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Reading History: “Bring Up The Bodies” (by Hilary Mantel)

Bring Up The Bodies begins almost immediately after the events of Wolf Hall, with Thomas Cromwell orchestrating the precipitous downfall of Anne Boleyn and the meteoric rise of the blushing Jane Seymour.  The novel chronicles Anne’s inexorable slide into oblivion and ends with her execution and Cromwell’s triumph.

As with Wolf Hall, one gets the sense that this is an England on the brink of tremendous political change, and it is Thomas Cromwell who both represents and can sense the imminence of this new world order.  While the old families–the Howards, the Seymours, the Poles, and the Courtenays–largely dismiss Cromwell as an upstart hardly worthy of their attention, they also recognize his usefulness, and his power, as he slowly becomes more indispensable to the king.  While the old families refuse to accept the fact that their star is in the descendant, the reader is clearly aware of this fact and is invited to share in Cromwell’s wicked delight in their preening vanity.  We know that the old families will continue their downward slide into obsolescence, while self-made men like Cromwell, with all of the sleek political skills that enable their rise to power, will come to dominate and occupy the key positions of power.

Bring Up The Bodies also continues to show Cromwell as justified, at least somewhat, in his ruthless pursuit of justice for his deceased master Wolsey.  Indeed, his motivation for entrapping several of Anne’s alleged lovers–including her brother George–is their participation in a masque that was utilized to mock the cardinal after his death.  The novel works overtime to convince us that Cromwell’s ruthlessness is the result not of his own desires per se, but of a man determined to see an injustice righted.  It also strenuously disavows (often somewhat disingenuously) that Cromwell did not resort to torture in order to gain the pivotal confessions he needed to hold his case together.  For example, rather than binding the singer Mark Smeaton’s forehead with a knotted cord, for example, Cromwell merely has him locked into a storage closet; the only torture the young man endures is at the hands of his own imagination.  Cromwell skates above the scandal, vaguely amused by those who claim he is a monster.

It is precisely this continued valorization of Cromwell that is the novel’s weakest point.  Sometimes, Cromwell emerges as too knowing, too detached, too amused at the foibles of the people surrounding him.  This may be the result of the central enigma that Cromwell represents; of the many larger-than-life figures that surrounded Henry, Cromwell (along with Anne) are perhaps the most inscrutable and indecipherable characters.  It stands to reason that Mantel, eager to get to the center of this puzzle of a man, would seek to make him as appealing as possible, hence rendering him a more understandable, if slightly too perfect, historical person.

For his part, Henry continues to emerge from these novels as little more than overgrown child, prone to fits of pique and rage when his ruthless appetite and need for immediate gratification are not fulfilled.  It also allows us to see his fundamentally capricious nature, as he begins to mourn the downfall of Wolsey (although he places the blame for that on his malevolent councilors rather than on his own desire to punish those who do not do as he wishes).  His will is dangerously unpredictable, and one gets the sense that this is a dangerous and unstable world, where the sexual desires of a king can, and do, have significant consequences for both the individuals surrounding him and the country over which he rules.

Fortunately, this emphasis on Henry’s vindictive caprice enables a measure of sympathy for Anne (something quite conspicuously lacking through much of Wolf Hall).  The scene of her execution has a solemn grace for it, and it is hard not to feel a profound sense of sadness at this reign cut so tragically short.  Further, the scene inspires and encourages us as readers to feel a sense of powerlessness, as we stand with Cromwell and witness an action we cannot change, and as we experience with Anne the ultimately forlorn hope that Henry may yet have mercy upon her.

Anne’s downfall also allows us to get a sense of foreboding, for the canny reader knows that Cromwell himself is riding for a precipitous and calamitous fall after Henry loses faith in him as well.  I suspect that the projected final volume in this series, The Mirror and the Light, will provide us with a mingled sense of pleasure and anxiety at seeing this canny and fiercely intelligent figure eventually brought low by the king he has so assiduously served.  Like its predecessor, Bring Up shows the tremendous influence one individual can have on the course of a nation’s history.  And that is a comforting, and a terrifying, thought.

Score:  9/10

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Shane” (1953)

In keeping with the western theme I seem to have going on “Screening Classic Hollywood,” today’s film is George Stevens’s Shane, released in 1953 and starring Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, and Van Heflin.  Shane (Ladd) is a roaming gunman who enters a seemingly idyllic valley.  Once there, he quickly becomes embroiled in the growing conflict between the homsteaders (led by Van Heflin’s Joe Starrett) and the cattle ranchers (led by Rufus Ryker, portrayed by Emile Meyer).  Tensions continue to mount until Shane ends up slaying Rufus and several of his hands, after which he rides out of the valley, as Jim’s young son Jimmy cries out for him to come back.

