Review: Groundhog Day

Every now and then I am either compelled, reminded, or otherwise happen across the chance to see a movie that apparently the rest of the world has already enjoyed. Even if I am more than twenty years late to the party.

Groundhog Day is a story about Phil Connor, a rather selfish and egocentric character who I can best describe as likeable only in that sort of way that Bill Murray can so lovingly depict. In other words, Murray plays himself, though with a few extra layers of smarminess and egocentrism.

But then, possibly every character I’ve ever seen Billy Murray play (even as himself) is usually among the most self-assured people in whatever movie he graces.

At any rate, what makes Groundhog Day so memorable is the Time Loop Trope it apparently named. According to TVtropes.org, this movie isn’t the first example of the trope, but it did introduce it to popular culture. And to pretty good effect; Groundhog Day is considered a commercial and critical success, lauded by many as a beloved classic.

One wonders how I didn’t get around to seeing this sooner. It came out in 1993, which incidentally is the time of my earliest memory with a date attached to it — being in elementary school, writing the heading atop some essay or assignment, and constantly being reminded by peers and the teacher:

“No, Jesse, it’s not 1993 anymore. The year ended last week.”

More to the point, Groundhog Day is considered a Fantasy – but not in the sense the likes of which I usually write about on this blog. While there is arguable time travel going on here, there is no real science-fiction element either. Even in a number of fantasy stories, there are explanations for the events, even if such events are “hand waved” away with a simple solution:

BecauseMagic

But in this film, no explanation is offered, and from the very beginning we’re forced to follow along with the protagonist. Explanationless.

And you know, I think the movie really benefits from that. Without any attempt to really make the situation believable, we can instead sit back and focus on what really matters: the characters and how they react to the setting and each other. Besides, it’s more or less a comedy, and comedies aren’t known for the most feasible of plots.

Leaving the “explanation” portion of a story like this blank frees the writer(s) of a lot of responsibility, too. I for one am thoroughly glad there was no shoehorned reason for the Time Loop. It could have easily been terribly screwed up, especially if there was some sort of religious undertone to the events in the story.

Which is something that can be found (by those who look for it) anywhere.

This can backfire, though. There’re YouTube shows and other blogs dedicated to everything wrong with certain movies, or even just endings. Bad endings, open endings, unexplained endings, surprise endings, and cliffhangers. I did not get a sense of any of these having completed Groundhog Day. I only had that sense of bottled-finality and “all’s well,” in typical early-nineties Hollywood movies, a type of ending I’m not necessarily opposed to, but it does get old.

Two-thirds into Groundhog Day, though, I was right alongside the protagonist in his explorations of ending the Time Loop. Even the montage of suicides resulted in nothing but the snap-back to the six-o-clock indicator that the next Loop had begun. Black comedy at it’s best.

I, for one, readily confess that I might’ve found myself driven quite mad were I in a similar situation. Phil Connors certainly loses his mind — multiple times — but more than anything, this is a story of change. The character changes.

That’s an essential element to an effective story I’ve touched on before.

After getting over a bout of spiralling depression, madness and despair, Phil Connors sets about utilizing what is, at this point of the story, now viewed as an abundance of the most valuable resource in the 3rd Dimension: time.

Phil Connors discovers he has unlimited time.

The Persistence of Memory, by the Dali Lama. Wait, no — Salvador Dali. I always get the two confused.

Whether or not he’s actually aging during the Time Loop is uncertain (though I personally think that roughly a year of groundhog days has come and gone), but he certainly uses his time well: paying $1,000 to assure himself a piano lesson every day, for who knows how many days. We see him reading heavy literature, perfecting ice sculpture, and arriving at various places around town just in time to help people out with problems small and dire.

Catching a kid falling from a tree is possibly a bit more impactful to the space/time continuum than changing the flat of a car for three old ladies, but then, the movie doesn’t explore that aspect of things. Rather, it focuses on the fact that in spite of there being no consequences, Bill Murray’s character comes to utilize his time well.

The lack of explanation for the Groundhog Day Loop also leaves it open that it could, at least within the precepts of the story, happen to any one of us, at any time. We are then offered the question: What would we do in such a situation?

I suspect that the majority of us would follow through with the rough scheme that Phil Connors did. After the initial adjustment, there would be some experimentation. Following assurance of there being no consequences, there would be indulgence. Theft, breaking the law in various other ways, and for some of us, perhaps even the manipulation of people we find sexually appealing. Eventually, though, that would get boring, and the next stage would be to find a way out.

