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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Three Borders

Similarly in line with my earlier essay about my preference for the number three, I have another philosophical concept I posit before you.

I call it The Three Borders, and in fact these borders are difficult to perceive.

These are not lines between states – well, not political states anyway, but rather states of mind. The world and our perception of it is nothing if not subjective, and I have no doubt that someone else has thought of and written about my idea before more. Often enough, I see reference to at least one of the Borders, but never all three at once.

So let’s dive in.

  • Madness and Brilliance

Simply put, we always ascribe the term ‘mad genius’ to a person or character with an obviously uncommonly high intellect, but equipped with some eccentricities as well. Such individuals can just as easily be of such an elevated level of creativity that they see themselves above the normal conventions of law, morality, and social conduct – making clearly unusual people to observe or to interact with – as they can be completely unaware of such things anyway, so focused are they on whatever endeavor into which they poor themselves.

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The concept that creativity and mental illness are connected is not a new one. Modern science has continually shown that painters, writers, inventors, performers – creatives all – tend to be more prone to developing various psychoses; but there are plenty of people who exhibit a “normal” level of creativity and appear “normal” to their peers.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s the normal ones who scare me.

In any case, I’ve still yet to read any findings in regards to whether one causes the other, or which comes first. But, one could suggest that the divergent thinking of eccentric minds would lead to creative (or at least alternative) solutions to any given problem. A spark of madness, though, might be what it takes to ignite a flame of creativity.

As for me, I’ve yet been unable to really determine the exact border between the two. Perhaps the difference is that, while both do not adhere to convention, the reason behind such lack of adherence is the determining factor. Is convention, normalcy, purposefully shunned or simply unimportant enough to be noticed?

 

  • Cowardice and Intelligence

We see this in fantasy fiction a lot. Any setting where a battle is on the horizon, or a duel about to erupt. Even (especially?) in political intrigue – fantasy or otherwise – we see a veritable rat’s nest of people exhibiting of high amounts of intelligence, cowardice, or both.

It’s almost always in reference to the idea of retreat. Retreating from the face of the enemy on the proverbial battlefield is often enough considered an act of cowardice by the pursuer, or an act of tactical intelligence on part of the one running away.

Run and live to fight another day. This phrase, and similar variants, is oft repeated by the hero – or more often, the hero’s loyal friend, close at hand and restraining said hero – when it would a good time to leave.

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Kind of like how in any fight you’ve seen on T.V. where your protagonist, whether evenly matched or in fact smaller than his larger, much more powerfully-built opponent, strikes the adversary in a tender area. When the bad guy delivers a knee to the groin or a hit to the pre-existing gunshot wound, the audience jeers. When the hero produces a knife and slashes the enemy’s leg in a moment of bring held prone, or the time-tested favorite of, yes, punching the big guy in the dick, the audience cheers.

Are so-called ‘cheap shots’ acts of intelligence or cowardice?

I suppose it depends on who you’re routing for. Especially if it’s the good guy, or yourself.

Honor has a problem discerning the two. Or, conversely, discerns the two too hastily. To flee and show your back to the enemy – most dishonorable and cowardly. Unless, of course, your plan is to lead them astray and ambush them later. Then it’s smart. Though, even an honorable opponent would label such ‘dirty tricks’ as cowardly.

I’ll never forget a moment while playing Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos many years ago with a friend (as an ally, with us playing against computer opponents), and while we were engaging the enemy, I ordered my army in for the attack. When the battle went from unfavorable to grim, my friend pulled his forces out while mine continued fighting. I remember calling him a coward, and his reply was “No, smart.”

To this day I’m certain that had he remained, I wouldn’t have lost my army and we would’ve taken them down.

I’m pretty sure we lost that match because with my forces depleted, the enemy was able to move in and surround his base with an army twice as big. It would have been equal had we stood together.

Was my friend’s flight a tactical retreat? Undoubtedly. But in that circumstance, like many we see in fiction, the real act of cowardice isn’t necessarily about the flight itself, but the intention – and repercussions. It’s leaving others behind for the sake of self-preservation.

This border also takes some thought to really distinguish. What I’ve come to understand, as a general idea in helping tell the difference, is essentially this: if the act is born of selfishness and without regard for (or worse, at the direct expense of) others, then it is cowardly. If the act is born of a cool head and a desire to minimize loss, then it is intelligence.

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  • Stupidity and Bravery

The third and last of the Three Borders is that to be found between these two. It most often comes up when trying to describe a hero, or supposedly heroic act. How do you tell whether a person charging head-long into a dangerous situation is either fearless or an idiot?

