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.
Just in time for my second shot, the CDC revised their policies that fully vaccinated people can do anything without masks. They can go outside, go to parties, ride buses, get a haircut, and work out. People who haven’t gotten vaccinated are still relegated to the beach of the Sneetches with no stars upon thars.
Of course, it’s still at the discretion of the businesses and corporations and owners to determine who gets in and who doesn’t. But from their perspective, there’s no way to know who’s vaxxed and who’s not. There’s no vaccine registry. We got vaccine cards that aren’t wallet-friendly, but I haven’t seen any business, from Mom and Pop bar to corporately-owned airline, request to see them. And I don’t think blood tests are in our future (like in Deep Space Nine).
Now they’re going to get flack from both sides. “Hey, I don’t need to wear a mask. I’m fully vaccinated!” “Okay, how do I know that. Do you have your card?” “Lost it.” “Medical records.” “Don’t have ’em.” “Call from your doctor?” “He’s on vacation.” “Then I how can I prove you’re not lying.”
And of course, the anti-maskers have proven themselves to be no better. “Hey, you let that guy be maskless.” “He’s fully vaccinated, sir. He proved it with his card.” “You’re violating my rights. This is cancel culture!”
For those people who can get vaxxed and don’t, they can go die for all I care. It’s not a debate anymore. You do you. Hospitals aren’t over capacity anymore. You want to catch it and have damaged lungs for the rest of your life (if you make it that long), go ahead. Be like Ted Nugent and Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and Herman Cain who thought there was no problem. It’s called natural selection. The more of you that drink a bucket of virus and keel off, the quicker the rest of the living can move forward.
But I’ve seen plenty of people on Twitter who say they’re going to keep wearing masks. And I’m fine with that. Masks are useful for not spreading disease. And there are people who can’t get the shot due to compromised immune systems or whatever. No one ever died from wearing a mask, but plenty have died from not wearing one.
The average person doesn’t know who’s vaccinated and who’s not. You could walk by someone coughing a big batch of Covid in your face as you pass them on the street. Even the fully vaccinated can still spread Covid. Remember–vaccinations don’t prevent you from catching and spreading the disease, it just prevents you from going to the hospital. Fortunately, it seems like transmissibility is much lower in the vaccinated, but it’s not zero. It’s the pissed jeans theory of communicability.
But that begs a question… when will you stop wearing a mask?
You’re not going to wear it forever, right? I assume not. And I know you’re not going to stop wearing it tomorrow, that’s fine. So now we’re just in negotiations.
It’ll probably be determined by the businesses. That does seem to be what runs the country, after all. But each business will have to determine for themselves when to relax certain restrictions. A lot of people use Disneyland as a litmus test because they’re practically their own government. When they closed, we knew Coronavirus was serious business. But after an unprecedented thirteen months of closure, they reopened. Does that mean healing has begun?
Maybe, except they opened to California residents only, at 25% capacity, and face masks are mandatory. No fast passes. No single rider queues. And the following rides are closed: Jungle Cruise, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, Buzz Lightyear, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Grizzly River Run, and Little Mermaid. No monorail. No trams. No kids play area. No indoor dining. No turkey legs. No parades. No stage shows. No character meet-and-greets. And no nighttime fireworks shows.
I’d hardly call that Disneyland with so many missing elements. You must be a diehard nutso to spend your saved-up vacation money on such a diluted experience. But it’s a start. The real test is when and how Disney lifts these restrictions over time. And I think, at least I like to hope, that everything I mentioned above will return. As I do with everything else. I think I will be able to go to a Twins game at 100% capacity with no face mask. Maybe as soon as the end of this season.
Except there’s that 300% increased Minneapolis crime rate.
Every time I read a The Lord of the Rings FAQ, I’m more confused than when I started. The reason is Tolkien left a lot of notes and drafts and letters, all compiled into posthumous publications. And there’s no production company keeping tabs on what’s “canon” like Star Wars or Star Trek.
So I tried to make a comprehensive but “simple” FAQ compilation of the questions I still have or keep seeing. It’s for the everyman who’s not terribly interested in how many spines are on Morgoth’s crown.
But first, some term definition.
