take some of the weight of its storytelling off his shoulders.  Perhaps most importantly, between a new director and improvements in CGI, the new Spider-Man films look a hell of a lot better than the old ones, and the exhilaration of swinging through the city with Spider-Man is far more palpable in them, even in 2D.

    Still, for all that the Amazing Spider-Man films have good performances and effects, these are not so good, in themselves, as to justify the films' existence, or the time and money we spend watching them.  Neither is the plot of this sequel--in which Jamie Foxx (as the first black character of any import in both Spider-Man trilogies, which makes the fact that he's a villain all the more unfortunate) runs afoul of that source of all mischief, OsCorp, and gains power over electricity, while Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, magnetic in his few scenes but wasted by a script that can't wait to turn him into a monster) goes through the motions of his counterpart's character are in the first trilogy--terribly interesting.  Which begs the question: why, apart from the fact that Sony doesn't want to lose the rights to the character, should anyone care about these films?  Like its predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes a faint stab at charting its own path by developing the story of Peter's parents and their connection to his powers.  But as in the previous film, this story is advanced only infinitesimally.  From what I've read, Sony are trying to develop a megafranchise similar to the MCU by hanging it on the skeleton of this mystery, and then presumably developing it in other films not featuring Spider-Man, but this does not make this plot's halting progress here any more tolerable or compelling.  The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ends with a huge (and yet heavily telegraphed, for anyone who reads the comics or who reads people who reads the comics) development, which could potentially take the Spider-Man character in interesting directions.  But it's asking quite a bit for a film series to go two films--the latter of them absurdly overlong--before starting to find its own identity.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Nominees

The nominees for the 2014 Hugo awards were announced last night, and now I can reveal the news that I've been sitting on for one of the longest weeks of my life: I am nominated in the Best Fan Writer category!  I want to congratulate my fellow nominees, Liz Bourke, Kameron Hurley, Foz Meadows, and Mark Oshiro (who together make up what I think is the most female-dominated slate in the category's history).  I also want to thank everyone who nominated me and encouraged others to.  It's been strongly implied, but I'll just say officially that I will be attending LonCon 3 this summer and plan to be on hand for the Hugo award ceremony.

It's terribly gratifying to receive this nomination, especially at the end of a nominating period in which so many wonderful, smart people said such lovely things about me and my writing.  I'm particularly thrilled because, to the best of my knowledge, I'm the first Israeli to receive a Hugo nomination, and for that to happen at a convention that will be particularly accessible to Israelis and where I know that there will be a large Israeli contingent feels very appropriate.  In addition to the fan writer nomination, I'm also nominated as one of the editors of Strange Horizons, which received its second nomination for Best Semiprozine, so congratulations to Niall Harrison, Brit Mandelo, An Owomoyela, Julia Rios, Sonya Taaffe, Rebecca Cross, Anaea Lay, and Shane Gavin.

All that said, I spent the last week less in anticipation and more in trepidation, because as much as I appreciate being nominated for a Hugo I knew that my pride in my nomination would depend a great deal on the makeup of the rest of the ballot, and more than any other year I wanted this one's nominees to be ones that truly reflect the excellence and diversity of the field.  As you'll know if you've seen the ballot, my hopes were rewarded in only a very partial fashion.  The 2014 Hugo ballot is weirdly bifurcated.  The "bottom half," of the ballot, comprising the publishing, fan, and Campbell categories, seems made up, for the most part, of online fandom's dream nominees.  The best fan writer category is not only dominated by women but made up solely of online writers.  Blogs and online magazines dominate the fanzine and semiprozine categories.  There are more women in the professional and fan artist categories than I think have ever been nominated.  I'm particularly pleased to see several nominees that I championed on the ballot, some of which--like Mandie Manzano and Sarah Webb in best fan artist, or XKCD's "Time" in best graphic story--make me think (rightly or wrongly) that my endorsement played a real role in getting them a nomination.

