Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Interruption

Excuse me, I just wanted to interrupt and say there would be no more interruptions.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Not to Embarass Anyone, But...

This is just about the coolest thing ever.

Oh, and Merry Christmas Eve.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Another Semester Older, Another Semester Wiser. ...Well, One Out of Two Ain't Bad.

Some semesters feel like Hemingway short stories: sparse, with a lot of pointless dialogue, and when you're done it almost feels like nothing's happened while it also feels like too much has happened to have fit in that short a period, and it makes you want to go back and see what you missed. This semester didn't feel that way. This one felt like a Dickens novel, with incident crowding upon incident and character upon character almost too rapidly to keep track of; some parts went too fast, while others went far too slowly; and story arcs that should have taken weeks or months to resolve only lasted a few days.

I fear I am being far too abstract. It was a good semester, yes, but my most trying so far. I have a general policy of trying not to regret the past, of seeing the lessons my mistakes have taught me, and were I to do it again there is very little about this semester I would change (an incident, perhaps, a stray word or two). So I am glad and thankful for this semester. I am just not sorry to see it go.

Fairly soon after getting home, I got (I thought) sick. My symptoms were:

1. Chills
2. Headache
3. Muscle Pain
4. Grogginess/tiredness
5. Irritability (though it's debatable whether this is unusual)

I figured I'd sleep it off, but then a bright idea occurred to me. I realized I had coffee, or tea, or Mt. Dew at almost every meal at school, and since coming home I'd had very little in the way of caffeinated beverages. I went online to look up the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, and discovered that they included:

1. Chills
2. Headache
3. Muscle Pain
4. Grogginess/tiredness
5. Irritability


Otherwise, not a whole lot to report. In order to not get bored, I decided to launch a self-study course in film history, mainly watching a lot of the keystone films in various movements, etc. I emailed a couple film profs, and got a recommended list, and ran that by my mom who saved me (or tried to) from Italian Neo-realism. We'll see how this 'course' pans out; I watched Battleship Potemkin today (USSR, 1925) and, well... ugh. Hopefully other films have better results.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Book Challenge

So. There's this book challenge that I have somehow decided to sign up for. And yes, I know I'm in college and shouldn't be doing things like this. But what do you do at college? Well, to quote an excellent line from the movie The Great Debaters, "College is the only place where you can read all day." And all books apparently count. So really, this is just an excuse for me to keep track of all the books I read, a habit I got out of after high school. The rules can be found at the link above; my list will appear below.

Books Read, 2009:

1. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
2. Salome, by Oscar Wilde
3. The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde
4. De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde
5. Poems, Poems in Prose, and a Fairy Tale, by Oscar Wilde
6. Anecdotes and Sayings of Oscar Wilde, by Oscar Wilde et al.
7. The Critic as Artist, by Oscar Wilde
8. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
9. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart
10. This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
11. The Roots of African-American Drama
12. The Adventures of Hucklberry Finn, by Mark Twain
13. Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose [Reading for Class]
14. The Writer's Book of Days, by Judy Reeves
15. Creating The Accomplished Image [Partly read, for class]
16. The People's Bible Commentary: Romans
17. Wheelock's Latin
18. God's No and God's Yes, by CFW Walther [half-read, for class]
19. The Urth of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
20. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken
21. The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis
22. Manalive, by G.K. Chesterton
23. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
24. Magic For Beginners, by Kelly Link
25. The Charwoman's Shadow, by Lord Dunsany
26. One More For The Road, by Ray Bradbury
27. Sailing to Byzantium, by Robert Silverberg
28. The Halfling and Other Stories, by Leigh Brackett
29. Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
30. Figures of Earth, by James Branch Cabell
31. The Man Who Came to Dinner, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman
32. The Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
33. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
34. Coffee at Luke's, edited by Jennifer Cruisie
35. Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger
36. The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
37. The Fabulous tom Mix, by Olive Stokes Mix [half-read, research purposes]
38. Nightside the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe
39. Who is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain
40. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
41. Raise High The Roof Beams, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction, by J.D. Salinger
42. Dutchman, Amiri Baraka
43. Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller
44. Smoke, by Ivan Turgenev
45. Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev
46. First Love, by Ivan Turgenev
47. The Name Above the Title, by Frank Capra
48. The Story of Film, by Mark Cousins
49. A Sentimental Journey, by Laurence Sterne
50. Lake of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe
51. Calde of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe
52. Exodus From the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe
53. Heroes of the Valley, by Jonathan Stroud
54. The Last Siege, by Jonathan Stroud
55. To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis
56. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, by Walker Percy
57. Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today, by John Kleinig [Partly read; book klub]
58. Storeys from the Old Hotel, by Gene Wolfe
59. The Wolfe Archipelago, by Gene Wolfe
60. Calculating God, by Robert J. Sawyer
61. Rude Mechanicals, by Kage Baker
62. Black Projects, White Knights, by Kage Baker
63. Gods and Pawns, by Kage Baker
64. Dark Mondays, by Kage Baker
65. Questions of Truth, by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale
66. Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, by Garrison Keillor
67. Carry On Jeeves, by PG Wodehouse
68. Either You're In Or You're In The Way, by Noah and Logan Miller
69. A City in Winter, by Mark Helprin
70. The Veil of Snows, by Mark Helprin
71. Swan Lake, by Mark Helprin
72. Believer Beware, edited by Jeff Sharlet et. al.
73. The Merchant of Venice, by Shakespeare
74. Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan
75. Richard III, by Shakespeare
76. Othello, by Shakespeare
77. Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
78. The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman et al
79. Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles
80. The Tempest, by Shakespeare
81. Proof, by David Auburn
82. King Lear, by Shakespeare
83. Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
84. Sonnets, by William Shakespeare
85. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, the Restoration through 1800
86. Winter's Tales, by Isak Dinesen
87. Franny and Zooey, by JD Salinger
88. The Controversy Between the Puritans and the Stage, by Elbert Thompson
89. Lost Worlds, by Clark Ashton Smith
90. The Taming of the Shrew, by Shakespeare
91. The Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism, various authors
92. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
93. Peace, by Gene Wolfe
94. Great Joy, by Kate DiCamillo
95. Much Ado About Nothing, by Shakespeare
96. Waverely, by Sir Walter Scott
97. Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea
98. Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
99. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by Philip Jose Farmer
100. The Fabulous Riverboat, by Philip Jose Farmer
101. How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff
102. Nova Swing, by M. John Harrison
103. Anecdotes of Destiny, by Isak Dinesen
104. The Screwtape Letters, by CS Lewis
105. The Owl Service, by Alan Garner
106. Wizardry and Wild Romance, by Michael Moorcock

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Stacking the Deck: The Failure of the MPAA Rating System

[Another composition piece, prostituted for blog material.]

"Mom, I wanna see Saving Private Ryan!"

I was perhaps ten years old. All the other kids, it seemed, were seeing the WWII bloodbath—arguably one of the greatest movies ever made—but I was not allowed to. Why? Well, in my mom's words, "Because it's rated R."

Of course, this was not actually the reason I was not being allowed to see one of the greatest war movies ever made. The reason was that it was filled with gore and violence on an unprecedented level, and my mom had decided that my ten-year-old mind did not need to be filled with such images. However, the short explanation she used was that it was "rated R."

An "R" rating means, of course, "Restricted." It is generally movie theaters' policy not to admit anyone to an R-rated movie who is under the age of 17 unless they are accompanied by a guardian of some kind. This is a voluntary rule, put in place based on the recommendations made regarding films submitted for review and rating by the MPAA—the Motion Picture Association of America.

The Motion Picture Association of America is one of the most well-known institutions in America. It is a pseudo-Hollywood institution, as it proudly proclaims, because while it is based around Hollywood and the movie industry, it claims to be completely outside of the authority and power of the motion picture industry (http://www.mpaa.org/Ratings_HowRated.asp).

The MPAA rating system is based on the recommendations of a "board of parents," who view each movie and try to apply a rating based on what "most American parents" would think an appropriate rating for that movie. Their ratings are "voluntary" —producers and directors are "free to go to the market without any rating" (http://www.mpaa.org/Ratings_HowRated.asp). However, in today's film industry, doing so would almost certainly mark a movie for controversy and make it a proverbial "black sheep" in the movie industry. So while submitting a film for MPAA rating is voluntary, it is the sort of choice anyone who doesn't want trouble is forced to make. It reminds me of my grandma's cherry pie that she would serve at Christmas time—you only took a piece if you wanted one, but if you didn't want one, you had better be prepared to suffer grandma's glares all day.

The MPAA rating system rose out of a desire to help parents make informed decisions about the kinds of movies they want their children to see; though in some cases, such as R- and NC-17-rated movies, it has turned itself into rules for preventing certain age groups from seeing certain movies altogether. While this is a commendable goal, and perhaps a necessary one in our pluralistic age, its execution by the MPAA is thoroughly imperfect and could use improvement.
A case study, hopefully, will illustrate what we mean.

Take two films, both of which were released in 2007: Once and Live Free or Die Hard.

The first, Once, is an independent film that was released to a limited number of theaters and quickly gained a sort of cult following. Set in Dublin, it is a simple story of a busker and a Czech immigrant who meet and fall in love. They are both musicians, and the busker writes his own songs. They spend a whirlwind three days recording an album, but then, because of very subtle differences that are never really explicated but that don't have to be, they are forced to part.

Personally, I think this is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. I mean this not just aesthetically, not just because the music was brilliant and the acting was perfect and the composition and everything else about it fell perfectly into place, but I also mean this philosophically. In a normal Hollywood film about a "once in a lifetime" romance, the couple would meet and fall in love, and all the external conflicts would fall away or be made to go away and the couple would live happily ever after. The ending would be generic, and heart-warming, and trite: love conquers all.

Once's message, however, is more artistic and more nuanced. It conveys the idea that a once in a lifetime love need not have a happy ending. The idea that one can act decently despite bad circumstances. The idea that you can improve someone's life, and in fact be the best thing that ever happened to them, despite having known that person for less than three days. Love conquers all, yes, but the world is imperfect and the ending doesn't always go the way it ought to. But that's okay.

The critics seem to agree with my assessment of Once (see A.O. Scott's review for the New York Times, Peter Travers' for Rolling Stone, and Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times for more). Richard Roeper even went so far as to call it a film that "would make any twelve-year-old a better person."

Once was given an "R," or "Restricted" rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. According to that organization's website, this means that the ratings board of the MPAA thinks it is a film that "most parents would not want their young children to see" and that "May include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements." Once's specific rating was "For language," presumably the "hard" language mentioned in the above generalization.

One word is used repeatedly in Once, and it is the one word that, at least colloquially, is considered one of the worst of curse words. Once might actually be a movie many parents would not want their children to see, simply based on the pervasiveness of this word in the dialogue.

