Wednesday, July 27, 2005

On Writing.

A while back, at one of the other ABA (may the celestial light of the heavens be forever upon it) blogs (Nigela’s, I think, but not sure), someone was kicking around the idea of what it means to be a writer, and offering some successful writers’ quotes on the topic. I was thinking a bit about this myself recently, and decided to post a highly belated response.

So what does it mean to be a writer?

To be a writer is to be a searcher, seeking the small in hidden and overlooked places, the shining grains of sand trapped between the floor tiles. It is to extrapolate the grand from the minute, appreciate and describe the wonder of the grand, and be able to see each quality in the other.

To write is to be yoked, enslaved, to your imagination, leaving it nagging you for attention, distracting you from more immediate affairs, to be partly here and partly somewhere distant. It is an unquenchable need to explain the inexplicable and encapsulate the boundless. It is an incurable sickness, an obsession, a disorder begging for order but frequently attaining only release—creating vacancies for the next bout with intellectual anarchy and chaos, seeking the calm between the storms at sea.

Being a writer involves indulging and subsequently denying the unslaked and unslakeable thirst of the ego: it entails being as selfish as an only child, yet as giving as life. It involves feeling, indeed immersing oneself, in the pettiness of everyday existence then ultimately transcending and denying it; it is the Hindu god Shiva, the creator and the destroyer. It is a craft and a construction of saws and hammers, that measures and binds, builds and fastens, yet also rends and shatters.

Writing is a fortress unassailable, locked and fixed, ironclad and frozen; it is also an invitation, aglow and inviting, into the open door of the author’s mind. Writing is a unique art, active and passive at once, that can be fully realized in the doing, but also in the observing: it is as inseparably tied to reading as night is to day.

Writing burdens and unburdens the author; it weighs like a bundle of sticks on a pack mule, yet feeds like repast to the famished. It begs and offers alms, based on its author's and reader's interwoven demands.

The actual practice of writing is much like shooting free throws or lobbing darts: the way to accuracy follows on the heels of the error-laden wreckage of incompetence and defeat. Great writing requires the patience of a saint, the discipline of an athlete, the boldness of a smuggler, and the shy, retiring, terror of a recluse. Small wonder, then, that few are up to the task.

To write well is to see the world in terms of the secret places in your heart, your loves, your dreams, your fears and desires, to be a passionate advocate for your values and concerns—and to also see the world in the very next moment as if you never existed at all, as objective and detached as a stone watching clouds pass overhead.

Writing involves painful honesty and clever deceit, the courage to reveal one’s innermost self and the challenge of selling him; it is the recklessness of abandon and the calculated balance of form, like a tightrope walker falling off of and advancing forward on a rope at the same time. It is a bundle of paradoxes and contradictions as essential to each other as partners on a trapeze or comrades in arms. It is the sparing austerity of Hemmingway and extravagance of Dickens. Writing hides the truth among lies and lies to tell greater truths, bending and shaping reality by bending and shaping the mind describing it, like a malevolent force that tempts and conquers by offering the conclusion that it can be itself conquered.

Writing is a club and a scalpel, rudely bashing and bludgeoning and then cutting lines as straight and fine as a surgeon’s, cutting so that she can heal. It is also a paramour’s caress, a friend’s humor, an avuncular kindness, sage words of advice interspersed with harsh words of rebuke. It is a labor of the heart’s love and a vent for the spleen, a place of profound justice, a place of whim and caprice. It is a force alternately logical as mathematics and then suddenly, cruelly random and arbitrary as the will.

The printed word, beyond anything, is an unreachable illusion of perfection, a desire to catch and cage a fantasy version of yourself that will ever remain one day beyond your grasp, “so close, and still so far out of reach,” as the prophet Tom Petty once wrote. Writing involves angst-ridden, constant revision of sentences and paragraphs that rewrite themselves into something unintelligible the moment you aren’t looking; it is a hungry dog waiting for you to drop the food scrap of an idea so that it can run off with it and never return, a blind alley down which one chases ghosts.