Providing the Death Clause is in effect (if you die, you still wake up at the start of the “next” day), then, as Black Sabbath once put it, I suspect we would all be going off the rails on a crazy train.

Would the whole redemption phase happen for all of us? Is the idea of change and redemption required for said Time Loop to end, or would similar Time Loops for other people sometimes end prematurely, before certain individuals had a chance to grow? In such a case they’d just start the next day a broken and mentally crippled person.

I suppose that’d be a slightly different kind of movie.

In any case, I dug it. It has a slow start – enough so to empty my living room of English Learners after the first twenty minutes – but the payoff is well worth it. Go see it if you haven’t already, and if you have, hey, I guess we just got something more in common.

Like Minds

Let’s start things off with a good old-fashioned apology.

I’ve been writing less. Not only in the blog department, but the fiction department as well. As the old adage goes, when you’re a writer, you’re either writing or your constantly thinking that you should be writing. I remain guilty of this, sure, but what I won’t do is list off reasons I’ve neglected to pursue what I claim to be the namesake of my  supposed passion.

I will, though, take a moment to inform you that things are expected to pick up soon. These last two months have been rife with stress, obstacles and distractions, and while more are on the horizon (the good kind, as in planned travel adventures), I feel very strongly about what will happen in the near future. Good things a’coming, as far as writing is concerned.

Lately I’ve been spending more time teaching English than I’ve been doing other things. I’ve been doing it in a variety of situations; teaching groups of adults in my home, individuals in their homes, meeting in cafes and even wrangling a small group of young kids. But none of that compares to teaching in a public school, the most recent gig I managed to acquire. Being held responsible for teaching a group of 20-25 screaming children brought to mind imagery of Kindergarten Cop.

Minus the whole cop thing.

But perhaps more interesting is the chance meeting of like minds. Here in Sài Gòn, there are activity groups for things I did not know existed – such as a square dancing group. And geek/nerd boardgame groups. There, in a delightfully secluded and comfortable café known as Cliche Coffee, over in Downtown Sài Gòn, we meet to play fantasy and science-fiction themed boardgames – some of which took me by surprise on how awesome they are.

This game is so rad I might have to devote a blog post to it.

 

Just as much for the games themselves are, of course, the joy of having like company. For those just tuning in, yes I live in Sài Gòn, but more the point, as of the writing of this post, I’m living in the outskirts of the city, far from other foreigners and surrounded by millions of Vietnamese. I chose this for a number of reasons, but in recent months have come to learn a number of things — not only about the culture, but about myself.

For one thing: turns out I’m not quite as antisocial as I may have thought I was. Turns out I rather enjoy the company of other people, and while I’ve made some great (local) friends, there really is something special about hanging out with people who’ve read the same books, played the same games, and seen the same movies as you. I’ve come to learn I need to interact other geeks; it helps pull my head out of the dust and poverty of outskirts Sài Gòn, helps me remember there’s a wide world out there, and that — yes, as a matter of fact — there’re people around who have an interest in fantasy and science fiction.

I’ve been told by a number of folks that they couldn’t live the way I do. I see why and was able to carry on. Surrounded by nearly everyone who cannot speak your language, that’s tough enough as it is. Sài Gòn is an industrial town; everyone is studying to work in accounting, or construction, or engineering. There are very few creatives to be found, and even if there were, they’re hard to find.

People have seen some of my doodles laying around and haven’t remarked things like “Hey, neat,” or “Oh cool, a dragon,” or even “You call that art?” Nah, the reaction I mostly get is: “Gee, you have a lot of free time, don’t you?”

That is, of course, not to come as any surprise in a developing country. Creative projects such as writing novels or making sculptures and paintings seems to be relegated to privileged people. As with so many things, it’s one thing to live a comparatively cushy life in America and read this stuff in books; it’s quite another to see it first-hand.

But back to the idea of like minds — not only have there been discoveries of fellow geeks in Sai Gon, a possibility I did not even entertain in the past, but some friends from my hometown will actually be headed over to this side of the planet. Serving as an anchor, the “point man,” if you will, I’ve essentially opened a door for others to follow and see this mad, wondrous country in which I currently live and work.

I’ll get into more details in a future post, but suffice it to say the idea of having four friends — one of whom being none other than the Firebeard, the Thorneater himself — fly to meet me here has me most excited. Việt Nam is a veritable fantasy realm, as I’ve said in the past, rife with strange culture, food, people and landscapes.

