The First Time I Wish I Was At E3

E3 has come and gone, and naturally I – like much of the world’s populace – was unable to attend. In fact, I confess little interest at the time; for so long have I been up to my neck in other things that I’ve rarely been able to indulge in actually keeping up with video game news, let alone actually play anything.

Though, much like the acorn, I am small largely inconsequential, but I dream of forests.

It would appear that the participants of the Electronic Entertainment Expo has had more than a few dealings with dreams this year.

Stepping back a bit, I want to say that I’ve hardly kept up with this stuff for the last few years. Much like my views on the Movie Industry have gotten increasingly jaded (directly proportionate, perhaps unsurprisingly, to my apparent acquisition of age), so too have my views of the Gaming Industry similarly degraded.

The cynic will say that it is not one’s perception that has degraded, though, but in fact has undergone augmentation. Whether this is from age, or a legit declination in quality of the media, is up for debate.

E3 of 2015 shattered that pretext for me. Like I said, granted I haven’t kept up with things lately, so perhaps it could be said that my insensitivity threshold has also lowered, so it’s easier to be Wow’d by the graphics and concepts and gameplay mechanics. I stand before you and say no, that is not the case. At least not to the best of my perceptions; games are less interesting these days because they’re more and more the same, and in a desperate attempt to make something different, a lot of developers have resorted to ‘ye olde schoole’ tried and true techniques; like Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze’s obvious throwback to the ancient 1994 release, Donkey Kong Country, which is a side-scrolling 2-D platformer.

That’s not necessarily a criticism, by the way. Very few games translate seamlessly from 2-D to 3-D environments, just look at Sonic the Hedgehog and Megaman. Some transitions are passable.

super-mario-bros-deluxe

mzaa

Others are not.

giphysonic

Still, developers will come out with a new title and I’ll look at it thinking, “Alright, so it’s Tomb Raider but with robot dinosaurs.” Again, don’t get me wrong, this looks pretty cool. In fact the concept is rather neat, but already I can see how its not exactly breaking new ground. For many of us, that’s enough, or else they wouldn’t keep making these Over The Shoulder shoot + roll games of which I’ve seen a hundred and one reincarnations.

Except for works of art such as The Last Guardian, the teaser for which I saw back in 2009. 2015’s E3 showed that yes, the project is in fact still alive, and looking better than ever.

Truly this is a game of masterwork visual storytelling; without a word of exposition or any kind of preamble, I find myself holding back tears from dropping down into my palak paneer as I watch the footage in my office chair. I never really had any interest in spending money on expensive consoles like the Playstation 4, but on seeing this the thought crossed my mind.

Yet even the raw emotions evoked by The Last Guardian, emotions the likes of which might be ascribed to pure adolescent wonder (and the sheer joy that I can only dream of experiencing, that moment we always see when a character realizes that Magic is Real), step aside for but a moment in silent awe at another thing that graced the light show of E3.

Seven Days On A Vietnamese Farm

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit a friend’s hometown in rural Viet Nam, near the central regions. Three of us traveled; a university student from Tazmania who I’d come to befriend, the girl whose hometown to which we were headed (also a dear friend), and myself.

SAM_2656

The following is a brief recounting of what happened, and how it has – in ways both surprising and unsurprising – it has influenced my writing.

And, it should be noted, that this marked the first time an American or an Australian (or any foreigners for that matter) had ever visited this part of Viet Nam and, furthermore, weren’t just passing through. I heard that once, and only once, since the War, had there ever been a foreigner – a Chinese person – visiting this area, and he had been denied any lodging and sent on his way.

So, to state it more clearly, my friend and I were the first Westerners to ever come to this part of Quang Tri Province since the Vietnam/American War.

We took a 1-hour flight from Sai Gon to Hue, the historical capital of the country, then took a taxi to the bus station. From there we boarded what they called a bus, though in truth it was a van that served the same purpose. For a the equivalent of a few dollars each, we traveled as far as it was from my old hometown in Upstate New York to New York City (a fair I fondly recall costing as much as $25.00, one-way) — 3ish hours of bumpy under-construction highway and, after turning off the main route, we came upon dusty, sometimes-paved roads.

We passed through the narrowest part of Viet Nam, where I could practically see the border on one side and the coastline on the other. I could look out the right-side window, to the east, where rice fields stretched across flats that seemed to end at the horizon, where an unseen ocean acted as a border. Looking out the left window, to the west, I could see the mountains of Laos.

IMG_0059

After finally arriving, our host-family treated us with royal hospitality, and any translation responsibility was left entirely to my trusted friend. My and the Tazmanian’s Vietnamese is limited (and furthermore, the pronunciation of the local dialect varies greatly from south to central regions), and the English skills of the family hosting us was virtually nonexistent. To our great enjoyment, the Tazmanian and I learned a host of new words in a very short time.

Vegetarianism is not common in the region, though to my relief they did have some concept of what that meant. Word was sent before our arrival that I don’t eat meat, and as such local-made tofu was prepared for me every day. Legit, local tofu – đậu phụ (dow-foo) – I even visited the neighbor’s house in which the stuff was boiled, churned, and pressed.

IMG_0152

Also they had a buffalo. Those were around.

The woman there made it every day, and appeared to produce it for the village. Bricks of it cost us quarters, and the first time they wouldn’t even accept payment, happy as the lady was to provide me with something to eat.

