What I’m Into: September 2015

20110925-011821This month I came through an existential crisis and reaffirmed my trust in the goodness of life and an ultimate purpose to human existence. I also watched a lot of movies about outer space, because apparently that’s what I’m into in September 2015.

            Movies

            A few of the lesser films I saw this month (there were a lot, okay?): Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Road Warrior, 2012 (blame this on my brother-in-law), Home, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (with Stephen Fry), A Tale of Two Cities (1989), Arabesque (with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren), Week End (Godard’s worst movie? hopefully?), Bigger than Life (a fine performance from James Mason), The Haunting (1963), Never Let Me Go.

            Now for the better ones:

            Kingsman: The Secret Service. Somehow I saw the censored version of this one. A few days later I watched the original cut and walked away with a less positive feeling. The violence is cartoonishly over-the-top, but it features an excellent performance by Colin Firth as a Hagrid-type father-figure shepherding a young man into a secret spy organization. The narrative combines elements of Ender’s Game and Harry Potter. ***1/2

            Captain Phillips. Based on a true story and powerfully directed by Paul Greengrass (who also directed the second and third Bourne movie), this movie about Somali pirates hijacking a merchant vessel features one of Tom Cruise’s best performances in years. ***1/2

            Saving Mr. Banks. More fine performances from Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as Walt Disney and P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, respectively. Colin Farrell appears somewhat randomly in flashbacks. ***1/2

            The Theory of Everything. A Stephen Hawking biopic that tells you almost nothing about Hawking’s ideas, choosing to focus on his disastrous marital life. Excellent performances by Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne (who won an Oscar for the role).

            Westworld (1973). Initially I rated this one only three stars. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Or talking about it. Michael Crichton writes and directs this pre-Jurassic Park story about a Wild West theme park staffed with robots who turn and kill the human guests. But the highlight of the movie is Yul Brynner as a gun-toting, slow-walking, murderous robot cowboy—the Terminator in spurs and a Stetson. ***1/2… actually, no, make that **** stars

            Stalag 17. One of the classic prisoner-of-war dramas, about a group of men being held prisoner by the Nazis and the one man (William Holden) who is suspected by his fellow soldiers of being an informant. Great script and several unforgettable moments. ****

            Inside Llewyn Davis. Come for the folk music, stay for a sweet story about a cat and a vivid evocation of winter 1960 in New York. ***

            The Lady from Shanghai (1947). It’s no secret that I love everything Orson Welles has ever done. This noir film about a man framed for murder occasionally stretches credulity (how could anyone be so gullible?), but features possibly the first use of a “hall of mirrors” climax in cinema. ***1/2

            The Stranger (1945). Another great Welles noir, featuring the first use of concentration camp footage in a motion picture and a dizzying denouement atop a clock tower. ***1/2

            Carrie (1976). The movie that helped launch John Travolta and Sissy Spacek into stardom, this is one of those films that everyone knows the plot of, even if they’ve never seen it. Still, I was surprised by how effectively it made me feel for Carrie in the moments just before she wreaked her unholy vengeance. ***

            They Live! John Carpenter’s quasi-Gnostic, pre-Matrix parable about a man (Roddy Piper, sporting a mullet and fresh out of bubblegum) who discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveal a hidden alien society all around him. Simple, sometimes troubling, but always engrossing. ***1/2

            Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (special edition): the highlight of this late western is the Bob Dylan soundtrack. (Dylan himself appears in an understated role as a curly-headed young man). ***1/2

            The Secret Garden (1949). Great black-and-white cinematography and set design elevate this story about three children who discover a secret garden. Directed by Fred Wilcox (who would go on to direct Forbidden Planet), this movie is a wonder to look at. ***1/2

            Howl’s Moving Castle. Stunningly original, visually brilliant, with a story that is convoluted (in the grand tradition of most Miyazaki films) but always compelling. ****

            2001: A Space Odyssey. I loved this movie. I don’t understand why everyone thinks it’s so boring. It’s contemplative. It’s a prayer. It’s humanity in search of the meaning of our own existence. ****

            Lawrence of Arabia. Several finely staged setpieces, some unforgettable narrative twists, and the most epic cinematography ever committed to film. Worth it just to see Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness together on screen.

            Before Midnight. The third film in Richard Linklater’s Before series deconstructs the romance of the previous movies, showing us a Jesse and Celine who are nine years older and beginning to wonder if their relationship is really worth it. Includes one of the most realistically written and acted arguments in any movie. ****

……....Fanny and Alexander. Bergman released this movie in a theatrical edition and a TV version for Denmark television that was five hours long. I started watching the shorter version and became so engrossed I knew I had to watch all of it. Having now finished part one of the TV series, I can already say it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, like a Tolstoy novel on screen.

