I am forty years old and I still don’t remember a time I haven’t seen Short Circuit, my favorite movie. The big emotional climax is where Number 5 and his programmer are trying to prove that he’s “alive”. And after several psychological tests, Newton Crosby (Ph.D.) gets the idea to see if he laughs spontaneously at a joke. It’s a beautiful moment with swelling music and epic victory.
Except I don’t understand the joke. I never have.
It seems to be something to do with Jewish humor. It’s either anti-semitic or poking gentle fun at Judaism. Does it have something to do with the fact Jews believe God is more involved with humans than Christians think (as demonstrated in Fiddler on the Roof)?
Best I can figure, either “whatever God wants, He keeps” means Jews believe God is so real He can scoop coins out from the sky. Or that Jews are greedy so they count on the fact that God won’t intervene, so they get to keep all the money.
Mark Twain said that examining humor is like dissecting a frog. You may learn something, but the frog is dead.
This is the first chick lit I’ve read in a while. The last one I think was The She-Hulk Diaries? And I only read that for a very specific giant green woman reason.
The setup is quick. In the first chapter, there’s a lot of telling, not showing, about exactly the state of her life: work, family, social. Boom, boom, boom. Going right to the high concept–that being the main character sees the ghost of her 108-year-old aunt at her funeral.
The problem with this book, which I was worried about (and my worries came true) are two big ghost cliches: 1) they’re assholes 2) they have indeterminate powers. It happens in Drop Dead Fred, Little Monsters, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Ghost Dad, and Field of Dreams. The plot moves forward because the ghost provokes the main character into doing something they don’t want to do. Usually, this is forcing them out of their comfort zone. (Not like robbing a bank, I mean. Although that would definitely be outside the comfort zone for most people.)
For example, the main character is a job headhunter. And the ghost makes her character shout and act stupid during an expensive lunch, losing her last potential client. The ghost is selfish, leaves her protege in the lurch more than once, talks about how great her old life was, and makes no effort to understand who she’s haunting or explore her new existence. Instead, she annoys a person.
This ruins her life, tears down the status quo, and forces the protagonist into change they don’t want to make. This is proper story-telling procedure, so it’s fine. It fills all the requirements. But it’s cliche. I know how the story’s going to progress before it does.
But knowing how the story goes isn’t necessarily bad–look at all those damn Hallmark Christmas movies. Same damn story every damn time. But they must be making money because they keep making them.
Seems like the whole point of chick lit is to watch the main character suffer. Have them be embarrassed or act in foolish ways, get pulled down a couple hundred pegs. Reminds me of the “Dramarama” section of Seventeen magazine where teen girls told their most humiliating stories, like throwing up in front of their crush. Maybe it’s a hurt/comfort niche combined with humor.
Anyway, I’ve gotten off track. Do I recommend this book? Eh, I’d give it a tentative yes. The beginning is cringey. The middle is pretty good. The ending wraps up too neatly. You won’t learn anything about the 1920s (in fact, they tend to treat it as this wonderful magical era where people drank and danced and were free and no one was racist or sexist or greedy or abusive). So you won’t learn any history. But you will watch a woman mortify herself and come out better for it. Like Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
It starts with a free verse poem, which I took to be an epigraph. Then another. Oh, a double epigraph, okay… Then another. Then another. Oh, the whole thing is like this?
You can finish this book in less than ninety minutes. The story is pretty much how you’d expect (what’s the name for the Christmas Carol trope where ghosts from a person’s past come back to teach them a lesson?).
Some might say it lacks depth, since it packs a small punch. But it’s a definite punch. It’s written by the same author as The Boy in the Black Suit, which I liked.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Well, it’s a long novel, so it gets a long review.
This was frequently cited in “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel“, so I decided to read it. It might be the last “classic” that I read, so I made a commitment to finish this one–the great American novel (along with The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird). But just because something’s old doesn’t mean it has value.
This book is about white people farming and suffering from time-sink fallacy–just because you spent a lot of time on something without making any progress doesn’t mean you should keep doing it. Like a video game where you just can’t make that jump. Here, it’s that the land is worth something to them. “Oh, I spent my blood, sweat, and tears on this land. I buried my brother over there. I dug my hands into it. Eight generations of my family lived here.” Well, now the land isn’t giving back.
Yeah, you may have invested a lot of time and money into your land, but now you’re not getting anything from it. Like keeping a car that doesn’t run and then getting angry when it’s repossessed. It’s the same reason people stay in dead relationships–you’re not getting anything from it, but moving out would be harder. Here, the farmers are using classic anger-and-denial defense mechanism, blaming the banks. Except you had a deal with the banks.
Once I wrote how I have no sympathy for the rich. This book gives me no sympathy for the poor. Half the book demonifies the businesses and banks ousting the poor farmers. But who sold you that land in the first place? It was their land in the first place. You basically got a small business loan. Then you have the guts to say “what do you mean I have to pay it back? I made no money this year, but it’s not my fault. No one bought my one-eyed cat statues. It’s not like I wasted it all on booze and bad investments.”
Well, sometimes you’re unlucky. That’s the risk you take in a job that depends on nature, a famously unpredictable mistress. Maybe a giant shipping boat gets stuck in the Suez Canal and your supplies don’t arrive on time. It’s possible to do nothing wrong, but you still have to pay the piper.
“Oh, the big bad banks are taking advantage of us. And so are these carpetbaggers. And car dealers. Woe is me, the shop paid only $15 for my precious child’s doll which has no intrinsic value to anyone but her. Everyone’s preying on me.” And then they steal and vandalize the shops because they’re desperate.
It sounds like I’m ragging on the oppressed and siding with big corporations, hypocritizing what I said before about the rich. Not so. I might sympathize with these people… if they weren’t so incompetent.
The Joads wait way too late to leave a bad situation. They drive to California with too many people, in a hacked-up car with no tires, going to a state they have no firm proof has their salvation, just a flyer with promises of a land of milk and honey. This is a novel about a bunch of rubes being fleeced. They act like turkeys staring up at the rain and wonder why they’re drowning. But that’s how capitalism works–it thrives on ignorance.
And then there’s other stuff the family does. Like they decide to bring their dog at the last minute (they actually have two dogs, but one doesn’t come so they leave it abandoned on the farm–that thing’s going to die). Then they stop at a gas station and let everyone out. The dog wanders by a highway and immediately gets run over and dies. No one notices it, no one calls for it. Pa’s response? “Guess I oughta tied him up.”
They say you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat their animals. And you could say “it was a different time, people treated animals differently back then, yadda yadda yadda.” My counter-argument is you could say that about any time–slavery, segregation, Indian reservations, sending the mentally disabled to sanitariums, fat-shaming. You could always say “that was just what you did back then”. Except if you take a close look, there are ALWAYS people who know better. There are always dissenters.
If you take the dog with you, you should take care of it. At least you could sell it if you’re low on money. Or eat it, if you’re really desperate. (Don’t get all eww on me–there’s an adult breastfeeding scene at the end of this book.)
Every chapter alternates between the story of the Joads and some essay/narrative around some aspect of this time period–farming, diners, traveling, jails. One chapter is themed around the old “man vs. machine” trope. “Horses are better than tractors because horses have a ‘living sense’, but a tractor is a cold dead thing.” John, are you saying farmers should prefer the implement that needs feeding, has half the longevity, one-quarter the power, parts that can’t be replaced, and dies from exhaustion if run straight for three hours? Get over yourself. No farmer, today or yesterday, would give up their implements for the old ox-and-plow.
A little about the main character: Tom Joad isn’t strong enough to be a main character. Even as a hub for other characters to revolve around. He doesn’t have anything to make me connect to him. He’s not one of the big five: sacrificing, principled, sympathetic, winsome, or smart.
The novel’s more of an ensemble piece. But even ensembles have a distinct main character. A Game of Thrones has hundreds, but the story revolves around Tyrion, Jon Snow, and Daenerys.
But Steinbeck doesn’t give Tom a strong enough presence to be a protagonist. What do I mean by that? I know what Tom Joad is meant to do, but I don’t know why. He’s meant to take Preacher Casy’s place (or Casy’s his mentor*) to become a leader for the people. To act as their voice, unite them, speak up for their rights. But why? We know he’s self-sacrificing, because he went to prison defending someone in a fight. But what does that have to do with becoming a union leader.