The area was populated almost solely by farmers, and Communism has destroyed any sense of spirituality (except for the worship of Ho Chi Minh, of course), such that Buddhism is pretty much nonexistent – thus few if anyone practiced vegetarianism by extension. In any case, the host-family was more than willing to accommodate me, the tofu eaten being hands-down the best I’ve had in my entire time spent in Asia.

11725038_781144845335841_1313641997_o

The vegetarianism was much easier to understand than my lack of fondness for drinking.

They drink beer every night, and loudly, and proudly, proclaim that they “drink the most beer in all Viet Nam.” I’ve heard this rhetoric in other regions, leaving me no choice but to conclude that the Vietnamese people to derive a sense of honor/pride from what privileged foreigners might label as widespread alcoholism. Recognizing that everyone says this, usually with a beer bottle in their hand at any given time of day, I merely shake my head at why this is something to be proud about in the first place.

I’m not fan of beer, and this is something many Vietnamese have great difficulty understanding.

“You’re a man. Therefore, you drink beer.”

There really isn’t room for argument as far as they’re concerned, since it is such an embedded ritual at this point that beer is drunk with most meals (and often in between). To have a visitor – particularly one of a rare and unusual-looking breed such as myself and the Tazmanian – inevitably called for drinking beer from one house to the next much in the same manner as people go bar-hopping.

As such, I am repeatedly thrust into the situation of “Hey, you’re a foreigner, drink beer with us.” And after repeatedly making it clear that I don’t like to drink (I am especially sensitive to when someone forces it on me, something that happens frequently here), there is at least half a chance that they’ll disregard my odd and clearly unmasculine behavior as some oddity among foreigners.

My Tazmanian comrade, on the other hand, drank more often than me, which mostly placated their incessant desire to fill me with cheap, disgusting alcohol. I knew, of course, that nearly every gesture of this sort was made in an act of welcome and hospitality, but the concept of “No thanks,” to drinking beer is about as clearly understood as “No thanks, I’m full,” is understood when at the dinner table visiting your grandmother’s house.

It takes anywhere between hours and days for this concept to sink into the heads of people I meet.

Many roads between each villagers houses were connected by dusty roads like this, with trees lining space between plots.

Many roads between each villagers houses were connected by dusty roads like this, with trees lining space between plots.

The house in which we stayed was a mere fifteen minute walk from the beach, where we went almost every day for a swim in warm, bathtub-temperature saltwater. The beaches were far from pristine, and more than once I witnessed local farmers’ children playing with hunks of styrofoam in the water as makeshift toys; garbage washed ashore from the sea or cast aside by locals.

You could erect massive statues made of the all the empty bottles we stepped over, and the thought crossed my mind, and seeing as this was even remotely a tourist area, there could only be one source left from which the trash accumulated. Sun-bleached propaganda posters looked to do little in preventing locals from littering or cleaning up the beaches.

The dunes were quite unmolested, though.

The dunes were quite unmolested, though.

In spite of these unignorable details, I loved going to the beach, and as I said we went almost every day – once even late at night, where I discovered to my initial horror the bioluminescent plankton. It was mode rad.

We were awakened by roosters nearly every morning, and my Tazmanian buddy had the presence of mind to bring several sets of ear-plugs with him, and only on such mornings as I employed the little foam wonders was I able to sleep later than 6:00am. But not before developing a distinct lack-of-fondness for a particular rooster, however, that sounded like nothing short of a dinosaur.

That one godsdamn chicken sounded – no joke – just like this fellow here, an orc from Lord of the Rings. (1:42 – 1:44)

This in fact inspired a section of prose for my novel-in-progress, where a character is rudely awakened by an intrusive chicken. It served to fill a hole that otherwise had me stumped for months, and after inadvertently being accosted by the crowing of proud chickens, I managed to get through another of my frequent Blocks.

No building in the entire village was made of wood. In what I have learned to be the typical Vietnamese fashion, every structure is built of rebar-enforced concrete. I even came across “picket fences” along the road that were designed to look like your typical wooden fence as seen on T.V., but made out of slabs of painted cement bolted together.

No doubt the better to withstand the yearly typhoons I’ve heard stories about.

One of the plots behind the house in which we stayed.

One of the plots behind the house in which we stayed. They do biodiverse farming, with various fruit trees having pepper-plants crawling up each trunk.

Days before being assured that no rain would come to the region during our stay, a perpetual downpour came upon us that lasted for half a week. During this time I found myself largely confined to the house, which was much to my enjoyment as the air got significantly cooler and I, at last, had some time to simply do what I hoped to do on this excursion: spend some time writing.

I did manage to churn out about 2,000 words of prose, which is pretty good compared to the last few months, and some, like I said, was in part inspired by that godsdamn chicken. But nary a moment passed when I went unbothered, whether by the family summoning me to play cards games like Blackjack, eat a meal, play with local children or just to accompany someone on an errand.

SAM_2680

Some errands were more scenic than others.

I met the Town Drunk, a man who spoke slurred gibberish that was “Not Vietnamese.” But much to my own amazement, another individual, a boy of fourteen who, from a clear though unidentified mental handicap (he was taken out of school on account of his inability to learn), fit the trope, cliche, whatever, of the Village Idiot. I found myself wondering whether this was something uncool to ponder, because regardless of the boy’s condition, there was only one like him, and the setting seemed apropos for the stereotype. He, also, was described to “talk a lot but he doesn’t actually say anything.”