Being a writer is humbling, and often humiliating. It is throwing everything that you have at your subject and sometimes failing hopelessly for lack of skill. It is looking at things you wrote only weeks and months earlier as if they are telegrams from a different dimension, the constant need to blush and think aloud, “I actually put that in print? But it is also the satisfaction of getting it right, the moments when you do not blush, and think the same sentence with a very different emphasis: “I actually put that in print.

To write is to produce words and ideas sometimes topical and transitory, fleeting and ephemeral, and to sometimes manufacture constructs as permanent and rigid and enduring as a mountain; at its rare best, writing does both.

To write well is to have a gift that demands recompense, a possession that owns its owner. It is using the mind to traverse the soul, the very human tendency, as the brilliant John Gardner put it, to “map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories.” It is an endeavor ultimately as fruitless as trying to understand water by breathing it, as richly rewarding as a dream in which we can breathe under water.

And that’s what I think about writing. How about you?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Cave Dwelling.

At least I still have electricity, I thought. Yes, I still have that.

I’m one those rugged, trailblazing, 21st century types who has cut the cord: I haven’t owned a phone with a land-line attachment for at least four years. It’s simply a matter of practicality: with cellular phone technology continually improving, the difference in sound quality is becoming less and less noticeable. Besides, the standard-line service I got from Ameritech in Columbus, Ohio (the last place I had it), was so wretched that it would take a complete fool to persist in it: long distance fees (what year do we live in?) and a $65 penalty just to relocate from one residence to another? Please. Someone threw a switch in an office to relocate my number, which I usually wasn’t even allowed to keep, and I’m charged as if a specialist came to my home and performed delicate work? That is, in a vulgar if beautifully descriptive word, bullshit.

So I’ve been Cordless Guy, dealing with the occasional dropped call and poor connection, because the alternative is plainly inferior: more expensive, exponentially less versatile, and a general pain in the ass. Why, exactly, should a person deal with a terrestrial account less flexible and more demanding than a cell phone can provide?

But cell-phone-only people take risks that land-line people don’t face, like, say, being the moron that takes his phone into the pool with him, because his swim trunks (inexplicably) have pockets that he might have put his phone into when he isn’t paying attention, before quickly and painfully realizing that said moron is suddenly without a functioning phone. Not that we’re talking about anyone in particular, mind you.

So I let it go that I had no phone for a bit. That’s not really a big deal: writers are, by nature, solitary and introverted types that can deal without the buzz of human contact, e.g. phone calls, for a significantly longer time than most others. It’s not as if anyone ever wrote War and Peace in the middle of a Russian vodka soiree. Writers, weirdly, like isolation. Shunning, the equivalent of the death penalty for the Amish and the Mennonites, by which an immoral individual becomes invisible to his peers, holds no power over us. The whole world can go away, but I’m still here.

And yet, we live in a world of practicalities, so I headed down last Sunday to the Suncom store to trade in my destroyed phone for a new one. They were closed, because they’re closed on Sunday. You might ask why I didn’t call ahead to verify their hours: because I didn’t have a functioning phone.

I could have looked their hours up online, but an electrical storm the Thursday after I murdered my phone took out my home Internet access: I had no phone, and I had no Net.

Moreover, during this troubling period, I managed to overdraw my bank account, which is a topic of no small contention, and yet one for another day. So I had no web, no money, and no phone to protest any of the prior two conditions. Christ almighty, when a fella’ is being beaten down, one of the most sincere avenues of release he can hope for is protest, and I didn’t even have that. No phone. No Net. No money—no voice.

As I walked that mile to the store, in the blazing Summer heat, because I sold my car shortly before I moved here and the bicycle I replaced it with died three months later, I couldn’t help but lament just how broken everything in my life had become. Rivulets of sweat were pouring down my face so I could walk in 98 degrees with the heat index at 110 to pay a $129-plus-tax penalty for being stupid, as the legendary Gas Guy once said. And what was coming next? Phone calls to my bank, my phone company, and my ISP to pick fights with them for ripping me off. Can a person really look forward to this? Can anybody in the business world play fair anymore? Is grad school in a neo-hip little town on the Atlantic coast and a master’s degree worth living like a dog?