*By the way–fuck Preacher Casy. Steinbeck’s supposed to make me sympathetic toward a priest who raped a thirteen-year-old girl. And all that happened is he lost his job. I hope he’s burning in hell.
I’m not saying every book needs to have a likable character, but you don’t have to bore me with it. It seems like the trend in classic American literature is that everyone should be dumb stubborn assholes–The Old Man and the Sea, As I Lay Dying, Stranger in a Strangeland, Death of a Salesman, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye. At some point, someone decided “Great literature is about deplorable people. I have spoken.”
And in the ending, we don’t even see Tom Joad step up and make the big change he’s been building toward. He just says what he’s thinking about doing and wanders into the grass, never to be seen again. And the story keeps going without him. We’re left with the supporting characters.
Every time I opened this book I wondered “What am I supposed to get out of this. What am I supposed to learn? What is this supposed to teach me (as a writer)?”
Okay, there is one positive I can take away. Everything is so beautifully detailed. Every nuance. Every word is illustrative. Every tiny little facet of this time period is explored like a Beethoven symphony. To a fault. This would never fly with the short attention spans of today, and rightly so.
When I was writing my first novel, I got criticized for a scene where someone saves a turtle. It was motif-building and characterizing, but it didn’t have to do with the story. So when I read every detail about skinning a rabbit I have to ask “What does this have to do with the story? What does this add to the plot?”
So in the end, this book is an illustration of life in the dust bowl/depression years. But as entertainment or “this is what books should be”–no. I don’t know what place this has today, but it’s not for me.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (unfinished)
I think the person who wrote this might be crazy. Like Riddler/Morarity levels of planning.
You know those activity pages that are a big mess of threads and your goal is to follow the thread to the end? This is like that. There are sixteen main characters! Sixteen! For a children’s novel! Each has a backstory and needs and wants and who’s related to who and how and it’s impossible to keep them all straight. The narrative doesn’t allow getting used to one before using the other.
From The Stand, I learned that the best way to get audiences used to an ensemble cast is you introduce Character A, then Character B, then back to Character A, back to B, then introduce C. And so on. None of that here. This is just a mess of people. POVs switch mid-chapter without scene breaks. Even the movie Clue didn’t have so many characters.
Everyone’s in this “game” set up by a dead man for these people who live in an apartment building. They need to find out who killed the guy and divides them up into arbitrary pairs (though are they so arbitrary?) Events happen, characters are brought together, problems are solved, then it turns out none of that development mattered. They had the clues in front of them all along and just needed to talk to each other.
It’s weird. It’s non-linear. I don’t know how it won a Newberry. And I don’t recommend it.
Sweet by Emmy Laybourne
Is there such a genre as romance/horror? If not, this could start a trend. Or you could call it “horror among YouTubers”? Like Road Rules – Semester at Sea, I guess.
A drug company invents a new kind of combination food sweetener/weight loss supplement. Like you will eat and literally lose weight instead of gain it. Plus it makes food taste better. And they’re using this cruise ship to promote/publicize it. They’re so confident they paint a line on the ship’s hull when they leave to show everyone how much higher it is when they dock.
I wouldn’t say it’s horrific. More of a thriller, because there aren’t really supernatural elements. More like The Crazies or Cujo, since the allegory is sugar addiction. But those were good movies. Had good scares. This takes a long time to get going, and the precursor is the romance I mentioned. It has a very chick-lit beach read kind of feel. I can see reading this on a cruise itself. If you were the Wednesday Addams/Lydia Deetz (come to think of it, any Winona Ryder role) type, you’d like it.
I think I’m too old for this kind of book, for young love stories. I see them and I’m like everyone reacting to The Little Mermaid now.
I’m forty. I’ve been married for fifteen years. I’m on antidepressants. I get no thrill from hand-holding anymore. A younger me might’ve.
Also, I knew the ending so all I saw was Room, where a monster is keeping her prisoner. Room and its concept terrifies me. I feel like the book should have explored that aspect more–the PTSD that comes from being trapped in a single place for all your life. Like Plato’s allegory of the cave. This book puts a syrupy family drama onto it that feels facetious.
The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton (unfinished)
I love Crichton. I famously brag that I finished Jurassic Park in a day when I was twelve (although now that I have the Internet, I see that’s no big accomplishment). So I was looking forward to this.
But I was worried that it’s also his most derivative. Crichton is famous for science fiction with a realism twist. This just looks like a straight Western. No science added.
The beginning has a ton of infodumping about the era. In fact, each chapter necessitates some infodumping about Victorian history just to explain why XYZ character was doing this or the mechanics of ABC setting just to explain the behavior. This takes you out of the story and makes it feel like a textbook. Is this narrative non-fiction?
Then there’s a static narrative of our heist heroes casing the joint or meeting up or making plans. There’s no character development. Even Ocean’s Eleven had the George Clooney/Julia Roberts subplot. Also, every character had some charisma. This is dry as hell. Maybe it’s better for history buffs who like texts over fiction.
Then I read ahead and it really lost me when one of the targets, they get to him through the fact that he has syphilis and he thinks sleeping with a twelve-year-old girl will get rid of it, which was the style at the time. I don’t care if that was the age of consent back then or that’s what backward Victorians believed. I don’t want to read about it.
Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella (unfinished)
This is just not for me and that’s fine. I am so far removed from the subject matter, I couldn’t tell whether it was good or bad. I know emotionally I hate it, but that’s because I don’t understand it. The author throws around so many British labels and stores that have no meaning to me, it might as well be using Klingon.
That’s because she’s not really a shopaholic, more of a fashion-aholic. She notices what everyone’s wearing and characterizes them based on that. The first few chapters are about her bending over backward to buy a scarf from a fancy store. So fancy, she saves the bag and hangs it up in her room. She doesn’t want “stuff”, she wants “image”.
She also doesn’t seem competent in anything. A good character should be good at something in life, even if they’re bad at everything else. Ross from Friends is a terrible person, but at least he’s respectably winsome. Dwight Shrute might be a bootlicker but at least he’s good at his job. Dolores Umbridge is deplorable but she got the Hogwarts Express running on time. But this shopaholic, she’s not heroic or principled or sympathetic or smart or charming.
This is like my article on dance. I don’t understand this universe, so I hate it. But rather than rate it low, I’ll just leave it for the person it is meant for and move on.
I was talking with my wife last night about scary movies. Carrie came up. I said didn’t understand what scared her about it because I saw Carrie as a revenge/comeuppance story, not a horror movie. Then she stared at me, horrified. And I asked what I could say next that wouldn’t end with me sleeping on the couch.
Because Carrie is a powerful moment in story-telling. Maybe not the strongest, but definitely a pulse. It jumpstarts Stephen King’s influence in horror and he’s no stranger to the “revenge” plot. He also wrote Rage (which literally is about a disenfranchised student taking over a classroom with a gun) and Roadwork (a man massacres the construction team bulldozing his house because of the gub’mint) and The Running Man and Thinner.
The movie, some say, surpasses the book. It’s one of the top films of its decade, got Oscar noms, and is known for the best jump scare in cinema ever. Without it, there’s no Heathers or Better Off Dead.
Also, keep in mind, this is way before Columbine, when high school mass murder became a national pastime. Carrie came out forty-five years ago. The book two years before that. The original idea far before that, probably in the sixties. (And the musical in 1988, but we don’t talk about that.)
But here’s the question: did Carrie White do right or wrong? Was she justified in killing her entire high school class?
BULLYING – WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN NO ONE CARES
On the surface, it seems the answer is “no”. Carrie’s retribution goes too far for what they did to her. No matter the situation, no one has the right to take someone else’s life away (unless it’s immediate self-defense).
But what is Carrie supposed to do? What are her options? Is she supposed to talk to them? Sit each girl down and tell them how they hurt her feelings?
Or is she just supposed to endure it until she gets out of high school? Just “take it like a man”? As if this is some punishment she deserves.
Because there is no good solution to dealing with bullies. This article tells it better than I can, but it outlines what you already know. Tell an adult? What are they going to do? Walk with you 24/7? Get the law involved? There’re no laws regarding bullying. Kids are left to fend for their own.