As someone thoroughly familiar with mental handicaps (which has instilled in me a deeper-than-average sensitivity to the word “retard”), I found him interesting, but there were more barriers between us than culture and language.

I ate tamarind on the roof of their house, saw a seaside sunrise, played with kids (both that of villagers and goats), walked along dry riverbeds and drying rice paddy fields, and traversed massive sand dunes. We even delved into what remained of an old Viet Cong tunnel, dug under a hill and still quite stable, a place where sound and light did not travel more than ten paces, and using nothing more than the lights of our smartphones, we plumbed its depths before having to turn around and come back out.

SAM_2638

The experience was about as Freudian as it gets.

Through it all, us foreigners were met with warm greetings and frequent invitations to eat, drink, and play. I had very little time to myself, which was expected and oddly appreciated.

From this experience I derived a small pile of inspiration, as well as simple “down to earth” concepts of how things are made and how people live in a less-than-urban setting. These aspects of life readily and easily translate to writing fantasy, which more often than not takes place in a medieval-esque world devoid of plumping, laundry machines, and freezers.

Even just going somewhere, like the dunes or the tunnel, brought more reality to how I might later describe such scenes. Sand squeezing between my toes or damp air pressing against my lungs, a spike of seething, genuine hatred towards an unevolved fowl.

Impressions: Citizen Kane

The last time I saw Citizen Kane might have been about sixty-five years after its release. With a fuzzy memory I recall seeing it in a dark room at the far corner of the miniscule college campus I attended at the time. The Art of Film, probably one of the best classes I had ever taken.

There, us pupils were subjected to such cinematic pieces as Blue Velvet, Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Citizen Kane.

It’s also no secret that any self-styled movie critic could hardly call themselves such without watching this, so I’m fully aware that there are a thousand and one reviews, impressions, and otherwise “why this movie is good/bad” articles to be found out there. I’m not going to waste your time telling you what the movie is about, because if you haven’t seen it it means you need to; not simply as a consumer, but as an aspiring writer, film-maker, story-teller; whatever you choose to call yourself.

I was prompted to rewatch this movie when a friend showed me clips of a movie known as The Room, by Tommy Wiseau. Entertainment Weekly has called it “The Citizen Kane of bad movies.”

tommy wiseau

With a $6 million budget. Somehow.

These days, The Room is something of a cult classic, a title the likes of which I had heard whispers and – despite the pleading of a trusted associate whose opinion I trust – have no intention of seeing. CinemaSins, one of my favorite YouTube channels, does a good job at tearing it part – in eight minutes or less.

Watching Citizen Kane again, I couldn’t help but recall only fragments of the plot; sure there’s significance to name “Rosebud,” and before firing up the movie I remembered a few bits Spinning Newspaper-styled montage. But I found myself re-enjoying what I suspected to possibly be an overrated movie.

It’s not secret that Citizen Kane is considered a great piece of film in most circles, but as I found myself describing to a friend with whom I shared it, it’s not just about consuming the media. For me, it’s about learning the language to describe why it’s good, to appreciate the more subtle aspects of filming, such as the cinematography. The story of Citizen Kane is masterfully told in part because it transitions between a multitude of perspectives – not one of them being Kane himself – instead from those of various important people in his life.

And the cinematic transitions between the scenes shows a higher degree of planning and artfulness than I tend to see in movies these days, whose primary concern is – without argument or shame – focused on special effects over substance and story.

I’ve been toying with this very concept; to write a novel (series) following a character whose perspective is almost never written. What s/he does and says is conveyed entirely through the eyes of close friends, family, co-workers, whatever. If pulled off well, this is tremendous storytelling because it leaves the true feelings and thoughts of the central character-in-question up to interpretation – leaving more than a few things up for debate and discussion.

A successful story is not one that simply entertains, but leaves you thinking after the book is closed, after the screen fades to black, after the game credits begin to roll. Double plus good if you can share these experiences with other people.

Watching this also prompted me to refresh my memory on the central actor, Mr. Orson Welles himself. He is perhaps most remembered from rolls such as The Godfather, and the radio drama of War of the Worlds.

war-of-the-worlds-by-orson-welles

This is priceless. The little Nihilist in me is pleased.

But what I feel like not enough people know is that is final role in film was the voice of Unicron, a planet-eating robot from Transformers: The Movie (1986).

Robot Badass

A movie composed of animated robots set to a backdrop of 80s hair metal. Count me the fuck in.

Long live the legacy of an actor that has left more than a huge impression on the film industry, that I fear not nearly enough people know about. Do yourself a favor and learn more about Orson Welles.

Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

God dammit, don’t end your sentences in prepositions, and more to the point, this “undreamed of age” was dreamed up 80 years ago.

So let’s get something straight.

I tried my hardest to watch this without actually comparing it to the 1982 film of the same name.

I tried to watch this without thinking about Robert E. Howard’s published writings.

Up until the credits rolled, I tried even to imagine whether the movie would be any good if all the Hyborian names and references were taken out, leaving it as it’s own standalone fantasy adventure.

None of these attempted self-imposed mind tricks yielded a positive result, however, on account of all the other shortcomings. Even if the name of our “hero” were not Conan, you would be asking yourself why they put movie this together.