However, we will leave off discussion of this briefly, in order to look at our second example, Live Free or Die Hard.

This movie was released in the summer of 2007, and was the fourth Die Hard movie. It was rated PG-13 “for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation.” The other three installments of the series, Die Hard, Die Hard 2, and Die Hard With a Vengeance, all received R ratings. The creators of the movie claimed they had scaled back the violence and profanity to receive the PG-13 rating.

According to the MPAA's web site, a PG-13 rating “is a sterner warning by the Rating Board to parents to determine whether their children under age 13 should view the motion picture, as some material might not be suited for them… A motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context.” This seems almost self-contradictory. Words used as expletives are said to denigrate the things they refer to—think of various racial slurs. But using a sexually-derived word in such a way requires only a PG-13 rating. Using these words to actually refer to sex, that is, in a context where it is possible for them to be appropriate, automatically garners the film a higher rating.

But that is not our current point. Live Free or Die Hard is a violent, profane, and sexually oriented movie. Its central message, if there is one, involves solving problems by resorting to violence and an iron fist. As a college student, this sort of thing actually appeals to me for the pure escapism that it is; but when I put myself in the shoes of a concerned parent, the perspective changes. Any child can pay for and walk into this movie without challenge, simply because the movie cut out a few curse words and made its pervasive violence less graphic.

Once, as stated, is a movie about love and about realizing one’s true potential. It is a redemptive and, in some ways, a salvific movie. Yet to see this movie, a child under the age of 17 would have to pass through whatever restrictions a movie theater puts on R-rated movies, simply because the dialogue contains some language the MPAA does not approve of.

The MPAA makes a point of saying it does not exist for the benefit of artists or film makers or producers, but for “concerned parents in order to help them make informed decisions about the type of movies they want their children to see.” But how can “concerned parents” make such decisions when the MPAA’s ratings seem to be increasingly arbitrary?

It is my opinion that the MPAA rating system is at best outdated, and at worst hinders parents in making the “informed decisions” it sets out to help them make. Were I a parent, I might easily prefer my children to see a movie with many swear words to having them see a movie with fewer swear words but with sex and pervasive violence instead.

As consumers and movie-goers, we should hold the MPAA more accountable for the kinds of ratings it gives to movies, and perhaps push for reform of the MPAA. Based on what I have said here, I highly recommend that parents and those in charge of the younger and more impressionable members of our society look at a movie’s content and, even moreso, its themes and message, and pay little if any attention to the MPAA rating.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


At semi-random. The novel is still in its state of being quickly edited.

He said, “I see a flat land, a land that no longer knows distinct color but where the bronzes and the reds and the greys all bleed into one another and the black lies under them all. Creatures wander through it that would put Saint John's vision to shame, but they are no longer dread omens but death itself, and they no longer terrify any but themselves. They flee they know not what to they know not where, bucking and screaming and biting their own tails. They flee across the country and occasionally the people, naked men with skin the color of sunlight seen through smog and women half-clothed with skin paler than white snow, bring them down and feast on them, and they howl their pain and agony and rage at what they must do but they do it anyway because not to do it, I surmise, would bring them much more agony.”

Across from Tatiana and Julia sat the twins. While eating, neither of them looked up from their plates, but pored over them as if they were necromancers and the plates tomes about how to raise their dead loves from the grave. They ate in this manner as well, passing utensils back and forth while scowling at their plates. Every once in a while they would each skewer something on a fork, hold up their forks to each other for comparison, look at each other, nod, and continue eating. It was very strange.

“At least I don't try to ad lib Shakespeare,” I said.

“I don't do that, foolish boy!” she glared at me. “I try to ad lib Spenser. He's much superior anyway.”

And we went to sleep there, in our warm little cocoon, soft and warm and comfortable and secure. We awoke to the roaring of St. John's beasts and the feeling of hell and the flash of hellfire.

“Mom would never do something like that against her will. I know her, and you know her. She would wander the world, forever, alone, rather than stay with a man she didn't love, or with a man who had done something like... like that. Right?”

A long pause, then finally, “Right,” from Tatiana.

“Oh,” said Julia then. “How I wish I'd been there! We would know exactly who to believe.”

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bloody Done!

Well, it's been the most trying NaNo yet, but I bloody well made it! The novel itself stopped at 49,779 words (just to spite me, I'm sure), but I wrote 300 words of randomness and crossed the finish line at 4:35 in the morning! What sleep?!

I'm not sure, but I think this may be one of the best things I've ever written. Not that it doesn't need massive amounts of work; I'm just fairly happy with what I've written as raw material.

For the curious or the masochistic, I will be sending out a slightly cleaned up version of this very rough draft as soon as I finish slightly cleaning it up. Those who want to see a copy can comment here, email me, mug me, or otherwise contact me and I will email it to them.

Well, there's this new fad called sleep, and I think I'm going to try it, just a bit. Slainte!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Stormfield Can't Sleep, So He Goes Through Some Old Papers And Digs Up A Lot Of Sentimental Hogwash

Stormfield seems to be picking up Robin and Bob's bad habit of self-renaming and self-referencing in blog posts.

Hem. I couldn't sleep, so I ended up digging out the box that my loving family put all my desk papers in when they lovingly kicked me out of my room (after I left for school) to make room for the white man, er, my brother.

These are mostly papers from my junior year of high school and earlier, back when a large amount (or most of) my writing was, at least for first drafts, done by hand in notebooks or on loose pieces of paper. I have separated the papers into piles of Sentimental Hogwash (conference notes of various kinds, signatures, mementos--things I want to keep but only for the memories), Entertainment (stuff that's bad at this point but also entertaining), First Drafts (of works of wildly varying value), and a small pile of things I might actually use or refer back to.

The earliest thing I can find here is a printed copy of the journal I kept for a computer applications class I took at the local middle school in the year 2000. The longest entry is six simple sentences, most entries shorter than that, but they brought back memories I would probably never have revisited otherwise.

I found what are sort of the three touchstones of my "early" career, by which I mean the time when I was thirteen and started writing regularly (and this without conscious decision, really, I just started doing it). The first is a play I wrote, involving a disastrous mixer recall. The second a short story that took me from 2002 to 2004 to finish; it is about a small town in Iowa in which is represented every religion, sect, and cult in the world. Strangely enough, the story itself was not about this aspect, but about several other equally strange things. The third is The Passing of the Anars, the novel that came out of my attempt at creating a Tolkien-esque fantasy world, which I worked on from 2002 to 2005. I was looking through it; it's awful, but the notebook containing it has a really kick-ass cover (thanks to the artistic talent of a friend of mine, whose drawing ability far outshone my writing). Actually, the plot I had outlined (I abandoned it a quarter of the way through) is still, I think, fairly good if it could be written well; it's symbolic on several levels, and... y'know, stuff.

Actually, adding to these early touchstones, I found a Composition Book filled with radio scripts I started writing at age twelve.

I found the first draft of The Fall of the Kingdom, the short story I sent to Merlyn's Pen (a student writing magazine that published one percent or so of its submissions) that Merlyn's Pen told me they would totally have published--had they not just gone bankrupt.

I found the story I wrote from the perspective of Grumpy the Dwarf, a character with whom I have always sympathized.

I found a lot of cryptic notes and messages to myself, which I can only assume made sense at one point. For example, an entire sheet of blank white paper devoted to the question: What happens to Gon? On the other hand, I encountered some notes I took with the thought of writing an alternate history, and only realized after reading them that not everybody would see the phrase "cheese-eaters" and immediately know it meant "French."

In view of recent discussion regarding opening lines, I would like to reproduce two I found written on the same sheet of paper, during what I can only imagine was a trying time for me:

Small animals crawling over the walls is never a good thing. But drunken shirtless frat boys with baseball bats trying to kill them is actually worse. And this, I knew from long experience of my sister's parties, was the high point of the evening, the point from which things only got worse.

Bad enough. But, printed as though it's the very next paragraph though apparently it isn't, is this:

When Ella sat down at the table, her hair was waving and her cheeks that dark red color that it used to be only I could make them. But that was back before I decided to be gay, and before she decided to sleep with the boss.

Eep! I have a feeling that if my sixteen-year-old self had known these would see the light of day, he would be very embarrassed.

As a general note, it seems the general arc of my early writing (with the exception of the attempts at Tolkien-ism) has been to de-Twain-ify. My early pieces smack of attempted Twain, while as they progress they become more modern and only throw in phrases like "discommode" or "cogitate" once in a while, for effect.

Also, as a further general note, I now distrust my ability to edit my own poetry. I found several first drafts of poems I had edited and posted various places, and about three quarters of the time found I liked the non-edited versions better.

On that note, I'll end by throwing a couple newly re-discovered poems up here, as they will serve as much purpose here as they will once they're back in my box of papers. These were written before I thought I could write poetry. They are unedited.

The water on the shoreline takes me back to the land where my allegiance lies
The water on the shoreline takes me back to the time when we were young
The water on the shoreline takes me back to the dry country
To the place we used to play in the time before you cried...

Spiral of years
Spiral of tears
A much-maligned cacophany
Of wishes, hopes, and fears
What's it all mean, then?
Was there a plan, then?
Or did you pick me up to let me drop?

All my doubts and
My malcontentment
Wash over in a
Flood of resentment

I've not enough faith to pass
I've not enough faith to last
I shall surely fall by the way-side

I nailed Him to a tree
Whose only crime was
Loving me
Surely I am the basest of
All men

Thought, word, and deed
I've naught left but to plead
And hope His grace will cover me

Christ came to me and said,
"Fear not my son,
The battle's already fought and won..."

He took me to the River
Dunked my head
"Fear not my son you're
No more dead..."

In the middle of my night He came to me
Proclaimed his victory on the Tree
Robed me all in white
Bathed me in water
Fed me with bread

Friday, November 28, 2008

Two Opening Lines I Want Use For Novels, Based on Recent Events or Actual Quotes

"The angel was protecting us, but then he lost his head."

"On the downside, I'm completely broke; on the upside, I have horseradish sauce."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Stormfield Can't Sleep, So He Will Make a Random Cynical Observation

College is a place containing a lot of people who think you should care about what they think. Very few of them are correct.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What We Have Come To, by Lord Dunsany

When the advertiser saw the cathedral spires over the downs in the
distance, he looked at them and wept.

"If only," he said, "this were an advertisement of Beefo, so nice, so
nutritious, try it in your soup, ladies like it."

Friday, November 07, 2008

Well, At Least I Voted

In honor of our new president-elect, my roommate and I have pooled our Hallowe'en candy into one community box from which all may draw an equal share; and we are now sharing a bottle of shampoo. Yes, we can.