But then you come to the fiction categories.  Though best short story is solid, the other three categories are not simply dispiriting or embarrassing, but downright infuriating.  Let me be clear: Vox Day is a despicable person whose repeated racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior towards specific members of the genre community as well as the community as a whole should make all decent human beings recoil from his presence.  That I received my first Hugo nomination on the same ballot that bears his name leaves a vile taste in my mouth.  That the rest of the fiction ballot feels, as several people have noted, as if it's recapitulating the culture wars only makes this nomination worse, and confirms me in my feeling that the only people who benefit from award campaigns are those with large and devoted fanbases--whether those fanbases are motivated by love of a particular writer, or the desire to stick it to the lefties (or, as is most likely, both).  One can only sigh at Larry Correia's Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles (serious, sigh) making it onto the best novel ballot, or Toni Weisskopf's best editor, long form nomination.  (As for the Wheel of Time series making it onto the best novel ballot, I'd just like to say to anyone who voted for this: feel ashamed, because you don't even have the excuse of being a reactionary troll to justify your bad taste.) 

All of which leaves me feeling very conflicted.  I want to be happy about my nomination and the nominations of so many wonderful and worthy people.  But I also can't ignore that this year the Hugos have shown their underpants, and the inherent problems of both the award's system and the ways in which it is being increasingly gamed, to a far greater degree than ever before.  The fact is that when the outside world talks about this slate of nominees, what they'll note is the absurd nomination of the Wheel of Time series, and that when we look back on this year, what we'll remember is Vox Day.  I'd like to believe that the changes I'm seeing in the smaller, less talked-about categories are creeping upwards, and that in a few years time we'll see them affecting the fiction categories as well.  But I remain uncertain, and that's not the feeling I wanted to have on the day after my first Hugo nomination.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: Snowpiercer

As I say at the beginning of my review of Korean director Bong Joon-Ho's first English-language film, if you're like me then the first thing you ever heard about Snowpiercer was that it was in danger of being chopped down and dumbed down by its distributors for the sake of English-speaking audiences.  And then you were probably incensed, not only because you're fully capable of watching a 125-minute film with a small amount of foreign language dialogue and a moderate gore, and not only because Snowpiercer is one of those rare SF films that is neither a sequel, a remake, or a reboot, but because it's been getting such good reviews abroad and you wanted to see it in all its original, uncut glory.

As I write in my review in Strange Horizons, to go into Snowpiercer with all this in mind is probably to do the film a disservice, because what this knowledge does is take an interesting, well-done, but ultimately thoroughly conventional SF action film and turn into the vanguard of the fight against Hollywood predictability, a burden that it can't really shoulder.  That said, taken on its own terms Snowpiercer is definitely worth a look.  I'm glad that Israeli film distributors brought it here (and I can only hope this bodes well for other intriguing genre projects like Under the Skin and Only Lovers Left Alive), and I certainly recommend seeking it out if it comes to your territory.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Recent Reading Roundup 36

So the good news is that since the beginning of the year I've been reading up a storm, the last vestiges of the reading drought I'd suffered under for nearly two years blowing away.  The bad news is that I'm much more interested in reading books than writing about them, which is why this recent reading roundup only covers a selection of my reading this year, the others having passed too long ago for me to remember what I wanted to say about them.  (Also not discussed here: I've been rereading the Sherlock Holmes canon in publication order, and discussing my reactions on my twitter account.  The ephemeral format feels appropriate to books that I'm only returning to, albeit after fifteen years, not reading for the first time.  But I have storified my progress thus far: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley of Fear.)
  • Saga: Volume 1 and 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples - I ended up flaking on Vaughan's Y: The Last Man after one volume, and with that series spanning a dozen or so of the things it seemed easier to pick up his new one than to go back.  Regardless of Y's charms, this was probably the right choice, because Saga has grabbed me in a way that Vaughan's earlier series never did.  Narrated by Hazel, whose birth kicks the story off, it focuses on the efforts of her parents, Alana and Marko, to survive and protect their child.  Soldiers from opposite sides of a centuries-long war, Alana and Marko are on the run from their former armies, multiple bounty hunters, and former friends and family, and the introduction of each of these parties only serves to expand Saga's wide, deranged universe.  Moving back and forth between Marko and Alana's present as they try to adjust to parenthood and stay alive, their past as they meet and fall in love under less than ideal circumstances (Alana was a guard at the hard labor camp where Marko was incarcerated), and subplots involving the various characters pursuing them--a robot prince still reeling from his own experiences on the battlefield, a lovelorn bounty hunter, Marko's former fiancée Gwendolyn--Saga builds its story strand by strand in a way that is a joy to puzzle out.  Along the way, it also drops hints about the history of the story's world and the war that has been tearing it apart, challenging the various characters' belief in its justness while also revealing just how much blood has already been spilled.  What's perhaps most impressive about all this is that for all that Saga is wide-ranging and seems to proliferate characters with almost every issue, there's never a sense that Vaughan and Staples don't know exactly where their story is going and how all its pieces tie together.  I'm very much looking forward to the future issues where they do.

  • Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner - The best reading experiences are the ones that seem to come out of nowhere and sweep you off your feet.  So it was with Swordspoint, a dilapidated, ancient copy of which I found in a used bookstore a few months ago and picked up on the vague recollection of having heard good things about it.  As it turns out, Kushner's slim (barely 250 pages) 1987 debut is a remarkably assured fantasy that lays out a world and its customs in the space of a few pages and then sends half a dozen vivid characters on a collision course with each other in which the stakes are intensely personal--love and honor--and thus the most important thing in the world.  Richard St. Vier is a swordsman, employed by nobles to fight on their behalf in the duels with which they settle their disputes.  His origins are decidedly lower-class, but his skill and role confer upon him some level of privilege--the nobles admire him, though they don't see him as entirely human, and his fellow inhabitants in the rough neighborhood of Riverside embrace him as a mascot, but are also constantly on the lookout for the next up-and-comer who will take Richard's life and his place.  Richard becomes embroiled in political machinations up on the hill, but these are not the cold-blooded clockwork plans we might expect, but instead driven by passions, misunderstandings, and hurt pride.  They end up encompassing Richard's lover Alec, who has his own mysterious past, and nobleman Michael Godwin, who is drawn to the swordsman's life but is too caught up in his upper class upbringing to understand the kind of sacrifice it requires of him.  At the heart of most interactions in Swordspoint is the assumption that only certain people are allowed to feel certain things--that someone like Richard has no honor of his own, only the honor he fights for, and that nobles like Michael aren't driven by feelings like jealousy or fear.  Both of these assumptions turns out to be false, of course, and Kushner is adept at getting at the beating, human heart of every character in the space of a few sentences, of establishing the pettiness or the greatness of spirit that lie just where you least expect them.  The result is a fantasy whose richness stems less from its strange world than from the minute, achingly human detailing of its familiar one.

  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson - It's always a problem, coming to one of the most celebrated books of the year a few months after the buzz for it has reached a feverish crescendo.  You tend to take the things that are good about the book for granted--and Life After Life is very well written (I can't recall the last 600-page book that I breezed through as effortlessly as this one) and handles its central gimmick, the fact that its heroine dies and is then reborn again and again, each time with a subconscious knowledge of the lives she lived before, with impressive aplomb--while searching for a greatness that may not actually exist.  That's not to dismiss the use to which Atkinson puts her reincarnation device, through which she can create both a panoramic picture of English life before and during the world wars, and an intimate portrait of a single family.  The multiple deaths of heroine Ursula have different valences at different points in the novel--when, as a child, she tries with increasing desperation to avoid being exposed to the Spanish flu, her repeated failures, which involve slapsticky measures such as pushing the maid who will expose her down the stairs to prevent her from going out on the town, are darkly funny.  But later, when Ursula keeps being killed in the Blitz, her deaths give the novel a claustrophobic feeling, a sensation of being trapped much like the people in London at the time.  Meanwhile, the longer chapters which follow a single one of Ursula's lives in detail have their own power--in one, she is raped as a teenager and is so consumed by self-loathing (and by the recriminations of her family) that she falls into the clutches of a vicious, controlling abuser.  In another, she falls in love on a pre-war trip to Germany, and finds herself in the Fuhrer's inner circle when the war breaks out.  In a third, she lives safely and unremarkably as a civil servant, dying of a heart attack on a park bench on the day of her retirement.

    But while Life After Life's pieces are well done and occasionally remarkable, I have no idea what to make of its whole.  While reading the novel, I tried to resist the temptation to work out a cosmology governing Ursula's reincarnations, because this is clearly not something that Atkinson is interested in--the novel, for example, opens with Ursula killing Hitler, but this turns out to be a futile, meaningless gesture that has little bearing on the rest of her lives, and if there are rules governing what Ursula can do in each life and how they change in response to her actions in previous iterations, they change so frequently as to be effectively meaningless.  But what that means is that I have no idea what Atkinson was trying to accomplish, and Life After Life's gimmick eventually comes to seem like a way of putting a new gloss on the kind of pre-war social novel that has been written dozens of times before--or in fact, of writing all of those social novels at once, since each of them, taken individually, is familiar and not terribly original.  The farther I get from Life After Life, the more it fades in my mind--neither its individual pieces nor its whole have the power to linger.