            TV Series
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            Black Mirror. A modern-day spin on The Twilight Zone, but focused on the perils of technology. The first, unforgettable episode recently made the news when Lord Ashcroft claimed that David Cameron had had sexual relations with a pig at Oxford, which happens to be almost the exact plot of that episode.

            Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Continuing my trek through this decades-in-the-making TV series, I finished Season 6 with “Dumb Witness” and began Season 7 with “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” The series has adapted Christie with admirable consistency (and at this point might be my favorite show, ever).

            Veronica Mars. Joss Whedon called this teen mystery drama the TV version of Harry Potter, and it’s true. This show is everything I need right now.

            Books

            Dombey and Son. Almost a hundred pages into this one. It has some of Dickens’ best prose, which is both a virtue and a drawback. Dombey has a son (and possibly a daughter?), but apart from that I have no clue what’s going on.

            Spooky Texas (S. E. Schlosser). Now that I’m home, I have access to several collections of southwestern folklore. This one compiles several of the best-known legends of Texas.

            We Were Liars (E. Lockhart, 2014). This is a gorgeous book and everyone must read it.

            The Missing Girl (Norma Fox Mazer). I read this book about five girls and the man who decides to kidnap one of them in one sitting.

            Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream (H. G. Bissinger). A powerful and damning indictment of Texas sports culture, and possibly Texas in general.

            Jane Austen’s England (Roy and Lesley Adkins). A breezy but informative handbook for writers.

            The God of Hope and the End of the World (John Polkinghorne). A book that helped me through a profound crisis.

            Collected Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor. Flannery! FLANNERY!!!

            First Term at Malory Towers (Enid Blyton). The first in a series of books about a girls’ boarding school. I LOVE this book. The relationships are all beautifully, convincingly rendered and the girls’ mischievous antics are reminiscent of the Weasley twins, among others.

            What about you? What did you read or see this month?

What Made the Harry Potter Books So Successful?

Severus-Snape-The-Half-Blood-Prince-severus-snape-7012501-1920-1080It’s been 10 years this summer since I read the first six Harry Potter books for the first time. I’ve spent much of the last 10 years reading literary criticism, folklore, mythology and famous works of literature that were an acknowledged influence on J. K. Rowling’s opus in the hopes of answering the question, “What made these books so successful?” So naturally at this point I have a lot of opinions, and today I share them with you. Continue reading

“I Give You… Potter!” Seven Great Moments in the Harry Potter Books

Harry-Potter-and-the-Philosopher-s-Stone-emma-watson-25871706-1280-544As unlikely as it seems now, I largely missed out on the Harry Potter phenomenon when it began blowing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Continue reading

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing Skirts the Line Between Comedy and Tragedy

much adoThis is the first post in a new series discussing my 40 favorite films.

 

Groups can so easily turn against a single person, as I learned at the end of my freshman year in college 10 years ago this month.

Skyler* and I had met on the first morning of orientation, and for much of the year we were inseparable. Our friends said we were like twins. We listened to the same obscure bands, treated Shakespeare like a religious text, and, ultimately, fell in love with the same girl, Mary Ann*.

This was never going to end happily, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare probably realizes. Throughout his career, from his early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona to a late romance, The Winter’s Tale, the prolific playwright wove stories about inseparable friends whose friendships are ultimately torn apart by jealousy and mistrust. Continue reading

Buffy, Rwanda, and the Kingdom of Elsia

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One of the best episodes of Buffy shows Xander having his own crazy adventure while in the background the other Scoobies battle to save the world from being destroyed by a hideous monster. We catch glimpses of their battle throughout the episode. They’re all crying and yelling at each other. At the end Buffy tells Giles he did one of the bravest things she had ever seen (but we never learn what he did).

It reminded me very much of the weekend in 2007 when our cult had to unite and battle the demonic spirit that was over Southwestern: all the feelings that come to the surface when you’re fighting an enemy that only a few people are able to see.

And then I got to thinking about… something I thought a lot about in the aftermath of that weekend: the scary things I used to see in my bedroom that weren’t normally there. Traveling out of my body was an experience very much like that of Frodo when he put on the Ring. He went into another realm and could see things no one else could. And basically, when the group started, we were all doing that.

And then I read a story about how Rwanda’s Christians are coping with the aftermath of genocide by turning to Pentecostalism. It provides them a framework for understanding the supernatural evil that was unleashed on their country in 1994. This article in Foreign Policy magazine tells the story of a young woman named Rebecca whose family was offered sanctuary in a Catholic church. It turned out to be a trap, and her parents were killed.

