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.

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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.

Overcoming That Pesky Block

This is as much a public self-accountability call to act as it is a blog post. Considering the length of previous posts, I’ll try to keep this one comparatively short.

The truth is, I’ve almost lost track of my passion. Almost.

But how is that possible, one might ask?

The answer is infuriatingly simple:

Distraction. And my productivity and sense of inspiration appears to run on a pendulum, swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other at regular intervals, ranging from excitement so great I can barely contain it, to feeling so down that I can barely lift myself off my grubby couch.

Maybe I rid myself of the thing.

I’ve come to realize that it takes very little for me to get distracted from things. It is a character flaw that I have struggled with for some time, but only in recent years have I come to really recognize it as an issue. I know not whether I have some form of diagnosable Attention Deficit Disorder, but the idea has been suggested to me more than once.

I would not be anything special were I to confess that I have difficulty concentrating or focusing, least of all on my writing.  But what is worse, being bereft of the solution, or knowing the solution and then simply forgetting it?

The most effective thing I’ve ever done when I’ve wanted to be productive, whether it’s with fiction-writing or editing, is set aside time in a dedicated workspace. Jevon Knights outlines this most effectively in his blog post about the Criteria for the Perfect Writing Space, and not unlike my own tactic, his idea encourages finding a place away from home.

You should really check out his ebook, The Knights Scroll. It’s a collection of short stories, both Science Fiction and Fantasy, and you can download it for FREE. I’ve read it, I dig it, and anyone who reads my material or is remotely interested in the stuff I do and like will enjoy it.

Regarding writing spaces, though, there is seriously no shortage of cafes in Sài Gòn. I mean, you couldn’t throw a shuriken without it sticking into the sign of some cafe nearby.

Please do not try this, or at least if you do, don’t tell anyone I gave you the idea.

I have, however, settled in a is looking to be more of a permanent living situation (a new house), and only recently have I established a secure internet connection, as well as a room dedicated to office work.

The result has been phenomenal.

That and two cups of càphê sữa đá significantly uplifted my mood and filled me with much needed motivation.

I’ve always been averse to being dependent on any form of substance.

But is coffee a terrible thing to want to drink when one’s life purpose is to focus and write?

I think not.

The success of people around me has also been inspiring.  I have no excuse; yes, there are life distractions and responsibilities, but one always had time – even just one hour a day – to write. It’s mostly a matter of getting organized and forming a system.

In fact Lifehacker.com has here a great list of for How To Stick To A Writing Schedule.

Surprise surprise, one of their bullet points is setting aside a place to write.

For me, it’s more complicated than getting up earlier, or walking to a nearby cafe and ‘setting up shop’ every day, which are things I’ve tried and have worked. But now, with a home base and office that feels more secure and organized, I find my stresses and creative energies more easily managed.

It’s almost as though my home, wherever that may be, is a real-life metaphor for my brain. If my home is a mess, then my brain is distracted. If things are in order and my home is clean and organized — even if my workspace is in fact away from home — then I can focus. Perhaps that is, or at least part of, the code I can use to understand my inner-psychology to harness creativity.

And, of course, sweet coffee in the middle of the day helps.

Now to train myself to remember that.

 

 

 

Concept: Markets and Trade in Fantasy

Something often overlooked in a lot of fiction, fantasy or otherwise, are the economics in place that allow a writer’s world to exist. When it comes to worldbuilding, the writer must take all things into account if they wish to really weave a believable setting.

It’s serious labor of love. When was the last time you thought about the how your hero’s village makes its clothing? Where they acquire the cotton/wool/linen etc. for their textiles? Do they produce the raw material themselves, or do they trade with neighboring communities?

How about the infrastructure between villages? Is it sophisticated enough to allow weekly, monthly, or annual runs between villages?

Or does the story take place within a city, where doubtless everything is acquired from beyond the city walls? Or, conversely, like in the Hyborian Age, or as might be found in any otherwise swords & sandals-type fantasy … where the idea of civilization is usually more concerned with guarded cities and villages, while everything else in the world consisted of patches of hazardous wilderness between towns.

The fact of the matter is that most communities, even today, are largely agrarian. Producing food through farming and animal husbandry is sorta kinda what makes the neolithic era so important, and a large portion of the world’s population is, to this day, still largely concerned with the production and acquistion of food.

So in a fantasy realm, only prosperous trade cities or otherwise similarly-run commercial centers will have little do farming, whereas the “quiet village our hero called home” is, nine times out of ten, some kind of farming community.

Now, the readers need not know the intricacies of your world’s economics, unless of course the economics play a direct role in the plot (such as the story for the tremendous game Baldur’s Gate, which had an iron shortage). I’ve touched on the importance of economics in the past, and I thoroughly believe that it is the responsibility of the writer to consider some of these thing when fleshing out their world – even if only briefly. A great way to do this is to simply look at your character – better yet, if you have a sketch or character sheet of some kind, ask a pile of questions about what they’re wearing.

This is the female knight class from Final Fantasy Tactics. Gods, that game was so good.

Looking at the above artwork, we can ask a variety of economic questions largely separate from the character herself.

What metal is her sword made from? Where was the metal mined, refined, traded, and forged? Same for her armor.

How about the dress? Cotton from her home town, or fibers traded from a distant land? Perhaps the cape was woven from a rare, material acquired from mountaintop flowers that symbolize her devotion to whatever faith to which she might subscribe.

The leather of her gloves – that of common bovines, or an animal more exotic, or is it not even leather at all, but a fantastic material impervious to weather?