Being able to provide the first few steps into this place is something I’ve learned I’ve thoroughly come to enjoy.

Hutts, Hobbits and Hogwarts

It’s difficult to have a fantasy-themed blog and ignore the Hobbit movies.

I rewatched the first two within the last month. As of this post, I saw the third and final one a few days ago.

As any self-described fantasist, it is more than a movie-going experience.

It’s research!

And with the release of the final Prequel movies, it is only natural to be reinvigorated to experience the Lord of the Rings trilogy, again, shortly afterward. With the full set of six movies viewable to the public, the only other serieseseseses to rival it might be Harry Potter, or Star Wars.

Seeing as the Imperials were held up by a bunch of ewoks, giant war elephants might actually pose a problem.

Star Trek doesn’t count here because 1) It was a television series and as such in a different category of storytelling, and 2) I never got into it, so I don’t know enough background information to compare.

I’m not here to tell you which of these are better, as they each have their merits. Sometimes I’m in a Star Wars mood, and while I’m in the camp of people trying to ignore the existence of the prequels, there is something nostalgic about it that fills me with wonder and excitement. Most distinctly I recall losing a few hours to the Angry Birds: Star Wars edition.

Really, Jesse? Angry Birds Star Wars?

This is inherently stupid, I know. It is a simple game, made all the more interesting with its various themes, but what struck me most was the sound, and music clips, among the silly squawks and simplified storyline.

The bloody sound effects and music clips made the Star Wars universe feel more real, in a strange way. They evoked a sense of Star Wars that I never got from watching the movies – the vastness of it, which no doubt is explored in the novelizations and spin-offs as well. I’ll look into those, as Star Wars is really considered more of a Fantasy than Science Fiction anyway.

Though some call it “Science Fantasy.”

Harry Potter, on the other hand, is a significantly more personal story than either mainlines to be found in Middle-Earth or the Galactic Republic. There are clear reasons for this; Harry Potter centers around the life of one person, and is not an Epic Fantasy so much as it is the story of personal growth. The target audience is itself hard to pin down, as well. The earlier books/movies appear geared towards children, with the usual tropes of friendship and “making the right choices” obvious themes, but the Harry Potter stories get noticeably darker as time passes. They mature with the audience.

I remember being in 7th Grade, around age thirteen or fourteen, when Harry Potter first came out and exploded in popularity. At three years older than Daniel Radcliff, it was interesting to seemingly grow and mature alongside the release of those movies. There is a very, very large following of people who are affected significantly more than I was by these stories, but the simple parallel of growing up, seeing the world differently, around the same time Harry Potter gradually lost any rosy views of the world, sticks with me.

I feel like this one has been done to death, but I like it.

But in the end, of the three, I think I am Middle-Earth kind of guy, despite why I stopped reading Tolkien. Star Wars is fun, and while the mainline movies are accessible to all ages and are quite family-friendly, I’m aware that the spin-offs — games, books, and the like — touch on dark subjects, yet I find myself not drawn in the same way.

The Harry Potter universe has a distinct British flavor to it, for obvious and unremarkable reasons, which can also be seen in Lord of the Rings (just not quite as prominently) … and this is not so much of a detriment, as it is just something of a barrier. As an American, there’s a certain Britishness to Harry Potter that is distinctly foreign to me, making it just a little bit harder harder to relate to.

For example, a lot of American movies will portray the situation as dire, threatening the city of New York or Los Angeles, and I get that as someone who’s spent considerable time in New York. But having never been to London, having the name more or less just mean “a big city across the ocean,” I find the Harry Potter series to be very Anglo-Centric. At most, it is Euro-Centric.

Is that bad? Not necessarily. No more than if I were to weave you a story about the imminent conquest of Sai Gon by a trio of wizardly sisters.

So why Middle-Earth? Or Azeroth? Or any incarnation of those worlds seen in Final Fantasy or the Legend of Zelda? What makes those worlds – who have been inspired by all kinds of cultures, and in some cases invented by Japanese or American writers – so much more relatable to me?

Let’s try wording it this way.

When I want an inspiring story about personal growth and the value of loyalty and friendship, I turn to Harry Potter.

If I’m looking for something a bit more whimsical in terms of suspending my disbelief (lazer swords and sonar bombs in outer space are a bit more difficult for me to grasp than magic wands and sorting hats), then I’ll turn towards Star Wars.