One of my earliest memories came about when I was no older than five or six. On a dual-family day-trip to a swampy-lake place we called Wilson State Park, where my father would bring his canoes and kayaks, I was off with a friend some distance away from the group. I remember not how I found it, but I can distinctly remember holding a small snake; having been catching ringnecks, garders and red-bellies since a very young age, this came natural.

But thinking back, it might have been a copperhead, which is notoriously lethal. In any case, I wasn’t bitten, but I remember seeing it threaten to bite me as I held it.

My friend, a girl a few years older than me, remarked that I was very brave. We likely had no idea of the snake’s toxicity if any, but like many people she probably regarded the snake with revulsion. As such, my handling the writhing thing may come off as brave to anyone, except that to me I was just playing with a cool-looking animal I had found.

I have no doubt that I was stupid, not brave. I don’t have a fear of snakes these day, but I do have what I call a very healthy fear of poisonous things.

The difference between being brave and being stupid is that when one is foolish, they simply aren’t aware of the danger.

BeBrave

A brave person is at least partially aware of the danger, but carries on anyway, and often enough with some regard (if not a complete dedication) toward others.

Which individual comes off as possessing more bravery to you?

The one who says: There’s nothing to worry about;

Or the one who says that they themselves are in fact scared, but do whatever they do  in spite of the danger?

Firefighters make a great example. Most people would not dare run into a burning building. It’s kind of a stupid thing to do. But, of course, firefighters are trained professionals; they are aware of the risks and are prepared in more ways than the average self-described street hero. No one would describe the firefighter profession as stupid.

But it arguably takes a certain degree of ‘lack of thinking’ in order to perform acts of bravery, wouldn’t you say? After all, thinking too much is paralyzing, and that’s certainly something you don’t want. Particularly in a situation where not only yourself, but others, are at risk.

