Being the Ongoing Chronicle of the Anticks, Misadventures, and Odd Deeds of an Overalls-clad Wanderer.

Saturday, August 31, 2002

Author Neil Gaiman can be heard here on Minnesota Public Radio discussing his new book, Coraline, writing for comics, the difference between writing "journalism" and writing fiction, writing horror in the post-September 11 world, his future projects, the linguistic problems faced by a writer from Britain who now lives and works in the United States, and fly-fishing. (Well, not fly-fishing, but he does discuss all those other things. It's a fine interview, twenty-four minutes long, by a writer who I am admiring more each time I read him.)

Are you ready for some FOOTBALL???

In celebration of Major League Baseball's avoidance yesterday of a work-stoppage that would have crippled the game, I will now offer my NFL predictions for the 2002 season, which kicks off one week from tomorrow. I love football, and it is in large part because of football that my favorite time of year is autumn and early winter. This is what I expect to happen this season. (BTW, I am no expert on the subject. I don't participate in a Fantasy league; I don't watch SportsCenter at all, since we don't have cable; and I don't subscribe to Sports Illustrated. Basically, I expect at least fifty percent of what I say here to end up being wrong. So, at the end of the season when the Arizona Cardinals are playing the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl, don't write to laugh at me.)

In question-and-answer format:

:: Will the New England Patriots repeat?

No.

Not only do I not expect that Patriots to repeat as Super Bowl champions, I don't even expect them to repeat as division champions. Yes, the 2001 Patriots were a great story, the scrappy bunch of no-names led by a no-name quarterback to the Super Bowl championship after a 1-3 start, in the process beating a heavily-favored offensive juggernaut in the big game. But before we strike the mold for Bill Belichick's bust at Canton, let's consider the astonishing amount of luck that the Patriots enjoyed on the way there. They were able to capitalize on down-the-stretch swoons by three division rivals (the Dolphins, Jets, and Colts); they got an amazing break thanks to an obscure rule in holding on to defeat the division doormat (my beloved Bills); they got another amazing break thanks to an obscure rule in holding on to defeat a team which had outplayed them in a snowy playoff game in their own park (the Raiders); they went to the AFC Championship Game against a team whose premiere running back was not ready to play and whose quarterback has been a model of inconsistency throughout his career (the Steelers, Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart); and in the Super Bowl they were lucky enough that their opponent's head coach decided, for reasons passing understanding, not to respond to their defensive-back heavy scheme with a power running game that his team was more than capable of executing (the Rams and Mike Martz). The Patriots went on the most amazing lucky streak in NFL history last season, but any person who has ever set foot in a casino will tell you that sooner or later lucky streaks end. The Patriots are a decent team -- I expect them to make the playoffs again -- but they won't be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy again.

:: Are the Rams still the "Greatest Show on Turf"?

Yes, I suppose they are -- unless either Kurt Warner or Marshall Faulk is injured and misses a significant amount of playing time, in which case the door will be wide open for at least three other teams to march through and seize their NFC title from them.

:: So, if the Rams falter, who will be the best in the NFC?

There is a logjam in the NFC this year. On paper, the Rams are still the best, but as Chris Berman says: "That's why they play the games." The Eagles, Packers, 49ers, and Bears could all usurp the Rams' spot.

:: Can Bill Cowher win the big one?

Lord, I hope so.

:: Could this year's Super Bowl teams both hail from the same state?

Yes. There could very well be an all-California or an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl this year. (In fact, I'm picking one of these two to happen. Keep reading.)

:: Is Steve Spurrier going to be the answer in Washington?

I don't know; maybe he will, maybe he won't. I don't think he's going to revolutionize things, and I don't expect him to have the Redskins performing miracles this year. Keep in mind, Spurrier won't really be able to use his recruiting skills to lure talent to his team, as he did at Florida; the NFL's commitment to parity will make that quite hard, as will the mechanics of the draft. Plus, he won't have five or six games against the Northeastern Florida Typewriter Repair College Butterflies each year to post scores of 93-3 and pad his record. I do think that Spurrier could turn things around in Washington, given three or four years to do it -- that's how long it took the last really big name from the college ranks, Jimmy Johnson, to turn his team around. This, however, assumes that Daniel Snyder is willing to give him that much time, which is something I would never bet on.

:: Will the Buffalo Bills be a better team this year?