And so imagine, so long as your imagination contains some truly filthy words, my reaction to this store being closed when I arrived. The force of the f-bombs would have left Little Boy, or whatever that demented horse’s ass Paul Tibbets named the thing he dropped on Hiroshima, aglow with envy. As I made my way back home, the swirling heat and anger slam-dancing in my brain were calling for blood, but actually needing something soothing—deeply, deeply calming, like a housefire craving wood and souls but needing water. We were clearly going to have to haul out some of the big guns today. I picked up my slowly yellowing copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, v.1, sixth edition. George Herbert was going to talk me down from this ledge:

I struck the board and cried, “No more;
I will abroad!
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My life and lines are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I still be in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it,
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
All wasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage
Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink, and would not see.
Away! take heed;
I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s head there; tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.”
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methoughts I heard one calling, Child !
And I replied, My Lord.

And I realized that my breathing had slowed a bit and that the reflections of a conflicted seventeenth century Anglican clergyman had restored some measure of perspective on the kind of day I was having: the world is bigger than me and my troubles. The last two lines of The Collar reminded me that there is a bigger picture, a larger world to which I owe service, and that in this panoramic view a bad day and a row with the utilities companies are, really, just that and nothing more.

And I think that’s why everybody has a George Herbert, or a Bible, or a Bhagavad Gita, or Tao te Ching, or long walks or night skies—those moments of perfection that remind us that we are an infinitesimally tiny part of a grand cosmic whole, a bit player in a universally majestic drama. It is in these better moments, and not in the heat and bustle of plans and self-importance, that we realize how silly we must be to curse at locked doors at the Suncom store as if the doors could hear it and care, or to revel in the importance of our transient opinions, or to glory in the presence of or lament the want of material things that we have or don’t. All these things are finite, locked in tiny slivers of a history rolling forward with the sweep and grandeur of a tide foaming onto the beaches of infinite reality. That’s something to be concerned with; breaking a sweat to replace my broken phone is, in the general hierarchy of concerns, a somewhat trivial matter.

But damn, if it isn’t still hot outside.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

After Dark.

Wilmington, NC, like many places in the United States, is not a walkable city. In my alacritous hurry to flee from Columbus, Ohio, to this coastal enclave in the South, I assumed that it was, based on its comfy geographical area and small population. So now I live five miles from downtown on the Cape Fear River, and five miles from Wrightsville Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. In short, I live in a sidewalkless, motor-necessary stretch of suburbia in which the very idea of traveling on foot involves crossing major state routes that time the traffic lights to kill you when you attempt to do so. It’s Frogger, for those who can remember and identify with the concept.

So I, motorless, took the Wal-Mart bicycle to the beach (and everywhere else) for a while, before the rear wheel bearing locked up, three post-warranty months later, and told me to never buy anything from Wal-Mart again. Live and learn. But, being famously stubborn, I will still walk three miles for diversions that other folk merely drive to. And so I discovered wonders of the walk in the dark.

There’s a town-center mall, of the kind that’s all the rage these days, about three-plus miles from my apartment. A bus goes there now, but I’m remarkably bad at adhering to schedules, so I missed it and decided to walk there the other day. I’m also bad at reading movie time postings, so I got there after Batman Begins had already started. 50 minute walk, on a North Carolina Summer day, all for nothing.

And so I walked back home. Long walks are neither alien nor burdensome to me, as I walked home from my senior year of high school five miles from my school, which my grandparents’ suburban address had allowed me to attend after I had been expelled from the second Catholic school that I had unsuccessfully attended. (Some folks just don’t do rules well, and I was a remarkably obstinate teenager.)

But something that I did get to experience was…darkness. As a lifelong urbanite whose memory bank is immersed in the buzz and glow of streetlights, I don’t really see much darkness of the inky, rural variety: it’s something that I may have experienced, long ago, on camping expeditions as a Boy Scout, but something that I truly don’t remember.