Much like the other Borders, it’s not necessarily the act itself, but the reasoning behind said act that would label it as either that of foolishness or valiance.

~~~

What do you think?

Fear Of The Finish Line

finish-line

Not long ago, I had a strange epiphany-like moment. It happened when I was mulling over precisely why it was that I haven’t been writing fiction like I used to.

In the not-so-distant past, I eagerly strode out of my home to one of a myriad of cafes within walking distance and would sit down for hours at a time, drafting, editing and scrivenizing raw prose. Sometimes it was arduous, and sometimes it flowed like a cluster of frog eggs from your adolescent hand during a hot summer’s day.

How’s that for a visual?

So naturally, life distractions happen. Every writer’s bane is the internet itself, for all its usefulness. I have YouTube channels I like to follow that release daily content, all manner of websites full of interesting articles, and of course Wikipedia. Perhaps worst of all is Facebook, the ultimate time sink.

In case it may interest you, I’ve recently restarted using an app for Google Chrome called StayFocusdUsing this deceptively nifty little extension, you can limit how long you browse certain webpages. If you’re anything like me, and you easily lose track of time while browsing or “doing research,” it’s a great tool to help limit the internetical meandering.

By the way, no one gives me anything for this little endorsement.

Anyway, throw in any excuse with which you are most familiar. I have responsibilities, I don’t have enough time, I have a boy/girlfriend, I have appointments, deadlines, — whatever. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling one’s self these things, as though to excuse one’s self from actually working on one’s personal projects. The world is full of distracting things.

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Turns out I had the time, and still do, occasionally, have an extra hour or two between busy-ness and business. Granted, I have been monumentally distracted, but had I focus, I could turn those spare moments into productive writing time. I will gladly and freely admit that I am a fundamentally lazy person, but have endeavored to change my behavior to become more productive.

It has worked. Over the course of the last few years, I’ve effectively turned myself into the type of person that gets extremely antsy and anxious if I’m idle for too long. I’ve got more projects in my life now than I know how to complete. As far as writing is concerned, this includes:

A short story for my writer group, the Sky Writers, a short story for Masque & Spectacle (Vietnam Edition), any number of whimsical blog posts, and, of course, the all-consuming, all-powerful novel project.

The truth is I have had the time to work on any number of these. Energy, on the other hand, is arguable. Willpower has waned. So I’ve been getting very introspective, repeatedly asking myself the fundamental question: Why?

I, like many writers, think we need (or possibly delude ourselves into thinking we need) to be in the right state of mind in order for our time to be conducive to creativity. In other words, lots of us just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike us, which I’ve come to believe is most certainly the wrong way to do things. I hear it all the time, and the result is always the same: they aren’t actually writing anything.

Steven King, a man I cite often here, is a notoriously prolific writer, and in the book I cite just as often (if not more so) than the man himself, On Writing, King makes it clear that you can’t wait for the muse; you have to train your muse to know where to find you. That means making the habit of setting aside time, honoring it, and sitting in front of a notebook or a screen with a pen in your hand or a keyboard under your fingers. Make it habit. Personally, I like to have a cup of ice coffee nearby.

Elizabeth Gilbert makes a counter-intuitive point to the idea of “your elusive creative genius” in her TED talk. This is among the top TED Talks that have left the greatest impression on me.

So even while knowing these things (even though I haven’t been putting them in practice quite as often as I would like, or would otherwise have you think, considering the preachy nature of this blog post), I still found myself asking the question: Why?

Then it hit me.

I think I am afraid of completing the novel.

Schmendrick

Bear in mind that, once finished, this would be my first, and were I to buckle down and write the last damn final chapters, the manuscript could be completed in something like a week or two. You would think that with the end in sight, I would be rushing to the finish line, but as it happens, I think I discovered an unexpected hurdle.

You see, I’ve been working on this thing for years. It’s conception first came about like the result of a prom night gone wrong, and about as long ago. That’d put the earliest bits of development around ten years before this post — but I’ve only recently taken my writing seriously as of about two or three years ago. Before then, my stories and ideas were but musings of an idle mind. Since then, the writings have taken on various incarnations; the novel I started is far different than the novel that will be finished, as it has been scratched and started anew several times.

In fact, almost nothing in common with the original story remains, except a slight sense of familiarity. It’s like an old computer you’ve had for ages, but you’ve gone about upgrading the hardware and software over the years. At which point does it, or did it ever, cease to be the same computer you started with?

The point of all this is this:

I discovered in myself that I might have actually fallen in love with the romantic ideal of “working on a novel,” rather than actually finishing it.

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The project has been in development for so long that more than once I’ve actually lost sight of the end! I mean sure, as per the reassurances of my writer-peers, I can and will always get involved in the next book.

Like I said, there’s a series planned. Standalone fantasy books are an excellent gulp of fresh-air, but that’s not what this particular story arc is.

The problem isn’t inspiration, or a lack of time, or even being in the dark about what will happen next in the manuscript. Usually what it comes down to is forcing myself to a place where the muse will find me: in a cafe somewhere, wearing giant headphones and with one or two drained coffee cups nearby, my laptop open and my notebook at hand.

I’m in fact emulating that as I put the final touches on this post.

Swallowing that strange thing that I can only describe as a fear of finishing.

Have you ever reached the finale of a game you’ve loved? Or a T.V. series? Or even a sequence of books or movies? There is always this sense of emptiness afterward. I’ve felt this after turning the last page of a few books, but in fact I’ve felt it strongest at the end of an anime or a classic JRPG of old.

Some of the most influential games for me were Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, Chrono Trigger. Mario RPG was one of the greats, as well. Each of these games I had beaten several times, but the first time I saw the credits roll, I sat and gazed at all the foreign names, letting the magnitude of my experience sink in.

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I can even remember a sense of depression after seeing the credit rolls halt, and reading a final “~FIN” or “The End” or “Thank you for playing.”

And writing about this has actually inspired me to dig up and start a new one. I haven’t played a JRPG in years; perhaps it’s time I see what all the hallabaloo is about Earthbound.

It ended. It was really over. Sometimes there would be looping music. Sometimes dead silence. Always stillness.

Now what?

book-hangover

Substitute the word “book” with “RPG” and it rings just as true.

 

Every now and then, I regain the encouragement or wherewithal I need to remember my purpose. I swear, half the things I write about on this blog are about why I’m having trouble writing and what I do in an attempt to combat that. But I wonder how many others ever have felt this same anxiety?

The truth is that once I am completed with one novel project, there will always be another one to write, whether it’s a sequel or a separate piece.

It’s just merely a matter of getting over myself in order to write the blasted thing.

Funny how we are our own worst critics, our biggest hurdles, and our own only hope.

Do let me know whether you’ve experienced anything like this in the comments.

~~~

This post’s music comes from an OverClocked Remix of Final Fantasy’s Prelude, a part of the Balance and Ruin Remix Album for Final Fantasy 6. It never fails to remind me of my dreams as a writer.

Three

I really like the number three.

Not in that obsessive way, but rather in that geometric and philosophical respect that seems to be overlooked all too often.