Friday, October 31, 2008

NaNo Time

Has come again. I'm doing it this year, despite being possibly the busiest I've ever been. I think I'll make it. I think. God help me.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Red Eye, Final Impressions

We had the actual festival here last (Sunday) night. Our film played remarkably well. Aaron and I decided that it kind of turned out somewhat decently, which is about the highest praise we'll give a project we're heavily involved with.

The films themselves, ours included, were noted by more than one source as being rather morbid. Lots of killing, lots of death, lots of depression. I am tempted to dismiss this as typical of student films, because it is. But I also remember that last year's Oscars were supposedly the "dark Oscars," what with Sweeney-Todd and No Country and There Will Be Blood being the major contenders; and I wonder if some of that spirit has trickled down to our student film makers.

I would go on a long ranting memoir at this point, but I have no time. Suffice to say, it was good, it was fun, and I will do it again next year.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Red Eyes and Blurry Brains

Well, people, we've done it. The movie is six minutes long, and thanks to a very good technical editor (Aaron N.), it looks and sounds fantastic. The blighter sat down at a computer program that I've had training with and he's had none, and within an hour knew it better than I do.

Everyone in the group, really, was fantastic in their own way. I want to write personal tributes to all of them, but I can sense even now that they would turn into sappy Hallmark moments.

Some things I've learned or gleaned from this experience:

-Large egos in projects like this are NOT GOOD. You pretty much have to sublimate personal pride and glory-seeking for the good of the group. (At least, that's the only way it worked for us. I have no idea how those hollywood types do it, with all the egotistical actors and actresses and directors and such. I suppose they figure out how to work around each other.)

-I've concluded that it's a miracle good movies get made AT ALL. There are so many things that have to come together--acting, composition, lighting, writing, and on and on. And those things are ALL skilled trades in and of themselves...

-I seem to enjoy the pre-production and production stages, but less so the editing and fine-tuning. This, however, strikes me as something many people newly getting into film making would be apt to say.

-I am tired. I have slept 7 of the last 48 hours. It is time for bed.

Red Eye, Hour 26 or something

1 1/2 hours to go.

Editing editing editing.

Live, From the Red Eye Film Festival!

It is now the 22nd hour of the Red Eye Film Festival, and the accumulation of caffeine highs and lows has finally led to a process of obsolescence, in which the strength slowly drains from my body.

Every year here at Bethany Lutheran College, teams of students sign up for the Red Eye Film Festival, during which they get 30 hours to create a short film. Six of us worked on this thing, our previous formal training being myself and another guy having half a semester of an A/V basics course.

We got our prompt (a haiku with a 5-5-4 syllabic count that was apparently a proper haiku in Japanese) on Thursday at noon, but it wasn't until Friday afternoon that we got together to hammer out ideas. I made us start with what we had--easily reachable locations, props we owned, etc.--and come up with a story based on that, a good way to start as opposed to vice versa. The story we came up with worked well enough, which has basically been our motto this weekend-- "It's good enough." The haiku involved a crow, which obviously made us think of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven..." Yeah. It was interesting.

One thing that struck me about the idea process was that it goes in more of a circular motion rather than a planar one--there were a few cases where ideas suggested by one person at one time were shot down, only to be resurrected in a slightly different form later by someone else. Since this happened to pretty much everyone, it was good training in the suppression of egos for the good of the group (this is how communism could work--we could all just make movies together).

Once we had the story down, Aaron and I pounded out a script in about half an hour. We broke for supper, shot a couple scenes, then broke until morning. We woke at 6:30, had the rest of the scenes shot by 1, and now we are in the general tedium of editing. I think we'll get it done on time. It won't be the most brilliant piece of cinema history. It may get last place in the contest Sunday. But you know what? I don't care. It's been enormously fun.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Story of the Bad Little Boy, by Mark Twain

Once there was a bad little boy whose name was Jim - though, if you will notice, you will find that bad little boys are nearly always called James in your Sunday-school books. It was strange, but still it was true that this one was called Jim.

He didn’t have any sick mother either - a sick mother who was pious and had the consumption, and would be glad to lie down in the grave and be at rest but for the strong love she bore her boy, and the anxiety she felt that the world might be harsh and cold towards him when she was gone. Most bad boys in the Sunday-books are named James, and have sick mothers, who teach them to say, “Now, I lay me down,” etc. and sing them to sleep with sweet, plaintive voices, and then kiss them good-night, and kneel down by the bedside and weep. But it was different with this fellow. He was named Jim, and there wasn’t anything the matter with his mother - no consumption, nor anything of that kind. She was rather stout than otherwise, and she was not pious; moreover, she was not anxious on Jim’s account. She said if he were to break his neck it wouldn’t be much loss. She always spanked Jim to sleep, and she never kissed him good-night; on the contrary, she boxed his ears when she was ready to leave him.

Once this little bad boy stole the key of the pantry, and slipped in there and helped himself to some jam, and filled up the vessel with tar, so that his mother would never know the difference; but all at once a terrible feeling didn’t come over him, and something didn’t seem to whisper to him, “Is it right to disobey my mother? Isn’t it sinful to do this? Where do bad little boys go who gobble up their good kind mother’s jam?” and then he didn’t kneel down all alone and promise never to be wicked any more, and rise up with a light, happy heart, and go and tell his mother all about it, and beg her forgiveness, and be blessed by her with tears of pride and thankfulness in her eyes. No; that is the way with all other bad boys in the books; but it happened otherwise with this Jim, strangely enough. He ate that jam, and said it was bully, in his sinful, vulgar way; and he put in the tar, and said that was bully also, and laughed, and observed “that the old woman would get up and snort” when she found it out; and when she did find it out, he denied knowing anything about it, and she whipped him severely, and he did the crying himself. Everything about this boy was curious - everything turned out differently with him from the way it does to the bad James in the books.

Once he climbed up in Farmer Acorn’s apple-tree to steal apples, and the limb didn’t break, and he didn’t fall and break his arm, and get torn by the farmer’s great dog, and then languish on a sick bed for weeks, and repent and become good. Oh! no; he stole as many apples as he wanted and came down all right; and he was all ready for the dog too, and knocked him endways with a brick when he came to tear him. It was very strange - nothing like it ever happened in those mild little books with marbled backs, and with pictures in them of men with swallow-tailed coats and bell-crowned hats, and pantaloons that are short in the legs, and women with the waists of their dresses under their arms, and no hoops on. Nothing like it in any of the Sunday-school books.

Once he stole the teacher’s pen-knife, and, when he was afraid it would be found out and he would get whipped, he slipped it into George Wilson’s cap - poor Widow Wilson’s son, the moral boy, the good little boy of the village, who always obeyed his mother, and never told an untruth, and was fond of his lessons, and infatuated with Sunday-school. And when the knife dropped from the cap, and poor George hung his head and blushed, as if in conscious guilt, and the grieved teacher charged the theft upon him, and was just in the very act of bringing the switch down upon his trembling shoulders, a white-haired improbable justice of the peace did not suddenly appear in their midst, and strike an attitude and say, “Spare this noble boy - there stands the cowering culprit! I was passing the school-door at recess, and unseen myself, I saw the theft committed!” And then Jim didn’t get whaled, and the venerable justice didn’t read the tearful school a homily and take George by the hand and say such a boy deserved to be exalted, and then tell him to come and make his home with him, and sweep out the office, and make fires, and run errands, and chop wood, and study law, and help his wife to do household labors, and have all the balance of the time to play, and get forty cents a month, and be happy. No; it would have happened that way in the books, but it didn’t happen that way to Jim. No meddling old clam of a justice dropped in to make trouble, and so the model boy George got thrashed, and Jim was glad of it because, you know, Jim hated moral boys. Jim said he was “down on them milk-sops.” Such was the coarse language of this bad, neglected boy.

But the strangest thing that ever happened to Jim was the time he went boating on Sunday, and didn’t get drowned, and that other time that he got caught out in the storm when he was fishing on Sunday, and didn’t get struck by lighting. Why, you might look, and look, all through the Sunday-school books from now till next Christmas, and you would never come across anything like this. Oh no; you would find that all the bad boys who go boating on Sunday invariably get drowned; and all the bad boys who get caught out in storms when they are fishing on Sunday infallibly get struck by lightning. Boats with bad boys in them always upset on Sunday, and it always storms when bad boys go fishing on the Sabbath. How this Jim ever escaped is a mystery to me.

This Jim bore a charmed life - that must have been the way of it. Nothing could hurt him. He even gave the elephant in the menagerie a plug of tobacco, and the elephant didn’t knock the top of his head off with his trunk. He browsed around the cupboard after essence of peppermint, and didn’t make a mistake and drink aqua fortis. He stole his father’s gun and went hunting on the Sabbath, and didn’t shoot three or four of his fingers off. He struck his little sister on the temple with his fist when he was angry, and she didn’t linger in pain through long summer days, and die with sweet words of forgiveness upon her lips that redoubled the anguish of his breaking heart. No; she got over it. He ran off and went to sea at last, and didn’t come back and find himself sad and alone in the world, his loved ones sleeping in the quiet churchyard, and the vine-embowered home of his boyhood tumbled down and gone to decay. Ah! no; he came home as drunk as a piper, and got into the station-house the first thing.

And he grew up and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalist wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.

So you see there never was a bad James in the Sunday-school books that had such a streak of luck as this sinful Jim with the charmed life.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Selfish Giant, by Oscar Wilde

Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play in the Giant's garden.

It was a large lovely garden, with soft green grass. Here and there over the grass stood beautiful flowers like stars, and there were twelve peach-trees that in the spring-time broke out into delicate blossoms of pink and pearl, and in the autumn bore rich fruit. The birds sat on the trees and sang so sweetly that the children used to stop their games in order to listen to them. "How happy we are here!" they cried to each other.

One day the Giant came back. He had been to visit his friend the Cornish ogre, and had stayed with him for seven years. After the seven years were over he had said all that he had to say, for his conversation was limited, and he determined to return to his own castle. When he arrived he saw the children playing in the garden.

"What are you doing here?" he cried in a very gruff voice, and the children ran away.

"My own garden is my own garden," said the Giant; "any one can understand that, and I will allow nobody to play in it but myself." So he built a high wall all round it, and put up a notice-board.


He was a very selfish Giant.

The poor children had now nowhere to play. They tried to play on the road, but the road was very dusty and full of hard stones, and they did not like it. They used to wander round the high wall when their lessons were over, and talk about the beautiful garden inside. "How happy we were there," they said to each other.