Eru Ilúvatar = Ultimate God of Middle-earth, creator of all the Valar (other gods) and Maiar (demi-gods) Valar = (Singular: “Vala”) Other gods, lower in rank to Eru Ilúvatar. Think of them as Greek gods. There’s a god of forests, god of water, etc. Maiar = (Singular: “Maia”) Spirits to help the Valar shape the world. Think satyrs and nymphs and cherubs. Ainur = The collective name for the Valar and Maiar. Melkor = a Maia who learned dark magic and rebelled against his creator. Think Lucifer. Morgoth = Another name for Melkor. Istari = A Maia spirit reincarnated as an old man to aid the free men against Sauron. A.K.A. a Middle-Earth wizard Valinor = The Undying Lands or The Grey Lands. This is where everyone sails off to at the end. Arda = The planet this all takes place on.
Why do the elves and dwarves hate each other?
If you saw The Hobbit, you might think it’s because, when Smaug invaded Mount Erebor, the dwarves asked the elves for help, and the elves turned their backs.
But it goes further. In the first age, elves and dwarves had mutual respect and collaborated on a few projects. Then an elf king named Thingol wanted some dwarves (from Nogrod) to combine the elves’ greatest treasure (the Simaril, which was a gem created by one of the first elves) and the Nauglamír (a fancy necklace Thingol had previously asked the dwarves to make).
When the work was done, it was considered the most beautiful thing on the planet. The dwarves of Nogrod got greedy and wouldn’t let it go. They claimed it was dwarf work and belonged to them.
Thingol went to Nogrod to get the Simiril/Nauglamír back but was killed. The elves slaughtered the dwarves in return, but two escaped. Those two told all the other dwarves what happened, which motivated them to war. The dwarves marched on one of the great Elven realms and sacked it, taking loads of good treasure.
But on the way back, the dwarves were ambushed by an army of elves and Ents. They took all their treasure and melted it, except for the Simiril/Nauglamír, which was given back to the elves.
It should also be noted that the elves and dwarves were created by different entities (elves by Eru Ilúvatar, dwarves by a Vala named Aulë) so there are some fundamental philosophical and value conflicts there as well.
So it’s not so much a racial thing as a deep-seated prejudice. Elves are immortal and dwarves like to hold grudges, so their memories are long. Elves believe dwarves can’t be trusted. Dwarves believe elves are arrogant and condescending.
Who is Aragorn, really? Why is he so special?
Long ago, in the Second Age, a half-elf named Elros founded a kingdom called Númenor on the West coast. This kingdom lasted for 3,000 years and went through many land shifts. Eventually, the original kingdom was destroyed, but its offshoot kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor remained.
One thousand years before The Lord of the Rings takes place, the royal bloodline died out. Gondor had stewards to hold the throne until the king returned (see below question). But Arnor did not and was destroyed. Its people became reduced to a wandering race of humans called “Númenóreans” or “Dúnedain”. Their leader is called the “chieftain”. This is who Aragorn is.
Aragorn’s father was killed helping Elrond’s sons fight some orcs. That means Aragorn is the last surviving heir of the royal bloodline.
He lived to be 210 years old, since he’s 9/16th elf.
Why is Denethor the steward after all this time? Why didn’t they start over or crown a new king?
In Gondor, the last true king (see the question above) died out a thousand years ago, leaving a series of stewards to “hold the throne” until one comes back.
Even though it sure seems like no king is coming back, the people of Gondor do not accept that. The last king of Arnor tried to take over when his kingdom was destroyed, but Gondor rejected him.
What’s with the eagles? Why didn’t they take the eagles to mordor?
Could the eagles have made things easier for our heroes? Yes. Did they want to? No.
Here are the reasons:
1) The eagles are not a taxi service. They can’t be summoned with a snap of the fingers. They serve the leader of the Valar. Gandalf is only a Maia–a demi-god incarnated into an old man–so it would be like the mayor of New York calling on the president’s secret service.
2) Giant eagles, especially ones carrying a humanoid, make a juicy target for orcs with bows and Ringwraiths riding “fellbeasts”. The affairs of men aren’t worth putting yourself at risk when you serve gods. Plus it’s not exactly secret if you’re flying the One Ring where everyone can see you. It would be a suicide mission. The eagles are already doing spying work on goblins and such for the elves and Valar.
3) Even if the Eagles could somehow get the One Ring to Mount Doom, they can’t physically get it into its fires to destroy it. It’s a mountain, not a volcano. You can’t just do an Operation Dumbo Drop. It has to be the exact spot where the One Ring was forged, and that’s only accessible through a fissure in the side of the mountain. Leaving it there for someone else to pick up is not a good answer. (And all that’s without factoring in being corrupted by the One Ring.)
