Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Caution: here be some spoilers, probably.

To say I was disappointed in The Artist is disingenuous. I knew the end couldn't be as dark as the plot seemed to be forecasting. Because The Artist mimics, strenuously, the style of its subject matter: not merely technically, but narratively.

Let's run down the list:

Sometimes-deft, sometimes ham-handed comedy: Check.

Set-piece characters: Check. (Note: also known as "stereotypes" or "cliches".)

Artful but obvious symbolism: Check.

Deus ex machina: Check.

Beautiful, orchestral, manipulative-to-the-point-of-cheesy music: Check.

Moralizing: Check.

The truth is that about two-thirds of the way through the film, I dared hope (foolishly, I know) that I was seeing a true Aristotelian tragedy. You know, a man in a high place is brought low by his own doing, and then realizes it. But I had forgotten one vital point: that's not how movies were made in 1927. They had cheerful, ambiguous, slightly bittersweet but mostly saccharine resolutions.

I praise The Artist for its stylistic adherence to its subject. But part of me wants to finally see a tragedy be successful.

Oh well. It's one heck of a movie, and well worth a time-investment. I give The Artist Four Point Five Reels in Ian's Totally Subjective Film Rating System.

Long live devotion!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Continuity Triumphs

This is NOT just another review of Marvel's The Avengers. Don't get your hopes up, dear readers--or, conversely, don't click away. This is a systematic deconstruction of one specific line in the film. When Agent Coulson tries to hand Tony Stark a file containing intel on the various superheroes slated to join the Avengers, Stark refuses:

I don't like being handed things.

On the surface, of course, this is a funny little allusion to Iron Man 2. LOL! Remember the strawberries! Ha ha ha. Classic moment. That's all there is to it, right?

As I made a sugar-free vanilla latte this morning, I realized that there's actually a lot more to this line than meets the eye.

For starters, this line reinforces Stark's individualism. His clout--economic, innovative, etc.--has made him used to getting his own way. This isn't a request; it's not a "hey bro, could you give that to my secretary plz?" The request, which is more like a command than anything else, is implied. He's stating his preference, and he expects others to accommodate that preference. Even the sentence structure emphasizes Stark's self-prioritization. He is the subject of the sentence, and the action of the hander is nothing more than a gerundial direct object.

But wait, there's more! In his previous appearances in the Marvel Film Universe, Stark has been established as a hard worker, unwilling to rely on others' inspiration or handiwork. He saves his own life in terrorist-controlled caves. He adapts the arc reactor technology to fit his vision. He figures out the secret code in his father's expo design by himself, after transporting the layout boards in his convertible. The line in question can be interpreted to re-emphasize this almost-paranoid reliance on his own brainchildren. Stark does not take. He gives. He creates, and hands (the benefits of his miniaturized arc-reactor technology, his company, strawberries) off to people who need. Tony Stark is a fountain, not a drain, and "not being handed things" is part of being a fountain.

This could be linked to Stark's subtle quest for respect in The Avengers. A close viewing of the film reveals that Tony Stark wants to be more than just an Avenger. Stark's first appearance suited, as an Avenger, is Stuttgart, where he makes a grand entrance by co-opting the transport's PA system, and then proceeds to save the day. Later, when Thor takes Loki, Stark storms in to try to win the battlez all by himself. On the helicarrier, he stands at Nick Fury's post on the bridge, a probably-unconscious attempt to establish himself as In Charge. As tensions rise between the Avengers, Stark's subconscious need for attention and accolade lead him to (literally) try to prod the Hulk out of Bruce Banner.

Steve Rogers' sermon to Stark about laying down on the wire shows Stark what Iron Man has to do, to win the respect of these people. It's no longer good enough for him to be a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, because among the Avengers, he's just another freak. He has to do something special. So he does, but he waits for the right moment. He defers to Rogers' tactical expertise, consenting temporarily to be a pawn, a tool, part of the team. But, when the moment is right--when death by nuke approaches--Stark sees the opportunity. In one move he can win the battle, distinguish himself from the rest of the group, and capture their attention and respect. So he does. It's a risky move, but it pays off: when he comes to, the entire team is grouped around him, anxiously awaiting signs of life. He has earned their respect, and their loyalty. Consciously or not, he is in charge.

Because that's who he is. Working with the Avengers is too much like being handed something. Leading them, though--taking charge, molding them into his own creation--that's more Tony Stark's style.

Long live not being handed things!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In Apology for my Passion

When I tell people that I have a degree in English--that I love to read--that my artistic output (such as it is) is verbal--I am ridiculed. The following is my apology for my love of the English language:

Few and far between are those who both love and own language. Some cherish a healthy regard for the power of words; some have an innate knack for text-based communication or art. But those who are one with language, emotionally and technically--they are truly rare.

I know both. I know a man who has a deep, heartfelt love for rhythmic poetry, for the pulse and beat and drive of performed verse, agile in technique and meaning. He sits in awe of it: but he can not create it. He is forever an audience member, never a performer on the literary stage.

I know, too, a woman with the opposite credentials. She is one of the most creative souls I have ever met, a quadruple-threat: but she hides her light under a bushel. She creates for herself alone, and she has no desire to join the creative, critical conversation. She could perform on that hypothetical literary stage, but she does not want to.