So what this movie isn’t:

It’s not a continuation of the 1982 + ’84 Schwarzenegger films. It’s not an adaptation of any of Howard’s original source material. It doesn’t really follow any of the plotlines, in fact (not that the ’82 movie did, but that one at least was sort of an amalgamation of scattered stories put together to form something new and unique), though there was reference to having “killed the elephant man” or some nonsense, which I can only assume is an allusion to The Tower of the Elephant, but in that story, killing the “elephant guy” wasn’t some barbaric, swashbuckling conquest. It was a mercy killing.

This is essentially pissing on the source material.

What this movie is:

An action-packed adventure full of easily-forgotten one-liners, exposition via villainous verbosity, and a plot that comes to a screeching halt the instant you start asking questions. There’re some neat special effects, gratuitous gore, and less-than-memorable characters.

“Quick,” said one producer, “cast Conan’s best friend to a black guy.”

“What? Why?”

“Because Conan kills some black warriors in the next scene. Recast the loyal sidekick as a black dude so people think we aren’t as racist as the original writer.”

Because, if you know anything about the original source material concerning not only Conan, but others of Robert E. Howard’s creation, it may come as no surprise that Howard (along with his long-time writer friend, H.P. Lovecraft) were, in Stephen King’s eloquent words:

“… Lovecraft was, by all accounts, both snobbish and painfully shy (a galloping racist as well, his stories full of sinister Africans and the sort of scheming Jews my Uncle Oren would get worried about after four or five beers), the kind of writer who maintains a voluminous correspondence but gets along poorly with others in person—were he alive today, he’d likely exist most vibrantly in various internet chatrooms….”

I’m actually a huge fan of Howard’s writing. The wordcraft turned out to be hugely influential in my own prose, however the subject matter, at times, got about as ignorant as Lovecraft.

The story of Conan (2011) is so utterly try-hard that if one didn’t know better, one might suspect it written by multiple people who couldn’t agree on what would make a good plot…

3Writers

So even if I set aside my annoyance for barely acknowledging the writings of Howard, I have to at least try to enjoy the movie for what it is instead: a fantasy film with swordplay, monsters, heroes/villains and magic. Those are usually the components of a fantasy I’d be interested in.

The fight choreography was passable. There’s a lot of flashy swordplay that is supposed to make Conan look like master fighter, but in truth I got the impression I got was just some dude with pecs being handed a sword. Not to say this athleticism is easy (or surprising, as we all know what’s seen on TV/movies is by it’s very nature, flashier).

But very few movies measure up to the most interesting swordplay in a movie like this, in the opinion of yours truly, like in Troy.

Don’t get me started on all the problems and inaccuracies of that movie. In spite of them, though, I was able to enjoy the film for its other redeeming factors. Conan the Barbarian doesn’t really have any.

Well, except for Ron Perlman, maybe. But they sorta get rid of him early so it’s no fun anyway.

Monsters? We have a tentacle beast whose name, the Dweller (a veritable eldritch abomination which, considering the Hyborian connections with Lovecraft works, is at least not out of place) we can only know from grunted, contrived dialog.

Conan falls into the pit with his plot device sidekick and looks upon the pink orc guy he saw as a child.

“Great, a feast for my sword,” says C-man.

“No, a feast for the Dweller!” bellows the pink orc. Enter monster in elaborate, poorly designed room.

What other monsters are there? Orcs, I guess. Pink orcs. Oh wait no, maybe those’re just big angry sub-humans.

How about the heroes, then? Well like in Roger Ebert’s review, it’s kinda hard to like or relate to Conan in this depiction. I suppose that makes him an anti-hero, which is fine. Anti-heroes make great characters, like Batman, Guts (from Berserk), pretty much any character played by Clint Eastwood, and even James Bond. What do they all have in common? A general disregard for the usual things that most “heroes” care for, such as a desire for peace (in fact most anti-heroes are rather violent), but they’re not evil. Not really. In fact what makes them anti-heroes (and not just villains) is the fact that they kinda do a lot of good.

Conan doesn’t really give that impression at all. He’s a swashbuckler, pirate, thief, all-around tough guy who talks down to women and eschews the use of words when a sword would do (though he still talks too much in this movie as far as I’m concerned, and Conan as seen in Howard’s writings is actually quite long-winded). Schwarzenegger’s Conan was also a swashbuckler and thief and all-around free man that otherwise can’t quite fit into “civilized society,” but he wasn’t a dick.

There’s a difference between coming off as a badass and coming off as a douchebag.

Jason Momoa certainly looks the part of a savage warrior, that’s for sure. Indeed his character is, despite other things mentioned, closer to the original Conan. I think I preferred Momoa as Khal Drogo, though.

The villains were cookie-cutter characters you’ve seen a hundred times already, which wouldn’t be quite so bad if it weren’t a bastardized re-hashing of Thulsa Doom’s rise to evil-kinghood. The Evil King seeks to put together an ancient mask of power in order to bring back his dead wife, who was some years ago burned at the stake for witchery. Their daughter, who follows in her mothers footsteps, continues said witchcraft but only really employs it once throughout the entire movie. And what’s the result?

Sand people.

Oh right and she can taste the “purity” of someone’s blood, too, because plot.