4) The eagles don’t have a side in this war. Imagine North Dakota is fighting South Dakota. Do you think the U.N. cares what’s going on or is going to do anything about it? The eagle that rescued Gandalf from Saruman’s tower did so as a personal favor (Gandalf previously saved his life).
That said, the movies do make them appear to be a deus ex machina. They show up to save Gandalf from Saruman’s Tower (that makes some sense since he’s partially divine). Then they help in the Battle of Black Gate AND rescue Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom (but that’s only after Sauron is 100% defeated and no longer a threat). Plus they rescue the dwarves & Bilbo from Azog and the wargs (when they’re trapped in the trees) at the end of the first The Hobbit movie and carry them about halfway to the Lonely Mountain. Then their reinforcements arrive at The Battle of the Five Armies.
If Gandalf is a wizard, why doesn’t he ever use his magic? Like cast a fireball at the orcs?
All the wizards are Istari (see vocab) whose mission is to protect the free men and let them know their gods haven’t forgotten them. Problem is only five Maiar volunteered/were drafted for this.
Part of their mission means they can’t dominate the will of men or match Sauron power-for-power. If they do, their powers and the memory of Undying Lands would wane. But they can use magic on other magic beings (e.g. a balrog, Ringwraiths, etc.) Saruman breaks this rule and he pays for it.
Why do elves risk dying in battle when they’re immortal?
Elves don’t really fear death, because when they die, they go to a sort of “purgatory” in Valinor that cleanses their spirit. Once that’s done, most choose not to return.
Death is still painful, so they do try and avoid it. But elves are reincarnated, so no big.
Where are all the other dwarves? Gimli’s the only one they could send? We see whole cities of elves, but where are the dwarves?
The dwarves are fighting Sauron’s army in their own lands, we just don’t see it. Sauron’s army is fighting on more than one front. You can read more details here.
What is the Second Age? What is the First Age?
There are four “Ages of Arda”. The First Age starts when the Children of Ilúvatar awake, starting with the elves, then the humans and dwarves. It lasts about 587 years.
The Second Age starts when Morgoth is overthrown and cast into the void by the Valar. It lasts 3,441 years, then ends when Sauron’s army is defeated (this is what you see in the movie when Sauron’s finger gets cut off).
So now the Third Age starts and lasts for 3,021 years until the One Ring is destroyed (and so is Sauron). At that point, the Fourth Age has started, also known as the “Age of Men” (since the elves have mostly gone to the Valinor at this time).
Why don’t they hide the One Ring instead of destroying it? Why not brick it in cement and drop it at bottom of the ocean?
Destroying the One Ring is the only way to destroy Sauron. Even if the One Ring still exists, even if it’s inaccessible, there are still hordes and hordes of endless unstoppable orcs to fight. It’s a little like a Horcrux in that way.
Why can Sauron be a big guy and also an eye on a tower?
So in a deleted scene from The Return of the King (deleted from the Extended Edition even!), Peter Jackson intended Sauron to fight Aragorn, instead of that big orc, at the last battle. But how can he do that if he’s watching from the tower?
We are pretty sure Sauron has a physical form during The Lord of the Rings. Gollum says he has witnessed Sauron during his torture in Barad-Dur, noted that he has four fingers on one hand. Other writings from Tolkien say that he lost his form during the battle where he lost the One Ring and took a while to build back up.
The Eye is a “hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh”. So think of it as a spell. And we can deduce that the Mouth of Sauron, the Head of Sauron, etc. are all either nicknames or magic spells (or both).
Which towers are the “Two” towers?
The tower of Barad-dûr (Sauron’s tower) and the Tower of Isengard (Saruman’s tower). The movie/book is called that because it’s about the evil forces coming to full power and closing in on the good guys.
What’s the Flame of Anor? Why is it important?
This one we don’t know for sure. Gandalf refers to it in his rah-rah speech against the Balrog (“I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.“), but it’s never mentioned in any books.
Anor is the elvish word for sun. Perhaps the “Flame of Anor” means the light of the sun, which might refer to his power or origins as a Maia.
How did Gandalf the Grey turn into Gandalf the White? What’s the deal with wizard colors?
Wizards are demi-gods incarnated as humans, knowns as Istari. There are five of them. Tolkien describes three: Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, and Radagast the Brown.