At first glance, Alan Ladd makes something of an unusual choice for a roaming gunslinger; he does not have the imposing physical presence of a Wayne, for example, nor the grace of a Randolph Scott.  Nevertheless, there is something disarmingly charming about his portrayal, which in turn grants a measure of humanity to his otherwise sociopathic figure, a hint that perhaps, beneath his loner exterior, there is a measure of interiority and softness that saves him from being an absolutely cold-hearted killer.   The obvious chemistry that simmers between him and Joe’s wife Marian (Arthur) and Joey (Joe’s son), hints at the life that could await Shane if he would but give up his wandering ways, settle down, and accept the new rule of order and domesticity.  Of course, such a settling down is an impossibility for the western hero, and so that possibility is infinitely deferred.

The most compelling character, however, has to be Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson, the gunman brought in to do away with Shane and cow (pardon the pun) the homesteaders into submission and flight from the valley.  The dispassionate ease with which he dispatches local homesteader Stonewall is truly chilling, and is in keeping with Palance’s midcentury star persona (he became quite famous for playing villainous and sometimes sociopathic characters, such as Simon the Magus in The Silver Chalice, released the following year).  What is most unsettling, however, is the underlying similarity between Wilson and Shane; though they exhibit widely different personalities, they are in essence the same kind of person, loners and killers whose very presence threatens the stability and order of the home.

Opposed to both of these figures are not only the homesteading men (such as Van Heflin’s rather worn-looking Joe), but their families.  Arthur seems a bit miscast as Marian, and she often comes across as an unpleasant mixture of simpering and strident, as she attempts to keep both of the men in her life from endangering themselves and the life that she has so assiduously cultivated.  Similarly, Brandon De Wilde is also somewhat screeching as Joey, often erupting onto the scene in bursts of unruly energy that are unpleasant precisely because they disrupt the peace and serenity of the house (his scenes are frequently punctuated by his imitations of shooting, and he is constantly asking Shane to teach him how to shoot).

Domesticity and its denizens do not seem like such a pleasant alternative, but neither does the other possibility.  The cattelmen are a group of rough-edged loners who care nothing about the other residents of the valley.  They frequently heap insults upon their fellows and, as we have seen, they are not afraid to stoop to extreme violence when it proves necessary (in their view, in any case).  While the film seems to ultimately side with domesticity–with the cattlemen and their ilk dead, Shane riding off into the sunset–there is a note of melancholy about this, a feeling that something has been lost in this battle for the soul of the valley (and perhaps for America as a whole).

Unsurprisingly, the film ends with the admission that the world Shane has helped to bring into being–one defined more by the bonds of family and stability than by the lone wolf mentality of the cattlemen–also has no place for him.  As he says to the young Jimmy, “There’s no living with a killing,” a profound statement that makes it all too clear that his type of masculinity has become increasingly superfluous to the gradually-domesticated wilderness.  Further, the film does not shy away from showing us the savagery of the conflicts that shaped much of the western part of the United States (indeed, Bosley Crowther made a point of mentioning such in his review for the film).  Joey’s strident cries for Shane to return–calls that go unheeded–sound the final note, one faintly sour and unsatisfactory one.

All in all, Shane is one of Stevens’s better works, a rather thoughtful and sad reflection on the gradual decline of a certain way of living, a recognition that beneath the veneer of adventure that dominates ideas of the west, there lurks a more troubling set of issues and contradictions that are not so easily resolved.

Score:  8/10

High Noon

Screening Classic Hollywood:  “High Noon” (1952) 

Today’s entry in “Screening Classic Hollywood” is High Noon, widely considered one of the best westerns ever made.  Starring Gary Cooper as Will Kane, a recently married marshal who attempts to gather his townspeople’s support to confront a recently pardoned criminal who threatens to bring the town back to its period of lawlessness and chaos.  However, both his wife (Grace Kelly) and the rest of the townspeople resist his efforts and, while the former repents of her decision, the latter do not.  Ultimately, Will does succeed in overcoming the outlaw and his band, but he casts away his badge and rides of with his wife.