Look at the catalyst event–the gym teacher punishes the bullies, which motivates them to seek revenge. Not on the teachers who took away their prom tickets, but on Carrie. You can’t drill empathy with push-ups. The principal can’t even get Carrie’s name right–keeps calling her “Cassie”.
Ignoring bullies doesn’t make them go away. Either they know they’re getting to you (because you’ve been told to “just ignore it”) or they don’t care about a reaction–they do it for their own self-gratification. You can’t run away. Certainly Carrie can’t, being A) a teenager B) having no money C) having an overbearing mom. In fact, Carrie’s worst fear is living the rest of her life with her mother, gaining weight, getting lonelier & lonelier.
You can’t fight back. Think about it–did any fight you have in high school resolve the situation? For one thing, that’s just not “how it’s done” in the girls’ world of 1974. For another, you might not win. For another another, there will be consequences. There’s the possibility of a permanent injury for one (one of my HS teachers told a story about a kid in a fight whose eye was hanging out of its socket, dangling by the optic nerve). For another, both of you get punished. Because no one cares to dig deeper into who started the fight or why it came about.
In Carrie, we are witness to two major incidents of bullying. One is where they throw the tampons at her in the shower. The other is the bucket of blood at the prom. But we can presume there were many many more incidents before this, given everyone’s behavior and the “carte blanche” the school gives them, given they fail to recognize any wrong-doing. “Girls will be girls.”
But bullying is insidious. It’s only been recognized as a problem recently, thanks to Columbine, various other school shootings, and documentaries like “Bully“.
Keep in mind bullying is not about power, it’s about pride. Pride is the domination of the self over others*. The bullies’ pride comes from believing that they are not lowlifes like Carrie. They reinforce that by abusing her and the lack of consequences of that abuse proves they were right. Until consequences come. But rather than accept them, the bullies double down so their beliefs don’t have to change.
*In fact, all sins are about power and abuse of it.
Gluttony – power over sustenance/nutrients/abundance (the consumption of food when you don’t need it is a demonstration of power over those who have no food)
Anger – power over the power of others (e.g. power over those you hate, either those above you on the totem pole, like politicians, or below you, like immigrants or other races)
Sloth – power over lack of action (a.k.a. the power of choosing to do nothing)
Pride- power over the self and others’ perception of yourself
Greed – power over material objects
Envy – giving power over external desires
Lust – giving power to internal desires
And you now know the acronym I use to remember the seven deadly sins — GASP GEL.
King was remarkably prescient about all this. But was that his intention?
THE KING”S INTENT
Carrie (the character) is partially based on a real-life girl Stephen King knew in elementary school. A “peculiar girl from a peculiar family”. A girl everyone wanted to stay in her station.
“[T]he girl had one change of clothes for the entire school year, and all the other kids made fun of her. I have a very clear memory of the day she came to school with a new outfit she’d bought herself. She was a plain-looking country girl, but she’d changed the black skirt and white blouse – which was all anybody had ever seen her in – for a bright-colored checkered blouse with puffed sleeves and a skirt that was fashionable at the time. And everybody made worse fun of her because nobody wanted to see her change the mold.”
From “On Writing”, I think
What do you do with that? What are you supposed to do when society itself won’t let you up? They make fun of your clothes, but when get better ones, they treat you worse.
That’s the character. What about the plot? Strangely, fear of student-led mass murder was not the original theme. In Danse Macabre, King says:
“Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power and what men fear about women and women’s sexuality… which is only to say that, writing the book in 1973, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. The book is, in its more adult implications, an uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality.”
I take that to mean the fear factor is men’s anxiety of women getting power (remember — this is the seventies). What happens when girls realize they are women. What if they pull the whole rotten society down? It’s a worst-case scenario, but that’s what horror movies do. This means Carrie’s actions are justified if you think the world tree needs its misogynist branches severely pruned.
Often, King’s stories are about monsters all around. In Pet Sematary, it’s not the people coming back to life, it’s the people who bury them there in the first place because they can’t deal with their grief. In The Stand, it’s not the virus, it’s the psychos and selfish ones left (as in any apocalypse story). In It, it’s not Pennywise the Clown, it’s the adults of Derry that cause the fear that Pennywise exploits (okay maybe it’s a little bit Pennywise). My point is, there’s no one you can turn a blind eye to.
Which means we have to determine what kind of story this is to glean its meaning. In Save the Cat, there’s no category for vengeance stories. It’s not a Golden Fleece or Whydunit or an Institutionalized. Revenge, as a motivation, can fit into any category.
SAVE THE TELEKINETIC CAT
I can’t decide whether what Carrie is a Superherostory, an Out of the Bottle story, or Rites of Passage.
Superhero stories have three key elements: a special power, a nemesis, and a curse.
The special power is obviously telekinesis. She didn’t have to work for it, but she does have to learn how to use it. Some clues imply that her emotional trauma causes the power to manifest, but there’s no firm evidence.
This emotional trauma is the curseshe must suffer for having these powers. You could say it’s the curse of womanhood, since getting her period is what triggers her powers. But bullying is what she has to put up with, like Harry Potter being hunted by Voldemort or Superman having to balance his alien/human life. The difference is Carrie succumbs to this curse. With great power comes great responsibility not to kill your entire high school.
The king bully, the nemesis, is her mother. She’s supposed to be Carrie’s salvation, but instead, she directly hammers her back down whenever she shows an inkling of rebellion. She represents the “old way” of woman, that they must be disciplined and subservient and everything is sinful. But here’s her daughter going out with boys and wearing make-up and doing all these progressive things. She lacks faith in her daughter.
This lack of faith drives the nemesis to destroy the hero. (That’s why she’s so mean–if Carrie’s mother really believed she was right, she wouldn’t need to tyrannize Carrie to prove it.) And when Carrie fights back, that faith is shattered. The only recourse is to kill her.
But Out of the Bottle has similar elements: a hero deserving of magic, a spell, and a lesson to learn.
Carrie, our hero definitely deserves her magic–she’s been powerless all her life, at school and at home. Her telekinesis forms part of her “B story” as she learns about the new world where she has clout. How she came by these powers is irrelevant. (Someone somewhere mentions genes, but who cares. It’s what do you do with it that’s important.)
And finally is the lesson. Carrie learns two. First is at the prom: humans gonna human. Her mom was right–they were all gonna laugh at her after all. So there was no point in reaching for something she was never going to get.
But then her mom tries to kill her, so her way certainly isn’t it (the second lesson). Therefore the only solution is take herself out–she can’t live in a world that doesn’t allow her to, similar to Terminator 2: Judgement Day or the deleted ending of The Butterfly Effect.
(Fun fact: in the movie, she telekinetically collapses the house on herself. In the book and 2013 remake, she summons a meteor storm that crushes her house, like some Final Fantasy spell.)
Then I looked up Rites of Passage. That includes a life problem (a universal challenge that’s an unavoidable part of life — in this case, high school), attacking the problem in the wrong way (trusting others like Tommy and Sue, letting them build up her confidence, ignoring the warnings of her mother, which all lead to Carrie murdering four hundred people) and acceptance (a solution to dealing with this stage in life… which, in this case, is Carrie’s suicide. There is no place in the world for her to be happy, so she destroys herself).
It’s all about what key elements are most at the forefront. I don’t think it’s Superherobecause Carrie is not about sacrificing personal comfort to become the people’s champion. And if it’s Rites of Passage, the lesson is pretty bleak. That means it’s thematically about wish fulfillment.
There aren’t too many good movies where it’s all about the hero taking revenge. It’s too hard to make a hero sympathetic who’s committing murder left and right. That’s the villain’s rag. Thus they’re relegated to one of two types.
Right-leaning shoot-em-ups: Death Wish, John Wick, Road House, or Joker
Comic book levels of ridiculousness: Kill Bill, I Spit On Your Grave, or Oldboy
Maybe The Princess Bride‘s squeaks out, but Inigo Montoya is a supporting character. I did come across one recently that I loved: Promising Young Woman. It’s not a conservative fantasy or a cartoonish romp. What does this mean for cinema? I don’t know. And I’m getting sidetracked.