Then the Spring came, and all over the country there were little blossoms and little birds. Only in the garden of the Selfish Giant it was still winter. The birds did not care to sing in it as there were no children, and the trees forgot to blossom. Once a beautiful flower put its head out from the grass, but when it saw the notice-board it was so sorry for the children that it slipped back into the ground again, and went off to sleep. The only people who were pleased were the Snow and the Frost. "Spring has forgotten this garden," they cried, "so we will live here all the year round." The Snow covered up the grass with her great white cloak, and the Frost painted all the trees silver. Then they invited the North Wind to stay with them, and he came. He was wrapped in furs, and he roared all day about the garden, and blew the chimney-pots down. "This is a delightful spot," he said, "we must ask the Hail on a visit." So the Hail came. Every day for three hours he rattled on the roof of the castle till he broke most of the slates, and then he ran round and round the garden as fast as he could go. He was dressed in grey, and his breath was like ice.

"I cannot understand why the Spring is so late in coming," said the Selfish Giant, as he sat at the window and looked out at his cold white garden; "I hope there will be a change in the weather."

But the Spring never came, nor the Summer. The Autumn gave golden fruit to every garden, but to the Giant's garden she gave none. "He is too selfish," she said. So it was always Winter there, and the North Wind, and the Hail, and the Frost, and the Snow danced about through the trees.

One morning the Giant was lying awake in bed when he heard some lovely music. It sounded so sweet to his ears that he thought it must be the King's musicians passing by. It was really only a little linnet singing outside his window, but it was so long since he had heard a bird sing in his garden that it seemed to him to be the most beautiful music in the world. Then the Hail stopped dancing over his head, and the North Wind ceased roaring, and a delicious perfume came to him through the open casement. "I believe the Spring has come at last," said the Giant; and he jumped out of bed and looked out.

What did he see?

He saw a most wonderful sight. Through a little hole in the wall the children had crept in, and they were sitting in the branches of the trees. In every tree that he could see there was a little child. And the trees were so glad to have the children back again that they had covered themselves with blossoms, and were waving their arms gently above the children's heads. The birds were flying about and twittering with delight, and the flowers were looking up through the green grass and laughing. It was a lovely scene, only in one corner it was still winter. It was the farthest corner of the garden, and in it was standing a little boy. He was so small that he could not reach up to the branches of the tree, and he was wandering all round it, crying bitterly. The poor tree was still quite covered with frost and snow, and the North Wind was blowing and roaring above it. "Climb up! little boy," said the Tree, and it bent its branches down as low as it could; but the boy was too tiny.

And the Giant's heart melted as he looked out. "How selfish I have been!" he said; "now I know why the Spring would not come here. I will put that poor little boy on the top of the tree, and then I will knock down the wall, and my garden shall be the children's playground for ever and ever." He was really very sorry for what he had done.

So he crept downstairs and opened the front door quite softly, and went out into the garden. But when the children saw him they were so frightened that they all ran away, and the garden became winter again. Only the little boy did not run, for his eyes were so full of tears that he did not see the Giant coming. And the Giant stole up behind him and took him gently in his hand, and put him up into the tree. And the tree broke at once into blossom, and the birds came and sang on it, and the little boy stretched out his two arms and flung them round the Giant's neck, and kissed him. And the other children, when they saw that the Giant was not wicked any longer, came running back, and with them came the Spring. "It is your garden now, little children," said the Giant, and he took a great axe and knocked down the wall. And when the people were going to market at twelve o'clock they found the Giant playing with the children in the most beautiful garden they had ever seen.

All day long they played, and in the evening they came to the Giant to bid him good-bye.

"But where is your little companion?" he said: "the boy I put into the tree." The Giant loved him the best because he had kissed him.

"We don't know," answered the children; "he has gone away."

"You must tell him to be sure and come here to-morrow," said the Giant. But the children said that they did not know where he lived, and had never seen him before; and the Giant felt very sad.

Every afternoon, when school was over, the children came and played with the Giant. But the little boy whom the Giant loved was never seen again. The Giant was very kind to all the children, yet he longed for his first little friend, and often spoke of him. "How I would like to see him!" he used to say.

Years went over, and the Giant grew very old and feeble. He could not play about any more, so he sat in a huge armchair, and watched the children at their games, and admired his garden. "I have many beautiful flowers," he said; "but the children are the most beautiful flowers of all."

One winter morning he looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting.

Suddenly he rubbed his eyes in wonder, and looked and looked. It certainly was a marvellous sight. In the farthest corner of the garden was a tree quite covered with lovely white blossoms. Its branches were all golden, and silver fruit hung down from them, and underneath it stood the little boy he had loved.

Downstairs ran the Giant in great joy, and out into the garden. He hastened across the grass, and came near to the child. And when he came quite close his face grew red with anger, and he said, "Who hath dared to wound thee?" For on the palms of the child's hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails were on the little feet.

"Who hath dared to wound thee?" cried the Giant; "tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him."

"Nay!" answered the child; "but these are the wounds of Love."

"Who art thou?" said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him, and he knelt before the little child.

And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, "You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise."

And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Charon, by Lord Dunsany

Charon leaned forward and rowed. All things were one with his weariness.

It was not with him a matter of years or of centuries, but of wide floods of time, and an old heaviness and a pain in the arms that had become for him part of the scheme that the gods had made and was of a piece with Eternity.

If the gods had even sent him a contrary wind it would have divided all time in his memory into two equal slabs.

So grey were all things always where he was that if any radiance lingered a moment among the dead, on the face of such a queen perhaps as Cleopatra, his eyes could not have perceived it.

It was strange that the dead nowadays were coming in such numbers. They were coming in thousands where they used to come in fifties. It was neither Charon's duty nor his wont to ponder in his grey soul why these things might be. Charon leaned forward and rowed.

Then no one came for a while. It was not usual for the gods to send no one down from Earth for such a space. But the gods knew best.

Then one man came alone. And the little shade sat shivering on a lonely bench and the great boat pushed off. Only one passenger: the gods knew best. And great and weary Charon rowed on and on beside the little, silent, shivering ghost.

And the sound of the river was like a mighty sigh that Grief in the beginning had sighed among her sisters, and that could not die like the echoes of human sorrow failing on earthly hills, but was as old as time and the pain in Charon's arms.

Then the boat from the slow, grey river loomed up to the coast of Dis and the little, silent shade still shivering stepped ashore, and Charon turned the boat to go wearily back to the world. Then the little shadow spoke, that had been a man.

"I am the last," he said.

No one had ever made Charon smile before, no one before had ever made him weep.

Storytime Intro

So, I have decided that in an effort to at least keep posting SOMETHING regularly, I am going to post a story of some kind every week. Mostly other people's stories, actual good ones. Just thought I'd alert y'all before I started doing so.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Aye, We'll Go

Towards the end of the summer just past, I went to Irishfest in Milwaukee with the Gees. It was a day of enormous fun, filled with music and dancing and more high kicks and reels than you could throw a pint at. We saw Rising Gael, we saw Solas, was saw Monto, we saw Gaelic Storm--all fantastic groups. The company was excellent too--yes, including Bruce.

This was Sunday, the last day of Irishfest. It's been my experience that the last day of a festival tends to, well, suck. Things are winding down, people starting to turn their eyes toward home, even starting to pack up a bit. Not at Irishfest. People here were still raring, drinking, partying as though the outside world were a figment of the collective imagination.

Sunday night, once the last band has played, they have what they call the Scattering. Every musician remaining, every dancer too, gathers on a single stage to play a set of tunes. Every person remaining on the festival grounds gathers to hear them--one last hurrah, before we all go home.

Such a gathering might not work save for Irish musicians--that is, getting literally dozens of them onstage and expecting everyone to play the same thing--but the Irish musical tradition is such that there are literally hours' worth of tunes that any Irish musician most likely knows.

They did some reels, a few traditional songs, some more reels with some dancing. How those lads and lasses had room to dance on that crowded stage is beyond me, but they managed it with aplomb. Finally, the woman who was leading the pack announced, "We're going to do one last song that everybody knows--'Will ye Go, Lassie?'"

At this point, I thought, "Oh, great." I thought this meaning no disrespect to the venerable song; but every group who might be even remotely Irish has a version of this song, and in my experience they have largely sucked.

I should have known better. With that many great musicians onstage, I think it would have been possible to do a good version of "Strangers in the Night." Okay, maybe that's pushing it.

And as the band--the horde--began to play, I began to realize just why everybody does this song: it's a gorgeous song. With a lilting melody and simple lyrics, it recreates the feeling of a warm summer afternoon with nothing to do but rove the mountains and pick wild thyme.

And everybody knew the song, and everybody joined in on the chorus--and for those of us who didn't know, we learned it.

Will ye go, lassie, go?
And we'll all go together
To pick wild mountain thyme
All across the blooming heather...

And suddenly there was an explosion, and it was not our hearts thudding in our ears but the sound of fireworks, and they lit up the sky behind us, and we were enclosed in our own perfect little world, singing together in perfect unity. And, for just a moment, we seemed to float above the ground and the sound became not that of earth or any of her realms but of Faerie, of the undying lands that mortals can never know. And I thought that maybe this was just the barest splinter, the barest shiver of Heaven.

Then, the song ended, as all things must on this earth; and as all things must on this earth, the gathering broke and scattered, and we became people once again.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Alchemy Index

[Yes, I have become so pathetic that I am letting school essays double as blog posts. Although, this is something I've been meaning to write for a long time, and it was actually going to be a blog post before it found a home as my critical review for my Advanced Composition class. Like most of my blog posts, it's a first, mostly-unedited draft.]

“Tell me are you free?/ Tell me are you free?/ In word or thought or deed/ Tell me are you free?” So begins post-hardcore group Thrice’s opus, The Alchemy Index. This four-CD album, released in Spring 2007 and Fall 2008, is based on the four classical elements—Fire, Water, Earth and Air, with one EP-length CD devoted to each of them. This album was released to wide critical acclaim. Despite the fact that the sound on each volume is different—fire with its decidedly hardcore guitars and screaming vocals, water with its synth and whispered lyrics, air with its, well, airiness, and earth with its acoustic, unplugged sound—the songs hang together remarkably well. They interconnect and build on each other, yet each explores unique territory.

Much has been written on the musical quality of The Alchemy Index; most of the “experts” seem to agree that it is musically rich, and a very unique and special composition. I, personally, am not terribly qualified to comment on the music, apart from my own personal opinion. I do, however, know a bit about literature and what makes good writing, and this is the aspect of The Alchemy Index I intend to examine.

Dustin Kensrue has long been Thrice’s song-writer, and has long been admired as a great lyricist. From uncomfortable guilt-ridden anthems like “Under A Killing Moon,” to the comforting yet still hardcore “Music Box,” he has shown great diversity as well. He is a Christian, and much of his work shows strong Biblical influence, but he is unafraid to draw from other sources as well. (The song “Of Dust and Nations” makes reference to Matthew 6, to the book Children of Dune, to a CS Lewis quote, and possibly to the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem “Ozymandias.”) It should not be surprising, then, that he finds inspiration in a paradigm—the four classical elements—that has inspired many other great poets and songwriters through the years.