Yes. This is the good news: it was a big offseason for the Bills. They landed Drew Bledsoe, finally acquiring a franchise quarterback which they have lacked since Jim Kelly retired. (Enough, Flutie fans! Doug Flutie is not a franchise quarterback, not now and not ever.) After years of ignoring the offensive line, they finally realized how bad things were up front and used their top draft-pick, the fourth overall, on Mike Williams. They also upgraded their receiving corps, their special teams, and their linebacking corps. The 2002 Bills could easily double their win total from 2001.

And that, sadly, is the bad news, because even if the Bills double their win total from 2001, they will still post double-digit losses. Their offensive line will be vastly improved, but still very young; their defensive line is also very young and very thin. Some observers think that the Bills may actually challenge for the playoffs, but I still think they are a year away. I'm expecting a 6-10 finish from the Bills this year.

:: So who will win the divisions and the wild-card berths this year?

My predictions are as follows:

AFC East: Miami
AFC North: Pittsburgh
AFC South: Tennessee
AFC West: Oakland
AFC wildcards: New England, Denver

NFC East: Philadelphia
NFC North: Green Bay
NFC South: Tampa Bay
NFC West: St. Louis
NFC wildcards: San Francisco, Chicago

:: Who will win the Super Bowl?

OK, here is my prediction, which is almost certainly wrong: the Pittsburgh Steelers will win Super Bowl XXXVII, defeating their fellow Pennsylvanians, the Philadelphia Eagles.

OK, I think I've got the template looking the way I want it. The "tile" background fits the "Byzantium" inspiration for the site, and I've added a small rose as a divider between posts (which I think looks better than a hard return, anyway). The new images appear courtesy of the Absolute Web Graphics Archive, a free-graphics site that I was fortunate enough to discover last night.

Friday, August 30, 2002



Earlier this week I saw the film Road To Perdition, and the next day I read the graphic novel on which the film is based. SPOILERS follow.

The film and the graphic novel are both fascinating works of gangland fiction, and they are actually much more different than one might expect. In fact, the storylines of each are only roughly similar -- sharing a few scenes, but in general diverging greatly -- and the themes of each are very different. Anyone coming to either the film or the book with expectations based on the other will be quite surprised. Pleasantly so, I think.

The film, as Roger Ebert notes in his review, is steeped in the feel of Greek tragedy. The subtext of the film is centered wholly on the dynamic between fathers and sons, with Paul Newman as the patriarch of the crime family and Tom Hanks as his most trusted enforcer, whom he loves as a son. The problems arise from Newman's actual son, a weaselly and cowardly man who manipulates events to come out in his favor, setting the Hanks character -- Michael Sullivan -- up to be murdered. The plot fails, but Mr. Rooney (Paul Newman) has no choice but to stand by his real son and foresake the adoptive one, even though emotionally the adoptive one is a far truer son than the real one. Watching the film, I was reminded somewhat incongruously of the part of the Arthurian legend when King Arthur's illegitimate son, Mordred, comes along and sets in motion the collapse of Camelot.

The dynamic between the father figure of Paul Newman and his two sons is likewise reflected in Tom Hanks and his two sons, one of whom he seems to love more than the other -- until the one he seems to love more is murdered. There are scenes in the film that show Sullivan (Hanks) and his surviving son, Michael Jr., trying to connect with one another, including one particularly moving scene where the child actually asks if his father loved the brother more. Sullivan denies it, but he is forced to make an admission about his surviving son and his hopes for his future that is heartbreaking in its simplicity and seeming impossibility. He does not want Michael to grow up to be like him, but we get the feeling that it is already coming to pass. As Ebert notes, this sense of fate being played out is palpable throughout the film, whose theme seems to be that cycles exist in families that are immutable, unbreakable. As we watch the film's events transpire, we hope that Michael Jr. will not be forced to become like Michael Sr. -- that he will not have to kill -- but we almost know that he will, and we wait for it to happen. Thus, it feels almost like divine intervention when, in the end, he does not. The film ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note, because the cycle has been broken and now Michael Jr. may grow up along a different path.

Much of this father-son subtext is absent in the graphic novel, however; the theme of the novel seems to be atonement. There is a great deal more religious imagery in the novel, with Michael Sr. finding a Catholic church and confessing his sins after each time that he kills. "God made Irishmen pale," Michael Jr. says, narrating his tale, "but not as pale as those priests who came out after Papa had unburdened his soul to them." The book is much more concerned with the possibility of men like Michael Sr., even while wreaking such terrible violence, still being absolved of their sins and going to Heaven than is the film, in which everyone seems totally accepting of the inevitability of Hell. Likewise, the concern of Michael Sr. that his son never have to kill is not much present in the novel, because about halfway through the novel Michael Jr. does kill. So the focus becomes not on breaking the familial cycle of fate, but on gaining atonement and absolution. The novel's final denouement reveals Michael Jr.'s fate as an adult, whereas the film ends with Michael Jr. still as a child facing an uncertain future.