  • Longbourn by Jo Baker - I've mostly avoided the vast field of Austen-ian para-literature, but Baker's Pride and Prejudice-below-stairs retelling caught my eye because of one promotional quote: "If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them."  Austen is often criticized for having proto-second wave blind spots.  For caring about the happiness and self-actualization of upper and middle class women without giving a thought to the safety and well-being of lower class ones, and for railing against the stifling lives of women who are not allowed to work without noticing that their lifestyle was enabled by the labor of women who were expected to work, and whose work was undervalued if not invisible.  Making that point by referencing one of the key moments of Pride and Prejudice--Elizabeth walking to Netherfield through muddy fields without a thought for her appearance, thus establishing herself as a "modern" woman--seemed to promise a cutting subversion of the original novel.  But Longbourn, as it turns out, isn't really a retelling of Pride and Prejudice--whose events don't start until more than halfway into the novel, and are never as crucial to the servant characters as Baker's invented plot strands.  Instead, Baker uses Longbourn as the setting for a broader discussion of the life of a Regency servant (which among other things means that her story travels to parts of the house and the town that Austen's characters don't see, or at least don't talk about) and as a launching point for her own plot, which indulges in the kind of flights of melodrama that Austen frequently crooked an eyebrow at in her own writing--hidden parentage, unacknowledged half-siblings, deserting soldiers, despoiled young women.

    The result is very much its own entity, though it does occasionally offer a skewed perspective on the original novel's events--when Mr. Collins visits Longbourn, for example, the servants are anxious to make a good impression because he will one day be their master, and, as opposed to Elizabeth and Jane's disgust with the man, are overjoyed to find that he is kind and easily pleased.  But the main story here belongs to Sarah, the maid of all work, and Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper.  The latter is presented as the real power in Longbourn, working hard to keep things on an even keel both upstairs and downstairs, and shrewdly aware of the dangers facing all of the house's inhabitants--from bad marriages, from cruel masters, from designing men, and from the force of the law.  But where Mrs. Hill accepts the restrictions of the world she lives in and works within them, Sarah is just working them out, and testing them to see where they have give (one of her most interesting observations is that while for a woman like Elizabeth Bennett it would be an impossible scandal to be married with a pregnant belly, a servant like Sarah could get away with it).  In keeping with the Austen template, Longbourn gives Sarah a love story (two, in fact, the first with a freed slave who may be Mr. Bingley's half-brother), which is sweetly and tenderly described.  But it ends up feeling less important than Sarah's exploration of her own power and status.  Going into Longbourn, it's easy to assume that it will be a story about how people like Sarah are exploited and oppressed by people like Elizabeth, and there is much of this in the novel.  But as Sarah comes to understand the marriage game that Elizabeth is playing more clearly, she also realizes her own ability to opt in or out of that system on her own terms, and perhaps to carve out a greater measure of freedom and happiness than Austen's characters get.  It's a bit of a fantasy ending, but as a commentary on Austen's blind spots, it is perhaps even more subversive than a straight-up retelling of Pride and Prejudice would have been.

  • Whose Body? and Clouds of Witnesses by Dorothy L. Sayers - Nearly a decade ago, I read Gaudy Night and then the other novels featuring Harriet Vane, partner and then wife of Sayers's detective Lord Peter Wimsey.  But, perhaps because he was overshadowed by Harriet and her fascinating internal debate about whether she could remain her own person if she gave in to Peter's attentions, I never felt much interest in the solo Wimsey novels, and it's taken me until now to look them up.  The first foray--and the first book published, in 1923--finds Sayers quite obviously puzzling out her genre, with both book and protagonist in constant conversation with, of all things, Sherlock Holmes.  Wimsey references Holmes constantly, and his associate, Scotland Yard detective Parker, is frequently cast in the role of his Watson, with another detective, Sugg, playing the bumbling Lestrade role.  But both Wimsey and Sayers are clearly dissatisfied with the template laid out by Holmes, stressing the limits of Wimsey's abilities in the face of inconveniently messy evidence (meanwhile, Parker is also an investigator in his own right, who sometimes sees things the Wimsey misses).  It's possible that from Sayers's perspective, looking to Holmes as her most obvious antecedent to the extent of feeling the need to argue with him and his stories' conventions made sense.  In 2014, however, it feels like a weirdly old-fashioned preoccupation, though admittedly of a piece with the rest of the novel, whose portrait of post-WWI English society feels very similar to Conan Doyle's late Victorian version.  From the vantage point of Lord Peter, his devoted valet, and his imperious mother the Dowager Duchess of Denver, the earth-shattering changes that occurred after the war might as well not have happened--they're all still at the stage of patting themselves on the back for being OK with Jewish people--and the book's depiction of middle class people is positively caricatured.

