Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Brief Thought About Michael Emerson

As I've mentioned before, I boarded the LOST boat long, long after it sailed. Actually, I don't think I started watching until after the series finale. I'm nearly at the end of the series, and I must say that the show has had its ups and downs. Seasons 3 and 5, particularly, were disappointing and poorly-constructed, though Season 2, in my opinion, was very well put together.

As I've become engrossed in the series, I've discussed with other fans of the show the lack of character development in later seasons. We meet multiple new characters as the show progresses, but they lack flesh--they're like cardboard cutout characters that are there to answer some questions or raise some questions or maybe probably die, but not before they've become romantically involved with someone.

One delightful exception to this rule, however, has been the character of Benjamin Linus, played with absolute brilliance and poise by Michael Emerson. Linus' character, introduced in Season 2, has steadily and naturally progressed and unfolded--perhaps "unfolded" is the better word, because the way LOST is constructed precludes up-front character development. LOST lives and dies by the flashback--or flash-forward, or occasionally flash-sideways.

It's true, the creators missed fire with Nikki and Paolo and Charlotte and multiple others, but Linus is a home run. In Season 3 I hated him, as I should, but by the end of the season, I began to feel stirrings of pity for him. Throughout Seasons 4 and 5 he began coming into his own dramatically, often providing or sparking much of the emotional conflict especially off-island. Now, in Season 6, he's the most human, the most compelling, the most accessible character left alive.

This is not due, in my opinion, to the genius of J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse. I think that Michael Emerson's incredible interpretation of the character is what makes Benjamin Linus so rounded, so alive. Emerson is in constant control of his voice; he obviously knows his scripts and knows his character and makes a conscious effort to adopt his character's voice. He is in constant control of his body; he can evoke arrogance, sliminess, and pathetic sorrow with his posture. He is in constant control of his facial expressions and his breathing; he's a whole-body actor.

Michael Emerson is why Benjamin Linus is awesome. Michael Emerson is an awesome actor, and I want to see more of his stuff.

Long live respect!

Monday, July 19, 2010

I'm Not Reviewing Inception

I went to see it, you see. And I loved it. But I'm not going to review it. Not yet, that is. I don't feel that I've fully comprehended it. Once I see it again, I'll definitely blog about it.

I mean, I enjoyed Inception. And I understood it. But I don't think I comprehended it. I laid my hands on it, but I didn't fully grasp it. I need to see it again before I can wrap my mind around it. Make sense?

No, instead I'm going to talk about How To Train Your Dragon, which I went to see recently at a budget theatre that has movies weeks after they're released. I went to see it with my girlfriend, who is a huge fan of the film, and her sister, who is also a huge fan of the film. So there was some pressure on me to enjoy it, and I don't function well under pressure. I mean, when I'm pressured to do one thing, I usually end up as far away as possible from that thing.

I didn't expect to enjoy How To Train Your Dragon.

The main reason I didn't want to see Dragon was that it's a DreamWorks Animation project, and before Dragon, DreamWorks Animation had produced exactly 0 worthwhile movies, in my opinion. I know they were behind Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, but I occasionally disagree with critical opinion. I've seen far too many DreamWorks films, and, to be perfectly honest, Dragon was the first DreamWorks project I saw that I didn't feel was a waste of my time.

I don't know why DreamWorks can't craft believable universes--subcreations. I love Pixar films in part because they tend to have unique, fresh, full backgrounds. It's like Cobb tells Ariadne in Inception: to be believable, your creation has to be unique and detailed and consistent.

But Dragon bucked that trend. While its creators still couldn't avoid the patented Dreamworks propensity for anachronistic idiom (Hiccup, the protagonist, is a Viking, and he calls something "cool". No. Just--no.), they successfully crafted a believable universe, rich and--for the most part--consistent.

I especially liked the imaginative introduction of the existence of multiple species of dragon. The way DreamWorks usually handles this sort of film would have had the different dragons be wisecracking, farting, and generally disappointing viewers. By making the different dragons sentient yet mute--and more importantly, analogous to and cooperative with various characters--the creators broke of the normal DreamWorks mold. I can only hope that this becomes a trend.