There are other, more mechanical differences between the film and the novel. The novel's story is more of a historical, "true crime" type of story, drawn from actual events; thus the "Rooney" crime family from an un-named city in the film is actually based on the novel's historically accurate Looney Gang, from the Tri-Cities (the Quad Cities, before Bettendorf was added). The action in the film is much more centralized on the enmity between Sullivan and Connor Rooney, whereas in the novel Sullivan is going after the entire Looney clan -- including the father, who was actually the one who betrayed him. More historical events are used in the book, including Eliot Ness's raid on a New Mexico hideout of Al Capone's, and the burning of an illegal riverboat casino. And the biggest difference between the book and the graphic novel is that the film's photographer hitman, played by Jude Law, does not exist in the book. Thus the book avoids what I found to be the film's biggest flaw: the fact that, when everything else has been resolved, the film's last fifteen minutes or so boil down to waiting for Jude Law to reappear. The book does not totally avoid the deus ex machina, but it doesn't crank as noticeably as in the film.

Both the film and the graphic novel are impressive visually; the film's atmosphere of cold dampness was so pervasive that I don't recall ever being quite so glad to exit a theater into sunshine, and the novel's illustrations -- by Richard Piers Rayner -- are superb black-and-white images that look like woodcuts, and have a not-insignificant similarity to the style of illustration used by Goseki Kojima in the brilliant Lone Wolf and Cub manga on which the entire story was partly based in the first place. (The novel's epigram is a quote by Kazuo Koike, the writer of Lone Wolf and Cub.)

"The book is better than the movie" is often proferred as an immutable truth, but it's not always so. In the case of Road To Perdition, both are interesting and complementary of each other.

Baritone William Warfield died earlier this week. He was most noted for his portrayal of Joe in Showboat and Porgy in Porgy and Bess. I didn't know much about him until I heard this obituary on NPR. Isn't it amazing how many remarkable people pass through this world, and we never know a thing about them until they are gone?

UPDATE to yesterday's IMAGE:

The image that I selected of the Isle of Lewis chessmen appears to be a tad temperamental -- it's not always loading as it should. To see that image, try clicking this link. Otherwise, here are a few extra images of Lewis chessmen, including a very nice image of one of the Kings in the sets.






Thursday, August 29, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK

(EDIT: Image removed due to broken link. For substitute images, see the post directly above this one.)

Several of the Isle of Lewis Chessmen.

In 1831 a group of small figurines, ninety-three in all and mostly carved from walrus tusks, was unearthed on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides islands (off the northwestern coast of Scotland). The figurines were later identified as chesspieces. The chessmen are believed to have originated in Norway. They are the oldest chessmen in existence. Replica sets are widely available; I am fortunate enough to own one. (Due to the presence in my home of a three-year-old child and also three cats, this prized possession of mine is still in its box.)

I've always found something fascinatingly primal about the design of the Lewis Chessmen. Even though they don't date back nearly that far, it is easy to imagine them being moved around a board in a Celtic chieftain's meadhall -- in the pages of Beowulf, perhaps, or maybe the halls of Bran the Blessed in The Mabinogion.

The Schoyen Collection is one of the largest collections of ancient and medieval manuscripts in the world, and has a nifty web page devoted to it. There is something wonderful about the thought that the books of today might survive two or three thousand years hence, and be the objects of a collector's passion. So much of the human heritage is transitory, being plowed under to make room for the new, that the handful of items that survive are truly priceless.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

POETICAL EXCURSION #7

"The Solitary Reaper", by William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.

No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings?--
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?

Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending;--
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

:: I like this poem a great deal, mostly for its sense of sadness for a question that shall perhaps never be answered. The speaker is traveling, and he encounters a Highland woman working in her field. She is singing, and though he does not know the song its melody moves him greatly. He exhorts his fellow travelers to tell him what the song is, and what she is singing about, but none answer, and thus he must go away never knowing what the woman is singing about although he will forever remember that tune which has captivated him so.