But when it comes to quintessential fantasy — the kind of places I dream about dying and being reborn in — we can start talking about the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. And I don’t even count myself as an expert on Tolkienien Lore — or even a hardcore fan. I did see each and every movie in the theaters though, eager to gain a sore butt in exchange for an epic adventure such as never before portrayed on film.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s worlds, however different and remastered as they might actually be from today’s popular recreations, are far from the only ones available to us, and I’ll be among the first to tell you that as much praise as I’m offering here, they’re not my favorite settings. There’s Azeroth ([World of] Warcraft), or Ravnica (Magic: The Gathering), or Toril (D&D), or even The World of Balance/Ruin (Final Fantasy 6).

But the movies are delightful. I could rant on and on about how the one book was stretched into three movies, but frankly I’m tired of that. The fact of the matter is that three spectacular movies exist now, and while I might have my disagreements, I’m glad they exist. They’re fun to share, discuss, and experience.

And besides, Peter Jackson’s supposed obsession with threes could learn a thing or two to Gabe Newell, if you ask me.

Prehistoric Fantasy

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for things prehistoric. Childhood fascination with dinosaurs aside, it’s more the primitive man pit against the raw elements type of scenario that intrigues me.

When I sit down and think about it, I sometimes find myself amazed that humanity as we know it survived at all. They often play on this theme well in a variety of works of fiction, and while I refer to these as fantasy, a bit of what we see depicted is grounded in anthropological fact. We’ll get to that as we cover each case-in-point.

So lets get to it: a few of my favorite pieces depicting events and characters that take place long, long ago, before primitive man developed writing and, in some cases, even before fire and speech.

First on the list is a novel – which I know was adapted into a 1986 film of the same name, and apparently some kind of series will air in 2015. Regardless, I more fondly remember the book. Jean M. Auel depicts the struggles of a certain titular Neanderthal clan, and things get interesting when they adopt a Cro-Magnon child. It’s a little Tarzan-esque, as the “normal” human grows up among rougher people than her own kind. We as readers can only further liken it to a Tarzan story in that Ayla, the child, while by no means weak, is beset with a number of challenges overcome with her unique set of problem-solving skills that set her apart from her Neanderthal clan.

The ability to count higher than four was a big deal.

As if looking completely different didn’t already make things hard enough.

This isn’t a particularly fun and kid-friendly story, but it gets deep, gritty, and explores the daily life of peoples who walked our world around 28,000 years ago. Jean M. Auel’s descriptions of the environment paint vibrant pictures in the mind of the reader as we explore a world that is all but lost to us in our modern, busy lives.

I loved this book as much for its attempt to dive into deeper history as much for its descriptions, and of course the story itself.

A lot more creative liberties were taken when making Quest for Fire.

It was also based on a book, written in 1911 (though it appeared in English for the first time in 1967), though this one I did not read, so we’re going to be talking about the 1981 film.

The first thing the viewer may notice about this movie is the lack of dialog. The opening begins with a short couple of lines meant to catch us up on recent events; the world is harsh, early man had yet to invent fire, and as such fire had to be stolen from nature. Those who possessed fire, possessed life.

Early one morning, after some character-establishing shots of various people in a clan of Neanderthals, we find people we’ve barely come to distinguish by face (let alone by name) beset by an aggressive tribe of Homo Erectus. They’re basically guys in hairy gorilla suits, who in comparison are noticeably more brutal and animalistic. Our Neanderthals manage to kill many of their attackers, but are forced to flee their cave-home and take to the woods, where wolves (first seen in the first few seconds of the movie) await with salivating jaws.

Some survivors make it to safety only to discover that they lost their fire, and thus the wiseman of the clan – probably pushing thirty – sends three young men off to go find fire.

Maybe the earliest movie in which I saw Ron Perlman in action. Double-plus good for savings on make up effects.

This movie is awesome for a number of reasons. For one, the plot is simple, yet it expands to become quite the adventure, complete with mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and two more clans (bringing the total “kinds” of people seen up to four). We have our own Neanderthals from the beginning, depicted as your typical Fred Flintstone “cave man,” we have the ape-like Homo Erectus attackers, then another Neanderthal clan of people that all have red skin, red hair and a penchant for cannibalism, and finally a tribe of Cro-Magnons — early modern humans.

The scientific accuracy of this story is questioned, and there are a few of those “80’s” moments that kinda remind you it’s a movie (like with the mammoths). But the story, for the most part, is pretty straight-forward, and I can appreciate that because, like I said before, this movie has absolutely no dialog. Sure some characters speak, but not in any modern language and totally without subtitles.