This movie left a bad taste in my mouth, and it’s not that I was expecting something great or different, I was just expecting something less… average. The effects are neat at times, I suppose, but overall what I saw when watching this film was a bland, boring world that barely passes for fantasy with a couple of names of people and places inserted into it. Barely any time is spent just … observing things, so there’s no sense of culture in this world. Just movie sets and rendered landscapes between fights.

By far, though, the biggest issue is that there is no character arc.

To illustrate my point, let’s now do a direct comparison between the characters of 1982 Conan and the 2011 Conan, ignoring special effects, acting ability, budget, or number of horses killed during production.

  • 1982 Conan
    • Started off as a speechless child who, by all accounts, was “normal.” No noticeable attitude problems, except perhaps a hatred for ice fish.
    • Lost both parents in the raid that destroyed “his people,” where a lot of emphasis is placed on his desire for revenge. Like, the dialog-less scenes with little more than music to extrapolate the emotions in play tells volumes.
    • Went on to push the Wheel of Pain in a circle for ten years, no doubt instilling a sense of stubbornness
    • Fell in love, but set it aside to pursue revenge
    • Got killed as a result (spoiler)
    • Got resurrected (spoiler), and afterward began the long trend of contemplation as well as action
    • Lost his love (like, forever, none of that Marvel Comics shit where people don’t stay dead)
    • Achieved vengeance, but at great cost
    • Doing so, however, seems to have also averted a world-wide upheaval
    • Went on to a life of debauchery before finally becoming king ‘by his own hand.’
  • 2011 Conan
    • Child-Conan has an attitude from the get-go. He’s supposedly above average and quite the teen-aged savage. Very good at not crushing quail eggs
    • Lost parent, but once his father is ‘out of the way’ the plot can continue
    • Makes the beast with two backs with the damsel in distress who passes for a love interest
    • Kills the antagonist evil king guy as well as the evil witch daughter
    • Says goodbye to the damsel
    • Goes on to kill, thieve, and otherwise inconvenience people

The 1982 Conan has a complex and interesting character arc. He faces off against Thulsa Doom and his elites multiple times, and the one failure he suffers really hits hard. But the friends responsible for bringing him back are believably doing so because they care. He grows, rises, falls, rises again.

2011 Conan never changes. He doesn’t grow. In a fight against the evil king, Khalar Zym (really?), Conan lost. Sure the witch threw magic and poison-tipped-weapons-of-zero-consequence at him, but he lost, and he’s bummed out for about five minutes. The damsel sets herself up to be captured by stupidly running away from him when he’s asleep. He pursues – with absolutely no obstacles between himself and the obvious skull mountain – kills the people, saves the girl, and rides off with the mountain collapsing (for no reason) behind him.

He’s the exact same character from the beginning of the movie to the end, which is fundamentally boring, and the real reason books like Ready Player One ended up being terrible.

If your character doesn’t grow, or learn something, or change his mind or attitude about something, what the hell is the point of the story?

Anyway, for a movie I didn’t actually like, this is a long review. If you’re even half the fantasy enthusiast I am, save yourself the trouble and skip this film. That’s why I spend so much time writing about it – this is a film on par with those awful Dungeons & Dragons flicks that nobody is glad exists. Movies like this are an insult to my field.

If you’re going to use the name, you may as well attempt a retelling of any of the myriad adventures already written that aren’t half bad.

Jesse out.

Review: Tomorrowland

There’re spoilers in this post, because it’s as much an impression as it is a review.

This’s a movie for kids, which means a few familiar children’s movie tropes are there that bug me: the super-strong robot that looks like a child, the boy-genius, the 20-something actress who is supposed to pass as a teenager.

They didn’t have teenagers like this when I was growing up.

I don’t even necessarily mean her physical appearance; growing up, my school was full of dullards, and as a living definition of “late bloomer” myself, I only ever met one or two prodigal-type kids.

They were mostly pompous dickheads.

Whenever I see movies, particularly those by mega-companies like Disney, I find myself always looking for the agenda. It’s not to say having one is bad, but I’m always curious what it might be. Usually the basic agenda is to entertain you; to tell you a fun and exciting story long enough to keep you from walking out of the theater. Possibly so you can tell your friends it was worth paying the money go and see. But sometimes there’re are deeper things, particularly in children’s movies, which is one reason I’m rather fond of the messages that are found in all of Pixar’s animations.

Monsters, Inc. was about the importance of alternative energy sources.

WALL-E talks about our increasingly corporate-master-dependent society as well as neglect for the environment. However you might recall a group of “malfunctioning” robots who, I have no doubt, represent the artists and creatives of a society.

Bug’s Life retells the Seven Samurai like a boss.

If you haven’t, you must see this movie.

But Tomorrowland isn’t a Pixar production, it’s just plain-old Disney, a movie-rendition of one if it’s theme park rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion.

Gods, they are really scrounging for ideas. The cynic would argue that there’s the agenda right there: endorsement of theme park rides, packaged into an entertaining adventure complete with tropes and warm fuzzy familiar family fun.

And yet I’m not saying I disliked the movie.

There was an interesting premise that I found to be an interesting choice of ideas to explore: the whole “the world is what you make it,” thing, which smacks a little bit of the The Secret. Optimism really does make a difference in your life, even if that difference is as subtle as noticing the good things instead of focusing on the bad, but this goes a step further.