The opening words of Volume I: Fire, and indeed the opening song, “Firebreather,” set the tone for the rest of the Index, and introduce one of the major themes running through the album: that of freedom from oppression—not just physical freedom, but mental freedom. “When the gallows stand and bullets lance the bravest lungs/Will I fold my hands and hold my tongue/Or let the flames lick at my feet/ And breath in fire and know I’m free?”

“The Messenger” is one of several songs that take direct Biblical inspiration—this one a musical reformatting of Isaiah 6:

Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.
-Isaiah 6:6-8 (KJV)

How can I carry such a heavy burden?
How can I move when I am paralyzed?
I see a fire behind a heavy curtain.
I lean in closer and I close my eyes
and kiss the coals;
breathe in smoke,
and I say, "HERE I AM, SEND ME."
-Thrice, “The Messenger”

The rest of the Fire album deals with similar themes, themes of breaking free from oppression (“Burn the Fleet”), and of being a messenger to a people who will not hear (“The Arsonist”). The disc ends with “The Flame Deluge,” a sonnet set to music, in which fire itself speaks to mankind, lamenting man’s treatment of it: “I feel that I was meant for something more, /My curse, this awful power to unmake./ And ever since you found your taste for war,/ You've forced me onto those whose lives you'd take.” The song’s title is a reference to the book A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, a post-apocalyptic novel in which the world has been destroyed by what the characters call “the flame deluge”—presumably nuclear war of some kind.

Each volume of the Index ends with such a sonnet, with an element of nature berating mankind for one of its numerous faults. Kensrue is not playing with the form here, either, not writing lazy half-fulfilled sonnets in the name of “experimentation” or “fusion.” These are Elizabethan sonnets, written in strict iambic pentameter, with the classic format of four quatrains ending with a couplet. And they show the poetic quality and expression of a truly great lyricist.

The second volume, Water, is a decidedly different twist. This is evident not only in the softer tone of the music, but in the writing as well. Where Fire is very martial, sounding a call to action, Water is more like a lament.

The opening song, “Digital Sea,” is a lament and possibly even an elegy for man in a digital age. It is a song of existentialist despair. “I am drowning in a digital sea/ I am slipping beneath the sound/ Here my voice goes, to ones and zeroes/ I'm slipping beneath the sound.” It contains one of the most significant verses of the album: “And the ghost of Descartes/Screams again in the dark,/ ‘Oh, how could I have been so wrong?’/ But above the screams still the sirens sing their song.” It speaks elegantly of the disconnection man experiences in an age based on “Cogito Ergo Sum,” the ultimate damage a philosophy of pure reason engenders—and, despite this, the enticement that our age holds.

“Lost Continent” questions whether there was ever a golden time, a utopia of any kind (akin to the supposed golden age experienced by the lost continent of Atlantis), and concludes that there never was. “Open Water” contains the chorus, “I’m starting to believe the ocean’s much like you/ Because it gives and it takes away.” Kensrue implicitly compares the ocean to God (“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away), which sets up an interesting paradigm for the concluding sonnet “Kings Upon the Main.”

In this song, the ocean berates man for his foolish pride--“When kings upon the main have clung to pride, /And held themselves as masters of the sea, /I've held them down beneath the crushing tide/ Till they have learned that no one masters me.” Kensrue knows his Scripture, and this sounds like an angry God berating man for his pride—the Tower of Babel comes to mind, among others. If this is true, perhaps the concluding couplet is fitting: “But grace can still be found within the gales;/ With fear and reverence, raise your ragged sail.”

Air is in some ways the simplest, and in other ways the hardest Volume of the Index. It starts with the song “Broken Lungs,” which is an obvious (though poetic) call for new insight into the 9/11 tragedy. Kensrue doesn’t seem to accept the “official story” of what happened that day. Though it has obvious parallels to “Firebreather” and the societal concerns evident throughout the album, this is my least favorite song. It shows what happens when one is too wary of authority, too ready to accept anything but what the government says.

“A Song for Milly Michaelson” is worthy of note here, because it shows the broad range of Kensrue’s influences. This song is inspired by “The Boy Who Could Fly,” a 1986 movie written and directed by Nick Castle. It is about an autistic boy who, well, can fly. The song is written from the boy’s perspective, and uses simple language to create potent imagery—“There's a way where there's a will./ You know I got no need for stairs. /Step out on the window sill,/ Fall with me into the air… I love the night. /Flying o'er these city lights./ But I love you most of all.”

The song “Deadalus” retells the story of the Greek inventor who, reaching for the glory of flight, lost that thing which was most precious to him—his son. This song encapsulates many of the themes of the Index: man’s arrogance, his foolishness, his desire for glory tempered by his penchant for failure.

The final volume, Earth, is perhaps the most biblically-inspired of the entire Index. “Moving Mountains” is based on 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal…”) “Come All You Weary,” one of the most popular songs on the album, is based on Christ’s words in Matthew 11:28-30. “Digging My Own Grave,” while not directly Biblical, has the tone of a Psalm or a confession of sins, a prayer to God for help—“Lord, don’t I know, I’m just digging my own grave?/ Can someone please save myself from me?”

The final sonnet, “Child of Dust,” is perhaps the best of all the sonnets. The earth, calling itself mother, mourns the way its child (man) treats it. Yet she welcomes man back into her fold when he dies. The final couplet is buried, literally—the sound of earth being piled on top of the microphone muffles the final two lines: “Now safe beneath their wisdom and their feet,/ Here I will teach you truly how to sleep.” The Alchemy Index, a portrait of life, ends appropriately with death.

Not until this final volume do we see what The Alchemy Index ultimately is. It is not a story, it is not a clever conceit, it is not even primarily a cycle of interconnected songs. The Alchemy Index is a portrait, it is a mirror, poetically holding up the looking glass to show us who we are, where we are going, and what we need. It is both an elegy and a call to action. It accuses, it condemns, and it points the way to salvation. It reaches into the past to create a portrait of our modern age, and in creating this portrait, shows us man as he is through all of time.

Friday, August 22, 2008


[I wrote this last school year, because it wanted to be written. I don't know what I think of it, but I don't care about it enough to improve it any. I published the first part in The Inkwell, Bethany's literary magazine, where it got fourth place (out of 50-60 entries) in the semester. That won me a $10 gift card, so that if nothing else buys some affection for this piece.]

This is true.

My brother died at the age of 14, in a horrible car crash that probably wasn't his fault. We weren't in the car, so we can never know, but he obviously wasn't driving and the guy in the car that hit him was drunk so there's that. We attended his funeral and mom cried and dad never cries because that's not something men do or something, but he took off his hat and stared at the ground and there was this look in his eye like a piece of him had been destroyed, which in a sense I suppose it had. And I, of course, was terribly sad. I think I cried for about a day. Literally. If you added up all the time I spent crying, it would probably be at least twenty-four hours. My aunt too, who lives like an hour from here, cried a lot—she didn't have any kids and she always wanted a boy and my brother was a favorite of hers. But he was gone and there was nothing we could do about it.

This is also true.

My brother comes out of his room every day and eats and washes himself. He is fourteen, and his face is spotless, all the acne that used to spatter it having cured itself. He makes messes, and my mom yells at him to clean them up, and he grumbles and does. And she grumbles about what an awful little urchin he is, but then she smiles and there's this light in her eyes and you can tell she doesn't really mean it, not a word of it, that she loves this fourteen-year-old boy.

My brother has been fourteen for three years.

After his funeral, my mom was unbalanced for quite a while. Couldn't bear the grief, I suppose. She went from crying to not making any sound at all to not getting up in the mornings to getting up too early and not being able to sleep. The only thing she couldn't do was work, in any form, provide any sort of compensation for her existence to those around her. She was, essentially, a dysfunctional person. The doctors said something drastic had to happen.

So my dad went to this place. He had to seek it out, kind of, for while it was not an illegal establishment it was one which people would rather not think about. He put in a certain order, brought them certain documents and tissue samples, filled out myriads of personality test forms. Six weeks later he went there one last time and brought back my brother.

When my mom saw him, she screamed and cried, but it was a happy-sounding cry. Then she said, “He's...”

My dad looked her in the eye, waited until he knew he was holding her gaze, then shook his head. “It's best to just accept it.”

She nodded, and then she did. She was an English major in college; she appreciated the usefulness of stories in motivating people.

My mom's behavior I've described; after that day my dad simply ignored my brother, pretended he didn't exist. Ha. The government did that too; my brother no longer ate or consumed in any way, and he was frozen—he wasn't a legitimate tax claim, and he didn't use the school system.

My aunt came over one afternoon, and she caught sight of my brother and dropped whatever it was she was carrying, I've forgotten, and just screamed. Then she calmed down but she was still breathing fast and my dad and I appeared in the living room at the same time—my brother was still there, staring at her oddly—and she turned on my dad and her eyes were as cold as the sort of air that will freeze the snot in your nose, and she just said, “That is cruel.” My dad raised his hands, conciliatory, and started to explain. But she picked her stuff up, or maybe just left it, and turned around and left.

We've never heard from her since.

My friends and I saw this advertisement on this computer one evening; I think I got it over e-mail. It was for a place opening in the city, about half an hour from my house (the city that is, the actual place would be a bit farther). They called the place All Party All The Time! Because that's literally what it was, though it wasn't technically All The Time! because it didn't open until seven o'clock in the evening. It was a house, a big house, that from seven until seven in the morning was this giant party. Like, you could go into different rooms and there were different types of party going on—one room would have people dressed all metalhead and loud thumping music, and another room would have people dressed old-fashioned and swing-dancing, and another had people just chilling and playing pool, and another drinking hardcore. You could rent rooms and have birthday parties, or graduation parties or retirement parties or whatever you want. Each room was a different party, and for the twenty dollar cover charge you could go and go to one party or wander in and out of a bunch of parties.

That's what the advertisement said. We heard some inside scoop from other people. Apparently the way they kept these parties going was to hire people, a sort of “skeleton party crew,” to act like people ought to act in whatever setting the party was. They hired people to be metalheads, and skinheads, preppy, “typical” or nondescript kids, and so forth. Apparently they had an almost literal army of caterers, supply trucks coming and going all day and all night. They had a massive staff, and a massive budget. The amount of waste produced there rivaled that of some nuclear power plants, though it was somewhat less deadly.

After a couple weeks of speculation and hearing about it from other people, my friends and I finally went into town to go to the Party. (That's what we were calling it by then, just the Party, differentiated from other parties by the capital P.) The people going were me, my best girlfriend Justina, Ruby and her boyfriend Steph (short e), and Gloria and Peter, who were friends with all of us and pretended not to like each other and failed to fool anyone but each other.