The dyes in her clothing would have to have been produced somewhere, as did the cords holding everything together. Even unseen things, like the lining of her boots, the oils along the blade of her sword, the perfume used to mask days marching on the field, or of course whatever obscured jewelry she might possess.

These are all things that, if presented with answers more interesting and complicated than “she got them when she enlisted,” or “found them in some hole that a trio of trolls called home,” or – especially – the cliche “they were passed down to her from her father.”

Like I said, the reader need not know the intricacies of everything, lest the writer fall into a Tolkien-esque level of description, but the more the writer knows, the more subtleties can be embedded, enriching the world.

When I was in Thailand, a day after the unforgettable experience with the tigers, I took the time pursue a newfound hobby: perusing the markets and bazaars. Chiang Mai is a city known as much for tourism as anything else, and with tourism there come markets geared especially for foreigners looking for souvenirs.

A shot of one of many of Chiang Mai's Sunday markets, set up near the Tae Phe Gate

One of Chiang Mai’s many Sunday markets, set up near the Tha Phae Gate, on the east side of the Old City.

The Sunday Market of Chiang Mai was nothing short of fun for me, because I was on a simple mission of looking for interesting things to send back to my home country as gifts.

I was also able to practice my haggling skills, which – to my surprise and growing delight – makes the whole process all the more enjoyable. As a foreigner, prices are of course inflated accordingly when I ask the price of things, but the very fact that the prices are flexible means that bargaining for trinkets and clothing becomes essential.

Besides, who would you respect more: the person who simply accepts the price you tell them, or the person who is a bit more shrewd and puts up a fight?

Learning from the example of the Chatty Swede from earlier days, and drawing experience from conversations with Firebeard in days of yore – not to mention simply reading about stuff all the time – I gradually learned what various items were actually worth. As well as the whole haggling process. I do not claim to be a master haggler, of course not – but I am something of a penny-pincher, which comes off as a hard bargainer anyway.

I bought a dress for a friend back in my Old Hometown, initially something in order of 180 baht ($6), but talked the teller down to 150 or so (so, $5). At that price, I decided to buy two – much to the joy of the merchant. Small successes fuel bigger ones, and I found myself haggling for even minor items – a hairband-like thing, initially 90 baht ($1), I talked down to something like 60. We’re talking the difference between dollars and quarters here, which to them is of course a big deal, but from my perspective, it’s not necessarily the amount of money that makes acquisition of these things so special. Rather, the fact that I haggled, drove down the price to even lower than what was already reasonable to me, makes the cloth and bracelets (and even a lamp) feel really worth that much more.

In once instance a more brazen merchant, with very good English skills, did most of the talking. He was selling chopstick sets, which I found interesting enough to look at, but had no inclination to buy – however in the markets, even the slightest bit of interest (or even showing the slightest politeness by stopping to address someone who tugs your sleeve or shouts for you to look at them – politeness which can easily be misinterpreted as interest) is like the scent of blood to sharks.

The man proposed his price – something like 400 baht ($12.50-ish). I kept silent, nodding my head as I calculated the amount in my head.

“Okay,” he said, seeing that I was not leaping on it. “I will give you a discount. 350 baht!”

I nodded, looking at the plastic-wrapped set, admiring it’s beauty and wondering to myself whether I actually needed this. After all, I had about two-dozen chopsticks at home already. The merchant proceeded to demonstrate the toughness of the included mat by stretching it taught multiple times.

“It cannot break, or your money back,” he said, and informed me that the chopsticks themselves were made by his family. Very special, also very strong, and they’ve been making chopsticks for decades. I offered compliments that the things did in fact seem quite nice, but made to place the set back down. No doubt he could see that I was interested, but not interested enough, and in truth I sought means to politely escape.

“You are the first customer of the day,” said the merchant, “so I will give you first-buyer price! 300 baht!”

Not bad, I found myself thinking, especially since I didn’t say a thing. I tried to leave, but he handed me a calculator. “Name your price!” he said, “Tell me what is reasonable to you.”

I took the calculator and entered 250. Or perhaps 280. I can’t quite remember. ($7.50 or $8.50).

The merchant hastily agreed, no doubt glad to have made a sale.

WP_20141101_11_33_37_Pro

And here it is. A pair each of chopsticks, chopstick “holders,” placemats, napkins, and cup mat things.

Not only that, he proceeded to ask me questions, seemingly showing an actual interest in me as more than some walking white-skinned wallet. He seemed to be especially intrigued that I lived in SouthEast Asia, that I wasn’t his typical customer – the usual clueless tourist.

That or he had practiced his act well.

In any case, I complimented him on his English, on his skill at selling (he did win, after all, since I confess I had no intention of getting the chopsticks in the first place), but they felt special, and more than the money spent or the value in the item acquired, I got the memory.

And the experience.

Who knows how much this was actually worth. I probably over-paid regardless.

Markets like this can be found also in Viet Nam. The legendary Ben Thanh Market, the central hub of Sai Gon – which I have experienced only once, during my first few days after landing – is a veritable nest of hagglers and merchants. I actually look forward to returning there to practice bargaining with peddlers, arguing over $5 garments and trinkets I don’t need.

Yeah baby, this was the backbone of Sai Gon, and remains strong !

In fact, I rather look forward to the day I can acquire clothing, textiles, objects, whatever, and perhaps sell them abroad. Such a thing would be more of a pet project than a real source of income, as the process is new and fun to me.

And it all contributes to writing. It’s all connected to the economics of the settings of our myriad stories. Production of goods is just one chapter in a book of economics in fantasy – how about trade? Haggling and bargaining in bazaars and markets has been a long-standing tradition of cultures around the world for… probably about as long as the idea of “trade” has ever existed.