    All that said, Whose Body? does raise a crucial question in response to the Holmes model, one that will clearly continue to afflict Wimsey, who unlike the Great Detective can't reconcile his fondness for detective work as a game, a test of his wits, with the life and death stakes of the cases he investigates.  How can he, an amateur, justify involving himself, merely for the sake of his amusement, in cases where the end result of his work will be to send someone to be hanged?  It's an interesting question, and one that the book refuses to resolve with the simple response that Wimsey is hunting down murderers.  An extremely well done scene at the end of the book sees Wimsey seeking out a man he knows to be a killer in order to look him in the eye and understand what he's about to do, and it makes a convincing argument for Sayers's project to complicate and humanize the Holmesian template (this scene also includes a surprisingly accurate, for its period, description of the physiological mechanism of PTSD, from which Wimsey suffers).  For the rest of the book, however, Wimsey is a little too much of a clown, and the novel lingers too long over his upper-class affectations--a minor subplot involves his passion for collecting antique manuscripts, with footnotes describing the exact provenance of his Dante folio--in a way that feels almost defensive (I was reminded of Brideshead Revisited's assumption that, because someone has said half a dozen words against the landed gentry, the whole edifice is obviously about to come crumbling down, and it is therefore time to start penning elegies to the class system).  The mystery itself, meanwhile, is nicely puzzling but also relatively easy to work out--which I suppose is a point in Sayers's favor since she famously believed that mystery authors should "play fair" with their readers.  All in all, then, Whose Body? is clearly a work in progress, but also one that makes a more coherent argument for Wimsey than his supporting role in the Harriet Vane novels had led me to expect.

    If Whose Body? is flawed but promising, however, its follow-up, Clouds of Witnesses, squanders much of its goodwill.  It sees Wimsey rushing to the English countryside after his brother Gerald is accused of murdering their sister Mary's fiancé.  The template here is clearly a country house murder, and Sayers's twist on it is that Wimsey is overwhelmed with conflicting and contradictory evidence, because as it turns out everyone at the house had some secret in their life, and nearly all of them were abroad on the night of the murder, running into each, assuming the worst of each other, and interfering with evidence in order to protect themselves or others.  It's a clever premise, but the execution leaves a great deal to be desired--the novel opens with a chapter-long recitation of the coroner's inquest, and ends with a chapter-long transcription of Gerald's defense attorney's closing arguments, and in between it mainly consists of Peter chasing red herrings in a way that quickly becomes tedious (one bright point is an understated but nicely done romantic subplot involving Parker, which is clearly intended to recall Watson's similar plot strand in The Sign of the Four).  More importantly, if Whose Body? is at least a little coy about its class prejudices, Clouds of Witnesses lays them out in a way that is as bald as it is infuriating.  There are, for example, the chapters devoted to castigating socialism, and particularly Mary's lover, who is exposed as a coward, a fool, and just generally lacking in the sort of grit that naturally noble people like Peter possess.  Even worse is the sub-plot about the battered wife of a local farmer, who lives in genuine fear of her life but whose well-being is considered less important than the fact that her testimony could save her noble lover--at one point Peter even opines that it would be a shame if this woman's husband murdered her, as Gerald would have to live with the guilt of it.  And then there's the fact that the whole novel revolves around Gerald being tried in the House of Lords rather than an ordinary court, which none of the characters find strange or unjust.  I'm still interested in reading the other Wimsey novels, but after Clouds of Witnesses I can see that I'm going to have to steel myself against their prejudices.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