Latching onto a cool-sounding science term (tachyons, hypothetical particles that travel faster than light) and playing with a question of “What if?” This is actually the foundation of true science fiction – taking a scientific concept and running with it to explore what might happen within the context of a fictional story. In Tomorrowland, a device is invented that can see the future and the future is bleak. We see imagery of the end of the world, gleaned from the future, by monitoring tachyon particles and apparently glimpsing what will happen, is revealed to the audience.

As one might come to expect, at the end of the film the inevitable apocalypse is averted by shutting down the Doomsday (predicting) Device, which has been apparently broadcasting this negative imagery of a dystopian future into the brains of the modern populace. As a result, since everyone feels like the world is ending, on account of having the future-imagery beamed into everyone’s heads, a loop is formed and the world is destined to end (via environmental collapse, unstable governments, nuclear war, etc., all at once).

In other words, the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Destroying the device ends the broadcast, and the movie concludes with an air of extreme optimism. The the world is going to end if you believe it will, but not if you give up. The people who do not give up on their dreams – the artists, the inventors, the curious — the dreamers — will eventually be discovered and shown to Tomorrowland, a pocket dimension existing for the sole purpose of allowing one’s ideas to flourish without the restrictions of politics, regulations, laws…

Sounds great.

So remember kids, if you never give up on your dreams, one day you’ll come across a magical pin that serves as a gateway that’ll whisk you off to a fantasy realm where, essentially, the only limit is your imagination.

Again, sounds great.

Where the hell is my pin?

Anyway, I linger on that concept of focusing on the negative, of humanity’s fascination with the end of the world. Turns out it’s psychological tendency that we have bred into us as mammals. There’s some talk of it in this article, how so-called advanced knowledge both absolves us of responsibility and gives us a sense of comfort in a chaotic, entropic universe (“If there’s an end, then that means there’s an order to things, a plan!”). They touch on this in the film, how the populace embraces this negativity, because it asks nothing of you, as an individual. “If everything’s going to end, then why bother trying?”

One needn’t look far to see all the failed doomsday predictions from religions the world over. Our brains are wired to think, to feel, like the world will end tomorrow. It is a survival mechanism that serves us well, at least those peoples who evolved in cyclical climates like the northern hemisphere.

I couldn’t say whether this idea applies to all cultures and peoples closer to the equator, but the populations of tropical countries – such as Viet Nam, where I have increasingly direct experience with the minds and tendencies of the people – tend to live in a manner that baffles me.

They seem to operate in a manner of near-total disregard for distant future plans; those who actually plan ahead, or think beyond tomorrow, are the ones who get ahead.

So I see this movie as playing on the fears of viewers in the 1st World today, because let me tell you, the other 85% percent of the world’s population is seriously unconcerned with climate change or plastic bottles and bags littering their forests and beaches.

So was this movie made to inspire kids? Or was it made to assure a panicking populace, through the power of fiction, to not worry about real shit?

Perhaps there is some clandestine group of people out there working to make big change. So does that give us, as viewers, the right to dismiss the film as a “movie for children”? To become or remain cynical about real-world problems happening around us?

Or do we change our minds, even just the slightest bit, to think that the world isn’t on the edge of collapse?

Writing Progress: Minotaurs and Rings

Anyone whose advice is remotely worth following will tell you that you can only benefit from meeting other people with similar interests and goals. Writing not least of which.

Get a group if you don’t have one already, and I don’t necessarily mean over-sized groups like the NaNoWriMo Facebook Group (though that certainly has its uses and I recommend joining anyway, with it’s near-22,000 members), I highly recommend more closely-knit group(s) of friends, a closed group that doesn’t accept just anyone.

For one of my online writing circles, known as the Sky Writers — small group comprised of a handful of members from around the world with varying degrees of publication success — we regularly hold Skype meetings to critique each other’s work. Turns out I’m one of the “tough love” types, a trait I carry from my desire for tough love to be shown to me, that has been developed over the course of my career as a freelance editor.

I’ll, from time to time, refer to this group as my Order, or if I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, I’ll call it my Guild.

Anyway.

Someone came up with the idea of putting together a compilation piece. Each of us is to write a short story — nothing exceeding around 5,000 words or so, by the end of May 2015. A common theme was agreed upon early on: each story must have something to do with a ring.

What kind of ring? Naturally a band of precious metal to be adorn a finger might come to mind, but in truth there are many things from which to choose. Asking others both within and without the guild, I heard suggestions for cloud rings, criminal rings, planetary rings as might be viewed around Saturn. Then there are rings of light, as might be found in a certain cunningly entitled horror film I touched on in the past, but you’ll have no doubt heard of on your own.

As for me, went for at least three weeks of procrastinating and pining before settling upon an idea I liked enough to explore: a fighting ring, an arena.

A coliseum.

Slight Tangent: I’ve often held something of an affinity for cows and all things bovine. Having encountered minotaurs in countless fantasies — from Narnia to Azeroth to, of course, ye olde schoole Greek Mythology — I thought it was time to take up my proverbial pen (keyboard?) and make my own attempt at it.

After having devoted so many years to WoW, I, like any psuedo-ex-gamer, would be ashamed to admit any unfamiliarity with their take on the minotaur, the Tauren. As such it’s something of a challenge to clear one’s imaginative palette and endeavor to write up something new, especially when it comes to something taken from classic mythology.

In any case, my goal wasn’t to reinvent the minotaur, although I do favor a more classical take on the classical monster – that is, the hoof-less variety depicted in ancient Greek art.