In an unfinished index for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien mentions two blue wizards. One writing calls them Alatar and Pallando, but another calls them Morinehtar and Rómestámo. They arrived in the Second Age with the mission to travel to the East and incite rebellion against Sauron. Contradicting writings say they either succeeded or failed.
Gandalf 100% dies after fighting the balrog. But he still had a task to finish, so Eru Ilúvatar sent him back to finish it, along with a boost of power. Eru Ilúvatar transforms Gandalf into “Gandalf the White” to show he is “Saruman as he should have been.” (In other words, a big thumbing of the nose to Saruman.) Colors aren’t ranks or identifiers (since there are two blue wizards).
What’s the difference between orcs, goblins, and uruk-hai? How can I tell the difference?
Goblins are the orcs that Thorin and company meet in The Hobbit, who live under the Misty Mountains.
“Orc” and “goblin” are synonyms. Tolkien said Orc “is not an English word. It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated as ‘goblin’ (or ‘hobgoblin’ for the larger kinds). Orc is the hobbits’ form of the word given at that time to these creatures.”
Part of the confusion is that Tolkien used “goblin” extensively in The Hobbit, a children’s book, but “orc” in The Lord of the Rings to convey a more fearsome tone. This division furthered as works based on Tolkien (like Dungeons & Dragons) separated the two into different species.
An “Uruk-hai” is an orc mated with a man, bred by Sauron to act as elite commanders of orcs. Saruman tried mating orcs and men but they turned out as “sallow-faced and squint-eyed”. The word, in Black Speech, means “orc-folk”.
In Moria, Pippin unwittingly alerts the goblins who chase them through the mines (though in the book, these are referred to as orcs). This is the last we see of “goblins”.
Therefore we can assume to distinguish “goblins” as “orcs that live underground” and can be discerned by their smaller size, large eyes (to see in the dark), and lighter greenish skin-tone.
Uruk-hai are created by burying breeding sacks, a kind of artificial womb, deep in the earth. This lets them grow to adult size quickly. They are larger than orcs, don’t have pointed ears, and have very dark skin.
There are two types–Isengarders (Saruman’s army) and Black Uruk-hai (Sauron’s army).
Are orcs a subspecies of elves or are they their own thing?
Tolkien’s never firmly said where orcs came from. At one time, he said Morgoth (Middle-earth’s Lucifer) created them from corrupted elves (since he can’t create life). But this meant orcs were inherently evil, and Tolkien didn’t like the idea of an unredeemable race. Through the years, he’s said things like they came from stone, from beasts, from Maiar, and/or from men. The Silmarillion says they come from elves, but it’s not a completed work.
Do the orcs breed? Where are the female orcs?
Yes, but only in theory. Gandalf refers to orcs “spawning” at one point. At the battle of the Hornburg, someone refers to “half-orcs” and “goblin-men”. Aragorn refers to “half-orcs” at Isengard. The Silmarillion says “the orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar”. This must mean orcs reproduce through sex.
Subsequent post-Tolkien texts go into more detail, saying more “cunning breeds” of orcs could be created by mating men with orcs. Saruman rediscovered this and did so, resulting in Men-orcs and Orc-men. The fact that there are two terms for the same thing with the words reversed might imply one term means “offspring of an orc father and human mother” and another for “human father and orc mother”.
Finally, there’s a letter where Tolkien wrote “there must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known.”
So they exist, but that’s about all we know about them.
This means orcs breed through conventional means. So why are there so many male orcs and no females? I don’t know. Where are they all? Further to the east?
WTF is Tom Bombadil?
No one really knows. He could be the avatar of Eru Ilúvatar, a Vala, a wizard, a nature spirit, or just an eccentric guy living in the woods. But he doesn’t make a difference in the story–doesn’t hurt or help the protagonists–so it hardly matters.
We know his various names in elvish, Rohirric, etc. translate to “very old” or “eldest”. The One Ring doesn’t affect him (he doesn’t turn invisible), but he can see its wearer in the wraith-realm. Everything after that is conjecture.
Why do they keep saying “they were all of them deceived, for another ring was made”? Who did Sauron deceive? If he put his power into eighteen other rings, how did he put any into the One Ring?
In the second age, there was an elven king named Celebrimbor. Celebrimbor was a master smith.
Sauron disguised himself as an elf named Annatar and went to Celebrimbor, claiming he was taught the art of ring-making by the gods and wanted to teach it to Celebrimbor and his smiths. Together, they created the eighteen rings, but unknowingly (to all but Sauron) incorporated a binding magic into them.