When I walked home from the Mayfair Theater, I understood darkness.

There are no streetlights on rte 74/76/Eastwood Road when you walk down it after 9PM. There weren’t any to begin with. But a city kid can come to understand the idea of blackness, the notion that besides the headlights and the traffic lights, there is simply no artificial light at all, and hence, on a cloudy night, virtually no light. And so I looked at my feet, because that was about all I could see with any degree of clarity, so that I wouldn’t trip over anything.

I came to realize that in the dark, you are free. You react to the frogs and the deer and the palmetto bugs at the last instant, because that’s the first instant in which you can actually observe them. The remainder of the time, it is you, and darkness. The dangerous, thrilling tenuousness of blackness all about drags one into an immediacy so powerful that a quickly-beating heart and the understanding that you’re invisible to the cars whipping by at 55mph becomes a blessing, a reminder that you’re alive. I felt so focused and so vibrant that everything circling about in my addled brain actually shut up for a moment, told me to see what is, because that’s what was going to get me home safely. In the dark, there is no space for daydreaming and conjecture.

Eventually, nearly an hour later, I arrived home, having navigated the blackness into the lights of urban sprawl, the glow of an area sprung forth near the university from I-40’s expansion into Wilmington. The air-conditioning and safety of my apartment were comforting, but they were also, oddly, disappointing. In the dark I was alive; now I merely subsisted. Then a quote about darkness intruded into my reflection:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Granted, MacBeth's take on the dark was none too uplifting, because he had used darkness as a shield and a cloak to disguise his own inner lust and greed, and like any force too powerful to be manipulated, the darkness had turned on him: as Birnan wood came calling, and his stolen time ran short, he realized that there was a bill to be paid. But darkness is a thing of beauty as well as a thing of terror--it suspends the illusory quality of the visual world and leaves us in a place of compelling presence. It reminds us of the brevity of existence, without doubt, just as we understand the brevity of a day. But understanding the brevity of something is also to understand its value--to realize that time and effort are things not to be squandered, that life is fragile and ephemeral, a wondrous thing to be admired and appreciated all the more for its transitory nature.

I won't take that walk again, for the reasons I cited initially: it's bloody stupid and dangerous to cross a six-lane road with cars travelling at interstate speeds when it's pitch black out and no one can see you. But I am glad that I took it once. Darkness hides a lot from us, but it also reveals much. Cloaked in the rural no-man's-land between two small pockets of urban light on a sultry Southern eve, I felt unified and alert, no longer distracted and distant. If the dark can grant that gift, who knows what other subtleties, what undiscovered lessons it holds? Like anything mysterious, the dark can seem ominous and forbodeing. But looked at through a different lens, it is merely a different landscape, in which bats and deer, frogs and insects pick up the slack for their resting diurnal cousins, among them the sleeping world of humans. In the abyss of the night, when the air is quiet and the anarchic cacophany of day recedes, the absence of light can create a light of a very different kind--the light of dawning awareness.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Book Response: The Thief of Time.

Terry Pratchett, as I’ve mentioned before, is my hero—and one of the most enjoyable novelists in the English language. Imagine the wit of Douglas Adams, the learned imagination of Tolkien, the satiric prescience of Kurt Vonnegut, and the mythic and historical knowledge of Joseph Campbell. Got your brain wrapped around that? Now go read 2001’s The Thief of Time. You won’t be sorry.

The plot of TTOT is that in Discworld, a parallel planet a lot like earth but much, much, funnier, a young prodigy of a clockmaker is commissioned to build the world’s first truly accurate clock—a clock so precise that it keeps time with the cosmos itself. Unbeknownst to Jeremy, our young horologist assigned to the task, when finished the clock will arrest time completely, which is what the universal auditors who commissioned him to build it have wanted all along, so that they can catch up on all the paperwork of counting everything in creation. But, as critic Barbara Mertz points out, “trying to summarize the plot of a Terry Pratchett novel is like describing Hamlet as a play about a troubled guy with an Oedipus complex and a murderous uncle.” They’re works that one must simply read first, as description of good satire usually fails to impart its value, or, in doing so, gives away all the juicy bits.