One of the most compelling aspects of this film, however, is its use of time. As is well known, the action of the diegesis takes place in the same amount of running time as the film itself.  Indeed, time is never far away in this film; again and again, clocks (sometimes just in the background), serve as reminders of time’s relentless march.  Time and again, Will is urged to leave town before it is “too late.”  It is to too surprising that this emphasis on time should make its appearance.  This was 1952, after all, when a profound anxiety about the possibility of the end of the world via nuclear attack was quite imminent, and so it makes sense that such an anxiety would make its way into this text, in which a man’s destiny always stands on a knife-edge, and where his life, and that of the town as a whole, teeters on the brink of oblivion and profound change.

The film is in many ways a scathing critique of mid-century America. When the judge becomes the first to flee the city in advance of Frank Miller’s arrival, he begins by packing up the American flag, a powerful indicator of the ways in which the town has begun to dissolve and lose its fundamental American identity.  Likewise, when Will attempts to drum up a group of deputies in the church, the debate that breaks out borders on the ridiculous, with every possible point of view expressed.  The film’s refusal to grant any perspective primacy, paired with the townspeople’s refusal to help Will, grants this critique an extra layer of meaning.

While I have never been Cooper’s biggest fan, he does bring a certain weary dignity to his role as the embattled yet proud marshal. Cooper’s performance always has a certain bewildered innocence about it, almost as if his characters are uncertain about their role in the drama in which they find themselves. One can see this, for example, in York’s earlier work in Sergeant York (1941) and even in this film, in which he is 10 years older, he still manages to pull off that particular blend of innocence and stoicism.  Yet one can also see, in his increasingly creased features, the marks of time’s inexorable passage.

If Kelly’s performance is unpleasantly simpering at times (this is definitely not one of her strongest roles), Katy Jurado is magnificent.  Exuding some of the exotic sort of grace that characterized the best performances of Marlene Dietrich, she remains something of an enigma throughout the film.  When she finally leaves the small town that she has called her home, we are left with a number of puzzling and unanswered questions: where is she going?  What is she doing?  For that matter, what exactly is the nature of her relationship with both Bill and Frank (the film alludes to both, but it never goes into enough detail to help us know what happened among the three of them).  Her enigmatic personality stands out as one of the most compelling and enjoyable parts of the film.

At the formal level, the film displays a remarkable virtuosity, with compelling editing and cinematography frequently drawing attention to the emotional toll Frank Miller’s impending arrival has on the townspeople.  The score, likewise, combines both a haunting refrain of the film’s main song with a rhythm uncannily akin to the ticking of a fateful clock, underlining the menace of passing time and the encroaching destiny that threatens to overcome both the hero and the town.  The film never lets us lose sight of the fact that this is a pivotal moment for this small town and, by extension, for the America that it represents.

The film has clearly had a profound impact on subsequent filmmaking, and I’ll close with a bit of a comparison that may be intentional (or it might not).  In one particularly resonant scene, Will visits with his predecessor (memorably portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.).  The older man is even more world-weary than his successor, and I am reminded of a similar scene between Ed Tom and his uncle Ellis in No Country for Old Men.  In both, we see two generations of lawmen contending with the violent realities of the world they live in, and both films seem to betray a profound ambivalence, perhaps even a fatalism, about the fate of the America they represent.

As such, High Noon certainly deserves its vaunted place in the film canon, standing as a work of art that truly struggles to come to terms with the world in which it was produced.  And if its vision of the world is not nearly so sanguine as some would like well, I think that is all to the good.

Score:  10/10

Tolkien’s Heirs (II): David Eddings

Some time ago, I wrote that Terry Brooks, the bestselling author of the multi-volume Shannara series could and should be considered one of Tolkien’s foremost literary heirs.  Today, I’d like to also suggest that David Eddings, author of several epic fantasy series including The Belgariad, The Mallorean,  The Elenium, and The Tamuli, should also be considered one of Tolkien’s heirs.

Now, at first glance it might seem counter-intuitive to label Eddings one of Tolkien’s heirs, given Eddings’ own rather dim view of fantasy of the Tolkien variety.  He even notes in The Rivan Codex, his compendium of reflections and notes on the two series, that he was surprised to learn that The Lord of the Rings (what he refers to as “this old turkey”) had gone through multiple printings.  All of this seems a bit disingenuous on Eddings’ part, especially since his series, with their rather clear-cut moral universes and traditional epic journey narratives, would never have been able to attain the financial and popular success it did without the success of Tolkien’s work.