And then this happened:

 

Two years later, having found a home with a foster family, Rebecca made friends with a girl of her own age named Alice. One day, Alice led her into a cemetery, and there, as Rebecca tells it, the ground opened up, revealing a flight of stairs that led down into the realm of Satan. “It was a place where there was always twilight,” says Rebecca. “It was a world of bad spirits. They put an evil spirit into my body and then they sent it back out into the world.” For the next five years, she says, her body wandered the land, causing ill wherever it could. “I had the power of causing accidents on Earth. The demons gave me that power.”

It took her five years to fight her way back. She suffered terribly, she says. But one day she encountered a group of Pentecostal Christians who prayed for her release from the powers that plagued her. With their help she finally found release, and “accepted Jesus as my king.” At age 17, she converted from her ancestral Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church, a move that finally brought her “inner peace.”

 

So when I think about The Children, and invisible realms that are super-imposed on this one, and mysterious invisible objects, and the Air Loom Gang, and my own made-up kingdom of Elsia, I can see a mythology emerging. Inevitably, I think the story will have to be about four or five kids who have, or think they have, unusual powers, and who are at war with unseen forces that no one else sees. And they belong to a society of people who have these gifts. And this society believes the end of the world is imminent. And it provides a place for the kids to learn and grow up and fall in love when they’re not saving the world. And the world itself seems to be going to pieces around them, with living houses and nightmare clouds and whatnot, strange disturbances in nature. And as the series goes on they begin to question the nature of their mission, especially as friends die and the “enemy” becomes not just invisible creatures but real people. And they begin to wonder whether they really are doing the right thing, and whether they’ve been misled, and whether the world is really ending.

Two Stories About Bells

Vertigo 02One thing you learn in writing stories is that certain objects have a mysterious and almost magnetic power that defies words. Castles, swords, rings, goblets, buried treasure—the appearance of any one of these in a story is like a radiant stone that vibrates with its own intensity. Perhaps that’s why I became Catholic, because as a storyteller I was naturally drawn to a religion that invests material things with sacramental power: holy water; crosses; bells, books, and candles.

 

Bell towers have fascinated me ever since I saw the movie Vertigo when I was nine or ten years old. Recently voted the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo tells the story of a retired detective (James Stewart) hired to trail a young woman (Kim Novak) who may be possessed by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor. He pursues her to an old Spanish mission, the Mission San Juan Batista, where, at the very top of the bell tower, tragedy strikes. And then strikes again.

 

The understated use of Hispanic and southwestern folklore in this movie slowly worked its way into my brain, taking root in dark corners. During my first couple of months at Southwestern University, ten years ago this summer, I was enchanted by the beige limestone, the rounded-arch doorways, the old chapel at the heart of campus with a door leading up to the tower, a door that was only unlocked on the rarest of occasions. I remember being struck with a sense of the history of the place.

 

It was there that I had the idea to write a series of children’s books, books that would draw on the cultures and legends of the Celts (my ancestors) and the Southwest (my adopted home). This summer in going back and rereading some of the folklore and mythology of England I’ve been struck by how many stories center around the ringing of bells. In the days before telephones and wireless, sometimes the cathedral bell was the only means of communication between one town and another, or between the church and those in peril on the ocean’s dark waters.

 

One such story from County Surrey tells of a man, Neville Audley, who was captured fighting on the wrong side during the long-ago War of the Roses. Arrested and sentenced to die when the curfew bell tolled on the next night at Chertsey Abbey, he realized that the only hope of being spared was to obtain a pardon from the king.

 

Neville conferred with his girlfriend, Blanche Heriot, and their mutual friend Herrick. Herrick agreed to ride towards London to seek pardon. But on the next day, with only five minutes left before the bell tolled, Herrick was seen flying towards the town from half a mile away—still too far away to save Audley’s life.

 

The minutes passed. The townsfolk awaited the tolling of the bell. But the bell did not ring.

 

Just as Herrick arrived in town, the sexton, accompanied by soldiers, went up into the tower to investigate. There they found Blanche Heriot, dashed against the bell and frame but still clinging to the clapper with a tenacity born of desperation. Luckily she had hung there just long enough to save her beloved, who was spared from death by the king’s timely pardon. The two were married shortly afterwards.

 

Another story with a less happy ending is told of the tenor bell of Burgh le Marsh church. The people of Burgh le Marsh once made a living off the debris of doomed ships, lighting the beacon on Marsh Hill to lure poor sailors to their deaths. Once the sailors were all drowned and the weather had calmed, the townsfolk would scramble ashore to loot the broken vessels.

 

As the story goes, in 1629 the Mary Rose was sailing from Leith, Scotland along the Lincolnshire coast on its way to Flanders. A storm began to gather. The wind howled and the rains beat against the ship, while the people of Burgh watched from the shore with growing excitement.

 

But not everyone was pleased by the buffeting of the storm-tossed ship. The elderly sexton Guymer, when he learned what was being planned, begged them not to light the beacon. No one listened.