The place was this Tudor-style house, but huge and with all its attributes exaggerated, and you could tell it was just honeycombed with rooms because there were so many windows all lined up next to each other. Light was spilling out all the windows, and you could just see all kinds of partying going on.

We went in the front door on the bottom floor and there was this big guy with a frown that looked permanent who took our money and gave us a map of the rooms and told us generally where the types of parties were—the clique parties, the hard core parties, the more genteel parties. Since we were all under 21 we had to wear red nametags that had our names on them and would also alert various bartenders to only serve us virgin drinks. Peter wrote Sir Lancelot on his and grinned as if he was clever.

We chose one of the more genteel parties to start off with, a cocktail party kind of thing with chips and dip and drinks and pool and ping-pong and people talking and flirting pleasantly. I got a Virgin Mary from the bar and settled on my stool, wondering if people would flirt with me. There seemed to be quite a mix, teenagers through middle-aged. I wondered which were the actors.

Ruby went off to the bathroom after a while and Steph went to the bar and ordered something. He was leaning against the bar still when a girl, woman, I don't know, she could have been anywhere from 18 to 25, anyway she was wearing a tight sequined red dress and she kind of slunk over to Steph and asked him what his name was.

“Steph,” he said, and as always there was that note of triumph in his voice, as if it were something special that his parents had decided to steal a stupid Russian name instead of using a stupid American one. (His real name, in case you hadn't guessed, was Stephan, still with the short e.)

“That's a cool name,” the lady in the red dress cooed at him.

“Ya think?” said Steph, grinning more broadly.

“Sure,” she said.

They made small talk for a while. I got bored and so I drowned out the specifics, but it seemed to go along with her cooing and him getting all full of himself—he seemed to really enjoy flirting with her. After a while there was a pause, and I looked over to see him regarding her with narrowed eyes. She was looking back at him, a mysterious indefatigable smile splayed across her features.

“You're one of them, aren't you?” he said.

“One of who, darling?” she said, and there was laughter in her voice.

“Them, the actors this place hires to keep us entertained. You thought I looked bored, so you came over here to make me feel good about myself so I'd come back here and tell my friends what a great place this is.”

“Would I do that?” she said, and oh she was very prettily offended. She gestured to encompass the entire building. “Look at this place. Do you think the owners here really need the business of you personally?”

He continued to look at her with narrowed eyes.

She sighed. “Look, suppose I am. Have I said anything about you that you don't already believe? Also, didn't you get a thrill out of flirting with me? There's nothing fake about that, is there?”

He continued to watch her, and she grinned again and batted her eyes.

“Or maybe I really am an actor, but I'm actually taken by you. Did you ever think of that?”

“Yes,” he said. “I did, actually. But how can I know?”

She smiled, and batted her eyes again and now she was really pouring it on thick. “Well, ask me to get out of here and find a quieter place with you.” Her smile widened, and it was almost a predator's grin. “A paid actress wouldn't do that, would she?”

Just then Ruby got out of the bathroom. Steph saw her walking towards him. “One minute,” he said to the lady in red. He took Ruby by the arm, and found the rest of us and announced they were ready to try another room.

Look around you. They're everywhere.
Your history is riddled with them.
Your country's history,
Your personal history,
Your world's history.
No matter what religion you subscribe to (even atheism), there's somebody out there lying about it.
Your job requires a lot of it,
And especially any school you might happen to be attending.
Your nights,
Your days,
Your resumes,
Your life.
And yes, this is one of them.

Vehement Apathy

It's what happens when you really, really, really don't care.

I experienced it a lot working at Target.

More on that, possibly, to come.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Two Thoughts, Based On Recent Experiences

1. The Dylan version of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" is infinitely superior to the Guns 'N Roses version.

2. Though I've read critics who say that it's one of Fitzgerald's "immature" novels, This Side of Paradise is one of the best books I've ever read.

Monday, August 11, 2008

100 Posts

Yes, I know a 100-posts post is trite, and cliche, and all those other things we try to avoid being. However, I need a post, and I can find nothing better to write about at the moment. So.

If you went back and counted my published posts--well, you would be either very pathetic or very bored or both. You would not, however, find 100 posts. Blogger, when I sign in, tells me how many posts I have, but it includes those that I start and do not publish and for one reason or another (usually forgetfulness or negligence) do not get rid of. So, and I reiterate, I have nothing better to write about, I have decided to tour through these unpublished posts, starting with the oldest, and see what there is to see.

The oldest post that for some reason never saw light (I don't know why, it seems to have been finished) is called ""Literature."" (There are quotes in the title but I was quoting the title.) It contains my reviews of two works, Louisa May Alcott's A Long Fatal Love-Chase, which is a Gothic-esque thriller she wrote that remained unpublished until about ten years ago, and The Song of Roland, an epic poem set in the time of Charlemagne (dated the High Middle Ages, if I remember right). It is very nearly the only viable piece of literature to come out of France.

Instead of recapitulating the whole thing, I will give the short versions: the ostensible editor of A Long Fatal Love-Chase rejected it because it was "Too long and too sensational." I read it and found it too long and, well, too sensational. The Song of Roland is boring until you get to the fighting, then it's worth the boredom.

Next we have two posts that I think I didn't publish because I realized they were stupid. Then we have the Master List of Good Fantasy, which was my project last summer, which I abandoned because between the formatting and the project itself, the bloody thing became too unwieldy. (I still have a Master List of Good Fantasy, but it's mostly in my head now.)

The next unpublished bit is called "College Tour," and is my attempt at a summary of the college tour Aaron and Heidi and I did back in ancient history, near the end of our senior year of high school. I didn't published it because through some glitch large sections of the summary were erased, and I didn't want to spend the time recreating them and then I forgot about it. I will send it to interested parties, but be warned, the experience of reading it is like watching a movie that randomly skips several scenes forward.

Next are two posts entitled "Stormfield Goes to College," dated 9/3 and 10/8, and a post called "Stormfield's Return From Blogatory" which I think was meant to be the same idea. The first is blank, and the second contains the perfunctory statement "Here it is, the off-to-college post I should have written a month ago." The third says the same and also mentions my intention to do NaNoWriMo. (I managed it, despite being in college; not sure how.)

A month or so later, we have a somewhat emo-ish rant, which I didn't publish because I don't read emo-ish rants and in fact find them embarrassing. Then there is "Rebuilding Civilization," a short post I don't know why I didn't published, reproduced below:

So a while ago I posted a question on Facebook: If civilization as we know it were ending, and you could choose one book to preserve for those who would have to build society back again from the rubble, what book would it be?

My choice would be The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. One might say, Why such a confusing novel? Why not something along the lines of Common Sense? Well, despite some of the fairly spectacular things about our current governmental system, the fact is that the world is a mess, always has been a mess, and always will be a mess. Once human beings got back on their feet after whatever theoretical catastrophe did them in, I'm sure we'd have no problem recreating said mess.

However, if Mr. Shandy's book were to be the only thing saved, surely it would also be closely studied, and perhaps even understood. It is my opinion that if more people today understood this book (granted, it's a cursedly hard thing to do), there would be exponentially greater happiness in the world. If a whole civilization grew up understanding it... well, it would be a sight to see.

And, really, that's the pinnacle. So, there you are (wherever you go). 100 posts, 0 coherent points.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Tribute to Fedoras

[I am posting this because I need another post but I am too lazy to write something new. Also, my brother threatened to post it for me if I didn't. It was my "Special Occasion/After Dinner Speech" for speech class last semester. It was a manuscript speech, meaning I had the whole thing (rather than merely an outline) on the podium before me. My speech prof said embarrassingly complimentary things about it.]

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

This is the last thing Humphrey Bogart says at the end of the classic movie Casablanca. But what is the last thing we see? The camera rises and fades backward, and we see Rick and Louis from behind. All we can see of Rick--Bogart's character--is his trench coat, his slouch--and his hat. Bogart was almost never onscreen without his hat. The image of him, with his trench coat tied shut, hands in his pockets, slouched over with a cigarette dangling from his upper lip, is incomplete without the hat, without the fedora.

Cary Grant, who might be described as the quintessential ladies' man, was also rarely without a fedora. At the end of The Philadelphia Story, when his character marries Katherine Hepburn's for the second time, he takes it off--but only reluctantly.

Think of It's a Wonderful Life. Towards the beginning of that movie, Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey is visiting the woman he will eventually marry. They get into a sort of lover's tiff, and he storms out of her house. He returns with the excuse, "I forgot my hat." That hat? A fedora.

And for modern fedora-wearers there is, of course, the one and only Indiana Jones. Indy's fedora is unique--made of a little sterner stuff, the better to take the desert heat and the jungle mist, to survive falling into pits and falling out of planes, and snakes. I hate snakes. The brim of Indy's hat is a little funny too--turned down in the back, atypical. But it doesn't matter. It is a fedora, and whether rolling beneath a stone gate to escape hostile natives, fleeing Nazis on horseback, or jumping from truck to speeding truck--he never loses it.

Now, I am no Indiana Jones, no Jimmy Stewart, no Cary Grant and certainly no Bogart. At least not yet. But I and many of my friends habitually wear fedoras as well. What is it about this hat, this quintessence of felt and ribbon, that so excites us, that inspires such loyalty and admiration?

Well, half of it is practical, but only half. The fedora really is a well-designed hat. It sits securely on your head, but it does not sit strictly--the only people who feel constricted by a fedora are those with big heads wearing small sizes. Because of this, and because of the sweat band on the inside of the hat, strenuous activity doesn't upset the fedora--it keeps a stiff upper lip and plods along, right with you. It's an easy-going hat, and versatile. You can wear it in the rain, and it will keep you dry; you can wear it in the heat, and its long brim will shield your face and the back of your neck. If you're bored, you can talk to it, and it will at least pretend to listen. I don't recommend this last in public, though.

A fedora is durable, as well. A fedora belonging to a friend of mine blew off his head on a windy day. It blew straight into the path of an oncoming car, which ran it over. My friend picked it up, popped it back into position, and it was good as new.

There is another half to the fedora's attraction, and this is the side that is difficult to put into words. There's a sort of metaphysical, spiritual bond between a fedora and its owner. A fedora looks, if you'll pardon the much-overused colloquialism, cool. There's something about walking in the rain, with your head down and the fedora shielding your face and taking the rain so you don't have to--it's like being in trouble and having a friend, uncomplaining, who takes the rap for you. You feel more like yourself, in a fedora. As though your best features are exaggerated, and your worst ones, hidden away.

Whether saying goodbye to the love of your life, escaping angry Nazis, or just going to class every day, the fedora adds some dash, some panache, some whiplash to an outfit. It makes life more interesting, cool, and ultimately more enjoyable.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


I was out running this morning (It's true! you people stop gasping, and you stop snickering). I turned down the bike trail that cuts through the center of town because it's a cool, wooded place that serves to conceal me from a large number of those likely to point and laugh.