Carrie is a tragic hero, like Sweeney Todd or Hamlet. Their killing’s okay because they seek justice where no justice can come. Hamlet’s murdering uncle is king so there’s no way he’s going to trial. Same for Judge Turpin. There’s no fairness in this world, so we have to get it where we can. Because secretly, we want all bad guys dead. We just don’t want to bloody our hands to do it.
Don’t believe me? Heroes kill people all the time, you just turn a blind eye to it. Batman leg grabs a guy like Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat, cracks his head into a bell, then throws him down an 800-foot cathedral shaft. What are you going to say? Gravity killed him?
Then in the fourth movie (Batman & Robin) he throws a bunch of Two-Face’s coins up in the air while he’s precariously balanced on a girder. And of course, Two-Face stumbles and plummets to his death. Like, what did Batman think was going to happen when he did that?
That seems to be the go-to way that cinema gets rid of bad guys without making the hero tread those murky moral waters. Spider-man could have totally grabbed the guy who fell out the window.
The whole theme of Captain America: Civil War is the Sokovia Accords — heroes are making too much collateral damage and people are dying. It’s accidental, but it brings up the question of whether the Avengers have too much power.
Heroes like Deadpool, Wolverine, and The Punisher act realistic to their villains. Because not everyone deserves to live. These people aren’t going to have some kind of redemption day. But Superman twists Zod’s neck as he’s about to laser a lobby full of people and everyone loses their minds. The audience wants to have it both ways.
The whole crux of the “Under the Red Hood” comic arc in Batman is that Jason Todd (Robin), who was literally killed by the Joker, is pissed that Batman keeps letting Joker live. It’s just a perpetual cycle of he’s arrested, he escapes and kills people, he’s arrested, he escapes and kills people. One might argue the justice system is letting him out, but the whole point of Batman is that he can operate outside the broken system of justice. That’s the point of any superhero. (Related article: Why Can’t Superheroes Kill?)
I swear I’m trying to relate this back to Carrie.
My point is heroes get this “pass” because deep down, we know not all life is sacred. You know it and I know it. Do cops think life is sacred? Certainly not the black ones. Do you think the terrorists from 9/11 believed life was sacred?
Do you think the terrorists’ lives themselves were sacred? Let me ask you this: if you had the chance to save Mohamed Atta‘s life right before his hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, would you do it? I can guess your answer. (And no, you can’t save him so he stands trial–he’s teleported to an African savannah or somewhere he’s safe and out of jurisdiction).
So if heroes don’t think all life is sacred, why should Carrie? Why should you?
All these people are the worst kind of people (like I said–King writes about monsters upon monsters). Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan aren’t going to be missed. They’re not on their way to promising careers as doctors. Hell, not even good enough to be TikTok influencers (if that was a thing at the time).
All of them (except Sue, who becomes the final girl), take great delight in the misery of Carrie. At different degrees, sure, but they do it. And taking pleasure from someone else’s pain is the definition of evil. It’s not whether they deserve to die, it’s whether they deserve to live.
You simply can’t go through what Carrie went through and come out the other side a normal upstanding young woman.
Through the story, Carrie goes from the lowest point in her life to the happiest. She starts by cowering naked in a corner of the shower, at her most vulnerable, being abused and assaulted by people who are supposed to be her friends and peers
At the end, she’s on a date with the cutest boy in school, dancing, dressed and beautiful like the girls she wants to be like. There she is on stage, crowned as prom queen. Everyone loves and praises her. It’s like a dizzying dream.
Then it’s all taken out from her. She’s standing in front of everyone, covered in blood, like she was before. They’ve all gone from cherishing her to laughing at her. She’s right back where she started in the shower. You can’t go from the best moment in your life to the worst so quickly and not expect something to snap. The human mind simply isn’t fixed for that.
I read something in a book recently that sums this up perfectly.
“[H]uman beings have limits. And you can say all you want about the world being unfair and people rising above the atrocities done to them, but everyone is different. Some are hard as steel, but some are fragile, and you never know which one you’re going to get.”
-from Memory Man by David Baldacci
The thing about vengeance is you can’t stop. It gets bigger and bigger until it takes out everyone. Maybe that’s why Batman keeps dissuading Robin from killing Two-Face in Batman & Robin. Maybe that’s why he has his vow against killing. Because once he jumps into that abyss, there’s no jumping back out. It destroys your ability to differentiate the guilty from the innocent. As suddenly everyone looks like they were part of the crime.
“The person who pursues revenge should dig two graves.”
So Carrie is like a shockwave. First, she takes out those who were mean to her. The ones who wronged her. Then those who laughed at her. Then everyone.
It’s like a rolling boulder. And the only way to stop it is to run in front and get killed. That’s why so many vengeance plots end with the protagonist dying at the same time. (e.g. Ravenous, The War of the Roses, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, The Prestige, The Hateful Eight. Oh, spoilers.)
Add some temporary insanity to that, and you have a gym full of high school student soup. He who fights monsters must ensure they do not become one themself.
The sad thing is, if Carrie had done nothing and waited until she could get out of the crap town she was in, the crap high school, the crap house, the crap life, things might have gotten better for her. But when you’re pushed against the wall like that, with no ways to answer back, how do you act? You might say Carrie acted wrong. I say “what options did she have?”
What Carrie did wasn’t right. But if I was on the jury at her trial, I would vote “not guilty.”
Dolly is a jack-of-all-trades. She can do anything–drug running, body disposal, theft, driver, pickpocketing, counterfeiting, surveillance, con jobs–anything you want she can get it. She works for all the families. Everyone in the community knows her and loves her, even though she’s not a don. It’s kind of like Homer’s organized crime fantasy in “Last Exit to Springfield“.
No matter what, you can always call on her to take care of it. But Dolly wants a permanent position as an underboss, and only one man can give it.
Enter Vandergelderelli, an elder mob boss who’s too stupid to quit and too stubborn to die. He has a job for Dolly–take out Lady Molloy, his chief rival for the Yonkers territory. And he wants it done at the wedding of his daughter Ermintrude at New York’s Il Harmonio to show the other families that Yonkers is his now and forever.
But Lady Molloy is Dolly’s best friend. They were associates in the streets of New York together, known as the Hatters. She sings about this conflict to herself.
Two idiot cronies of Vandergelderelli, Cornelio and Balbino overhear Dolly’s lament and decide they can do the hit themselves. This’ll promote them big time, showing they can do something Dolly can’t. They’ve never left Yonkers (Vandergelderelli keeps them under tight wraps), but they can’t stay forever.
What they don’t hear is Dolly telling Vandergelderelli that Molloy isn’t the top boss of her family. The real puppeteer is Ernestina–a politician/business mogul. She’s the one pulling the strings. Take her out and Molloy’s entire empire goes with. (Of course, there is no Ernestina and Dolly doesn’t know where she’s going to find one).
Molloy and her consigliere Mina run through a typical day as a don, hearing requests, carrying out punishments, extorting men of power. But she wants out. Being in the mafia has taken away her family, her friends, shot her dog, and stole her bible. But her empire is too big to just up and leave. If her enemies don’t find her, her friends would.
Cornelio and Balbino follow Dolly to New York. “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” means something different in this context. Hoping to make a name for themselves while they’re there, they use money stolen from their boss to go to strip clubs, break cars, bribe cops, etc. (You know, stuff you can do in Grand Theft Auto).
During their spree, they stop at a hat shop and try to extract some protection money, not knowing it’s the headquarters of Lady Molloy. She immediately realizes they’re incompetent nobodies, but since they have no name, they’re the perfect stooges to carry out a fake hit. Cornelio and Balbino aren’t so sure about this. They’ve always been petty thugs. They’ve never killed anyone before. “And you still won’t”, says Molloy.
But before Molloy has a chance to give them the details, Dolly and Vandergelderelli come to call, since it’s traditional for a don to pay their respects when in someone’s territory. Cornelio and Balbino hide and are almost caught (especially when Vandergelderelli demonstrates his prowess with a tommy gun). Dolly claims that Cornelio may be a low-level enforcer in Yonkers, but a top capo in New York. Yonkers is just where he lays low. Vandergelderelli barely believes it and says the next time he sees Cornelio, he’ll get the kiss of death.
Meanwhile, Dolly arranges for an actress friend (one she did some favors for) to pretend to be Ernestina.