Meanwhile, Sauron was actually learning how to make rings from them. Then he forged the One Ring on his own. This artifact would let him control all the lesser rings, which would go onto the fingers of the rulers of Middle-earth.
The One Ring is a focus tool. A medium to control the other medium (like you can’t connect to any other computer unless you have a computer yourself).
How does the One Ring fit everyone who wears it?
It’s magic. The One Ring wants to be worn, to be used. That brings it closer to its master.
Why does Frodo have to take the One Ring? He’s, like, the weakest of them all.
The council would like to destroy it, but they all believe there’s no chance any of them can get to Mount Doom. So they argue about whether to use it against Sauron, if they can hide it, etc. until Frodo raises his hand.
Why does he? A few reasons.
Frodo, being an innocent hobbit with no ambitions for power, is the least corruptible of them all.
Frodo has a sense of responsibility/ownership of the One Ring because he inherited it. Therefore, he feels he should be the one to destroy it. (Side note: He’s also the only one who didn’t get the One Ring through cheating or murder.)
He’d already proven capable of carrying the One Ring from the Shire to Rivendell, so he had previous job experience.
He was the only one who volunteered.
Why does Sauron send ALL his troops to fight Aragorn and the others at the Black Gate in their “last stand”?
Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli intend to distract Sauron to give Frodo more time to destroy the One Ring. (How they’re so certain Frodo’s not facedown in a river, I don’t know. Faith, I guess.) So Aragorn looks into the Palantir* and makes a personal challenge, showing him Anduril (the reforged sword that cut off Sauron’s finger before). This does three things:
Reminds him that the last time he fell, it was with the same sword. And it’s essentially coming for him again.
Convinces Sauron that Aragorn has the One Ring.
Regarding that third point, Sauron knows the One Ring is close to his vicinity. And the last time he saw the One Ring it was still in the hands of the fellowship (at the end of Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo uses it to hide from Boromir). Therefore, he deduces that Aragorn has it since they would give it to the most powerful one of them to hold.
So Sauron goes to meet Aragorn’s challenge, hoping he can either seize the One Ring or get Aragorn to put it on and influence him that way.
*A Palantir is a crystal ball that allows direct communication with Sauron. Only wizards can use it without having their minds taken over.
What good is the One Ring? All it does is turn one person invisible.
True, but it has more powers than that.
The One Ring’s main power is to dominate those who hold the other “Rings of Power”. Those are the three for the elves, seven for the dwarves, and nine for the men. It can also influence creatures who do not have rings of power (like Smeagol).
It can intensify/enhance the powers of one who wears it. A powerful leader with the One Ring has more command over others. A strong warrior with the One Ring will be nigh unbeatable in combat.
So when Frodo wears it, not much happens because he’s a normal humble halfling who doesn’t seek to dominate anyone. But if Gandalf or Galadriel wore it, watch out. That’s why they avoid touching it, because they know the extent of their magic and how much they can influence others.
If the One Ring can influence those who hold the other rings of power, why doesn’t it?
It does for the men who are the Ringwraiths (guys in black robes that chase Frodo, Sam, and others).
The dwarves are largely unaffected by the rings because they’re so stubborn. But Sauron was able to make them greedier (like hoarding the treasures under Erebor) and prone to bad decisions (like resettling Moria). Sauron obtained three of them through trickery and war. The other four were consumed by dragonfire.
The elves aren’t influenced by the rings because A) Sauron didn’t directly create the rings B) they stopped using the rings when they realized Sauron was evil.
Why doesn’t Sauron turn invisible when he wears the One Ring?
Sauron designed the One Ring that way. Since he’s partially a Maia, he exists in both the seen and unseen realms. This means he can see and be seen in both realms.
Since the One Ring draws the wearer partially into the unseen realm (a.k.a. “wraith realm”), it has no “invisibility” effect on Sauron.
Why did Sauron make all the rings?
He made these rings as gifts for the other races on Middle-earth–dwarves, elves, and men. (He already had an army of orcs and goblins.) The rings were all bound to the One Ring, which Sauron would use to exert influence on the wearers of the lesser rings.
What’s a balrog? What is doing down there in the mines of Moria? Does it work for Sauron?
A balrog is a Maia that was “turned to the dark side” by Morgoth. It’s on the same rank as Sauron, Saruman, and Gandalf. There are many of them, but the one we’re concerned about is the one in the Mines of Moria.