Except then, I came to the Bridge. It's an old wooden bridge--describing it as an old railroad bridge with the train tracks taken out and slabs laid down so real people could travel across it would be exactly accurate. (The bike trail used to be a railroad line.) If I were in a more romantic mood, I would spend a couple of paragraphs describing said bridge in mythological terms. It's old, and worn down in the middle were probably hundreds of thousands of feet and bike wheels and snowmobiles have traversed it. It has a tendency to bounce and buckle when you cross it, just a bit, just enough to make you nervous.

Anyway, I stood in the middle of it and looked out in four directions, and realized it was sort of a four-dimensional crossroads. Before and behind me, running underneath the bridge, was Main Street in the place where it widens in preparation for becoming The Highway. To the north, it ran through the newly developed portions of town to said Highway, out past warehouses bearing the name of a grocery store and Walgreens and the Library, past the golf course where what pathetic Rich and Elite this town has hobnob with each other. Thus the new side of town.

About-face, and you see trees that were old when my father was young, buildings with gabled roofs hidden from the public by grandiose false fronts. Entire blocks of buildings squashed together in what, come to think of it, is probably an incredible firetrap. Old, roomy houses with honest-to-god towers built into them. The graveyard, neglected, its headstones crumbling into a dust comparable to that of their graves' inhabitants. And trolls. I can find no way to romanticize trolls. Thus, Old Town.

The other two directions were back and forward (relative to me) along the bike trail. Behind me lay Civilization--Kwik Trip, the investment office and antique shops and other businesses that make their homes here in town. Before me lay (at least, what looked like) The Wild. Trees of a rich green grew up and leaned out over the trail to form an arch under which the brown of the gravel trail ran, and it was a somehow richer brown for associating with all that Nature. The road beckoned to me with all the overblown symbolic virility of a womb symbol, or the Hero's Call to Adventure.

I wandered toward Nature, down that (as it were) Hero's Road, until I realized with regret that there were other things I wanted to do this day, and I went home.

(Now, there probably is some symbolic meaning I could draw forth from the above--that is, more than I have already hinted at. And by probably and some, I actually mean definitely and a ton. However, to go into it would be cruel to my readers, probably make them want to hurt me, and might actually lead to me wanting to hurt myself. So, in the interests of self-preservation and altruism, I will end here.)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Jackanapes, Blackguards and Knaves, Oh My!

Here, from yourdictionary.com, is an excellent piece which laments the fall of the English insult, and suggests some classic alternatives to our modern mishmash of misconstructed malapropisms. (You know what? Alliteration is sometimes like falling in a hole. You get in to it, and you can't get back out.)

Anyway, read the above, and clean up your language!

(Exit, pursued by a blackguard)

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Because several of my friends read it and recommended it with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and because it's enormously popular and I like keeping up on current literary trends, I recently read the book Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer. It's a new, populist, and much better-than-average incarnation of the vampires-in-high-school form of YA fiction. I quite liked the book, as light reading: it's the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries (or, to extend Gaiman's metaphor even further, a non-alcoholic Pina Colada).

However, it was not until I noticed the similarity between the two covers pictured above (while browsing Barnes and Noble) that I began to think of certain things that now seem painfully obvious.

When looked at through the lens one would use to view a book by, say, CS Lewis, certain interesting aspects begin to show themselves. (WARNING: spoilers beyond this point, and it will probably only make sense to those who have read the book.)

Several of the characters in the book could be, or at least have certain aspects of, Christ figures. In fact, on the very first page, when our heroine is contemplating her death, she does not regret it because she is dying in the place of someone she loves. Edward, too, in his constant protective role, could be seen as a Christ figure; his father, actually, could be seen in both the Christ and the Creator roles--he more or less raises Edward from the dead, for example, and grants him eternal life, and he has created this family of vampires out of loneliness--out of, we may infer, a desire to be loved.

The main character's name, Isabella Swan, is interesting too. Isabella means "My God is my oath" or "Devoted to God"; Bella, the name she prefers, comes from the Italian word for "beautiful." The Swan, of course, has multiple possible symbolic meanings--it is a symbol of innocence and purity, but also of self-sacrifice. And of course, there is the old story of the swansong, the piercingly beautiful song sung by the swan only when it is about to die.

Which brings us to the book's climax. The dance studio where Bella waits for the hunter, both because of the way dance studios look and specifically the way this one is described, has the possible appearance of a coffin or a tomb. Long, enclosed, with mirrors on all sides (resembling the smooth stone walls of a tomb or the smooth sides of a coffin), windowless. She has given herself up to the grave; but at the last minute, and without her doing (and, in fact, despite her best efforts), she is found and rescued. The heroine descends willingly to her doom, and is rescued, basically, by grace. This has every appearance of classical Christian symbolism.

Of course, it could be that I'm reading stuff into it that's not there. It's interesting to think about, at least. I'll have to see if the next two books uphold my theories.


Because there has been too much posting that could be mistaken for intelligent around here recently, and I thought this game looked like fun. Stole it from someone on Facebook.

Here's how it works:

1. Open your library (iTunes, Winamp, Media Player, iPod, etc)
2. Put it on shuffle
3. Press play
4. For every question, type the song that's playing
5. When you go to a new question, press the next button
6. Don't lie and try to pretend you're cool...
7. Include commentary

Opening Credits: Dead to the World, Nightwish [Ha, this would be great if my life movie were either angst-ridden, dark, or a dark comedy; I like the last two choices.]

Waking Up: Seven Swans, Sufjan Stevens [Complete change of pace from the last one, but it'd make an excellent waking up song--especially since the first words are, "We didn't sleep too late..."]

First Day At School: The Story So Far, Flogging Molly [Doesn't quite work; it's more of an old man song; though the lines, "All that you know means nothing to you, but it's the loss of control, shatters the truth" seem oddly fitting...]

Falling In Love: Donald McGillavry, Rising Gael [Hmm. It's got a cool beat, and it is kind of a fangirl song for the titular Celtic hero; it might work.]

Fight Song: Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn, White Stripes [It would be a very loopy fight scene, but that seems to fit with the rest so far.]

Breaking Up: Sister, by Sufjan Stevens [This would be excellent. Downbeat melancholy instrumental with some gorgeous melancholy lyrics at the end; perfect]

Prom: The Wanderlust, by Flogging Molly ["Well I'd love to photograph your hand, shake it for a while, because you learn so much, about someone, a brother or a swine..." Actually, being that proms always seem to bring out my extreme romantic streak, and so does the idea of Wanderlust, this seems to fit; it may only work for me, though]

Life's OK: Digital Sea, by Thrice ["And the ghost of Descartes screams again in the dark, oh how could I have been so wrong; But above the scream still the sirens sing their song."--Actually, these is more like "life sucks, but in the same way it has from the Fall." Which would work, for the dark or the dark comedy. Or the angst. Dang]

Mental Breakdown: Kings Upon the Main, Thrice [I suppose. Maybe I could go crazy and imagine the sea talking to me...]

Driving: The Queen of Argyll, by Wolfstone [More of an 'In love' song, but it could work. The blazing bagpipe solo could be when I get mad and swerve around people...]

Flashback: Devil in a Midnight Mass, by Billy Talent [Great for a dark flashback, but I wouldn't want to have one to the particular subject of this song. *shudder*]

Getting Back Together: Anywhere But Here, by Rise Against [hahaha... "Destination, anywhere but here, away from you..." Oh, the irony.]

Wedding: Missed the Boat, Modest Mouse [Again, it would work, in a loopy and dark sort of way; it would be the oddest wedding ever, I'd have to say]

Birth of Child: Last of the Wilds, by Nightwish [A dark, metal-ish instrumental; I have strange forebodings about this child :P]

Final Battle: Beauty of the Beast:Long Lost Love/One More Night to Live, by Nightwish [Oh wow, this would make an incredible last fight, especially the "One More Night to Live Section"; I could see this as the first part being a parting scene with the love interest, the second being the battle itself. I really really really want to use this in a movie now.]

Death Scene: Between a Man and a Woman, by Flogging Molly [Oh this would work spectacularly, if only for the irony]

Funeral Song: Birdhouse in Your Soul, by They Might Be Giants [Oh this would be awesome too; comic funeral ftw!]

End Credits: Dulaman, by Anuna [Excellent ending, a choir singing Gaelic]

Man, I seem to have bizzare music...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Just Gimme Some Truth: Reading the Old Masters of Fantasy (Part 2)

This is simply a continuation of my last post with a similar title, and, as such, should not contain this introductory paragraph. It does, however. What follows will have less to do with Moorckock and more to do with the works to which his book led me. So, onward.

E.R. Eddison: The Worm Ouroboros

Between Dunsany, William Morris (whose The Well at the World's End I recently bought, and which might become Part 3 of this post), and Eddison, we apparently have the three strongest contemporary influences on Tolkien's trilogy. And with its grand quests and sub-quests, massive battles punctuated by thrilling single combat, and overarching aura of Dark Magic, it reminded me of nothing more than Return of the King. There were some, er, aesthetic oddities about the book. At the beginning , a man and his wife seemingly astral project to Mercury, where they are apparently watching the action take place. This framing device takes up, or is mentioned frequently for about the first 50 pages; it is mentioned once again at about page 150, and then disappears, never to be heard from again. The names, too--the chief rivals are Witchland and Demonland, and other locales include Impland, Pixyland, etc. The Mercury setting is immaterial--this is an alt-world fantasy, through and through. Also, the Witches and Demons, despite being described early on as having horns and forked tails, resemble nothing more than mortal men in Hallowe'en costumes.

However, all this is immaterial. The central points, the principal attractions of this book, are the story and the language.

The story contains all the best elements of Viking sagas--great battles, single combat, quests both to slay monsters and destroy enemies. There are some great sub-stories too, which I'd talk about save that it would give too much away. At the same time, we have a great deal of court politics and political intrigue, reminiscent of certain of Shakespeare's plays. Combined with these two strong elements is the third of, names aside, very strong world building. And the ending is one of the best I've ever read.

But the language is what truly sets this book apart. Whereas Tolkien and Dunsany used a simple, lyrical archaic style, Eddison goes whole hog with a 16th/17th century flowery archaism. It's fantastic; it's like Shakespeare wrote a fantasy novel. Opening at random, we get:

Surely to be in Morna Moruna was to be in the death chamber of some once lovely presence. Stains of fire were on the walls. The fair gallery of open wood-work that ran above the main hall was burnt through and partly fallen in ruin, the blackened ends of the beams that held it jutting blindly in the gap. Among the wreck of carved chairs and benches, broken and worm-eaten, some shreds of figured tapestries rotted, the home now of beetles and spiders. Patches of colour, faded lines, mildewed and damp with the corruptions of two hundred years, lingered to be the memorials, like the mummied skeleton of a king's daughter long ago untimely dead, of sweet gracious paintings on the walls. Five nights and five days the demons and Mivarsh dwelt in Morna Moruna, inured to portents till they marked them as little as men mark swallows at their window. In the still night were flames seen, and flying forms dim in the moonlit air; and in moonless nights unstarred, moans heard and gibbering accents: prodigies besode their beds, and ridings in the sky, and fleshless fingers plucking at Juss unseen when he wet forth to make question of the night.