This means that the movie told its story visually, which in my book is a successful use of the medium. Humor, sorrow, and drive are all conveyed through what we see the characters doNot what we hear them say.

Besides, the film does a great job in showing us that the world is a harsh, cold, unforgiving place, and my thoughts are always drawn to how our ancestors perceived the world. Life sucked, and people made do with what they could and did not complain, simply because they lacked the capacity to feel ungrateful. Or, conversely, were so grateful to find whatever advantage they could that there was simply no time to think about anything else.

Which brings us to today’s last example.

10,000 BC is one of those movies that I know is bad, but I still like.

I won’t defend it’s utter lack of historical and archeological accuracy. It’s full of anachronisms, and critics generally gave it negative reviews. The ending kind of screws with things as well with a dose of deus ex machina. Not to mention the actors and actresses all look strangely … modern.

Probably something to do with everyone having perfectly straight, white teeth.

Pluses include the visuals, such as battle sequences with mammoths or giant terror birds, along with a saber-toothed cat shoehorned into the plot.

It’s a more modern movie which means, to any cynical viewer like me, that the story follows cookie-cutter tropes and story elements we’ve all seen far too many times before. The hero’s quest is not to gather fire or his clan, but to save his girl. The girl dies at the end, but not really. The giant prehistoric animals are cool and dangerous, but you never really fear for characters – not to mention they seem placed there just because it would be fun (rather than plausible. The animals existed at different times in different parts of the world). The bad guys are one-dimensional and easy to hate — though in fact it is the antagonists of this story I find most intriguing.

We have a pair of slave drivers who are depicted as ruthless and ambitious, but its their masters I find more interesting. The backstory lore of this film plays on an idea that is revealed to us in small portions from the beginning, and while the characters of the film do not fully realize the connotations of what they’re affecting, the audience does.

Basically it’s this. There was a land that sank into the “great sea,” echoing of the legend of Atlantis. Three survivors came to what starkly resembles Egypt, and with their influence they somehow rose to power among the more primitive peoples of they encountered. By the time the story of this movie rolls around, there’s only one “god” left, and his desires are unclear to the audience, though a number of pyramids are being built, utilizing the slavery system that ancient Egyptians are rather famous for implementing.

Or possibly a desert in South America…?

Mammoth slaves in Egypt, eh?

Draped in concealing silks and attended only by blind servants, the lone ‘god’ commands incredible fear over the locals, and we as the viewers never really get a good look at him.  The idea of an Atlantean coming and starting an empire has my attention, and I would have liked to learn more about this backstory.

But the movie doesn’t go in that direction. Instead, we have – much like in Quest for Fire – the protagonist making his way home with a gift from a more advanced tribe. In this case, it is not the ability to make fire, but the gift of agriculture.

Which is cool, too, I suppose. It’s best enjoyed not as a historical movie, but as a simple fantasy in an earth-like past.

Review and Impressions: The Hunger Games

So I had the opportunity to catch up on the first two Hunger Games movies. There is a spoiler or two.

No, I haven’t read the books.

Yes, I’m sure the books are better, or at least different.

Therefore my perspective will come from someone who is not comparing and contrasting the books and the movies.

I will simply be sharing my impressions.

I am a mostly peaceful person. I do not like or promote violence, but I do enjoy a horror flick or action movie with plenty of swordplay, gunshots or straight up bludgeoning with fists. Double plus good if the film has all these (like certain choice martial arts movies). That’s not why I like the Hunger Games, though.

The Hunger Games is a story about a person facing conflict of both her heart, and of course the more visceral conflict that accompanies killing people to stay alive. I watched The Hunger Games one day, and then caught up on Catching Fire the day after. As of this post, Mockingjay: Part 1 is in theaters, and I plan to see that fairly soon.

Consider me invested.

The drama between characters – fun as they are at times – is not what holds me though, to be honest. I have heard it said, and often I will recite to other people since I believe in it, that “Characters make stories, not the circumstances they find themselves in.” I believe I read that in Stephen King’s On Writing.

I book I would recommend to anyone pursuing the craft.

Anyway, I’m finding that what has me interested in The Hunger Games is, in fact, not so much the cast but, in direct contrast to that recitation, the setting and the circumstances.