The poem is full of rich imagery. The Highlands themselves suggest a rugged place, where working the fields is as much the province of women as men because the land is so difficult. There is also a sense of loneliness, because the woman is alone; Wordsworth tells us that in the very title. Is she a widow? Is her husband off to war or market? We never learn, and the question is only implied and never asked, because the speaker is more concerned with the woman's song than with the woman herself. He tells us that the tune is melancholy, and his speculations as to its subject are all sad ones, and yet the melody is more welcome to him that any birdsong. The speaker seems to be starved of beauty, and he wants to stay and hear the song and pray that it never ends, but he cannot -- he can only move on and carry the song with him in his heart.

This seems an apt poem to read as August wanes and September arrives, with its autumnal imagery and its tone of wistful remembrance. We reap in the fall, and things like a lovely song can help us to get through the long, cold winter.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Courtesy of The New York Times, an article on one writer's struggles with procrastination by novelist Ann Patchett. (NYT registration is required, but it's free -- for now, of course, and with the shady clause that "Our privacy policy is subject to change at any time".)

Something shared by the vast majority of writers, I suspect, is a gift for procrastination. I am no different from any other; despite the fact that I love writing and nearly always have at least a pleasant time writing and, many times, a wonderful time doing so, I often find other ways to spend my time. One general term, used as a generic noun for any activity whose stated purpose is one thing but whose actual purpose is to delay the time when one must sit down and string words together, is "cat-vacuuming" -- probably because many writers own cats, and anyone with cats can attest that there is pretty much always a need to run the vacuum cleaner when cats are about. Personally, I hate vacuuming, so I find other ways to postpone writing: I'll wash the dishes, perhaps; or I will catch on e-mails; I might play a "quick game of Hearts" (Minesweeper has long since lost its hold on my attention); and sometimes I will even post to Byzantium's Shores. (Yes, that's what I'm doing right now. As of this writing I have a folder on my desk, containing a rough draft of Chapter 14 of the novel-in-progress covered with underlines, margin notes and directions all in red, sitting next to the computer. And the folder is closed. Fancy that.)

This is probably why every writing book I have ever read includes the advice, "Write every day and do not fail to write every day". The Latin expression of this idea is particularly elegant: Nulla dies sine linea, or "Never a day without lines". This is excellent practical advice, as writing -- for many writers -- is a matter of momentum, and if the momentum is lost the work can seriously suffer. But as Isaac Asimov once wrote, "That moment you just lost by not writing isn't only gone, but it's the best moment that you'll ever have, because all future moments will come when you're that much closer to dying." (That's not an exact quote, but it's pretty close -- it comes from an essay that I can't just now locate but have read several dozen times.) Of course, this comes from a man whose personal solution to this problem was to write so much that he is one of the most prolific writers in memory.

This advice is also given, quite strongly, by Stephen King in his wonderful On Writing, where he prescribes a steady diet of daily writing for anyone who wishes to be a writer. He speaks of people like Thomas Harris, who writes a book every seven years or so, wondering what these people do when they're not writing their books. For King, it's almost a moral imperative: "If God gives you something you can do, why in God's name wouldn't you do it?" I have to agree, although I certainly can't match King's schedule -- not even close, to be honest. Then why am I so blasted good at finding reasons to not write? There is certainly no reason why the dishes can't wait until the chapter is done and not before. I suspect that it's actually a habit that became ingrained when I was just starting writing, a holdover of the American-Puritan ideal that holds that things like writing are nice things to do, but only when the milking and the wood-chopping and the water-pumping are done. (If even then; those Puritans weren't much on fun -- and a lot of times, we Americans aren't much on fun either. So much of our "funtime" is observed in a grudging, obligatory fashion.)

There is a particularly dangerous form of cat-vacuuming, though, that is rarely cited by writers (at least in my experience), but can lead to more consumed time away from the desk than any other. It is reading. I have found that it is perilously easy to read rather than write, since many times I can call it "research" or "preparation" or "keeping up with the genre" or any number of other justifications. Writers are a reading lot; I've only encountered one writer who claimed to dislike reading, and that is because that particular writer is dyslexic (Nicholas Negroponte, in his book Being Digital). Writers have to be well-read, not merely to keep up with the genre and to know what territory has been mapped out before and to research the pesky details that are to come into play in the next project, but also because writers are by definition persons whose lives depend on the written word. As King so excellently puts it, "If you don't have time to read, then you don't have the time (or the tools) to write." And, in the very next paragraph: "Reading is the creative center of a writer's life." We read because we have to, but it's all to easy to walk away from the desk and pick up a book because it's part-and-parcel of the whole "writer" gig. I've heard of Master's or Doctoral candidates falling prey to this kind of thing: "I can start the dissertation after I read just one more book on my subject, or track down just two or three more articles...."