And juicy bits abound: there’s a weapons master who creates inventive new armaments and gadgetry for the history monks Lu-tse and Lobsang-lang who are sent to prevent the clock’s completion. His name? Qu. It took me two pages before I got the joke and then another thirty seconds to stop laughing. But laugh-out-loud moments abound, especially if you’re paying attention and versed in a little history. The latter isn’t required, though. If you’re a human being that finds humor in the folly of human beings, TTOT will be right up your alley.

On one level, the novel is a “beach read,” as my friend Hamel likes to describe enaging-but-light fare that one blows through quickly. (But, then again, that’s how a contemporary audience would have viewed The Tempest.) It’s plot-driven, rather than character-driven, as satire often is, but it’s also much, much more. Like all Pratchett novels, it’s a funhouse mirror held up to humanity, making us realize how ridiculous we can be by simply fictionalizing and distorting an image of us that is penetratingly, hilariously spot-on and true. In short, it’s a novel that entertains and diverts while investigating serious questions about what it means to be human and the nature of perception. Not too many writers can pull that off; Pratchett does it with nearly every book.

Grade: A-. (“A’s” are reserved for enduring classics in the language, and I’m not sure that this is one of those.)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Film Review: George Romero's Land of the Dead.

The problem with George A. Romero's Land of the Dead isn't that it's a bad, film, really. If it were his first zombie film, it would probably have garnered more critical sympathy. But it isn't, of course; it's his fourth. That's also where it ranks in quality and importance among them. But what makes the film seem even more lightweight is the fact that a generation of filmmakers who grew up watching Romero's original trilogy now execute the genre with more skill and aptitude than he has. Danny Boyle's creepy 2002 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder's wickedly sly and funny 2004 remake of Romero's 1976 originalDawn of the Dead both blow the doors off of their mentor's current effort. It's as if the old teacher showed up to give the younguns a final comeuppance, only to discover that they've far surpassed him in ability.

I'll admit a touch of bias: I love zombie movies. They have a unique horror potential that, say, slasher films do not in that they are not about middling, small-scale stuff like campground killers in hockey masks and disfigured pedophiles invading dreams: they are about hell backing up like sewage and spitting forth the apocalypse onto the world. You know who's going to win in a zombie move--it's as inevitable as the end of the world, and the sheer force of attrition--you just don't know how they're going to win. This ever-darker, running out of places to hide stuff, done well, can be pretty unnerving.

But it's anything but terrifying in LOTD. The plot is serviceable enough: the evil Kauffman (an either utterly dispirited or washed-up Dennis Hopper) owns and manages a lily-white skyscraper community known as the Green in a fortified segment of (perhaps) the last human city. He employs a salvage operation led by Riley and Cholo (Simon Baker and John Leguizamo), who both collect trash from the Green and moonlight making supply runs with Dead Reckoning, their armed-to-the-teeth garbage hauler, into the zombie-infested outlying areas. Our new twist is that the zombies are learning to work cooperatively, making life increasingly dangerous for the salvage team and the enclosed city itself.

But this isn't a new twist at all. Romero had already shown that zombies were teachable in 1985's Day of the Dead, where a former soldier zombie remembers how to salute and fire a gun. This idea, like the rest of the zombie depictions, is merely a pastiche of all of his earlier work. LOTD isn’t a bad pastiche, necessarily, just as 1993'sVoodoo Lounge wasn't a bad Rolling Stones album. They're both just twenty years out of date, performing work done better and with more enthusiasm by younger artists. The zombies still look good, and the flesh-eating scenes are as creepy as ever, but they were that creepy in 1976. A genre has to evolve to be worth its salt, and Romero's genre, while it has, seems to have done so in his absence.