Why not the number two, you ask? We are, after all, a dichotomically inclined race of creatures. And we get our natural disposition towards two’s, or halves, or opposites, from a variety of things found in nature.

This post is something of an essay, so here’s some carefully chosen music for you to enjoy.

Dividing something in half is easy for our brains to understand; I remember a High School math teacher of mine (that terrifying old woman with arm hair like a gorilla and a small jar on her desk with a plaque reading “Ashes of the problem students”) once informing us that human brains are incapable of performing equations of more than two sets of numbers at a time.

Which, in fact, happens to be the very definition of an equation.

Our world consists of two very important celestial bodies: the Sun and the Moon. Our very race is composed of two biological genders (I’m not talking about the sexuality spectrum). And we see this translate into a lot of our thinking and impressions on the world — bicycles, binomial nomenclature, a binary computing system that will one day rule every aspect of life as we know it, a bipartisan government (in some places anyway) and of course the Yin Yang.

We have phrases like “On the other hand…”, “Two horns on the same goat,” and “…on the flip-side.” Two comes very naturally to us.

Even in Fast & Furious 7, the character Ramsey, in her monologue about why she trusts ‘the family’ inside a span of approximately seven seconds, explains that:

“Life is binary, zeros and ones. Only two things keep a group like this together, fear or loyalty. And I don’t see a drop of fear among you guys.”

Sounds cool, but I believe anyone who seriously thinks of life as “binary” needs to rethink the meaning of the word analog. I find programmers, and otherwise people I’ve met with a low E.Q., tend to think this way.

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Therefore, as a philosophical argument, I posit that Three is a superior number, and not in that simple additive sort of way.

Rather, I speak more of the triangle, and it’s influences on my own philosophy of life, as well as for writing.

Triangles form the strongest geometrical shapes, and as such are used in a lot of architecture and design. Our visual spectrum is composed of three primary colors (and of course the three secondary colors). In English, we have phrases like “Two’s company, three’s a crowd,” or “Three strikes and you’re out,” and even Stephen King, a man I end up quoting often on this blog, said in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft —

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.”

I didn’t become a big fan of the English Language until later in my life though, nor did I ever really care about baseball, or crowds, or architecture. My influences for the number three came from a few eclectic sources. Most from my youth, but shaped over the course of my life.

The first of which you might recognize if you have any passing familiarity with games.

  • 1/3 The Legend of Zelda series

The Legend of Zelda is easily one of the most iconic Nintendo franchises, though I have admittedly played none of the games after Ocarina of Time. I have, however, been able to follow along many of the games thanks to such notable internet personalities as EgoRaptor (who provides an entertaining and interesting argument between which is the better Zelda game; Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past) and PeanutButterGamer, creator of Zelda Month. Those of us in nonGamer meatspace call it November.

By no means are these people self-described experts at the games. But they do love them and they’re often a joy to watch.

In any case, the notable theme of the Legend of Zelda, first introduced via an unskippable cutscene in Ocarina of Time, describes the creation of Hyrule through the efforts of three goddesses. As such, you see this theme, symbolized in the series throughout as a set of golden triangles, and it is a prominent motif in various structures, symbols, and clothing fashion throughout the mythos.

The three goddesses, their work in creation of the world completed, retired to the Sacred Realm, the Triforce being the mark of their departure. There are a number of recurring themes throughout the series, but I’m only going to linger on the prominence of triangles, and threes.

Perhaps most notable are the symbolic virtues bestowed upon the three primary protagonists of the games – Wisdom, Power and Courage.

The titular Princess Zelda reincarnates with the blessing of Wisdom.

The reincarnating antagonist, Ganondorf, returns with the blessing of Power.

And you, the recurring and reincarnating Hero of Time (canonically named Link, though you can of course name yourself whatever you want at the title screen), are always given the blessing of Courage.

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Trivia: Something a lot of people don’t know is that the Triforce symbol is also the clan insignia of an ancient samurai clan known as the Hojo. Being a game of Japanese make, this should be no big surprise.

WT3goUr

But if the samurai origins is any surprise to you, check out the origin names of companies like Mitsubishi.

Zelda, with her wiseness, is often depicted as a clairvoyant, or at the very least, a seer, and if she isn’t a recurring damsel in distress (a theme that’s been diminishing in Fantasy for a while), she’s a source of guidance and direction to the player.

Ganon, a man always described as evil and ambitious, uses his power to bid for dominance of the world, with varying degrees of success. Like most cookie-cut villains, he hasn’t much to which we can relate, and without much effort he is quickly designated as the source of all problems in the world and must be eliminated.