Well, I've probably said enough on that for now....after all, I have Chapter 14 crying for help, and it's time to throw it a rope. After all, I'm the writer. As Patchett says in her essay, "Sometimes if there's a book you really want to read, you have to write it yourself."

Before my wife and I were married, we underwent the obligatory meetings with the Pastor who would perform our ceremony to discuss our wishes for the wedding, as well as other issues. When it came to the issue of music, we worked with the church's music director, a fine organist and musician who had a wealth of suggestions to make as to what to use for the Processional, the hymns, the Postlude, and so on. The only rule we were asked to observe, with respect to music, was that we could only select music that was religiously themed -- i.e., no pop tunes. We were only too happy to observe this stipulation; it never occurred to us to use some popular song for our wedding. However, this is not the case for everyone; at a wedding we attended two years later, "My Heart Will Go On" was given a central position smack dab in the middle of the ceremony.

Well, it's not just weddings that are being popularized these days. According to this NPR story, in the United Kingdom popular music is turning up more and more at funerals. Wow. There is even a Top Ten of songs used most often at funerals. I won't reprint the Top Ten here -- it can be read at the link above -- but I will say that it's an interesting list. (And that "My Heart Will Go On" is on it.)

As usual, there are few things more conducive to starting conversations and debate than making a list of "The {number} Best {things}". (Or "Worst", as the case may be.) That said, ESPN has named the Top Twenty Sports Films of All Time. I haven't seen all of these, but the ones that I have are quite deserving of their accolades here. I would, though, include Tin Cup, but maybe that's because I'm not a golfer. I have yet to find an avid golfer who actually likes that movie. And personally, I would omit Eight Men Out in favor of Major League. And since I'm including Major League, I'd ditch The Bad News Bears in favor of The Karate Kid. You can't help but love a movie that added "Wax on, wax off" to the national lexicon.

Monday, August 26, 2002

These days it's pretty hard to keep straight all of the comic-book adaptation film projects that are either filming, casting, being written, being talked about, especially if you're not quite up-to-speed on who all the superheroes are in the first place. (When I heard that a Fantastic Four movie was in the works, I wondered if it was the version with She-Hulk in place of The Thing; and will the cinematic X-Men be the revolving door group that the comic version is?) Anyway, here is a site that explains it all.

Friday, August 23, 2002

Kevin J. Anderson is a pretty hot property in science-fiction these days, almost exclusively on the basis of his media tie-in novels and his novels set in other authors' universes. He has written a number of Star Wars novels, several X-Files novels, and also books set in Frank Herbert's Dune mythos. Anderson has done a lot of playing in other people's playgrounds, although to my eyes not always successfully. His Star Wars books, most notably his Jedi Academy trilogy, are partially successful -- they capture the "flavor" of Star Wars fairly well, but his villains are not particularly menacing. (As a friend of mine put it, "Every time Admiral Daala appears she is either scheming or getting another one of her Star Destroyers blown up.") I thought the Jedi Academy trilogy suffered from overplotting; the trilogy was filled with events that really had no bearing on the main story, and so the whole thing really could have been reduced to a duology or perhaps a single novel. His other fault was his tendency to throw in cute allusions to the movies that were really somewhat distracting. (Just because George Lucas sticks a THX-1138 reference into all of his movies doesn't mean that the novels have to include them as well.) On the basis of Anderson's Star Wars books, of which I was mainly ambivalent, I've avoided his other tie-in work. But now he's got his very own backyard to play in, with Hidden Empire: The Saga of Seven Suns, Book One.



According to Anderson's website, there are to be four books total when the series is complete. Thus, Hidden Empire is what one might expect: a set-up novel, in which the setting is established, the characters introduced, and the conflicts begun. Set five hundred years in the future, humans are colonizing the universe and coming into conflict with both themselves and an alien force called the Ildiran Empire. In typical fashion, the arrogant humans manage to set in motion events that have terrifying consequences as a war with a previously-unknown alien species erupts.