Note how it’s essentially a man with a bull’s head. Such a thing I find more creepy, more frightening, than an otherwise “upright walking bull” we see as depicted by Blizzard or Wizards of the Coast. Whether they are Proud Warrior Race Guys or just your run-of-the-mill boss monster is actually irevelant to the story I have cooking up, the sharing of which is the purpose of this post.

Unlike my novel project, which I’ll mention from time to time in cryptic tones and coded messages for no reason other than an obsession with secrecy for projects that aren’t finished, I have significantly less inhibition when it comes to talking about and sharing my short stories. That was a long-ass sentence. Anywa, perhaps less is at stake – so here’re some details.

The setting takes place in a post-war area of an expanding human empire. Not long ago, a nation of minotaurs suffered overwhelming defeat, and refugees fled into northern mountains while those left behind were put into slavery. Minotaurs are given a rudimentary choice in life: live under the lash as a laborer, or under the lash as a gladiator. They call themselves taurfolk, though I’ll refer to them as minotaurs (or even just ‘minos’) in the prose.

Very few of them persist while under the reign of the human empire, as the gladiators are used until they’re killed off (except for the valuable ones), or the laborers are quite simply worked to death. It’s a systematic extinction as breeding is discouraged — in fact most minotaurs are rendered into oxen, many of whom live life with the knowledge that they are essentially the final generation of minos.

Alistar, from League of Legends. Copyright Riot Games. You can’t see it here, but he’s actually depicted with FEET, not hooves.

The story follows the perspective of one such minotaur, currently named “Gunn,” (I like monosyllabic names) a rather accomplished gladiator in the employ of a human owner named Master Soares. The “Ring Theme” is to be doubled — not only are gladiators put into a ring-shaped coliseum to square off against each other, but as a symbol of their slavery, every minotaur is fitted with a heavy nose-ring of bronze.

As of this writing, I haven’t arrived at a satisfying conclusion for the story, and the manuscript so far (about 3,800 words) awaits some critique, editing and trimming. Currently, I’m toying with elements of betrayal, escape, political intrigue, and no small amount of foreshadowing for a possible continuation, whether in the form of short stories or perhaps a full-length novel.

This is one of the first depictions of a minotaur I’ve ever seen. It’s from the Children’s Brittanica, World of Science and Mystery: Monsters. Notice the hooflessness of the guy.

I tend to have a habit of creating a fantasy story and in some way or another, making a connection to the Main Novel Project, usually in the form of referencing a country or event that happens in that story’s timeline. The Novel takes place in a universe of three relatively fleshed-out worlds, and simply transplanting this minotaur story into some remote corner of any of several maps I’ve already drawn up would not be difficult.

The question is, should this be a sort of supplemental reading for worlds already crafted, or should this be a stand-alone story?

We shall see.

~~~

Here’s a bit of music I’ve been listening to a lot lately. It’s a chiptune-styled piece that lasts for over 30 minutes. Made by none other than my all-time favorite VideoGame Music composer, Hiroki Kikuta. You’d know his name from an old school SNES classic JRPG known as the Secret of Mana.

 

Fixing My Sandals

A 12-Minute Read.

~~~

So I went to Cambodia again.

I saw Angkor Wat again.

And again I ate of the delightful mangoes that country has to offer.

20150503_160037

How many kinds of fruits you see here is directly proportional to the number of reasons why I enjoy living in this part of the world.

 

While passing through Phnom Penh – that mad city of tuk-tuk drivers, charlatan monks and sparrow-catchers – I decided I would get myself a pair of sandals of higher quality than your standard flip-flop variety. More often than not, I frequent markets in an attempt to simply look and browse, and am pretty much the opposite of an impulse buyer.

As I always like to explain to my Vietnamese students, “I am the kind of person who likes to keep the money.” This translates into haggling more than the av-er-age bear, much to the chagrin of merchants and sellers who would otherwise see me as an easy target to price-hike.

Obscure reference is obscure.

In any case, I found a decent pair and talked the stubborn seller down to $12. The label said “Made in Viet Nam,” much to pride of my travel companion – a Vietnamese – and the seller of course assured me of its quality. Off I went, wearing awesome high-quality footwear.

The next day, as I emerged from an overnight bus-ride to Siem Reap, one of the straps broke. With an exasperated sigh, and a sense of stubborn pride, I came to the resolution that I would have the things repaired, rather than simply replaced.

I sought someone to do said work, and while I am no stranger to stitching, often enough I see cobblers on street corners or people in the markets in the process of mending someone’s sole.  Using body language as well as English, I asked on the outer periphery of the Siem Reap Central Market.

“Inside,” one of the sellers told me. I went in, asking another shoe-seller. They shook their head.

“Outside,” someone else told me. I emerged out the other end, asking various people, and following the pointing fingers of a number of sellers – as well as a friendly tuk-tuk driver or two – I made my way to a street just off to the side of the Central Market.

“Down street,” another person said with a gesture. “Unda da trees.”

We continued, until at last finding some lads sitting on tiny, plastic chairs. Their workstation included a coffee can full of various small tools and a key-copying machine.

I demonstrated through hand gestures that the sandal strap was in need of repair, and it took them all but half a second to understand my need. My companion soon discovered that the two boys could apparently speak Vietnamese fluently and, as they began to work, we sat with them. Chatting ensured, though I was, as is the norm, part of possibly 6% of the total conversation.