So with the zombies giving us nothing new or particularly scary, we're left with a passable melodrama and Romero's ubiquitous, heavy-handed social commentary, such as Kauffman's oh-so-subtle, "I do not negotiate with terrorists!" Much of the dialogue explores themes of social stratification, personal loyalty, and group ethics in a world in which everyone’s concern is immediate survival—and these aren’t bad concerns to explore. But the scenes themselves aren’t really written well enough to handle the points they’re engaging. Romero seems to be in a place that he has never seemed in his previous Dead films: in over his head. Sure, it's watchable, and even campily likeable in a few places, but it isn't really what we came for.

Grade: C.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


The now-deleted London post wasn't deleted because of anything anyone said. It's gone because I realized later how excessive it was; it's gone because I didn't agree with half the things I'd written when I re-read it; but it's mostly gone because I'm done blogging about politics for now. The end. No more. I'm even changed the absurdly pretentious name of this page, to the working title above until I think of something more catchy. I considered, for a moment, pulling the plug on it entirely and starting over, but I've dropped too much time into the template and I'm kind of lazy.

I've come to realize over time that I've become guilty--very guilty--of something more sensible people make fun of: blogging about politics to sound smart and moral, to have my voice be heard and counted, even if half the time I don't have the slightest idea what I'm talking about. And blogging ignorantly about something in hopes of getting attention and approval is really (if we're to be honest) just a little bit pathetic. I look back at many these political rants and realize a first-year law student could blow any of them out of the water, even if he secretly agreed, because I don't have the knowledge to back up my assertions. And no, links are not knowledge, and they aren't evidence. Links are useful, of course, but can't really substitute for informed argument. They're a lazy person's way defer the burden of exposition onto someone who knows what they're talking about.

So there you have it. I woke up one morning to realize that I'm essentially a fraud and a sham as a political blogger, and that reading the NY Times and Wall Street Journal and a few opinion mags don't give me the qualifications to bark about public policy any more than the fat jerk blathering about the game at the office Monday morning is qualified to be an NFL coach. I'm qualified to vote, by both law and my own opinion, and so that booth is where my views are, primarily, getting left from now on. You may see them in your comments forums, but not here.

So I'll write film reviews and book reviews, philosphical reflections, spiritual musings, academia stuff, and notes on baseball, both because I'm on surer ground and because the consequences of being wrong (or even right) make a fella seem like less of a pompous, self-important ass. This epiphany isn't a disappointing one. Rather, I find it quite liberating. Look everyone! Guess what, I know more about politics than a lot of people, but a lot less than I pretend! Look at the prating jackass, exposing his ignorance for whoever chooses to see it! There, I feel much better.

So I'm gonna go read a Terry Pratchett novel, and enjoy it, and maybe write something about it when I'm done. I am already done with the change-the-world stuff in this space. It's probably more efficient for me to start by cleaning my apartment than to rail against distant events and figures. Shouting at the top of the world from the bottom is beginning to seem to me a presumptuous waste of time. There's a universe of life and mystery right around me that demands my attention more than the actions of people I'll never meet doing things that I can't influence. This blog isn't going away, but it is moving closer to home.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Film Review: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

How did this film suck? Let me count the ways:

I will begin by admitting that I have watched Empire probably more than 200 times at this point. Yes, I am a dork. It is the gold standard of Starwarsdom, and my favorite film of all time. No apologies.

But I had high hopes for ROTS, (a weirdly appropriate acronym), due to pathologically misguided friendly reviews, word of mouth from my less-demanding compadres, and just my own yearning that George Lucas could make the most important chapter in his sextology not suck donkey balls.

No such luck. This movie is horrible, not despite the fact that it has such cutting-edge visual effects, but more precisely because it bets its wad on those visual effects to carry it. And they don't. Not by a long shot.