Everyone meets at Ermintrude and Ambrose’s wedding. There’s pomp and circumstance, as in the movie. Vandergelderelli figures out that Ernestina’s not the real thing. Dolly tells him that she’s not working for him anymore because he’s a boorish crude man who gives a bad name to the name of organized crime.
Cornelio chickens out and fails the hit. But Vandergelderelli succeeds, with his tommy gun. A riot breaks out. Cornelio, Balbino, and Mina all escape, taking the body of Molloy with them.
The next day Vandergelderelli wallows in his crapulence, his enemies dead, though at the cost of his daughter’s happiness, his friends, and so on. But then Ermintrude, Ambrose, Cornelio, Balbino, Lady Molloy, and Mina all show up. They stab him in a Julius Caesar-style assassination and leave him bleeding on the stairs in some symbology of a fallen king.
Here’s a controversial opinion: dance is the most pointless form of art.
I don’t get the connection between the medium and the evocation of some kind of emotion or message. There’s music playing and people flailing their bodies at the same time. They look like apes in a zoo.
But say you hate ballet and you’re uncultured and unsophisticated. Forget that every one was written a hundred years ago (have you ever heard of a new ballet?). Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker. Why are they still performing dances from antiquated cultures? Everyone thinks Shakespeare was the greatest, but people still write new plays.
Do you know any dancers? Even on Dancing with the Stars they name the judges, but besides the celebrities, can you identify anyone’s last name? The last one I remember is Mikhail Baryshnikov, and that’s only because of the Cold War.
I’ve been watching dancing in one form or another all forty years of my life. And I feel safe saying it’s timeworn and meaningless. Moreover, I think it’s unhealthy for our culture–both for the dancers and the audience.
This all comes from watching the first episode of En Pointe, a docuseries about the School of American Ballet on Disney+, to keep up with Escape from Vault Disney. It’s everything you think it would be and worse, but there are two big takeaways.
One, it’s a fluff piece, basically a commercial for the SAB. Although I don’t know why they’d need it since they only accept 100 students per year.
Two, they never show any dark side. No one loses an audition. Everyone’s smiley and hopeful and working hard and has no obstacles besides their own drive to succeed. There’s no Black Swans here. There’s no pedo-teachers. No stage moms. No body image issues. No elitism or favoritism.
Now if you don’t know that it’s Disney’s disposition, when it comes to historical-record films, to remove any dark side, leaving only what’s sweet and nice and lovely. Given how milquetoast everyone seems, how hard the kids are worked, how judgmental the teachers are… what are we not seeing?
Here’s the thing about dance–it’s naturally exclusive. Only thin white lithe women and some men. No body diversity. No racial diversity. And it’s not like women of size can’t be flexible. I know they can be. If you’ve ever watched a dance class, you see rows of body-perfect white and blonde children in the same uniforms like a little army. Something a Nazi would dream of.
All the helpers look the same too. Why? Because they were previously dancers themselves. That’s the second thing–dance is an ouroboros. A serpent eating its own tail. Why is that? Because you’re done at twenty-two. Because your body simply can’t move the way you need it to for dance.
There’s no future in it. It’s not like being a football player or personal trainer where you can make a career out of using your body. If you want to stay in dance, you have to do something tangential like theater management or choreographer.
Because you have learned no other skills because to be in dance you have to dedicate your EVERY SPARE MOMENT to it. No other hobbies, no other activities, no other interests. You want to have any fun in dance, they only accept those who commit every last free bit of time to it. The parents too, since they’ve got to drive them around to every meet and practice from the age of three onward.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it could be a hobby. I hate that every sport requires you to start at age three to make Wayne Gretzkys and Michael Jordans out of everyone. You can’t just play casually or recreationally, you’ve got to make this your one and only sport and can’t join midway through. That the important thing is to enjoy the act of it.
I’ve learned from writing, if you’re doing it to see your book on the shelf or your name in a newspaper, you’ll never achieve your goal. You have to enjoy the act of writing, of creating worlds and characters and putting sentences in their mouth, one word after the other, and then fixing those words so they’re in the right order. If you aren’t into that, you’re going to have a bad time.
And there are kids who like that sort of thing. Who like being serious, being flawless, being the best at something. They’re like rules lawyers for body position. I believe it’s okay for children to do performance work… if they want to do it. It’s difficult, not for certain types, just like martial arts isn’t for everybody.
It’s easy for a lot of kids to come out screwed up, so you need a really supportive family. One that’s almost got to put 100% of their energy into that kid, ignoring themselves and any siblings they might have. And a balance of work and school means not a lot of free time. If you can’t handle that, then you get results like Dana Plato and Drew Barrymore. But if you can, then you can get some incredible talent, like Haley Joel Osment and Anna Kendrick and Natalie Portman.
The difference here is that the films and songs and such that come out are something I can appreciate. You get The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or The Bad Seed or Stand By Me or even Home Alone. You can get Tiffany and Debbie Gibson and Selena Gomez and even Justin Bieber. I don’t like it, but I understand it. Dance I don’t get. I don’t get how it’s trying to communicate ideas or messages through body movement and music.
As you may have noticed, I’ve mostly written about what it takes to produce the art and not about whether the art itself is worth it. Which I can’t really say because I don’t get it. It doesn’t last like a sculpture or a book. It can’t be recorded in an instructional form like music can (or can it — is there standard notation for choreography?). Sure, there’s an abundance of athleticism. But we’ve got American Ninja Warrior and Olympic gymnastics for that.
But even if you love dance, I don’t think it’s worth it for what you get. Too much bottom of the iceberg for not enough top. It uses up the people who get into it and spits them out after giving all of their body, all of their youth. They’ve learned no other skills. What do you do when you “graduate” dance? Teach? Then it’s just a perpetual cycle (see previous “ouroboros” comment).
At least in other sports you learn teamship. In dance, you compete with your friends for the top spot, like Survivor. These are bad lessons to teach.
It’s like dance is it’s own little subculture or secret society… which I wouldn’t have a problem if it wasn’t so A) time-demanding B) expensive C) elitist D) exclusionary. Know what other secret societies have those characteristics? Cults.
It’s a dying art, but just because it’s old doesn’t mean it has value. Something that’s hard and time consuming doesn’t automatically give it worth. Reading all of Homestuck is hard, but you don’t get a prize for it. You don’t get XBox achievements in real life.
Somebody’s Gotta Do It: Because Civilization Won’t Save Itself and Other Truths about Democracy I Learned by Winning a Lowly Local Office by Adrienne Martini
I was honestly scared to read this because it talks so much about the dark times of 2016. That confident optimism (“oh, we’ll get our first woman president. No one will vote for this reality show clown who’s gone bankrupt three times.”) then shock is what provokes this book. Which is exactly why I wanted to read it. I get so frustrated reading tweet after tweet about the bad guys getting away with it, sowing discord and doubt, all to keep power and money, their secrets and sins.
We all have an opinion, but very few of us take action to accomplish it. Maybe because the only actions you can do at a citizen level are “donate money” and “spread awareness” and “contact your representatives”. Spreading awareness is worthless because it’s too easy–pressing a button to Tweet or Instagram or Tik-Tok involves no effort. And there’s only so much money I can donate. If I gave to all the charities and foundations and causes that ask for it, that say “giving money is the best thing you can do for us”, I’d have nothing left (coupled with the fact that if you give once, they bug you even more). And do you think Mitch McConnell reads a single letter he gets? He doesn’t give a shit about his people, only his party.
So the only way to make change is to get the power to make change. That means being in an elected position. I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think about running for an office. But everyone does. Everyone thinks everything would be perfect if only they were in charge. I’ve discussed some politics and political science on this blog before, like the Bill and Bob billboards and other posts. So I read this to learn what running for local office in a basic suburb is like. Would it give me the kick in the pants I need? Would I be turned off from all the horrible ethics violations that happen even at low-level politics?
This book confirmed that I don’t have the personality for it. For one thing, you have to schmooze. Do a lot of door-to-door knocking and cold-calling. I’m cold, independent, used charisma as my dump stat, bad at talking off the cuff/improv, and I look funny. My brains are suitable for office, but I don’t have the personality to lead. I’d be better as an official’s assistant or speechwriter. I know that sounds egotistical, but that’s how I feel.