Granted there are holes. “The System” in place feels crafted out of convenience; while we have a glimpse of the history and a rudimentary understanding of why things are the way they are, it seems like quite the jump. This is a “what if” book, much like Brave New World, or any number of dystopias, where we the situation, but not – to me – a clear or feasible reason for how it came about.

The films do not give much of an in-depth depiction of how each of the districts contribute to the plutarchy / plutocracy (take your pick); we have glimpses of what appears to be a Mining District, a Black District (though we don’t know what they do there except remain under very obvious segregation), and a bakery somewhere. I’m willing to let myself believe that the books go into more detail, or perhaps provide some descriptions, of how big these districts are and some more economic insight into how this system is plausible. The rich folk need droves of poor people to do dredge work, and the poor folks need the rich because… oh.

Well, this’s how revolutions start.

[The next line is a spoiler.]

Besides, the final moments in Catching Fire left me scratching my head. Was that really part of their master plan, the “flaw in the system” they were going to exploit? To have Katniss fire a lightning-charged arrow into the sky?

Why would the government green-light sending techno-geniuses into a technology-controlled environment?

Because Plutarch let it happen?

Seems a bit flimsy, as some of these movie-adaptations tend to be.

There’s plenty of criticism for The Hunger Games being some Battle Royale clone, and when you distill the plot down to one or two sentences, on the surface the two stories might seem quite alike. I wondered that myself, having known the basic premise of The Hunger Games since it came out – as people I’d known read it and shared summaries with me. Having seen Battle Royale, I can tell you that the only thing these two stories have in common is: a pile of unwilling people, many of whom are teens, pit against each other in an arena-like harsh environment.

Old relationships are strained, new relationships are formed, and you might go so far as to say that a person’s true self is revealed under such conditions.

After all, I am a firm believer in the human animal as just that. Another animal.

In any case, here’s what they say about the Hunger games being a copy of Battle Royale over at T.V. Tropes:

“The term has been used to refer to The Hunger Games — a book series with a similar premise to Battle Royale — in a derogatory manner by those who feel the later series was a rip off (the author of The Hunger Games maintains she knew nothing of Battle Royale when she wrote her books, and at any rate, there have been works before Battle Royale which use similar themes – even Stephen King has written two).”

So, with all that said, I’ll tell you what I do like about it.

I get fired up watching this. Revolution is something with which I’ve always had a fascination. It’s easy to hate the government in The Hunger Games, but considering these works are considered Y.A., so the generalization of a Bad Government is easy to allow. No worries there. Therefore it’s easy to feel sympathy for the characters under such a regime, but I find myself sitting there and wondering:

Why is it taking three-quarters of a century for people to rebel again?

Chances I would end up as one of the first people out of whom such a government would make an example to the rest.

That happens when you’re stubborn, you’ve got a big mouth, and have a problem with authority.

So in spite of the teen melodrama and love triangle stuff that – honestly – I get tired of watching really fast, it factors into the plot in a way that only would ever happen in a book. Or a movie. All I can tell you is that I’m thoroughly stoked to see the Capital burn.

Review: Black Swan

 

A few years ago, putting this opening at around December of 2010, I remember being brought to a theater with some friends to see a new movie the likes of which I had zero prior knowledge.

“It’s called Black Swan,” one of my friends said. “It’s a movie about Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.”

We were in New York City, it was cold, and considering the company with whom I shared the evening, it was not as though I had a choice. Why not, I said, completely unaware of the story premise and what kind of movie we were about to see.

That film was something I would later hear described as “Natalie Portman goes bat shit in a tutu.” While not overly fond of that description, I cannot argue against how apropos it is.

Black Swan is a confusing movie, best understood only at its conclusion, and even then it has left people wondering what they just watched. I remember my sister-in-law calling it a Sexual Psycho-Thriller, and that about sums it up, and if you happen to be familiar with the director’s earlier work (The Wrestler), you’ll draw some parallels. Same director, same music composer, and a similar premise.

What we have in this movie is the story of a young performer’s descent into madness, and when I say descent, hoo-boy does she fall. The protagonist, Nina, seeks to attain the star role in a new rendition of the “done to death” performance of Swan Lake, a story (and orchestral arrangement) with which most of the Western World is quite familiar. Whether or not you know the ballet or Tchaikovsky, I think it’s a safe bet that if you’re reading this you would recognize this.