How I Met Your Ending

One of the reasons that I'm not so down on spoilers is that, for someone who consumes pop culture the way I do, they're essentially impossible to avoid.  Online fandom talks a big game about its spoiler-phobia, but if you've ever spent a day on twitter in the wake of a major pop culture event, you know that there's no way not to pick up exactly what happened, even if people haven't said it outright.  For someone like myself, whose geographic location means that I watch things--TV episodes in particular--a minimum of 24 hours after they've originally aired, there are only two options--get spoiled, or cut yourself off the internet completely.  I take the latter approach sometimes, in the cases of big TV events like the finales of Breaking Bad or True Detective.  But for the most part I can't be bothered, and occasionally a Red Wedding will take me by surprise--as in the case of last week's episode of The Good Wife.  And sometimes, there are shows that you just never imagined could be spoiled, which is the case with this week's finale of How I Met Your Mother.  Before I went online yesterday morning, I thought that the finale would merely be going through the motions of an ending already laid out.  The show had already shown us that perennial wife-seeker Ted (Josh Radnor) would meet his future wife and the mother of his children on the platform of the Farhampton train station, after leaving his best friend Barney's (Neil Patrick Harris) wedding to Robin (Cobie Smulders), the woman whom Ted has spent the show's nine-season run alternately dating and pining for.  The final season, which spent several episodes introducing us to the mother (Cristin Milioti) and flashing forward to her life with Ted, had even revealed that their love story would be a bittersweet one, with a flash to ten years in the future in which the mother is terminally ill.  All that was left, it seemed to me, was to fill in the blanks--the mother's name, some more of her and Ted's courtship, and most importantly, the moment in which Ted walks up to her and starts a new chapter in his life.  What could there possibly be to spoil?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  The first big revelation of the double-length finale, titled "Last Forever," is that Robin and Barney's marriage--which had been the show's prevailing obsession in its final two seasons, the latter taking place entirely over the weekend of their wedding--fell apart after only three years, under the weight of Robin's career demands and Barney's aimlessness.  After the breakup, Robin, who has finally had enough of the show's quasi-incestuous core dynamic, in which she spends most of her social life around her two most significant exes, cuts herself off from the group.  Barney goes back to his horndogging ways and accidentally conceives a child, a daughter whom he proudly proclaims "the love of [his] life."  And then, as predicted, the mother (whose name is revealed to be Tracy) dies, and Ted concludes his story.  But his children, who have been listening patiently for nine season, are unconvinced.  If the story is about how Ted met their mother, they point out, then why was she hardly in it, and why was so much time spent on his relationship with Robin?  It turns out that Ted is telling the story six years after Tracy's death, during which time he and Robin have rekindled their friendship.  His reason for telling the story, the kids argue, is that he's fallen back in love with Robin, and is trying to justify, to himself and his children, the decision to pursue her again.  The series ends by echoing the first season finale, with Ted standing outside Robin's window holding the blue French horn he first stole for her twenty-five years ago, all the way back in the pilot.

The reaction to this twist has been, shall we say, heated.  Various reviewers--Alyssa Rosenberg, Margaret Lyons, James Poniewozik, Linda Holmes, Todd VanDerWerff, Alan Sepinwall--have argued that the finale, and its choice to return to the Ted/Robin endgame, is a betrayal of the show's ideals and the story it had constructed over nine seasons.  Why, they ask, did the show ask us to become so invested in Robin and Barney's romance if they were only ever a stop on the way to Robin's happy ending with Ted?  Why introduce the charming Milioti and the equally wonderful Tracy only to treat her as an obstacle to Ted's real love story?  Sepinwall's post is particularly instructive, as he goes into the mechanics of how series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas planned out this ending as far back as the second season, working around what he defines as the mistake of announcing, in the pilot, that Robin was not the titular mother.  Ted's final conversation with his children, he notes, was filmed seven years ago, when Bays and Thomas first came up with the ending that they delivered this week.

Sepinwell's argument is that the example of How I Met Your Mother's finale is a point against creators becoming too caught up in a rigid plan for their story that doesn't leave room for unpredictable, organic developments such as Harris and Smulders's chemistry or Milioti's appeal.  But to me--as someone who has problems with the finale but on the whole likes it--the message seems more complex.  The fact is, Bays and Thomas laid out the ending they wanted their story to have seven years ago, and by God, this week they reached that ending.  Can Lost say as much?  Can Battlestar Galactica?  Is there another example of long-form, multi-season serialized television that has so successfully delivered the story it had planned for itself?  Whatever you think of Bays and Thomas's choice of ending, the fact that they managed to get to it, and to do so without cheating--the seeds for Barney and Robin's breakup, for Ted and Robin's lingering feelings for one another, and for Tracy's death, are planted well before the finale--is impressive, and marks How I Met Your Mother out as a unique achievement that deserves to be celebrated and discussed.