Frankly, I must admit, I hate CGI in live action films. It's fine for The Incredibles, a much better movie than this one (which, oddly, has a lengthy Star Wars tribute in it), but that was an animated film aimed at children, for chrissakes. Yet Lucas' demented obsession with it has ruined everything that used to work in his films: Artoo as a glow-in-the-dark CGI cartoon? I'm sorry, was a robot playing a robot, as was the gig in the original trilogy, somehow inadequate to the demands of a modern audience? Yep, sheeny CGI Artoo with cartoonish, unrealistic movements beats the hell out of an actual droid and a midget in a trash can. Computer simulation, after all, looks so much better than actual material objects on film--so real that I sometimes confuse my PS2 games for live-event television.

And the sets! Wow, does a CG forest on the wookie homeworld look better than the Redwoods of California did in Jedi. Come to think of it, the canyon scenes in whateverthehell world Obi-Wan tracks down General Grievous also excel the extant majesty of the Grand Canyon. And the herky-jerky space battle scenes clearly exceed the incredible-looking dogfights from Empire, don't they? Because CGI is newer, it simply must look better than the moving-model stuff of the 80's, right? Gosh, the utterly-authentic looking twists and turns of the Milleneum Falcon wilt before the Scooby-Doo sabotage droids attacking General Kenobi's fighter in the opening scene!

Have I forgotten to mention the Jedi-Sith duels? Heck, live actors with occasional stunt doubles certainly pale in comparison to CGI Count Dooku-style flips and force-manipulations against the Jedi. Oh, wait, the latter look utterly ridiculous.

Let's ask a question: which looks better--is it Lord Vader gliding ominously down the steps he's just beaten his son down in Empire, or the cartoonish battle between Dooku and the Jedi in our present film? I know where my vote is. Congrats, George, you made a better-written, better-directed, better-looking film twenty-five years ago. Good show. It's devolved, even, from The Phantom Menace. Chan-ho Park (Darth Maul) actually did his flips; now we have the guys that brought you Toy Story creating flips for you.

But that's just the tip o' the iceberg. The movie's dialogue is so wretched, particularly during the first hour, that I actually comtemplated walking out. I am convinced that Tom Stoppard's "uncredited assistance" is an abject myth: the guy that wrote Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Shakespeare in Love had about as much to do with this screenplay as Michael Moore has to do with Weight Watchers. Annikin and Padme's exchanges stink so bad that it makes a fella wonder if George Lucas has ever even gotten any.

But that's not all that's wrong with it: let's not forget the (once again) glaring inconsistencies in the story: Leia has memories of her mother in Jedi, remarkably precocious as her mother now dies 90 seconds after her birth. Count Dooku spins like a top at 60, despite the fact that 60-year-old Obi-Wan's "powers are weak, old man," when he confronts Vader in Episode Four. This, despite the fact that he's been in training for twenty years, communing with his teacher, as we find out from the final exchange between Obi-Wan and Yoda. And Yoda goes from being a quasi-omnipotent ninja here to a secluded cripple in Empire, in a mere twenty years? What's up with that?

Could the fight between Yoda and Emperor Palpatine, by-the-way, have been any cheesier? They spend the climax of it flinging pizzas at each other! This is the battle that decides the rise of the Empire? Besides, Palpatine declares that Yoda isn't dead until they find his body after he falls (despite the fact that Jedi and Sith alike can now fly), when we've all already seen that Yoda leaves no body when he does finally die. Watch your own movies much, George?

The film makes so many bad choices that I want, truly, to give it an "F." But I can't, both because it's not in me and because it does, in it's own utterly incompetent way, set the stage for the original trilogy. The final duel between Obi-Wan and Annikin does deliver the goods, because, in a rare moment of sense, Lucas portrays Annakin's defeat as a matter of arrogance and poor choice, and not inferior ability. Ewan MacGregor's Obi-Wan does do a great job of assymilating his personal failure as a teacher while realizing his need to end the threat that he's created and empowered. It presages nicely the rematch of the past-his-prime teacher with the still-powerful tutee in A New Hope. I just wish the rest of this bloated, overlong, badly-written mess could have followed suit.

Grade: C-minus.