In both The Belgariad and The Mallorean, Eddings has crafted a fully-fleshed out world with its own rules, its own exhaustively detailed cultures, and its own magic system.  One can definitely see the influence of Tolkien here, who set the stage for the necessity of this fully-developed world in his own work of sub-creation.  Eddings, however, relies a bit more on ostentatious use of magic (though it is typically referred to as the power throughout the series) than his predecessor, an indicator perhaps of some of the changes that have taken place in the epic fantasy genre post-Tolkien.

While neither of Eddings’s two signature series attains quite the operatic heights of the greatest of Tolkien’s works, there are moments of true brilliance and reflection.  Polgara, for one, emerges from these tales as a woman who has given up almost everything she cared for, even her sister, in order to pursue the Prophecy that governs the fate of their world.  And even Torak, the primary villain of the original series, becomes something of a sympathetic character upon his death, when he cries out in his anguish for his mother, and when his brother gods gather around to mourn his passing.  There is a sense in these scenes of the tragedy of fate, that often gathers up and destroys those that it seeks to use, so that even the most villainous and destructive of characters becomes something a little more nuanced and a little more understandable, if no less villainous in the final analysis.

It this ability to paint even the most evil of characters as nuanced and complex that renders Eddings into one of Tolkien’s heirs.  Recall that even Tolkien’s villains, most notably Morgoth and Sauron, were not evil in their beginning; their falls resulted from their desire for order, which they pursued outside of the aegis of Iluvatar.  Eddings takes this a step further, suggesting that Torak had no more agency in his decisions than did Garion (the main character of The Belgariad and The Mallorean).  This, in my view, is a rather profound view of evil, and it presses against our typical understandings of evil as blankly incomprehensible.  Here, we are instead invited to acknowledge the morally ambiguous place that we occupy in the moral binaries upon which so many fantasy series are built.

However, it is also important to note that Eddings has his flaws as a writer.  He tends to rely too much on witty dialogue that sometimes comes off as trite and unconvincing, frequently puncturing otherwise compelling scenes with dialogue that seems forced and cliche.  Furthermore, everything in Eddings’ world is a little too neatly divided along the axis of good and evil, with the people of the West (the Alorns, the Drasnians, and especially the Rivans) clearly coded as the saviours and those in the East and South (the Murgos and the Nyissans, respectively) fall prey to the old stereotypes as evil and as ethnically “Other.”

For all of this, however, Eddings is still a competent writer and storyteller. And if his plots get a little repetitive at at times, at least it is the type of repetitiveness that speaks of the tried and true nature of the epic tale formula.  While Mr. Eddings sadly passed away in 2009, I still take great pleasure revisiting the worlds that he took such obvious care and delight in creating.

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952)

Today on Screening Classic Hollywood, I’m going to be talking about Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Greatest Show on Earth.  While this tagline could have easily been used for any of his spectacular showpieces (either Samson and Delilah or The Ten Commandments would also come in for consideration as the “Greatest Show on Earth”), this particular film is set in the circus and details the fraught connections and personal relationships among its key participants.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to think about a circus in epic terms, somehow DeMille manages to imbue this particular show with a certain larger-than-life scope and depth (in a similar way to which he took the relatively small narrative of Samson and Delilah and imbued it with world historical significance in the film of the same name).  In DeMille’s imagination, the circus is a vast beast with a mind of its own, a reflection (perhaps) of the very culture that produced it.  Indeed, it is precisely this emphasis on the personal and the sexual that gives the film its narrative energy.

Though surrounded by the typical DeMille-esque spectacle, the narrative itself is actually rather simple.  It involves a circus runner Brad (Charlton Heston) attempting to draw in paying customers with the help of the renowned acrobat Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  In the process, however, he risks alienating his love interest, Holly (Betty Hutton).  This being DeMille, however, the two separated lovers finally come together again, though they are at first separated by a number of other catastrophes, including a thunderous train wreck that almost costs Brad his life.  There are also a number of other storylines woven through the film, including one involving the clown Buttons (Jimmy Stewart), who never removes his makeup (even when he’s not performing).  Though each of the storylines is compelling by itself, they do not quite congeal into a coherent picture.