All I know is that no matter what I say, I will have been type cast forever as liking this movie for no reason other than the lesbian love action that happens about two-thirds in. While the movie would limp on without that particular scene, it does in fact add to the plot, unlike a lot of other meaningless sex scenes in films.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. People usually watch stuff to be entertained, after all. But the reason I linger on that note is because it’s most noticeable in comparison to moments in countless movies where that kind of thing establishes one of two things: The predicable love story culminating into what all animals strive to doOR merely a chance to draw the audience back into the movie by showing some skin.

Again, not saying a steamy scene is in itself a detriment, but it has been done before with little other point in mind. In Black Swan, it actually adds more to the plot than “and so these characters really do love each other.”

In fact, in this movie it kinda does the opposite.

So this movie is confusing to viewers, and that’s mostly why I like it. Much like we all teach people how to treat us, directors teach us how to view their movies. Something like Black Swan teaches that we cannot trust what we see; that what we watched may or may not be truth.

And I love that. It’s so sublime and applicable to real life that I wager most folks find it uncomfortable.

Told from the perspective of Nina, the story in this movie never leaves her perception of things, in a manner I like to refer to as Harry Potter Style. In J.K. Rowling’s famous writings, the point-of-view almost never leaves the eyes of the titular character. This has its benefits, as well as its challenges, and of course there are innumerable other writers who do the exact same thing – I only call it Harry Potter Style because it was around the time when I was reading her books that I came to realize this concept.

They probably teach this in a writing class somewhere. If you know the term, feel free to let me know!

At any rate, it is because we never leave the perspective of Nina that are never shown “true” events – we are only shown things that she sees, that she experiences, and hallucinates about. Whether or not what we see is true is up to us as viewers, because hell, our guess is as good as that of the character.

They touch on the concept of being haunted by a double, as well. Doppelganger if you’re into German folklore. It’s not explored in Black Swan to any great depth, though, as no mention is made of the words ‘double’ or ‘doppelganger’ or anything like that by any of the characters; however there are plenty of mirrors and hauntings/hallucinations that lead Nina – and the audience – down a delightful path of paranoia and fear.

Add in the whole white swan/black swan dichotomy going on in Nina’s head and we’ve got a wild ride.