All the more so when you consider that Bays and Thomas did this in the face of network interference that would probably make Damon Lindelof or Ron Moore quake in their boots.  As Sepinwall notes, when the original plan was made How I Met Your Mother was a modest success that could reasonably expect to run for perhaps four seasons, but as the show's popularity ballooned its ending kept being pushed back, altering the show's structure and story--most dramatically, a last-minute renewal last year which forced Bays and Thomas, who had already planned to deliver something very like "Last Forever" at the end of the previous season, to come up with the concept of a season-long weekend.  What's more, Bays and Thomas not only got to their planned ending, but did so while maintaining one of the more ambitious structures in series television, a story that constantly jumps backward and forward in time over a period of nearly half a century, that plays with multiple points of view and unreliable narrators, and that constantly sets up stories and recurring characters and themes--slap bets and yellow umbrellas and goats--that the show only rarely failed to pay off.  As someone who loves the television medium and is excited any time a creator expands its horizons, I don't see how you could do anything but cheer at this demonstration of skill and nerve, especially when it comes from something as unfashionable as a multi-camera, laugh-tracked romantic sitcom.

None of this is to say, of course, that How I Met Your Mother doesn't have serious flaws.  Like, I suspect, a lot of the show's fans, I've been ready for it to be done for a long time, as successive seasons lost more and more of the flavor that made the show so delightful and funny in its early days (it's this, I suspect, and not the controversial finale, that will prove the biggest stumbling block for the already-announced spinoff series How I Met Your Dad).  This is a problem for most sitcoms, which tend to have a short half-life--see, for example, the pleasant but inessential fare that Parks and Recreation has been serving up lately--but it's all the more crucial for a show like How I Met Your Mother, which had a predetermined end point.  Going by the timeline established in the finale, Ted's children Penny (Lyndsy Fonseca) and Luke (David Henrie) are 15 and 13 when he sits them down to tell his story in 2030.  The fact that neither of the actors could believably pass for these ages (they were actually 20 and 18 when the scene was shot) is a fairly decisive indication that How I Met Your Mother was never intended to run more than five or six seasons at the outside, and the wheel-spinning with which the extra time was filled--besides being boring in itself--only serves to undermine the characters, and the endings the show gives them.  That Barney insists, after the breakup of his marriage to Robin, that he simply isn't suited to serious relationships would be more believable if there were not, before that marriage, a serious girlfriend and another fiancé, both introduced to mark time before the wedding endgame could be implemented.  Even more importantly, Ted and Robin's constant back and forth ultimately serves to neuter their romance.  By the series's end, they have both announced that they love each other, and then that they no longer feel that way about one another, so many times that the words have lost all meaning, and the decision to put them together feels almost arbitrary.

And yet, if the overlong, meandering path that leads up to "Last Forever" undermines the episode's power, it doesn't completely negate it.  There's a lot to be said against Barney's story in the finale, in which the always-problematic character achieves redemption by having a daughter and then realizing that all women are someone's daughter, at which point he begins berating the same young floozies he had previous preyed upon to "make better choices" (I don't agree with all of Sady Doyle's conclusions about the finale, but she's spot on about the problems with Barney).  But the breakup of his and Robin's marriage feels absolutely true to both characters, who have always been depicted as two people who love each other deeply but have no idea how to be in a relationship.  Unlike uber-couple Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel), who can withstand competing career tracks, the pressures of parenting, and even an early-season breakup, Robin and Barney never had the resilience or the selflessness to handle the challenges of a long term relationship, so it's not surprising that the first crisis they face breaks them up.  Would this have been more believable, and more emotionally resonant, if Robin and Barney hadn't already broken up once for largely the same reasons, and if the last two seasons hadn't been dedicated to building up their love story without ever acknowledging the cracks in their foundation?  Absolutely.  But the premise still works, and the actors and writing are good enough that the breakup still stings the second time around.  By the same token, as annoying and Ted and Robin's I-love-you-I-love-you-not game became, their reconnection at the end of the series makes sense.  I can easily see them, in their fifties, having both achieved the conflicting goals that kept them apart--his children, her career--embarking on a late in life romance, and the actual moment at which Ted shows up at Robin's window with the blue French horn is as powerful as anything in the show's history.