While the narrative often struggles to hold together the sprawling spectacle, several of the actors do deliver exemplary performances. Heston is competent as always, and it’s actually refreshing to see him as something other than an epic hero (his roles as Moses and Ben-Hur were still ahead of him).  What strikes me as particularly significant, however, is the fact that his character, like so many other Heston heroes, ends up injured by the end of the film.  In fact, one of the film’s last shots shows him, incapacitated in a chair, his skin betraying a certain waxy and pasty pallor.  Such an appearance seems incongruous now, but as I have come to realize, Heston’s heroes often end their films incapacitated or injured in some significant way (consider, for example, El Cid, in which Heston’s eponymous hero perishes at the end, his lifeless corpse used as an inspiration for the remaining members of his army).

Further, Jimmy Stewart adds a note of humanity to this film as Buttons the clown, a fount of wisdom and mystery who never removes his makeup (even when he is not performing).  As it turns out, he was once a doctor who ended his wife’s life in an act of mercy.  Stewart is always a solid actor able to bring a great deal of depth to any character he plans, and although the persistence of the makeup makes Buttons a bit too creepy for my liking, he is also one of the film’s more fully-drawn and psychologically complex characters.

And, of course, no review of this film would be complete without mentioning the divine Gloria Grahame, that favourite moll of many a film noir.  She brings some of that femme fatale biting wit to this role as well, with a number of witty one-liners and a refusal to be dominated by any of the men in her life (including the hubristic and jealous Klaus, played by Lyle S. Bettger).

What strikes me the most after watching this film, however, is how it comments on the actual act of spectatorship.  DeMille had similarly commented on the act of viewing spectacle in Samson and Delilah, but this film brings it to the fore.  There are numerous shots of avid viewers of the circus, and while these are no doubt intended to register for the theater audience the sense of awe and delight in viewing the circus brought to Technicolor light, there is also something puzzlingly and disturbingly grotesque about them, an unsettling reminder, perhaps, of the fraught relationship that always exists between the viewer and the spectacle being consumed.

Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film, though it does sag during a few of the more mundane bits.  It bears the dubious distinction of being one of the worst films to receive the Best Picture nomination (and I would agree that it is certainly not on par with DeMille’s more magisterial masterpieces such as S&D or The Ten Commandments).  If the Academy voters had known that DeMille would produce a truly fine film just four years later, they would have awarded the Oscar to a more deserving film, such as High Noon. 

Unfortunately, we will never know.

Score:  7/10

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Reading History: “Wolf Hall” (by Hilary Mantel)

I’ve been an avid fan of historical fiction for most of my life.  Some authors have always stood out to me as possessing an extraordinary talent.  Margaret George, Mary Renault, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Philippa Gregory (at her best) are novelists who mange to evoke the power of the past.  By this I don’t simply mean the tired old expression of “bringing the past to life;” instead, I mean something much more vibrant and intense.  These authors help us to understand not just what the past looked like, but also how history happens, how individuals contend with the deeper social and cultural currents that often create the nexus through which history takes place.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel manages to not only bring the strangeness of the Tudor world to brilliant and scathing life, but also show how a pivotal period in the development of England.  Admittedly, this is a period that has been fictionalized more than perhaps any other (especially in recent years), so managing to make this period shine in any sort of significantly new way should be lauded as an accomplishment.  Mantel does just that, allowing the reader to get the sense that this is a dark, dreary, and ultimately very dangerous world, where children are subject to the brutality of their fathers and even the most devoted servant (or wife) of the king is likewise subject to his caprice.  Reading Wolf Hall, one does get the sense that this world is one that teeters on the brink of tremendous social and political change, with Cromwell emerging as the harbinger of that change, a man who is thoroughly modern in his outlook and who helps to set in motion the changes that will move England squarely out of the Renaissance proper and into the modern world.

One of the things that makes this novel so endlessly enjoyable is its subtle employment of a certain dry and sly wit.  While Cromwell does have moments of emotional depth–as when he loses his wife and his daughters to the sweating sickness–far more of the narrative actually involves him utilizing his sense of humour to make sense of the world around him.  Whether it’s poking fun at Thomas Wriothesley, jokingly calling him “Call-Me-Risley” (or “Call-Me for short), puncturing the holier-than-thou egotism of the tyrannical Thomas More, Cromwell controls his world by adopting a superior stance to it, or referring to the blustering Duke of Norfolk as “Uncle Norfolk,” Cromwell allows the thoroughly modern reader to judge and critique this world where the old ways of doing things no longer make sense.  The old ways die hard, the novel suggests, but that does not mitigate the fact that they are, in fact, on their deathbed.