In short, I totally dug it. You should see this movie, but bear in mind it’s NSFW.

~~~

Today’s track comes from the film itself, the ending credits. I read that while the movie received or was nominated for a variety of awards, the soundtrack was deemed ineligible for Best Musical Score on account of not being wholly original. No surprise there, since much of the music implements portions of Tchaikofsky’s work, and to great effect.

This track is not peaceful, and to most it is probably not particularly calming. It does, however, sum up the movie well. It begins with elegance and grace, reaching a pinnacle of confusion as glass can be heard shattering – no doubt representative of the inescapable symbology of the mirror – then it dies down, like the release of tension about half-way. The remaining half of the track then deepens with elongated cellos, threatening to pull us down as it descends into a place dark, and cruel, and eternal.

That screeching “crowd of birds / strong instruments” sound out at the end really gets the hairs on my arms standing up.

One can try to exemplify insanity through music consisting of confusing sounds or inconsistent melodies. Perhaps instead with lyrics that either spoon feed you the meaning, or leave the meaning open enough to be interpreted however you like. But this piece, to me, sounds like the theme of true madness in fiction, the underlying darkness that many of us successfully fend off every day.

Stranger In A Strange Land

In recent months, I’ve felt both mad inspiration and discouraging slumps. Last week I talked about an instance where I overcame a bout of Writer’s Block. I like to imagine every post on the matter – gathered from every writer, everywhere – as a crumpled piece of paper, all occupying a single place on the internet. A massive slosh to which every writer and blogger contributes.

Advice on how to get over writer’s block, memes making comedic light of it, how I overcame it, how you can too. Systems, apps, substances.

And I certainly don’t claim to be different. More than once I’ve written a blog post consisting of little more than a “Why I Can’t Write Anything,” topic. But the visual makes things a little more fun.

At any rate, today’s topic will actually concern my work-in-the-making, which I almost never talk about for a variety of reasons. Most of those reasons are variations of 1) being vainly and arrogantly afraid that someone’ll copy + paste my stuff [I’ll share everything in the future, when it’s finished] and 2) it takes so much backstory just to get the blog-reader up to speed on what the hell I’m talking about that I don’t bother.

I have, however, gone into some detail in the past.

It’s hard to celebrate the inspiration for a conspiracy surrounding an organization that spans over multiple worlds…

Or the excitement I feel when I make a connection between characters from different countries and cities…

And even the deep lore behind a weapon the likes of which I’d spent years sitting around thinking up the story behind…

…when next-to-no-one has read a page of your work.

I’m not complaining about that, though. I’m just into sharing a bit of inspiration through an experience, and how it will be directly affecting my work.

My novel would fall into the category of Fantasy (big surprise, considering the title of the blog), though precisely which type of fantasy is as much up to you people, when it’s released, as it is mine as I write it. Suffice it to say there’s magic, lots of myriad peoples and creatures, the worlds in which the stories take place are anything but shallow.

For the first novel, still in progress – but so close I can clicheically taste it — I have multiple character perspectives. This is nothing special on its own, most writers can (and should) be able to do this. I showed the rough scheme for my chapter layout some time ago, though it’s in fact changed a little since then.

The “Radh Arc,” that is, the string of chapters telling the story from the perspective of the character named Radh, closes on a peaceful note with an air of tension of tension that is at last ebbing (or is it?). The character is settling in a new environment, in a new town, surrounded by new people, and he is thoroughly out of place. A veteran war hero posing as a civilian in a small-but-busy quarry town several days away from the nearest city. People would look at him strangely, as there are aspects of his appearance that make him stand out. I’ll give you a hint as to why.

He isn’t human. Not technically.

The character is visibly different from the locals, which is something I had conceived and written about many years ago. Which means the idea was put to paper during a time when I had virtually no experience in what I was trying to convey.

Turns out the Flux Capacitor Effect happened again — the pieces to a puzzle were there, clear and in plain sight, and it took but a simple thought to arrange them in a certain order so as to be assembled into inspiration.

I think it hit me in the shower.

I’m currently living in a situation where people stare at me. All the time. My physical appearance is so different from that of the millions of locals around me that most of the time, I am regarded with a sort of distant trying-not-to-stare attitude (though pretty often a lot of folks here in the outskirts of Sai Gon don’t even try to hide it). I’m basically a freak for choosing to live here, though my favorite term is being viewed “as some sort of strange animal that has escaped from a zoo.”

Most of the time I’m the one without the camera.

It’s almost like some really weird, subconscious, self-fulfilling prophecy. I originally wrote about a character moving into a new environment more than ten years ago, and now that I’ve rewritten the scenes multiple times, my life has also somehow taken enough turns to lead me into a situation perfect for writing this section of the novel from experience. It also seems oddly coincidental that I’ve reached this exact point in the 3.0 revision around the time in my life where I find myself essentially transplanted into an alien environment.

So the mantra: As a writer, how can I use this?

Living here, I’ve come to realize that on a constant basis — and I do not mean daily, no, I truly mean constant for as long as I am seen in public — I am being judged and assumptions are being made.

Sure sure, we’re all being judged at any given moment by our family, our peers, and especially strangers, but has someone ever assumed you were rich because of the sound of your voice? That you’re ignorant because of the color of your eyes? Or the amount of hair on your arms is directly proportional to how masculine you are (true story)?

Hairy arms aside, I’ve found one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to deal with here was how utterly out of place I look.

Psychologically, I’m fine. People looking at me funny is nothing all that new, actually, though the reasons have changed, and this direct exposure to peoples’ assumptions about my attitude, hygiene, standards, personal wealth, religious beliefs, politeness and even how I dress, is all chalked up to me just being some foreigner.

In other words, while I endeavor to be as respectful as I can, for all practical purposes no matter what I do, the majority of people I interact with, or who at least see me, will assume I am the way I am simply because I’m not one of them.

Only a select few in my close circle know that I’m a weirdo back in America, too.

All this translates into the conclusion of the “Radh Arc” chapters, and while I’m happy to share and celebrate my little joy here (because if I don’t, who will?), but also send a bit of encouragement.

You’d be surprised what inspiration, or missing puzzle pieces (I tend to think those two concepts are interchangeable), are right under your nose, or right around the corner.

~~~

Today’s music piece comes from Diablo 2, a popular Blizzard game from a decade ago. More specifically, the track comes from its expansion, Lord of Destruction, and this “cold music” is the ambience for a mountainous barbarian town.

Whenever I listen to this track, I am not only taken back to days when I used to play the game, but also to a point in the novel that, I’ve always felt, this track expressed perfectly. One can almost hear the sound of snow falling as the calm of this track paints a picture of a stoic, isolated town, warm hearths within and cold darkness beyond the wall. There is a not-so-far-off tension in these instrumentals, setting the stage for some serious action in the near future of the people.