Anyway, none of this tells you about the book itself, except to say that it accomplishes what it sets out to do–tells you what it’s like to run for a community office in a small town. It’s not that hard, but also not that easy. This is about the way systems work, both the election process and the council chambers. The book is split into those two parts, with the second half going to great lengths to explain the limits on their power due to A) the way the system is set up (like that coroners are elected–you can’t fire an incompetent elected coroner) and B) the abilities and budget are determined by those in higher office than them.
But the author of this book is a good person who lays it out on the line. I was hoping for more stories of life after caucus. More stories and anecdotes, instead of dry explanations of what A, B, and C means. But I wish she was on my town council. I think, as far as local politics, the fact that you care enough to attempt to unseat an incumbent is enough to get my vote. The best politics happens when old dried blood is removed and fresh blood moves in. (That wasn’t meant to sound so vampiric.)
The Keep by F. Paul Wilson
A horror novel from the 1980s that’s not Stephen King. I didn’t think such a thing existed.
The introduction isn’t enticing, and it’s a product of its time. We start with a prologue containing characters that don’t show up again until the 33% mark. Every character, every building gets a physical description, especially when they don’t need one. They’re all 1940’s German — everyone’s going to look the same.
It’s okay. In the middle, it starts delivering the promise of the premise. The author avoids a sludgy middle by introducing new characters and some plot twists, as opposed to keeping the mystery boxes locked and stringing the reader along. It would make a pretty good movie–I love seeing Nazis killed in horrific ways by a monster, especially when most times the Nazis are the monster (Overlord, Dead Snow, Puppet Master, Hellboy).
Rule of Cool – Know Your Roll by Matthew Siege (unfinished)
After failing with Warlock: Reign of Blood, I was hoping this LitRPG would redeem the fledgling genre. I wanted it to succeed. Felicia Day was promoting it. It had a fun cover, fun goblins.
But boy is it overwritten. The content is fine. Entertaining. There’s just so much of it. I read for an hour and still wasn’t at any semblance of a goal or a problem to overcome. It takes place in a video game world, like Warlock: Reign of Blood, but either no one knows they’re in a video game or they accept it as normal. I can’t tell.
The irritating thing is the narrative or character thoughts that constantly interrupt the dialoge. There’s a tag or an action on every line, like an over-directed, over-produced Disney Channel Original Movie. Imagine if the camera held on every line so the actor could shift their eyebrows or purse their lips or make some snarky expression. Slows the pacing, doesn’t it? Overlengthens the content, doesn’t it? Ruins the flow, doesn’t it? There’s so much that I forgot what the point of the conversation was.
I ended up stopping at fifty percent. I tried, I really tried with this one. I wanted to like it, but every time I opened it up, I hated it and I hated myself. Life is too short for bad books.
The sad thing is this isn’t a bad book. The characters are great. The humor is great. But it suffers from two big flaws. One is that I have no idea what the stakes are. Something about a Smash and a Rift and a Raid and other Important Capitalized Things and it’s never made clear what the heroes are doing or why they’re doing it. The main character just falls into it, and her desire to be a hero with free will and powers is lukewarm at best. She makes quippy remarks and goes along the ride. If I don’t understand the protagonist’s problem, I can’t empathize. And if the protagonist doesn’t care about their own problem, I certainly won’t.
The second is these dice rolls. Certain interactions with objects or people are determined by Random Number Generators (that they can see?) that dictate whether something is accomplished or not, and how successfully it’s completed. This was in the other LitRPG book I read and I don’t understand the point of it. A) The author can engineer the roll to direct the story. Not like I can audit his work. B) The only narrative reason for a dice roll to determine fate is if you’re not in control of your body. And I’m pretty sure the characters in the book are, unless this is some genius metafictional post-literary intertextual approach that’s going over my head, but I doubt it.
In Dungeons and Dragons, the function of dice rolls is to add randomness to the narrative. This makes it exciting because it’s in the moment. No one knows if you’ll succeed or fail that desperate hit on a troll or convince the bad guy you’re just another guard or make that jump over the pit. That means quick change, improvisation, changing plans. That’s fun and exciting. But a book is prepared and preplanned. It’s linear and set in stone. So what’s the point? Success or failure is based on the character’s actions, not random chance. The author didn’t start writing, roll some dice, then go “uh oh, got a critical fail. Better think of something else.” Can you imagine if Captain Ahab threw a spear at Moby Dick and got a nat 20? Well, the book would be a lot shorter, so maybe it’s not all bad.
In the Woods by Tana French
It has a good introduction, creative imagery. The text is clever, smart. It’s all-around a five star book.
It’s going to sound weird, but what made me fall in love with the book was the sentences. They’re fantastic. Each one is well-constructed, but they always communicate new ideas. Things I hadn’t thought of before. There’re no attempts at trying to be The Dutch House or Where the Crawdads Sing.
My usual problem with “whydunits” is that the detectives don’t change. It would be wrong to say they are not character-based, but their fatal flaw is also why they’re such a good detective. Good whydunits have a dark turn, where the hero has to break their integrity/personal code/innocence to solve the case. The desire for justice is so strong, the detective has to decide how much they pay of themselves. And sometimes the detective can overpay and ruin the whole thing.
Anyway, my point is mysteries don’t have typical story protagonists. They are the same person from the beginning of the story to the end. This is why there are so many mystery series–the story changes but the main character doesn’t. He/she doesn’t get fixed, doesn’t learn anything. He/she already has all the tools to solve the problem (which is really someone else’s problem).
They are single solid archetypes–Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Jessica Fletcher, Shawn Spencer, even the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Encyclopedia Brown is same person in book 1 as he is in book 237. Columbo is still a trenchcoated grumpy old man. Sherlock Holmes is still an asshole.
This is not that story. This is a story about a character. A character who wants something, who has a problem, and a need to learn a life lesson. In other words, not your typical mystery. Read it.
Mr. Sulu Grabbed My Ass, and Other Highlights from a Life in Comics, Novels, Television, Films and Video Games by Peter David
As wonderful and funny as anything written by Peter David, who is one of my famous authors. Unlike all my other favorite authors who are mainstream, Peter David is a name most don’t recognize in usual company. He’s written comic books, novels, and TV shows.
This is definitely a memoir, not a biography. It jumps around from memory to memory, telling stories, mostly of comics. I know David of novels and only a few comic trade paperbacks. He also tends not to name years, so it’s hard to tell the context of certain stories, when he’s writing The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, etc. and knowing the historical context of these events (cause it’s hard to gauge things pre Spider-verse or MCU). It’s best intended for fans of Marvel comics, conventions, and the science fiction fandom. There won’t be much about his writing style or creative process.
So The Eternals trailer came out a day or two ago.
I’ve never seen anything about Eternals from the comics or Legendary or video games or anything else. I’m coming into this trailer fresh and without bias. And I’m telling you, this movie’s going to be a hard sell for me.
The trailer is pretty vague, but from what I gather, some aliens come to primitive Earth (proto-Sumeria, I’m thinking?) in a big-ass triangle ship. They settle down and integrate into society, controlling human development over the centuries (I guess they’re immortal… oh, that’s why they’re called Eternals, I get it now).
Overall, the concept sounds similar to Thor — a family drama starring a race for whom magic and science are interchangeable. But at least there A) no one wanted to rule Earth B) Thor was a character. It’s a King Arthur story about learning what it takes to be a leader. I don’t see any characters here.
I haveseen the idea before–in Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, Men In Black, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Transformers, and Futurama. Most importantly, Marvel’s already tried this with the disastrous Inhumans. Note that most of those examples are comedic media, which means this trope is A) overused B) hard to make work in a dramatic setting. And I know why.
This movie is about people who are stronger, smarter, faster, better than us. Not regular people like Tony Stark or Steve Rogers who started from a bottom and learned some harsh lessons, but aliens in a position of privilege. Maybe because they need a planet to live on, they manipulate our civilization and evolution without our knowing… in the guise of it being for our benefit.
After last year (actually 2016 to 2020), the last thing I want to see is an exclusive society with wealth and power exerting influence on normal citizens. Haven’t we had enough of that? I don’t see how these Eternals are going to turn out to be the good guys. Power corrupts. Always. I find it hard to believe no one gets the urge to delete the ladder from the pool in their live version of The Sims.