Friday, July 01, 2005


I discovered a travel tip, a while back, whose source I cannot recall: always, when renting a car (my now-preferred mode of touring), apply for the smallest and cheapest vehicle available. The rental company will almost never have an actual sub-compact when you arrive there, and will be contractually obligated (or perhaps just by policy) to provide you with a larger, better-equipped vehicle at the same price. The worst thing that can happen is that they do have whatever today's eqivalent of a Metro or Sprint is available, and you simply upgrade (unless you had your heart set on an uncomfortable ride) on the spot. It's classically win-win.

And so I found myself in a shiny, new, and comfortable (if a bit thirsty) Ford Escape (their baby SUV, for the unversed) trekking through the unspeakably beautiful hills of North Carolina and West Virginia en route to Columbus, Ohio this past weekend. For a mere 20 dollars a day (thank you, Priceline), at that.

Mountains, as writers from the Psalms onward have noted, have a spiritually renewing quality about them rivalled only, it would appear, by deserts. I'm certainly not one to argue with such authorities; they're breathtaking, if a bit useless for cellular phone reception. But on the latter point, I think it's best to surmise that the mountains are telling me that there are more important things for me to be noticing than my cel phone.

I used to believe that I didn't care for longish drives, but now understand that my 135 mile drives from Columbus, OH to Cleveland were unhappy because: A) the scenery is flat and ridiculously boring; B) I always had a nagging trepidation deriving from my poorly-maintained and sometimes uninsured vehicles; C) I was haunted by the grisly demise of Elizabeth, my beloved 1973 Triumph Spitfire who perished on that same expanse of I-71. Having rectified all of those issues, I was eminently serene cruising the 600-plus miles from Wilmington to Columbus. This is a good thing, as my restive soul has been in need of a little bit of serenity in the aftermath of my Summer grad seminar. It's time to haul out the spiritual and philosophical lit that I emply for personality maintenance.

We all have the restorative rituals, of course: Dublin Saab drives, Hamel bikes and runs, Jason swims, and I read Anthony DeMello, Kalhil Ghibran, the Bhagavad Gita, or David Hume. Okay, that's a lie about me: usually I drink; I read that other stuff at the junctures in which I realize that drinking only induces serenity in four-hour intervals and leaves the mind and soul a confused and unnavigable mess the rest of the time.

Mountains, though, like deserts and oceans, issue a spiritual corrective--not because they are inherently interesting (which they are), but because they are vast, and as the brilliant-but-short-lived John Gardner wrote, "like all things vast, inanimate." Vastness grants perspective, in that in the presence of vastness we are obligated to observe our own smallness and relative unimportance in the universal scheme.

I am reminded of a personal moment of clarity: I was working early on a day shift in a busy restaurant kitchen about two years back; bad scheduling and a call-off had ensured that we would have a puissant and multitudinous lunch crowd handled by an utterly inadequate three cooks. John, my shift manager, was pacing nervously as a caged animal in anticipation of the onslaught. I perceived that he would be worthless to us if he had already lost his cool before the attack even began, and so I offered the following speech before the troops: "John, there are guys getting shot at in Iraq right now, and the worst thing we're looking at is three guys running their asses off for a few hours."

Strangely, this approach worked. John paused for a moment, thanked me for the perspective, and noticeably calmed down. He became suddenly aware that our shitty day at work was pedestrian and whitebread compared to real shitty days at work--that a few hours of sweat paled in comparison to the dangers that many face daily. I wished, deeply and fervently, that I could practice regularly what I'd just so gloriously preached.

But mountains are better and funnier teachers than kitchens. Much like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, they tell you things that you don't want to hear and yet need to know. Mountains tell you that you can crash your SUV into them at full speed, if you so choose, and that you'll die and your truck will be mangled, and that they won't care at all. The mountains came before me and will be here long after me, they told me. Like the Tao, they are unsentimental; they announce the order of things, and leave subjective human egos to make sense of it.

That's the way things work, of course, and yet most of us live lives assiduaously crafted in denial of our own powerlessness against that which is greater than us. I'm both victim and perpetrator of this ridiculous philosophy. But on a sunny day on I-77, with the mountains about me, I can be, at least temporarily, liberated.