Turns out the boys’ mother is Vietnamese and their father is Cambodian, and apart from their parents’ mother tongues, they boasted of speaking fluent Burmese as well. Being trilingual is a valuable skill in any crossroads cities, as one might imagine, though their English was extremely limited.

I watched them work, and had bits and pieces of the conversation sporadically translated to me. They were aged fifteen and sixteen, two brothers, though by all appearances (whether a result of genetics, malnutrition, or simply my own lack of ability to guess, I could not say), I would’ve estimated them to be around ten or eleven.

But it was only in outward appearance that these two resembled adolescents. I watched the way they spoke not only to my companion, but to other people – adults or otherwise – who rolled up on bicycles, motorbikes, or sedans to do some form of business or other. Turns out the two kids were quite well-known, able to perform repairs not only for shoes, but the mechanics of motorbikes as well. I saw a multitude of people seeking them out for various purposes.

Through translation and simple observation, I learned that the two young men knew how to do many things, and many other people knew this as well. These were the guys to whom most people seemed to go when they needed something done, and much like how I arrived at their “shop without a sign” they were probably known simply by word-of-mouth.

SAM_2419

The older of the two brothers, sitting and chatting it up as I sat quietly in the shade wearing my tourist-pants.

 

I found the experience rather eye-opening, as well as simply interesting. I saw them hand a pair of shoes that looked noticeably more expensive than my multi-strapped sandals to a car-driving businessman; I watched the older brother pay off a patrolling street guard (common practice for anyone operating a small entrepreneurial — illegal — business like this), and through my companion I asked a few questions.

“Do you go to school?”

“No,” was the translated answer. They said they quit school to work. And I soon found out why: according to them, they made as much as $50 a day doing their various work. Even if these are the hyperbolic words of an emerging teenager, and in fact they made an average of about 20% of that, this is still nothing to sniff at for Cambodia. Indeed, I found myself struggling to reason why anyone in their position would continue going to school when they had a business to run that — proportionately — brought in more cash than jobs I’d done back in America earned.

Hell, if you know where to eat, $50 can feed you for a month in Siem Reap.

They seemed savvy and street-smart, not the type of children you see advertised on television commercials stating “If you send us just $1, you can feed this child for a day.” They played mobile games on a new-looking 5-ish-inch Samsung Galaxy (the exact model of course I could not know), though they wore shoes and clothes tattered and dusty.

“Do you have plans for the future?” I asked them.

“No,” was the simple reply, though the younger of the two brothers said that maybe one day he would try to go to America, where he would do the same work of cobbling shoes. They were quick to jump on the prospect of work, and even quicker to laugh and smile. If there’s one thing that continues to intrigue me about Cambodia, it is the attitude of the people living there. People will over-charge you without a second thought – it is expected and customary, especially in the tourist areas – but there are just as many who’ll gladly give directions or recommendations for “the best” place to go, like where to buy mangoes or get a decent exchange rate for converting money.

“Are Vietnamese shoes good quality?”

“No,” was the laughing reply with a vigorous head-shake.

In any case, meeting the two Cobbler Boys whose names I couldn’t possibly write here with any accuracy, I reached a minor realization while watching these “adults in the bodies of young people.”

Whenever reading a YA novel or watching a movie based off one, or even simply a film written for the Young Adult audience, I always had difficulty swallowing the premise of characters who spoke and acted like adults. I always felt like novelists wrote such characters more because they were, themselves, adults, and the best they could do was write child-characters as “small adults.”

Perhaps I found my suspension of disbelief strained on account of bad acting, or perhaps indeed due to inept writing, but I will also unabashedly admit that my experience with children (or teenagers who, gods be good, are half my age) is probably limited. Perhaps I simply haven’t met a lot of street-smart young adults to which to compare to characters of which I read in books.

The two Cobbler Brothers had a sense of independence and responsibility about them that I am quite unaccustomed to feeling from people so young. Living in a country as famous for it’s abject poverty as it’s nasty, bloody, recent history, it would appear that these guys are doing pretty well for themselves given the obstacles that a foreigner such as myself might otherwise find discouraging and overwhelming.

In fiction, a few immediate examples come to mind. One being Locke from one of my all-time favorite fantasy books The Lies of Locke Lamora. Another being Liesel, from the The Book Thief. Last, for the purposes of this list, is one of my least favorite characters (at least initially) from A Game of Thrones, Arya Stark. She got awesome later, don’t worry, I ain’t hatin’.

Each of these characters were thrust into situations where they were forced to leave behind their childhood faster than most people reading the books would ever encounter. People who got street smart – fast, and for different reasons – or they would have died early (like many of their peers who simply didn’t grow up fast enough). At various points in their respective stories, I sometimes found myself thinking “Would a child really be talking like that?” They each have their supports, of course.

Locke has an origin making him a bit more than an average human (as revealed in the third book).

Liesel had one of the most wonderful and encouraging adopted fathers in a story I’ve ever ‘met.’

And Arya had the outrage of a murdered family to fuel her will – which in and of itself isn’t unique as stories go, but she seems to stand apart from all the other vengeful young people we see in fiction all the time.

My encounter in Cambodia gave me first-hand experience with street-smart young adults that made me rethink my earlier ideas, and my future perceptions, of such characters. Perhaps such people may even appear in my own fiction-to-come as a result.