I enjoyed Hidden Empire, and I definitely plan to read the next volume if not the entire rest of the series. Anderson has a lot of interesting ideas here, and I want to see how they play out. Just about every trope of grand space opera is here: alien empires, both past and present; ancient artifacts of staggering power and unexpected results; mystical priests; space merchants and their travails with space pirates; the conflict of societies high and low; giant fleets of starfaring warships; high government conspiracies; antagonisms that must be buried in the face of grander conflict; unknown antagonisms that arise at the worst possible time; star-crossed romance; et cetera. Reading this stuff, you can imagine the sights appearing on a giant movie screen with a suitably-bombastic score -- by John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith, of course -- highlighting the action. There are things here that I would love to see. I'd love to see the Skymines, floating through the upper atmospheres of the gas giant planets. I'd love to see the Ildiran home planet, with its seven suns. I'd love to see the diamond-hulled warships of the Hydrogues. I'd love to see the ancient Klikiss ruins, and the robots they left behind when they mysteriously disappeared. Anderson has a gift for evoking visuals in his prose, which was always a strength of his Star Wars work.

There are, though, a number of problems with the book. Some of them are problems of the "Book One" variety. Mainly, Hidden Empire is a set-up novel, so in reality not a whole lot happens in the first 120 pages; we simply look on as Anderson introduces us to character after character, gives us lengthy history lessons, shows us his technology, and establishes the conflicts that will play out later on. And even when things start to happen (roughly around page 120), it still takes to book a long time to build up momentum. In fact, the book doesn't so much "build" as it suddenly kicks into high gear (around page 300 or so), and the last fifty pages are especially frenetic as Anderson goes about the business of leaving his characters, one by one, in a precarious spot to be resolved in Book Two. The pacing is wildly uneven, and I remember that being a prime fault of his Star Wars work as well. Perhaps if he had used fewer characters at the outset, and only introduced more once the pot was nicely boiling, the pacing would work better.

Anderson's model in writing Saga of the Seven Suns is obvious: George R. R. Martin's titanic fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire. That series also features a cast of thousands operating in a war-torn world, and Martin's books are even longer than Anderson's. (The most recent volume of Martin's series, A Storm of Swords, comes in at over 900 pages, in hardback, and that's not including the Appendices.) Anderson borrows Martin's device of telling each chapter from the viewpoint of a different character, so through the novel our viewpoint is constantly changing. Thus, there is no "Luke Skywalker" or "Frodo Baggins" in Hidden Empire; there is no single protagonist, but a series of characters -- some likable, some not -- who have their own parts to play. In Anderson's hands, though, the device gets confusing because he uses too many viewpoint characters at once, from all over his world; Martin, on the other hand, starts with a small number of viewpoint characters and only adds more once he is sure we know who is who with respect to the characters we've already met. With Martin, while we need to refer to his Appendices to identify the supporting players, we don't forget who Ned Stark or Tyrion Lannister are. With Anderson, though, I had to constantly flip to the back of the book to remind myself who Nira or Rememberer Di'osh were. This is distracting, to say the least. The other key bit of genius in Martin's application of this viewpoint device is that we are never sure of who the villains are; everything is ambiguous. We think we are rooting for the Starks -- except that Tyrion Lannister is a sympathetic character, and some of the Starks just aren't likable. (And there is one character whom Martin grooms us to hate, only to have us sympathizing with him in the third book.) Anderson can't match Martin's subtlety of character; and so the wonderful sense of ambiguity that keeps Martin's work fresh is absent in Anderson's.

The other problem I have with Anderson, as I noted above, is his cute allusions. He specifically alludes to Martin's work, borrowing a couple of Martin's names for minor characters in his own work (Bronn and Stannis, to be precise). In Martin, to join the Men of the Night's Watch is called "taking the black", so in Anderson we have the joining of the Green Priesthood "taking the green". The most irritating allusion was the name of the space pirate, Sorengaard. Of course, if I hadn't been a philosophy major, I'd likely not have noticed the contraction of Soren Kierkegaard's name; but I was, and I noticed. Little things like that seem minor, and I suppose they are, but they do have the effect of disgorging a reader who notices them. It's the literary equivalent of going to see a movie and spotting the mike boom, only here it's not the fault of the projectionist but actually the filmmaker. (And now there's a contest for someone to actually get their name into next book. Sheesh!)

And finally, not really a complaint, but an observation: I hope the cover artist for Hidden Empire pays a royalty or something to Doug Chiang at Lucasfilm, because that cover painting is strikingly similar to the early designs for the underwater Gungan City in The Phantom Menace.

Hidden Empire is not a bad book, by any means. It does what every Book One is supposed to do: it's got me planning to read Book Two. But it really could have been a lot better than it is.

A trio of interesting articles from Slate today:

:: A commentary on the stodginess of the recent Sight & Sound polls of the ten greatest films of all time that considers the question of why the most recent film on the list was released in 1974, and why the disparity between the critics and the directors who responded to the poll.