The dialogue, too, is excellent. It's also in that high archaic style, but is somehow never overdone or melodramatic:

Now spake Spitfire saying, "Read forth to us, I pary thee, the book of Gro; for my soul is afire to set forth on this faring."

"Tis writ somewhat crabbedly, said Brandoch Daha, "and most dambably long. I spent half last night a-searching on't, and 'tis most apparent no other way lieth to these mountains save by the Moruna, and across the Moruna is (if Gro say true) but one way..."

Another excellent thing about this book is the women: Eddison writes some of the strongest female characters I've ever seen in epic fantasy. Sure, they're all (or mostly) conniving, and backstabbing, but then so are all (or most of) the men.

Linguistically, this is probably the most challenging book I'll recommend, but it's a great book--the payoff is worth the effort.

(It's been reprinted in the "Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading," so check B&N's fantasy section. Otherwise, I know it's been reprinted by at least two small publishers.)

James Branch Cabell: Jurgen

James Branch Cabell cut his literary teeth on authors like Horace, Montaigne, Marlowe, Moliere, and Wilde--in short, romantics long on symbolism and imagery. However, his own highly symbolic writing came in the late 1910's through the 30's--a period whose vogue involved writers like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway--that is,
realists. Cabell hated realism, and refused to write it. Though some of his peers--Sinclair Lewis and Mark Twain, for example--praised him, Cabell's work was never hugely popular with the critics or the reading public.

Ironically, it was an attempt at censorship that brought Cabell both his most lasting fame and his largest audience. In 1919 certain members of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice picked up on some of the double entendres in
Jurgen (more on these in a bit), and it was put on trial for indecency (or some such). However, being that these were true double entendres--in that they all had perfectly legitimate, unscandalous meanings--the case was thrown out. However, this brought Jurgen into the public eye, and gained Cabell some measure of public exposure.

Enough of that. What of the book itself?

Well, the main character, a middle-aged pawnbroker named Jurgen, does a good turn for the Devil and, in gratitude, the Devil decides to do a good turn for him. Subsequently, Jurgen's wife (who seems to be rather a nag) disappears. Jurgen realizes he must set out in search for her. His journey takes him through various strange lands, including heaven, hell, and the place where the "real" master of the universe resides.

The first 50 pages (7 chapters) or so of this book contain some of the best, truest writing I've ever encountered. I spoke before of encountering in this old fantasy things which seem ultimately
true, and Jurgen had several such instances for me. Near the beginning, Jurgen follows a Centaur to the "Garden between dawn and sunrise,"--he must follow a Centaur there, as the Centaur says, "Because... there is no other way. For this garden does not exist, and never did exist, in what men humorously call real life; so that of course only imaginary creatures such as I can enter it."

He is taken by the centaur to the garden:

"Why, but it is Count Emmerick's garden at Storisende," says Jurgen, "where I used to be having such fine times when I was a lad."

"I will wager," said Nessus, "that you did not use to walk alone in this garden."

"Well, no; there was a girl."

"Just so," assented Nessus. "It is a local by-law: and here are those who comply with it."

For now had come toward them, walking together in the dawn, a handsome boy and girl. And the girl was incredibly beautiful, because everybody in the garden saw her with the vision of the boy who was with her.

A bit later, we have this:

"For in this garden," said the Centaur, "each man that ever lived has sojourned for a little while, with no company save his illusions. I must tell you again that in this garden are encountered none but imaginary creatures. And stalwart persons take their hour of recreation here, and go hence unaccompanied, to become aldermen and respected merchants and bishops, and to be admired as captains upon prancing horses, or even as kings upon tall thrones; each in his station thinking not at all of the garden ever any more. Bit now and then come timid persons, Jurgen, who fear to leave this garden without an escort: so these must need go hence with one or another imaginary creature, to guide them about alleys and by-paths, becaise imaginary creatures find little nourishment in the public highways, and shun them..."

I could quote Jurgen all day, were it not for things like time and space complaints and the fact that some of my readers are unafraid of doing me harm.

One of my favorite sections was added to the second edition of the book, after the obscenity trials: Jurgen travels to the land of Philistia, and is put on trial for indecency by the Philistines. The judge, a dung-beetle, marches into the courtroom with three pages, bearing a staff, a sword, and a lance. The judge declares to Jurgen, "You are offensive... because this page has a sword which I choose to say is not a sword. You are lewd because that page has a lance which I prefer to think is not a lance. You are lascivious because yonder page has a staff which I elect to declare is not a staff." Yeah.

One reason I think Jurgen has fallen into obscurity is that its chief theme is love, specifically romantic love; but this from an entirely male perspective, to the extent that females might have problems relating to it. And I don't mean love in a moral sense, here. Jurgen has his own idea of morality that would make an interesting essay unto itself, but that is in no way the focus of the book. What is dealt with is the feelings, the urges, the desires, the messy stuff--love as it is, not as it should be.

Jurgen is one book I can't really recommend across the board. For one, I think a person should be 18 to read it: not because of any adult themes or double entendres (though those are there), but because I think you'd have to be at least 18 just to know what Cabell is talking about. I was 19 when I read it, and I'm not entirely convinced I was even ready. Secondly, you really do have to have a strong appreciation for symbolism to get anything out of this book. However, because of the double entendres present, it may make one regret having an aptitude for symbolism.

A review on Amazon, here, quotes a letter by one Deems Taylor, who says thus:

I have finished Jurgen; a great and beautiful book, and the saddest book I ever read. I don't know why, exactly. The book hurts me -- tears me to small pieces -- but somehow it sets me free. It says the word that I've been trying to pronounce for so long. It tells me everything I am, and have been, and may be, unsparingly...I don't know why I cry over it so much. It's too -- something-or-other -- to stand. I've been sitting here tonight, reading it aloud, with the tears streaming down my face...

This, a bit melodramatically, pretty well summarizes my personal reaction to
Jurgen. It made me want to laugh, and to cry, often at the same time; and it gave me the sense that those two actions may not actually be that far apart.

Well. If after all that,
Jurgen sounds at all attractive or interesting to you, I do highly recommend reading it. I have a fairly nice version published by Dover; a search on Amazon turns up editions by a few other publishers.

Something about Eve

Another Cabell, in a similar vein to
Jurgen, though not as good. My choices here are between expounding at length or keeping it short, and considering my treatment of the last several books, I choose the latter. Read Jurgen first; if you find that at all enjoyable, read this.

Hope Mirrlees: Lud-in-the-Mist

I could swear I first heard of this book from Moorcock, but paging through
W&WW I can find no trace of it. It must have been, then, Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds, the only book I've been able to find whose purpose is similar to Moorcock's. (It's an excellent one for recommendations and author background, but absolute crap for criticism, mainly because Carter is, to put it bluntly, an ass. This despite the fact that he likes LotR.) At any rate, it makes sense that it wasn't in Moorcock--it's not really heroic or epic fantasy, despite being set in an imagined world.

It is set in the town of Lud, in the country of Dorimare. Lud, despite being a prosperous trade town, feels very much like an English hamlet, very much a small town; though its setting in an imagined kingdom mutes any specific English-ness and gives the setting a somewhat timeless feel. To the west of Lud lie the Debateable Hills, beyond which is, of course, the Land of Faerie.

However, the citizens of Lud have outlawed Faerie's existence, and forbidden the importation or existence of Faerie fruit. (It is referred to in the books of law as 'silk.') So when there is an epidemic of children apparently having consumed the fruit, the town's mayor, Nathaniel Chanticleer, must find out where it is coming from and stop it.

This is, apparently, another of Neil Gaiman's favorites. He describes it better than I can: "The book begins as a travelogue or a history, becomes a pastorale, a low comedy, a high comedy, a ghost story and a detective story. The writing is elegant, supple, effective and haunting: the author demands a great deal from her readers, which she repays many times over."

I spoke of encountering in
Jurgen instances of apparent truth: in Lud-in-the-Mist, there were instances of this that were pages and pages long. This truth, as I've been using it, is a slippery and loosely defined concept; it may just be too many drugs on my part. I don't think so, though: it seems to me that people with great insight into how things truly are are drawn to fantasy, with its mystery and its symbolism: and it seems to me that they write books that are wonderful and soon forgotten.

Anyway, that was a digression, and it reminds me of something else: Hope Mirrlees has awesome digressions. An example, from the few pages devoted to describing Nathaniel Chanticleer:

Spiritually, too, he passed for a typical Dorimarite; though, indeed, it is never safe to classify the souls of one's neighbors; one is apt, in the long run, to be proved a fool. You should regard each meeting with a friend as a sitting he is unwittingly giving you for a portrait--a portrait that, probably, when you or he die, will still be unfinished. And, though this is an absorbing pursuit, nevertheless, the painters are apt to end pessimists. For however handsome and merry may be the face, however rich may be the background, in the first rough sketch of each portrait, yet with every added stroke of the brush, with every tiny readjustment of the "values," with every modification of the chiaroscuro, the eyes looking out at you grow more disquieting. And, finally, it is your own face that you are staring at in terror, as in a morror by candle-light, when all the house is still.

The more time passes since I read it, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is literally one of the best books I have ever read, up there with Twain's best and
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and Hamlet and Something Wicked This Way Comes. If you never read another book I recommend, read this one.


Well, that is all I have for now. Anybody who has read this far will probably get that chocolate- and gold-covered prize. There may be a part three to this post, though probably not for a while: I recently picked up Morris'
The Well at the World's End, Dunsany's The Charwoman's Shadow, and Cabell's Figures of Earth; these need reading, along with many others.

A few final remarks:

I have been doing some research into whether certain works of fantastic fiction can be regarded as literature. I have come to no conclusion, yet, but one thing I have noticed: classics of fantastic literature, like the ones I've been talking about, have often been subversive, rebellious, populist, often flying in the face of what is accepted by literary critics. As such, perhaps it has doomed itself to this obscurity. However, all the authors I've listed--and I've barely scratched the surface--ought to be read. Not because they're great writers and their works are incredible (though this is true), but because they have insight into the way the world works and what it means to be human that no one else has. If you care at all about fantastic literature, you would be doing yourself a huge favor and presenting yourself with an enormous treat to read any and all of these books.