This balrog (like others of its kind) had sought refuge by digging deep into the earth after losing the war between Morgoth and everyone else (called the “War of Wrath”). About 1300 years later, some dwarves awoke it while mining too deep for mithril. The balrog woke up and killed most of them all, including Moria’s dwarf king Durin (an ancestor of Balin). This earned it the name “Durin’s Bane”.
About another thousand years later is when Gandalf and the Fellowship finally encounter it.
What is Gandalf saying to the balrog? What do those terms mean?
“I am the servant of the secret fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn! Go back to the Shadow! YOU… SHALL NOT… PASS!”
“Secret Fire” = the life-giving power imparted to the world by Eru Ilúvatar (identifying himself as a Maia) “Flame of Anor” = elvish word for “sun” “Flame of Udûn” = Udûn is the fortress of Morgoth
So a more understandable way of putting it could be “I am of a servant of God’s creation, wielder of the light of the sun. Evil’s power will not avail you, soldier of Morgoth!”
For the past ten years, it seems at least one movie gets nominated for Best Picture that’s all about Hollywood’s past grandness. How classy and chic and vogue it all used to be (as long as you’re into constant cigar smoke, copious alcoholism, and three-piece wool suits (plus hat) that stunk of sweat because no air conditioning). Where you could get rich on talent alone (as long as you were an adult white male. If you were Black, you were a janitor. If you were a woman, a sexually harassed pair of tits with no volition. And if you were a kid, pumped full of drugs and treated like a working animal.)
It’s like a Great GatsbyRenaissance Faire, where they filter out the plague, the poverty, the cow dung everywhere, and remolded it into an idealized version. Removing not just what was real, adding things that only existed in stories, like minstrels and kilts and turkey drumsticks. Like Mario Kart and other Mario sports games–delete all the dull or negative parts, keep only what’s fun.
Almost every Oscars in the past decade has one Best Picture nominee that was a “tribute” to old movies. The Artist and Hugo in 2011, Argo in 2012, Birdman in 2014, Trumbo in 2015, La La Land in 2016, A Star is Born in 2018, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2019, and this year had Mank.
I watched Mank. It was about the guy who wrote Citizen Kane. There’s no plot, just an asshole writer doing asshole things.
And that’s another thing, and maybe the bigger thing that gets my goat. The way they portray writers is absolute horseshit. Mank bangs out Citizen Kane in two weeks, isolated in a cabin with a broken leg and a bunch of pure-grain alcohol. Telling us that one of the greatest stories ever told was penned in two weeks by a drunk, written one page after the other with no pre-planning or script meetings, doesn’t that… cheapen it?
I don’t know why someone thought this would be a good movie. Most of the content is seeing how he’s inspired from various political rallies and fancy Hollywood parties. And the central conflict is whether William Randolph Hearst is going to bust balls for a movie that paints him unflatteringly.
But the movie itself is trying to reflect Citizen Kane, being just as dense and non-linear. Thing is, that works for Citizen Kane, not for the story of the guy who wrote it. No one wants to see how the sausage is made. Plus it’s in black-and-white, and you know that’s a clear flag for “Give Us an Oscar!”
In Trumbo, the titular character goes from Johnny Got His Gun to chunking out bad Westerns and monster movies, then back to Roman Holiday and Spartacus. And he does this by writing in the bathtub, drinking, and chain-smoking. Page after page, just out of his head.
I hate these movies because they make writing look like this glorious process where writers can create magic in an instant. Movies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Capote and Secret Window and even Misery make writing look like it’s the dominion of tortured souls. Like writers are misunderstood artists who need drugs or alcohol or eccentricities to create genius works.
I don’t think even the pantsers, like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King and George R.R. Martin, work like this. Real writing is boring to watch. I know because I do it. It all takes place in the mind. Rearranging scenes or sections to make sure pacing feels right. Trimming sentences down. Doctoring characters’ lines so that Sharon becomes Eliza, Eliza becomes Jenny, and Jenny is eliminated entirely.
Stop pining away for a world where creatives are misunderstood geniuses with tragic backstories, you drama club rejects. No one liked it when Hemingway did it, no one likes it when authors today do it (e.g. Thomas Pynchon, Michael Chabon, Jeanine Cummins, Bret Easton Ellis, etc.) Stop reaching back for a time when there were no women or Blacks because they were used as tools of the entertainment industry.