:: What is the worst sports stadium in the US? A couple of years ago it would have been Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, which was passable for football but an ugly monstrosity of a baseball park. Well, now that Three Rivers is history, Slate surprisingly turns to tennis for its choice as worst stadium.

:: Is President Bush's newly-unveiled forestry plan a bit of environmental idiocy that sells out our forests in favor of votes in Western states where logging is still an industry? or is it actually a wise new response to years of poor forest management that has led to the destruction of immense amounts of forest and property? According to Slate, it's both.

Thursday, August 22, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Top Hat (1935).

:: I've loved musicals nearly all of my life, and some of the most wonderful are the ones made for RKO Studios starring the legendary dance duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Fans of these films tend to be divided on which Astaire-Rogers film was the best, but the two that will usually be named are either Top Hat or Swing Time (1936). My personal favorite is Top Hat, probably because I saw it first. It's a beautiful entertainment, full of music and romance. Its frothy story hinges on mistaken identity, that device which drives so many comedies, but rarely is it handled with as much aplomb as in Top Hat. And the dancing? Well, it's Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Nothing more need be said than that. In this day and age of young women scantilly clad and gyrating in an effort that is theoretically supposed to suggest eroticism, what Astaire and Rogers accomplished was actual romance -- an idealization of love that is at once breathtaking and life-affirming. Britney Spears can thrash about in all the Pepsi commercials she wants, but she will likely never approach the level of artistry that Astaire and Rogers achieve in all of their numbers, some of which are truly sublime.

Heaven, I'm in Heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak....


I am now participating in a group-blog called Collaboratory, which was conceived by Sean Meade, the owner of Interact. This project is in its infancy, and we're not even totally certain of our "mission" (if there even is one), but here's hoping. Check it out. (As of this writing there are only a handful of posts and no front-page bells or whistles, though I'm sure those are to come.)

I've added a section to the sidebar at left, called Notable Dispatches. Here I shall provide front-page links to past entries that I particularly like. Nominations are, of course, accepted.

It's interesting how the same idea will crop up in multiple places in creative circles, and roughly within the same timeframe. Consider 1993, when two films about Wyatt Earp came out, or a few years later when legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine was the subject of not one but two biopics. I wrote last week about the television series Millennium, which involved a former FBI agent named Frank Black who used an almost-psychic gift to track down serial killers; the same year that Millennium debuted on FOX, another series showed up on NBC that was about an FBI agent named Samantha Waters who used an almost-psychic gift to track down serial killers. This show was Profiler, which lasted four seasons to Millennium's three.

All of these examples jumped to mind when I read this MSN article about a recent spate of novels centering on, of all things, the Jewish golem. I read one of these novels recently -- Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, which I reviewed here -- and I am a bit surprised that the golem is suddenly such a popular item. (It was also the subject of an episode of The X-Files during that show's fourth season.)

Which brings us to the Bills uniform revision. When Tuesday Morning Quarterback saw the design he had a simple, primal reaction: to run from the room screaming, "aaaiiiiiiiiyyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeee!"

The new Buffalo garb looks so much like current New England attire that when the Bills play the Pats, Drew Bledsoe isn't going to know which huddle to join. And the Bills have tossed out red as their accent color, replacing it with gray. Gray -- now there's a color that really pops. And the away jerseys are so fussy, they make Denver's rollerball duds seem a clean design. But these are not the reasons for TMQ's primal scream. The reason is that Buffalo had been using traditional American flag red-white-and-blue, and now abandons that combination. In other words, the Buffalo Bills thought they could improve on red, white and blue.

-- Gregg Easterbrook, Tuesday Morning Quarterback, on the Bills' new uniforms.

:: I have to say, I agree with TMQ on this one. I was fairly ambivalent about the Bills' new duds when they were unveiled (well, actually I was ambivalent about the home uniform while I immediately disliked the new road uniform), but now that I've seen more of it....I don't like the look. The Bills don't look distinctive anymore; instead, they look like every other team that has hopped on the New Uniform Bandwagon in recent years. (The Bills' new look is inspired by the Broncos and the Titans, apparently.)

Easterbrook's AFC preview is up, with the NFC to come next week. If you haven't read Easterbrook before, please do so. He is funny, engaging and literate. He also knows a hell of a lot about football.