I thought some of the characters were poorly-drawn, and some of the relationships seemed rushed. But that's a children's film for you. When you're selling to kids, you don't need to craft deep, rich, textured characters--archetypes will do.

Oh, and when Stoick (Hiccup's father, voiced by Gerard Butler) is preparing to enter the lair of the dragons that have been plaguing his village, he goes into Leonidas mode. It's quite funny as an inside joke.

This has been more of a ramble and less of a review, but since when have I been organized or focused?

Long live self-denial!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Popular Writing vs. Meaningful Writing

This post was originally part of the Road of Writing post which I just finished. I sorta bridged into this one, and then I realized that I was writing a very long post, so I chopped it up into two chunks. This post is because recently I've been thinking about Mr. S. King and how he likes to construct writer-characters in his books. Misery, of course, centers around Paul Sheldon, a popular, well-known author, and in King's mirror novels The Regulators and Desperation a major member of the ensemble, John Marinville, is a popular, well-known writer.

Central to the personal emotional conflicts for both characters is the dichotomy between "popular" writing and "meaningful" or "real" writing. "Popular" writing, according to King, is the stuff that people buy, the paperbacks that are fun reads. "Real" writing is inherently less financially successful, but garners critical praise.

In Misery, King goes so far as to say that being known for writing "popular" books is one step above being a hack. Sheldon and Marinville hate writing popular material, but they know that writing popular material is what pays the bills. They love writing meaningful material, but they know that all the critical acclaim in the world won't feed them.

Fundamentally, King is discussing the antithesis between commercial and artistic success. To King, the two are mutually exclusive, which betrays a sad lack of faith in the discernment of the American reading public--a lack of faith which is all the more pathetic because it's warranted.

They say that you write best about that which you know. I think that in Paul Sheldon and Johnny Marinville, Stephen King has injected himself into his writing. King's work has often been the center of controversy; check out this column by Harold Bloom, written on the occasion of King's receiving the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Awards.

I'm not going to weigh in on the artistic merit of popular writing. I don't believe that novels which are popular should be discounted because of their popularity, though; while American readers don't have a lot of discernment, their approval shouldn't be the kiss of death for literature.

This has been a very meandering post. I think I'm done now.

Long live autobiography!

The Road of Writing

I am going to ignore the fact that I haven't posted for over a month. That point is moot.

I recently read Stephen King's Misery, which is a thought-provoking book if I've ever read one. It's quite different from my usual fare. 'S funny: I love psychological thrillers when they're in movie-form, but I really can't stomach book-psychological thrillers. Perhaps because the written word is simultaneously more raw and more subtle than anything one can do with film.

Perhaps I should explain that.

Writing as an art form--the use of words--is communicative. It's a street, if you will, usually a one-way street, and most of the time ideas and conceptions (not concepts--I use the word "conceptions" on purpose) and tones and shades and colors travel from the author to the reader. And the only leeway that the author can utilize is vocabularic. Of course, there's the typescript niche, but words are words. Voice, in my opinion, matters little: Sherman Alexie has a distinct voice, distinct from that of Lee Child, distinct from that of Robert Frost. Writers who rely solely on their artistic voice to nuance their writing become caricatures of themselves. One author dangerously close to this pitfall is Jeff Shaara.

Does this make sense? Words are blunt by nature. Yet everyone has a different frame of reference; everyone comes at literature differently because no two lives are the same. This difference is what provides the shades and tones and colors for which authors hunger.

Film, on the other hand, is a much more middle-of-the-road medium. I'm not a film student, but in my experience natural subtlety is rare in film. Usually when a filmmaker tries to be clever/sensitive, it comes off as studied. Which sorta defeats the purpose.

Now, this was supposed to be one post, and it was originally called "Popular Writing vs. Meaningful Writing", and I was going to talk all about Stephen King and how people rip on him. But I'll talk about that in my next post.

Long live vagueness!