Not to mention it’s a big violation of free will, which never plays well (part of the reason why I hated Tenet). Plus there’s always the “Where the hell were they when Thanos invaded?” questions. Or “You couldn’t have prevented 9/11? Or Chernobyl? Or Hitler” At least Steve Rogers had the excuse that he was starting from 1970.
The trailer takes us from their arrival up to current time, where they’re eating Macedonian Thanksgiving dinner and we get the only line of dialogue that’s not effervescent narration. One of the kids asks “Now that Iron Man and Steve Rogers are dead, who do you think is going to lead the Avengers?” and one of them says “well, I could.” Pause. Then everyone laughs big.
Dead. Joke. I don’t know who this guy is! Is he a douchebag? Is he an egomaniac? Did he just wet the bed? What a horrible way to button the trailer–a witty line that has no chance of landing because we don’t know these characters. All we know is their back story. I think the only reason they put it in is because, otherwise, I have no idea how this ties into the MCU.
Plus, I’m scared of the idea that one of them is going to sit up and say “I’m leading the Avengers now”. The whole thing about the Avengers, as demonstrated by Captain America: Civil War, is an autonomous group that nobly takes it upon themselves to rescue and defend Earth from threats beyond the capability of normal humans. They’re not under the directive of some politician or magnate. And certainly not some alien. It would be like an Italian clothing CEO saying “I’m head of the Minneapolis now.”
This is Marvel’s second post-Endgame movie, after Shang Chi, and that didn’t excite me either. Like this, it was a bunch of cool poses and moody action shots and no sense of what the movie’s about.
But Marvel Films have always delivered before. Maybe some had more impact than others (Captain Marvel, Thor: The Dark World). But if they haven’t been great, they’ve been entertaining. However, if the Shang Chi and Eternals trailers are any indications, they’ve got an uphill climb to gain my acclaim.
I don’t mean ugly as in problematic or controversial. There’s nothing jagged or worth “canceling” (so take that Hollywood — you don’t need to be provocative to catch attention).
I love most Christopher Nolan movies. I loved the Dark Knight trilogy and The Prestige and Memento and Inception. But I was tepid on Interstellar and Man of Steel and didn’t see Dunkirk. But after the word-of-mouth reaction, I was dreading when Netflix would deliver that DVD. But it was the biggest movie of the year, so I had to watch it. Find out what everyone was talking about.
I didn’t… I didn’t like it.
And here are my thoughts on why. (Flexing my criticism muscles helps me become a better writer, doesn’t it?) A lot of people complained about the booming score, the infodump scenes, and the gas mask-muffled dialogue. I don’t think those are as significant as two fundamentals–character and plot.
The ultimate goal of art is to make you feel something. And when I was done with Tenet, I felt nothing (except confused). No catharsis, no Satisfying Viewer Experience, no emotional core, no sense of who this was meant for. Tenet feels like an NFT – a dead, trendy expensive piece of art, lacking humanity, that appeals to a wealthy few, but no one understands.
I don’t like stories that are puzzles. I don’t like it when the narrator hides information other characters have but the reader/viewer doesn’t to make it “intriguing”. Just yesterday, I was trying to read the Hugo-nominated short story “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad.
It’s not a hard story by any means, not cerebral or complex. Just a tech support chat log between two entities. But the problem is these entities are never named. The story appears in an anthology about robots, so are these robots? Humans? One of each? Cyborgs? And all the other stuff–why does Entity A not want to see dogs? What does Entity B having a “killstreak” mean? Is that a video game thing or a real-life thing? Why does Entity A need assistance in the first place–what is he/she struggling with?
So I spend more brainpower figuring out the story’s context–the world-building, the setup–than the actual story. Like a game where the rules are so complex (or absent) you have to constantly look them up instead of playing the game.
For example, the fight in the airport. The first time, it’s a normal fight, but you can tell the guy in black is moving a little weird. I figure he must be a timecop or something. (BTW, it’s obvious this is the Protagonist from some other time, because Neil rips off his mask then lets him go.) The second time you’re struggling to process what you’re looking at. How is he fighting a guy whose movements are reversed? Every shot should be a backhand and easily telegraphed. Punches accelerate, which makes them hard to gauge due to the doppler effect. But in reverse, they decelerate and stop farther away.
To put it bluntly, they’re a bunch of snobs. Everyone’s got fancy suits, fancy cars, fancy houses. They meet in fancy restaurants in fancy exotic locations all around the world like Denmark, India, Italy, Russia, Norway, and Swedish opera houses.
Part of the story is set in an art freeport. I know what these are from a Planet Money podcast, not the half-second of exposition. Did you ever wonder what rich people do with all that expensive art they buy? Are they displaying it in their home? Loaning it to a museum for others to enjoy? No, they keep it in storage. The owners wait for the art to appreciate in value, then sell it. Probably to another guy who stores it. And that storage is on the airport grounds so it can’t be taxed.
If you can’t tell, I don’t have a lot of empathy for the wealthy. And when they’re all the characters in your story, I don’t know how you’re going to hook me. Unless your rich person gets some kind of comeuppance, like in Citizen Kane or Pretty Woman, I’m not getting on board. In Inception, they were upper class, but they were thieves working underground. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a disgraced corporate spy in exile who needs this job so his slate can get wiped clean. High risk, high stakes.
But in Inception, everyone had a personality. Here, the characters are so blase and stoic and sensible. It all evokes James Bond, who I hate. They don’t even name the protagonist, like in Fight Club where Edward Norton is “The Narrator”. You don’t do that unless you’re rolling out some pretentious metafictional bullshit. You don’t do that unless you want people to focus on everything BUT the characters. And people come to stories for characters.
Every book on writing says characters are the most important part of books. Make your stories character-driven, not plot-driven. Characters should have the agency to make decisions that impact the plot. Characters first, everything else second. This is “big idea” first, characters second.
The Protagonist (whose name is literally “The Protagonist”) is essentially an android moving around a game board. He’s not making his own decisions, he’s guided by Neil, by General Imes, by Kat, by the Tenet team. He fishes out a little information from various contacts, and then an action sequence happens. Nothing about him is intriguing, convincing, or sympathizing. He’s a blank slate. (Kicking ass is not a character trait).
So my question is–why? The reason to make a protagonist identity-less is to either make him or her mysterious (as in The Road, Snow Crash, A Fistful of Dollars) or have the viewer/reader project themselves into the character (as in Fight Club or any video game).
Bad guys can make or break a story. So what’s this guy’s plan? It takes forever to find out. Apparently, he’s an arms dealer selling reversible bullets. This means you shoot the bullet, then go back and hold your gun out. The bullet whips back into the gun, kills the guy, and there’s no trace. Okay, so that’s pretty cool. But what’s he really want?
He wants the end of the world.
There is some sort of “algorithm” (more on that later) sent back from the future because it could collapse time. (Imagine if Robert J. Oppenheimer said “no” to the Atom Bomb, then sent the plans back through time so no one could get hold of it). Somehow our bad guy got hold of it and (this is the kicker) hooked it up to his body with a dead man’s switch. So that when he dies, the algorithm is triggered and we all die too. You can call it “undo humanity with mass-inversion via the algorithm”, but that’s just calling a rabbit a “smeerp“.
How comic booky. I know Nolan’s famous for turning comic books into legitimate cinema, but this is cinema turned comic booky. Even Marvel’s not that dumb. All Thanos was going to do was decrease the population to increase resources. Then, when he found the plan wasn’t going to work, switched to recreating the universe from scratch.
It also doesn’t make sense. Why would he want to do this? Oh, because he has terminal pancreatic cancer… except he looks completely healthy. He even keeps bragging about his pulse rate. And he’s a criminal mastermind with access to time travel. He’s got all the money in the world, a yacht, fine art, servants, a hot wife, enough thugs to form an army (with magic reversing bullets), mansions on various continents, and you’re going to kill yourself in your prime? World-enders don’t act like this guy does. They are loners who think they’re gods. The only people close to them are minions who work for him because either A) he pays them well (like the Joker) or B) are zealots for his philosophy (like Thanos). This guy’s behavior does not match his goals.