None of this, of course, would matter if Tracy were not a vivid character in her own right, and if there's one criticism of the finale that I simply don't get, it is that it treats her like a plot token, a way of getting around the bind that Bays and Thomas trapped themselves in at the end of the pilot.  I think that this would be the case if How I Met Your Mother had ended as originally planned, with "Last Forever" capping the eighth season and Ted meeting Tracy for the first time in the same episode in which her death and his ultimate relationship with Robin were introduced.  But the decision to extend the show, though undeniably driven by purely financial motivations, turns out to have been a godsend.  It gives How I Met Your Mother the time to turn Tracy into a real character, both through her interactions with the rest of the main cast, and through flash-forwards to her and Ted's marriage.  She even gets her own backstory episode, "How Your Mother Met Me," in which we discover that while Ted was desperately searching for the love of his life, Tracy was trying to get over the sudden, early death of hers, and slowly working her way back to being ready for love again (amid the outrage over the finale's twist ending, one point that appears to have been lost is that Ted and Tracy end up with exactly the same romantic trajectories, both experiencing two great loves, the first one cut off by death).  Even her death, as I've said, is laid out before the finale, in the episode "Vesuvius," in which Ted and Tracy go for another weekend getaway that is clearly intended to be their last (I have to wonder if one of the reasons that the finale has aroused outrage is that so many people seemed determined to read "Vesuvius" ambiguously, whereas I thought that it couldn't have made Tracy's impending death any clearer).

As Penny and Luke point out when their father finishes his recitation, the point of How I Met Your Mother's finale was to reveal to us exactly what kind of story the show had been telling, what its purpose was and what it was about.  For several years, I'd happily assumed that the show was about the roundabout way in which Ted made his way to Tracy, when actually it turned out to be the story about Ted and Robin's on-again, off-again love story, which just happens to encompass both of them falling in love with and marrying other people.  I like my story better, but I can't deny that the one Bays and Thomas chose works for their characters and how they constructed the show (and again, I think it's damned impressive that the show can hold off on committing to the kind of story it's telling all the way to its last fifteen minutes without making either of the alternatives unbelievable).  And in a way, their ending feels true to what always seemed to me like the show's most important theme.  In its best moments, How I Met Your Mother was a show about disappointment, about realizing that your life wasn't going to turn out the way you wanted or planned, and that this can be both sad and wonderful.  Ted sees Robin across a crowded room and thinks that he's solved his life's puzzle, when instead he's only discovered a more elusive one.  Barney thinks that Robin will save him and instead finds salvation in a baby.  Lily runs away from Marshall to be an artist but turns out not to have the talent, while Marshall dreams of being an environmental lawyer, and then a judge, but keeps having to defer his dreams.  That Barney and Robin don't work out despite all the time we spent on their love story, or that Ted and Tracy's happiness is so tragically short-lived, returns to that theme of disappointment in a way that is deeply affecting.

To me, revealing that Tracy dies and then Ted and Robin get together--and doing so after a season that made Tracy so very real while she lived--doesn't negate her relationship with Ted.  It doesn't mean that Robin is The One while Tracy isn't.  It means that there's no such thing as The One, or a happy ending that your whole life is leading up to--just happiness and sadness, love and disappointment, for as long as you're around.  At another time in his life, when Tracy was alive or newly dead, Ted might have told the story of how he met his children's mother another way, with Tracy as the star and Robin as a barely-appearing supporting character.  The fact that he's changed, and fallen in love again, doesn't mean that his and Tracy's story ceases to exist, but rather that none of our lives have a single story.  I don't know if that's the message Bays and Thomas intended me to take from their finale, but it's one that I can take from it--because despite being so in control of their story that they knew how it would end seven years ago, no story is ever as rigid as to have exactly the meaning its creators intended, just as no life has just one great love that it is building up to.  Whether they meant to or not, Bays and Thomas have created a romantic comedy that both embraces and rejects the genre's cherished conventions, and for that reason--despite the finale's flaws and the sometimes hard slog leading up to it--I like How I Met Your Mother's ending just fine.