 

A crowd made its way towards Marsh Hill and the beacon was lit. Captain Frohock, seeing what he mistook for a lighthouse, called out to his men that they were safe. The crew turned the ship in the direction of the light.

 

Back on shore, desperate to avoid the collision that was imminent, Guymer ran towards the church. Ascending to the top of the bell tower, he grabbed the rope and rang the bell with all the strength he could muster. Captain Frohock, realizing how close he was to shore and certain death, ordered the Mary Rose back to sea, away from the treacherous sands.

 

Enraged by the tolling of the bell, the townspeople stormed into the church. Breaking down the belfry door, they found Guymer, still clinging to the rope, his dead body swaying to and fro. His heart had burst open from exhaustion.

 

When Captain Frohock returned to the village a year later and learned what had happened, he bought an acre of land known as “Bell String Acre.” He ordered that rent from the land be used to buy a silken rope for the bell. It’s said that he married the sexton’s daughter.

“One More Dawn, One More Day”: 3 Moments of Storytelling Brilliance

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A good story, whether in the form of a song, novel, TV series, or movie, should give the illusion that you’re experiencing something new and unprecedented. There’s a moment near the end of the story where the heroes find themselves in a unique situation facing extraordinary challenges, and the hair on the back of our necks stands on end because we know we’re witnessing the culmination of a series of choices, and if any of those choices had been different, this moment would never happened.

It’s thrilling. It gives us a rush because we know life is like that. There’s a grandeur that invests even the smallest moments because we have a dim appreciation of what it took to get here.

The following are three of my favorite storytelling moments across all media, moments where a protagonist revealed his or her true quality and the brilliance of the narrative mechanisms on display were like nothing I had seen before.
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“I made a promise, Mr. Frodo”: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

With all the computer-effects wizardry and operatic spectacle of the later films, it can be easy to forget the promise of Peter Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The genius of the first movie (and, to a lesser extent, The Two Towers) is that they somehow married the scale of an epic fantasy story with the intimacy of a small character drama. This was never more apparent than in the under-stated denouement of Fellowship, in which human warrior Boromir dies protecting two Hobbits after nearly betraying Ring-bearer Frodo Baggins. Frodo makes his escape by boat, thinking to finish the journey alone. But his gardener Sam Gamgee has other plans, and it’s in showing how the two of them end up together that the films have one of their best moments.

 

The Death of Krishna: The Mahabharata (1989)

The ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, the longest poem ever written (two million words in 17 volumes), has a cast so large and a story so convoluted it rivals the Lord of the Rings, featuring demons, gods, weird monsters, vengeful reincarnations, and a magical weapon with the destructive capacity to annihilate an entire planet. But the narrative thread holding the story together (and keeping it from buckling under its own weight) is the conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas, two halves of one family who are determined to exterminate each other.

Hovering in the background of this out-of-control family quarrel is the mysterious figure of Krishna, who for much of the story seems to be just another member of the family (albeit one who is revered by all parties), but who reveals himself, in the poem’s most famous set piece, to be more than they had ever guessed. Naturally the question arises, “If you are a god, why can’t you stop this massacre?”

Peter Brooks’ five-hour 1989 film The Mahabharata plays up the more enigmatic aspects of Krishna’s character, suggesting that perhaps there’s a more sinister agenda behind his ostensible attempts at peace-making. But the film’s best moment comes at the end when Krishna, wounded and dying, reveals that he’s just as confused and vulnerable as anyone else in the story. A young boy asks him, “Krishna, tell me quickly: why all your tricks and your bad directions?” Krishna responds with his last words: “I fought against terrible powers, and I did what I could.”

 

“One Day More”: Les Miserables (the Musical)

Victor Hugo’s sprawling, relentlessly poetic 1,400 page novel Les Miserables, which tells the story of an 1832 student uprising in Paris, boasts some of the most brilliant character arcs in literature. (The culmination of the longstanding feud between Javert, the police inspector, and Jean Valjean, the criminal-turned-mayor whom he has hunted for twenty years, deserves its own place on this list).

The musical Les Miserables takes all this plot and condenses it into a lyrical and at times devastating two-and-a-half-hour saga of war, vengeance, grace, redemption, and romance. The entire last half of the story functions as a series of climaxes. And while the tear-inducing lament of Marius on re-visiting the barricades where his friends met their grisly end is probably the emotional high point of the play, in terms of sheer narrative power, praise is owed to the entire sequence where Marius, Cosette, Eponine, and their love triangle is introduced, and especially the song “One Day More,” which takes the emotional journeys of ALL the characters, crystallizes them into a few simple verses and chorus, and reveals that in spite of their many conflicts, our heroes (and villains) have far more in common than they would ever admit.