Villains only work if they have motivations the audience can understand. No viewer would understand this. Villains who act chaotically or nihilistically (like Loki or Lotso from Toy Story 3), it’s not so much about the chaos but about the power. About regaining the agency they didn’t have earlier in life. They want to matter. They’re motivated by hurt. Others want order, to shape the world into what they want it to be.
Ending the world is a very stupid end goal for a villain. It’s like saying your protagonist’s main goal is to “survive”. What does destroying the world get you? The only types of people this works for are nihilists and mentally damaged people. Sator doesn’t seem like either. He’s a control freak. What’s there to control when the world ends?
Sator made a deal with the devil–he started life as a plutonium scavenger in Russia, knowing the job would kill him eventually. That led to him being contacted by the future to find the “algorithm” and led to all his success. You’d think he’d want to destroy the oligarchs who ruined his home country and ruined him. But no, he just wants to end it all. He has a temper, he has control issues, but I never saw him as suicidal or existential. When the villain doesn’t care about anything, that’s a problem.
But the worst is the feminist angle. This movie fails the Bechdel Test hard. I hate this character. I hate every time she’s on screen. She’s the eldest niece of an aristocrat, an art appraiser, and wife of an arms dealer/Russian oligarch. But all she cares about is her son. “Where is my son?” “Is my son safe?” “Not unless you can guarantee the safety of my son”? She sounds like Daenerys in Game of Thrones–“Where are my dragons?”
Her relationship with her husband is dead. He’s emotionally and physically abusive but she has to stay because he has a single piece of blackmail on her, where she certified some fake piece of art as authentic. Is that the only thing stopping her? The problem with blackmail is that it doesn’t work if the victim doesn’t pay, and it seems she only cares about her son. Putting her career under a guillotine isn’t an issue.
But the biggest thing is at the end. Sator’s returned to his happiest moment before he swallows a cyanide pill, which would activate the dead man’s switch and end the world. Meanwhile, two armies on the other side of the world (one moving forward in time, one moving backward) are working together to find this maguffin before it’s buried under a thousand feet of earth and inaccessible. Her only job is to keep him distracted so the armies have time to deactivate it. But what does she do? She shoots him before they’re ready because she doesn’t want him to die thinking he’s won. She can’t control her emotions so she almost compromises the mission. I’m sure all the yahoos who think women can’t serve in congress must love that.
But more likely, I think Nolan just doesn’t like women. He kills Rachel in The Dark Knight. In Inception, one woman purely exists for Cobb to give exposition to and the other is the primary antagonist. The same actress is the antagonist in The Dark Knight Rises (who also kills herself to end the world). It’s not a great track record.
Neil is fine. I like Neil. I didn’t think I’d like Robert Pattinson in anything, but he seemed cool. Good actor, good character. Makes me a little more confident about him as Batman.
On paper, you can follow Tenet just fine. The Wikipedia plot is deceptively short for such a dense story. It may be why the cast members were so delighted when they first read it (in a secure vault so no secrets would leak). The problem is in the execution–you can’t process what your eyes and brain are telling you.
Nolan is a very visual storyteller. He doesn’t rely much on dialogue. There are so many “blink and you’ll miss it” moments where characters drop some tidbit that’s crucial to understanding a “why” or “what”. He futzes with sequential storytelling (especially in Inception and Interstellar). He doesn’t always follow a three-act structure or develop solid characters.
Right from the start, I was confused. Some kind of terrorist act is happening at an opera, and Protagonist is going in with other troops to stop them. At least, I think, because I see him put on a white patch of some kind. Is he part of the terrorists and disguising himself? If so, why is he doing it in the truck in front of everyone?
It takes a long time to understand what Protagonist’s goal is. Every time he tries to learn it, he gets some bullshit cliche like “that is the question, isn’t it?” or “something that could change the world as we know it”.
Now let’s talk about “The Algorithm”. Christopher Nolan must think “algorithm” is one of those technobabble words that mean anything, like “tachyon dispersal unit” or “vibranium”. It’s not. I work with algorithms. My third class in Computer Science was called “Algorithms”. They’re not special. They’re just sets of computer instructions. Formulas to do steps efficiently, like calculate the shortest route between two points on a map. It’s not a bunch of fucked up legos that make Picasso’s wizard staff.
And where is this dead man’s switch? For a story that’s so visually oriented, we never see it. How are they connected? There’s no wire, no remote frequency. If I didn’t read about it on the wiki, I wouldn’t have known about it.
This is supposed to be the big hook of the movie. The big idea. But like a lot of innovative science fiction concepts, one little poke lets out all the air. I’m sure Christopher Nolan understands his story, but either he doesn’t let us in on it or is terrible at getting it across. As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Okay, so at one point, Kat gets shot in the stomach. There’s not enough time to get her to a hospital before she could die. So they send her back through inversed time so her wound can heal. Many questions spring to mind. If her body is dealing with wounds backward, does this mean her heart is pumping in reverse? Are cells putting oxygen into the blood? Is she breathing CO2? Does this mean she’s thinking in reverse? If she died in normal time, could she come back to life if they put her in inverse time? If you eat an inverse apple, do you have to shove it up your ass? And then you cough out poop?
In that same vein, how is the conversation Sator has with Protagonist in the purple divided room supposed to work? One of them would have to know the other’s responses beforehand.
They say that if the same matter touches, it’s annihilated, just like in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s masterpiece Timecop. But Protagonist fights himself and nothing happens. Is it because they didn’t touch through the fabric? Also, this plot thread never comes up (except maybe as an excuse to never have two of the same people in the same room).
If fire/heat works in reverse, shouldn’t everyone be frozen, since your body generates heat? Or would the sun freeze you first?
In the opera house, an inverse bullet causes damage to a human. But then later, an inverse bullet “heals” a window when it’s fired. Which is it? Either the guy should have had a bullet wound beforehand that sews up when the gun fires or the glass has been shattered since the building was constructed.
Time travel is a sticky subject, but plenty of good stories use it. However, they don’t go complex or use 100% visual information to communicate it. They use the ears, the context, foreground, and background clues. Half-explanations don’t cut it.
Example: The Time Traveler’s Wife. Similar concept to Tenet–there’s a man who can’t control when he jumps back in time, but he usually ends up seeing his future wife at some point during her childhood. This is difficult to wrap the head around, because the first time she meets him is not the first time he meets her. That violates a pretty fundamental understanding about what happens when two people meet, that they’re each meeting each other for the first time.
Another example: Alice Through the Looking Glass. In Chapter 5: Wool and Water, Alice meets the White Queen, who lives backward. In her world, a man is being punished for a crime he won’t commit until after next Wednesday. Then the queen screams and her finger starts spontaneously bleeding. She hasn’t pricked it, but knows she will, when she fastens her shawl and the brooch pops off. Then it happens. She catches the brooch, gets poked, but stops screaming.
Then she turns into a sheep.
Anyway, my point is, Tenet is an idea better in short form. Can you imagine a seventy-minute symphony based on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star? The central motif would become unrecognizable. Getting a mass audience to follow non-linear stories is harder than hell. When the effect comes before the cause, it doesn’t feel satisfying. And that’s what the creator should be doing — creating a satisfying experience for the consumer.
Despite everything I’ve said, I do think that the movie scene is richer for having Tenet in it than not. I think I actually like it better than Interstellar, but that could be because I tend to like time travel stories more than space stories. I’ve seen other reviews that said Tenet’s legacy is to be a heady cult film–watched fifty times by as many people.
You might ask why have I dedicated 3,200 words to this movie most people have already forgotten about. Because I get sick of seeing Hollywood, a mega-giant god of storytellers, wasting so much of its time, money, and resources on movies that clearly have problems on the page. As a writer, I know that the core of any movie is the script. That’s where the creation process starts and anything you see on screen can be traced back to it in some way. That’s why it’s so important that the script is strong.
A good producer should be able to sniff a script and detect a solid story or not. A good producer should have noticed that this script doesn’t follow a three-act structure and lacks a solid main character (not having a name should have been a clue). But someone saw the words “Christopher Nolan” and said “give him a billion kajillion dollars”.
But hey, maybe I would have made the same mistake. Like I said, Tenet looks good on paper. And if someone didn’t take a risk on non-linear movies, we wouldn’t have Pulp Fiction or Memento. Such is life in the crazy world of Tinseltown. You may be the sweetest peach on the tree, but not everyone likes peaches.