This is where you, dear reader, expect me to say "I am the total package." I don't know that I am. I do know that I'm passionate about books and stories and chapters and pages and paragraphs and sentences and words, and yes, even letters--

(Time out. Check it: there used to be a letter for the TH-sound, both soft and hard [as in them or thick]. That letter was called the thorn. It looks like this:

It survived the shift from Old English to Middle English, and it's actually the source of that annoying thing where people think that adding ye to a business name makes the business sound authentic, or something. Okay, digression over.)

My point is that I love this bastard language of ours. As far as I can tell, I'm pretty good at using it, too. That's a judgement call, of course, but circumstances seem to indicate that I know a little bit about what I'm doing. And I'm moving ahead, too. I'm actively pursuing opportunities to achieve a closer communion with the English language.

I believe the popular perception of "the English major" is a strange blend of lazy and stupid. I've read the (suspect) scientific studies that "show" that English degrees are easy to earn, academically speaking. I've met the stereotypes who don't know what to major in, so they choose English because they think it gives them some sort of justification for being intellectual slobs. I've heard the gossip, seen the memes.
Okay, that is pretty funny.

The truth is--that's not me.

I am neither stupid nor lazy.

I did not choose English as a major of last resort. I didn't decide to switch to English because I disapproved of the way the School of Business did things and my math grades were too low for engineering and my application to the School of Waste Management was rejected. I chose English as my major because I love it. Because I believe English is my future. Because I believe English is my calling.

Changing one's major is a fact of life. Different schools have different statistics, but from those scattered data points a simple trend is clear: changing one's major is hardly a major event any more. I, on the other hand, went into the Office of the Registrar only twice on field-related business: once to add a German minor, and once to add a Writing minor. I chose English as my field before I enrolled in college, and I stuck with it. Four years, and I was done.

And now, I work at a coffee shop. People ask me for venti cappuccinos all the time. They also ask me how much the bagels are, and is cream cheese extra, and could you clean up my son's vomit from the floor? And I smile, and I nod, and I go home and I add another ten pages to the novel I'm writing. Or I go to a library sale and buy a grocery bag full of used books for $7, and then I eat pizza and read T. H. White's The Once and Future King. Or I text my light-under-a-bushel friend and ask her to read my latest short story, because she liked the last one and honestly, she's a better writer than I am, so I value her input. Or I open the mailbox and find a letter of acceptance to graduate school.

I am not the stereotypical English major--let's call him Hugh. I'm not Hugh. I do some of the things Hugh does--I read books a lot, and I wear glasses, and my fashion sense is pretty atrocious, and yes, I do know my way around a poetry slam. I do share some superficial qualities with Hugh. But I differ from Hugh in one important aspect: my English degree is a means to an end, rather than a halfheartedly-accepted end in itself. My bachelor's degree in English is step one in a four-step process. Step two is a master's degree in English. Step three is a doctorate in English. Step four...

Step four is guardianship.

See, language is more valuable than most people think. Like it or not, our culture is still largely dependent on text for memory. An argument might be made that the importance of visual representation is increasing, but for now, memory is communicated through words. Not music, not dance, not sophisticated patterns of bioluminescence. Words. "Talk is cheap," proclaims the proverb, and that's the truth. Words are accessible, flexible, glorious in their potential for impact. And words are fragile.

I'm not going to lament the preponderance of neologisms, agglutinations, conversions, or the like. Language evolves, and I'm coming to grips with that. My complaint is that our language is taken for granted, to the point that a degree awarded for four years of studying our language has become a punchline. When something is taken for granted, less attention is paid to it--less effort is expended on its upkeep--less interest is taken in its history.

Language needs guardians, champions, people who can say "ya know what? I think it's pretty darn awesome that the word 'set' has 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary!" Language needs people who can reinforce that "villain" is spelled "villain", not "villian", as often as is necessary. Language needs people who are willing to take risks, make unsolicited submissions to literary journals, cope with 686 rejection letters, and then finally crack the champagne when some poor overworked editor sends an acceptance.

Language needs its disciples.

I know for a fact that my passion for the English language is ambitious. And maybe--maybe I'm wrong. I could be wrong! I might end up just like our stereotypical friend Hugh, working a job in advertising ten years from now, hating about 55% of it but not minding the other 45%, happily married with 2.5 kids and the half-edited manuscript of ONE NOVEL upstairs in the attic, collecting dust with the other castoffs of my foolish youth.

Or I might attain that goal of mine.

I might squeak through my first year of master's work, do better the second year, earn my MA in English, get into a nationally-known school for my doctoral work, almost have a nervous breakdown, eat a lot of ramen noodles, procrastinate forever on my thesis, eventually get my act together, and earn a Ph.D.

I might be a guardian.

Typing that sentence sends shivers up and down my spine...

I've always hated being pigeonholed. I hate being judged by what group I belong to, rather than who I am and what I accomplish. I am not Hugh, the cardigan-wearing Beats-loving-but-only-because-the-Beats-are-in incomprehensible-and-unnecessarily-offensive-poetry-writing stereotype. I am Ian DeJong, author, audience, teacher, student, passionately in love with all of these words, every one!

And I, Ian DeJong, I will one day be a guardian.

Here ends my apology for my love of the English language.

Long live belly-fires!