Nor Henry does not emerge from this story as anything even remotely resembling a hero. The Henry VIII of Wolf Hall is endlessly vacillating and cruel.  While he may have a certain charisma and intellectual acuity, he still depends on those around him, such as Wolsey and Cromwell, to get him what he wants.  Like almost all of the other royal and noble characters, Henry seems like something of a holdover from the period of his youth, a reminder of an earlier period whose last vestiges are slowly being shed by the England over which he rules.

If I have one complaint to make about this novel, it is its portrayal of Anne Boleyn.  As Susan Bordo demonstrates in her wonderful book The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Mantel slips all too easily into the long-standing tradition of painting Henry’s second queen as a bloodthirsty, iron-hard, and manipulative shrew, juxtaposing all of this to both Katherine’s saintliness and maturity and Jane Seymour’s innocence and youth.  There are a moments when one does feel a glimmer of sympathy for Anne–how could one not, when she is constantly being pushed in various directions by everyone around her?  Like Katherine before her and Jane after, Anne knows that her well-being, and indeed her life, depend on Henry’s good graces.  Her pensive and shrewish personality, it seems, are the logical result of these unbearable pressures.

Although he is certainly the hero of this novel, and though the entire work is told from his limited perspective, I emerged from this novel feeling that Thomas Cromwell was even more an enigma.  While much of what he does is motivated, at least in part, either by a displaced attempt to separate himself from his father or to avenge the fall of Wolsey, the real Cromwell always seems to lurk at the edges of Mantel’s prose, enticing with his enigmatic inaccessibility.  If I have one complaint to make of the novel’s portrayal of Cromwell, it is that he emerges from this story a little too perfect, a little too precocious and subtle.  I am reminded of Mary Renault’s portrayal of Alexander, which also lionized her subject.  But perhaps that lionization is for Mantel, as for Renault, the necessary part of bringing a great man to literary life.

“Game of Thrones” Season 5 Postmortem

Having now had a good few weeks to think about the most recent season of Game of Thrones, I thought I would set down a few of those reflections on what worked and what didn’t in this most recent season of HBO’s most popular series.  Overall, this season delivered on some promises and left enough open so that our desires remain at least partially unfulfilled.

To begin with, this season marked some significant developments in terms of the violence against women problem (which has long remained one of my most consistent critiques of the series).  Ramsay’s terrifying rape of Sansa, while filtered through Theon’s perspective (we never actually see it take place on screen), stands out to me as one of the more nuanced and heartrending scenes of such violence.  Further, the juxtaposition of that horror with Stannis’s sacrifice of his daughter Shireen in order to gain the favour of the god R’hollor, makes it clear just how little this world values its women.  However, this season does seem to be a bit more critical of that cultural phenomenon than in seasons past, rather than using such violence as a flimsy excuse to show off the naked bodies of its female characters.

Similarly, I felt that Cersei’s storyline this season was also on-point.  The High Sparrow manages to be both paternal and patriarchal, charismatic and charmingly ruthless as he lays deep plans to topple the leaders of the Great Houses (the confrontation between him and the Queen of Thrones out as one of the best the series has yet produced).  Cersei’s penitent march through King’s Landing, similarly, highlights this season’s investment in pointing out the patriarchal hypocrisy of Westeros.  And her final scene, in which she is carried offscreen by her giant protector (a presumably zombie-fied Gregor Clegane), is one of the most chilling I have yet seen in Game of Thrones, with its sinister suggestion that her desire for revenge may not only spell her own doom, but also that of everyone around her.

However, this season stumbled with a few of its other key female characters.  While I have always found Maisie Williams’s Arya to be one of the series’ finest creations (in both book and television form), this season feels like a bit of a misstep.  For much of the time, it has felt like Arya is merely spinning her wheels in Braavos, with the series desperately trying to maintain our collective interest in her rather staid storylines.  The same is true of Brienne; due to the fact that the series has eschewed the Lady Stoneheart plot (much to my dismay and anger), she is left with very little to do except chase Sansa around the North.  Even her last-minute (presumed) slaying of Stannis does only a little to mitigate the way in which the series wasted her character this season.

Overall, I felt that the the season did a great job streamlining portions of the last two of Martin’s published volumes in “A Song of Ice and Fire.”  Many readers, myself included, felt that both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons became too sprawling, falling victim to the long-standing curse of epic fantasy, in which the author becomes too enamoured of ancillary story-lines that ultimately encumber and distract from the core characters.  Thus, while some may be upset that the adaptation has done away with such side characters as the Martell siblings Arianne and Quentyn, I felt from the beginning that it was a brilliant and necessary move (considering the fact that the former continues to flounder and the latter is dead by the end of Dance, I can’t help but think the novels would have been better without them).