Link, with his courageousness – cunningly exemplified through a thirst for adventure and curiosity to explore a fantasy realm on part of the Player – is stoically able to delve into dungeons and temples the likes of which most mortals simply have no business visiting.

Zelda, Link and Ganon are characters that always return in nearly every Zelda game incarnation. Just once, I’d like to see them switch it up a little – Ganondorf with wisdom, the Player Character as Zelda with courage, and Link (as an antagonist) corrupt with power.

In any case, everything in these games is centralized around this ‘Theme of Three” (along with a fair share of delightful geometric patterns in the clothing), and I find it satisfying on a number of levels.

For whatever reason, this influenced me at an early age to possess an interest and respect to the triangle.

  • 2/3 The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal was another huge influence on my interest in the number three. Anyone who has seen this, especially at a tender, malleable age like I did, can imagine why.

Tell me this isn't mystical as shit.

Tell me this isn’t mystical as shit.

The world of Thra, is a fantasy realm with three suns. As such I hesitate to refer to this place as an actual planet, as opposed to a plane, which certainly doesn’t have to follow the same rules as our world.

Anyway, one doesn’t actually see a prominence of Three, as a recurring theme, throughout that film, and being a stand-alone fantasy, there’s a fair amount of exposition but they don’t really get that deep. It’s pretty clear that the movie’s climax is all about it though – The Great Conjunction, when the triple suns become all conjuncticated.

“When three shines the triple sun…”

I remember reading in a book called Jim Henson: The Works, a sort of “making of” for various Jim Henson productions – including but not limited to the Dark Crystal – they mentioned something about how the presence of three suns would shape every aspect of lifeforms in a world, including their culture and thought.

I wish I could find the original quote. But you get the idea; while we humans on Earth very often and easily think of things in sets of two, imagine an entire realm where thinking in trinary terms comes just as natural?

The events of the story are set forth by the last Great Conjunction (about one thousand years before the movie starts, as the next one is imminent), when a race of all-powerful creatures known as the Urskeks were divided into two separate other races, each race representing one half of their collective personality; the cruel Skeksis, and the gentle mystics. It’s not until the end of the film that (spoiler) the Dark Crystal is healed and the “two halves” are reunited to form the Urskek race once more.

This is arguably a powerful play on the Number Two (two halves of one race, after all, and the creators were no doubt into Taoism), but the triple-sun thing is a recurring event on that world, with every Great Conjunction every nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine, and one years, there is some kind of big event that always happens.

Prophecies and cycles are fun toys to play with in fantasy.

  • 3/3 Something My Teacher Taught Me

I once had a teacher who I have long since forgotten. I believe it might have been Mr. Davis – 6th Grade, Phoenicia Elementary. He was not an English Teacher – in fact his area of expertise was Social Studies, if I recall. But he passed onto me one of the single most long-standing pieces of writing advice that I’ve ever heard in my formative years:

“To make a solid point, cite three reasons for whatever you’re talking about. Two sounds like you don’t know enough. Four is too many. Three is balanced and perfect. Also, never end things with ‘…and stuff.’ What it really means is ‘…and I don’t know what else.'”

For whatever reason I have never forgotten this and have adhered to it whenever possible, subconsciously or otherwise. If you’re the type of reader interested enough to actually look up my previous posts, you’ll see that’s how I often describe things: in sets of three.

In fact an observant reader may in fact notice that *gasp* I’ve listed three primary sources of my interest in Three.

  • So What’s The Point?

Having spent a lot of time thinking about the number three, and the world we think we exist in, my personal philosophy and view of the universe has evolved. Here’s how I like to think of things currently, in the context of three.

People, the world, the universe, concepts and ideas, are not divided into the classic binary categories as we know them. For fundamentally opposite ideas like Good and Evil, Black and White, or Fire and Ice, it’s not really too hard to imagine. We have Neutral, Gray, Warm. Things that are pretty easy to grasp.

But what about more abstract things? Like Life and Death?

What would be the third balance of such a thing? Undeath? Unlife, maybe?

Triforce

Sets of three to all things, a perfect balance, the pillars of geometry and thought. If there appears to be only two of something, only two polar opposites, perhaps it’s merely a matter of thinking outside the box (a dangerous phrase, as it often smacks of pseudoscience) to discover the third perspective. I’m not saying there always is one, but I offer that it is always worth investigating.

But, I also like to think that to all things there is an opposite. Balance comes in many forms.

This I shall extrapolate in another essay to come, which I entitle “The Three Borders.”

Happy Writing.