I know that I, for one, am both excited and a little nervous that the HBO series has now moved beyond the pale of Martin’s published work.  Of course, some of this is allayed by the fact that Martin has given the producers an indication of the final trajectory of his series.  Details about how next season will shape up have been rather sparse so far, but I am curious how they are going to deal with the fact that so many of the series’ characters are so far scattered.  Perhaps, as the rumor mill has suggested, the series will institute a time jump so that the various characters can finally break out of their narrative prisons (this would certainly help the books along).  Or perhaps this will happen in the series’ (presumed) seventh season, or maybe even later (if/when it makes its leap from the small to the big screen).

Whatever happens, the series seems to have really found its stride, showcasing what can be achieved when the medium of television is allowed the budget and the freedom to invest in serious and complex storytelling.

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Book Review: Defenders of Shannara: “The Darkling Child” (by Terry Brooks)

I’ve been an avid reader of Terry Brooks for many years, and he has always managed to keep me riveted with his extraordinary writing abilities.  The latest installment of his long-running “Shannara” series, The Darkling Child is no different.  As always, Brooks manages to ask pointed and deep philosophical questions while still maintaining his trademark storytelling abilities.

The novel has a brisk pace, picking up shortly after where the first novel in the trilogy, The High Druid’s Blade, left off.   Paxon, devoted servant to the Ard Rhys Aphenglow, finds himself struggling with his identity.  When Reyn Frosch, a traveling musician in command of the wishsong, reveals his power, Paxon accompanies the Druid Avelene to attempt to bring the boy to Paranor.  Of course, the dangerous sorcerer Arcannen also has designs on the singer, intending to eradicate the Red Slash, an elite corps of the Federation army responsible for the destruction of Arbrox, a community of pirates who gave him shelter.  The inevitable showdown ensues, and while Reyn flees into hiding as a doctor, Arcannen escapes again and the Druid Avelene is slain.  The novel ends with a broken and lost Paxon visiting Leofur, the sorcerer’s daughter, in the hopes of rekindling their romance.

Throughout his long and storied career, Brooks has crafted a number of compelling and disturbing villains:  the Dagda Mor and Reaper from Elfstones, the Mord Wraiths of Wishsong, Brona of Sword and First King.  With Arcannen, however, Brooks has really outdone himself.  The sorcerer is a man driven by his own needs and desires, dangerous precisely because he has a vision of the world that forces everyone else to accommodate him.  Indeed, I would even go so far as to suggest that Arcannen is this world’s version of a sociopath.  His sociopathy becomes all the more terrifying in that he does seem to have at least some moral compass; his desire to eradicate the soldiers of the Red Slash, for example, is driven (at least in part) by his desire to gain vengeance on behalf of the people of Arbrox who were ruthlessly slain by the Federation army.  It is precisely this sense of a twisted moral logic that makes him such a compelling, and almost understandable villain, an agent of chaos that threatens the

While most of Brooks’s works (with the exception of “Landover”) have had world-altering consequences, that is less the case in this present trilogy, where the focus remains pretty rigorously centered on the ongoing conflict between Arcannen and Paxon.  Indeed, there is something refreshing about the ways in which Brooks’s vision of his world can accommodate these various kinds of stories, showing us the many questions that the best fantasy novels can ask and the ingenious and complex ways in which they can begin to think about, if not to conclusively, answer them.

All of this is not to say that the novel doesn’t still contain some sense of that epic scale of wonder that has long been a trademark of Brooks’s work.  He has stated that he is beginning to wind up the Shannara series, and one can sense even in these more tightly contained novels a sense that this is a world on the brink of a profound change.  After all, this is our world many years in the future, when an apocalypse has destroyed most of what was once gained by science.  Now that things have slowly begun to reach their pre-apocalpyse stage of development–the Four Lands are now faced with both airships and increasingly-advanced weapons of war–a final showdown between the wielders of magic and those of science is bound to happen.

What emerges from this novel, in other words, is a bleak existential look at the nature of what makes an epic hero.  While Brooks has always been a deft hand with portraying his heroes, particularly those of the Leah family, as tortured souls contending with the world around them and with the sometimes nigh-unbearable forces arrayed against them, Paxon is of a different order.  This is a young man struggling with the immense demands placed on him as a result of his various heroic roles:  as brother, as servant of the Druids, and as relentless foe of Arcannen.  At the same time, he also has to contend with his failures, and it remains to be seen whether his heroic destiny will break him or whether he will rise to fulfill it.

While those familiar with the “Shannara” world will probably gain the most pleasure out of this novel, it is also an ideal starting place for those looking to see what all the fuss is about.  With interest in the series starting to pick up thanks to MTV’s forthcoming scripted series (based on Elfstones) entitled The Shannara Chronicles, those who find this novel compelling will be glad to know there are numerous other entries in the series, just waiting to be read.

Score:  10/10

Inside Out

Film Review: “Inside Out”

Note:  Full spoilers for the film follow.

The film’s central conceit is that our brains (in the film’s case, the mind of 11-year-old Riley) is comprised of five basic emotions that essentially serve as the headquarters of the workings of the mind:  Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black, in a role he was born to play), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).  When the film begins, Joy is by far the dominant emotion, doing everything in her power to ensure that the only memories that go into Riley’s core consciousness are those that are unequivocally happy.  To do so, however, she ruthlessly sidelines Sadness.  When Sadness accidentally turns one of Riley’s core memories sad, she sets in motion a chain of events that leads to both Joy and Sadness being locked out of Headquarters.  As they attempt to make their way back, they have to learn to work together; in the end, Joy realizes the necessity of Sadness, and Riley attains a new sense of emotional balance.

It should come as no surprise that Poehler and company manage to imbue their characters with a remarkable amount of depth, showing the ways in which the various parts of our emotions work together (and sometimes against one another) in the process of both our immediate experiences of the world as well as how we come to be who we are as individuals.  As the various islands of Riley’s personality take shape, we are left to wonder how our own combination(s) of Anger, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Joy combine in the process of making our own individual psyches.  It is both fun and more than a little disturbing to think of ourselves as not completely unified, or even coherent, selves, but rather a composite of competing impulses that exist in a tenuous (one might even go so far as to say unstable) balance.

While Poehler et al deserve the lion’s share of the credit for their flawless voice work, the supporting characters also provide moments of uproarious fun including, most notably, the indomitable Paula Poundstone as Forgetter Paula, one of those responsible for ensuring that more inconsequential memories are disposed of and ultimately forgotten.

The film’s brilliance derives in large part from the ways in which it makes legible the truly bizarre workings of the human mind.  Whether or not the film’s portrayal of human psychology is strictly accurate is, in my view, beside the point.  What I find more interesting is the film’s insistence that we can, indeed, apprehend how the mind works, that the vagaries of human consciousness and unconsciousness are indeed understandable, that the people we are and the people we may become can be brought into the fold of some sort of order and understanding.  Yet even here the film suggests that certain things are beyond our control, and some things that we would like to retrieve from the Memory Dump, for example, ultimately elude our abilities to control them.  It remains ambiguous whether that is for the best, or whether it is merely an unfortunate fact of life with which we must perpetually contend.

As with the best Pixar films, Inside Out manages to inject a measure of deep pathos and genuine emotion into the otherwise quite joyful film.  When Bing Bong, Riley’s almost-forgotten imaginary friend, falls into the Memory Dump with Joy in tow, we see all of the many of Riley’s memories that have not earned their place in her long-term storage, each one fading slowly away.  When Bing Bong himself fades away while imploring Joy to take Riley to the moon, it is almost impossible (unless you a replicant) not to shed a few–or even several–tears, not just for the character in the film, but also for that part of us that we must leave behind as we make our journey into adulthood.  Who among us, after all, has not felt the pang of leaving behind the world of the past, even if some parts of it were not as joyful as we would have liked?  There is almost always something heartbreakingly satisfying about letting go of the past, even as we recognize that there is also something irreparably lost when we do so.

It is thus perhaps appropriate that the film ends up being the perfect mixture of charming and tragic.  As such, it acts as something of an antidote, or at least an answer, to the prominent cultural discourses that suggest that we must be relentlessly cheerful and optimistic, even though we live in a world that is often violently imperfect and traumatizing.  While the film couches all of this in the seemingly banal experiences of a child, the message is one that adults in the audience should certainly take to heart.

Starting with this review, I’m going to start awarding films a score out of 10.  Just…because I like quantification sometimes.

Score:  9/10