(BTW, it seems that my middle-of-the-road view regarding the Doug Flutie vs. Rob Johnson fiasco was the correct one. While Bills fans were either jumping on the Johnson bandwagon or burning their Bills gear after the team had the audacity to send Flutie on his way, I was saying: "They both stink". Guess what? Neither Johnson nor Flutie is starting this year.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2002



Courtesy MSN: a good article about the development of a space elevator, which could be an excellent alternative to loading up the shuttle with a seven-person-crew each time we need to ferry something into space. (Although, after reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, all I can say is: the security around the elevator had better be foolproof.)

Voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame are going to have a hard decision to make in five years, because that is when Terrell Davis will become eligible. His career, which officially (and sadly) ended yesterday, was a short one -- but it was still stunningly productive: in seven seasons, he rushed for 7,607 yards and sixty touchdowns. Those are low numbers, and they may keep him out of the Hall of Fame -- but as far as I am concerned, he belongs there. He is one of only four running backs in history to rush for 2000 yards in a single season, and more impressively he did it for a team that went on to win the Super Bowl (the 1998 Broncos). That may not seem like much, but it is often the case that the leading rusher in the NFL comes from a team that is only suited to the run; in fact, it wasn't until 1993 that the team with the NFL's leading rusher even made it to the Super Bowl (the Cowboys, who won the game). And the year before Davis's 2000-yard season, he was merely the Super Bowl MVP when he put up 157 yards and three touchdowns against the Packers (a game in which he famously missed part of the second quarter due to a migraine headache). I'm not a Broncos fan, but Terrell Davis was a magnificent player who -- like baseball's Kirby Puckett -- was, for a time, the heart-and-soul of a championship club (with all due respect to John Elway). He'll be missed.

I am no expert on H. P. Lovecraft, so I don't know if he'd be amused by this. But this does now make me think of some interesting directions a possible Toy Story 3 could take.

Two items of surpassing niftiness (it's my blog, I can make up any word I want) appeared at AICN today. First is a trailer for the newly-restored version of the SF classic Metropolis, a film that established tropes which influenced many a filmmaker (not the least of which is George Lucas). It appears that just about every minute of previously-missing footage from Metropolis that can be found, has been found and that this new version is as close as we are ever going to get to the original version seen in 1927. While I won't be able to see the new version until a DVD is issued (and I get a DVD player), it's still exciting to note the wonderful treatment a cinematic SF classic has received. (Roger Ebert also wrote about this new Metropolis restoration last week. Ebert is a long-time champion of restoration of classic films, so many of which are in horrible shape due to neglect of the prints and negatives. I wish he'd become more musically aware, though, and bring his passion to bear on filmscore restoration.)

The other goodie on AICN today is also a film trailer, the first glance I've had of Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. My God, I can't wait for this film. If you, dear Reader, are one of those people who will only go see an animated film if it bears the "Disney" imprint, go see this one! (It's being distributed by Disney, but that didn't help Princess Mononoke two years ago.) Check out the trailer. It's breathtaking, and that's saying something for an image the size of a business-card on my monitor.

Monday, August 19, 2002

The alternative comic strip Tom the Dancing Bug appears weekly in Artvoice, Buffalo's alt-press paper. As a political commentary it's generally not quite as good as This Modern World, but sometimes it's very good. Case in point: this week's parody of Spider-man, "The Amazing George W.". I found this hilarious.

I'm really not terribly excited about Star Trek Nemesis. Rick Berman and company did a lot of good things in their day, but I think the current regime in charge of Trek has pretty much run out of ideas. (I have not seen a single episode of Enterprise, so I can't comment on that; it's only on cable in Buffalo and we don't have cable.) From what I've read of the Nemesis storyline, it seems like a rehash of a lot of earlier Trek stories (with a lot cribbed from The Wrath of Khan). I know that the story focuses on Data's long-standing "quest" to become more human; my problem there is that sometimes quests are achieved without our knowing it. Data reached a point of "closure" in First Contact, and I really don't think there's any point in keeping it going. Likewise, I'm not all that interested in the ongoing tribulations of the Romulan Empire. I'd much rather see a Trek film that actually explores strange new worlds and seeks out new life and new civilizations. If this is to be the last voyage for the Next Generation crew, why not show them actually, well, boldly going where no one has gone before?

(The film was also to feature a brief cameo by Wil Wheaton as a grown-up Wesley Crusher; I suppose he finally wrapped up his Grand Tour of the Mysteries of the Universe with that "Traveler" guy. But, as reported on WWDN, the scene in question has been cut. So Wesley won't save the day one last time; ah, well....)

In the "Hell hath no fury" department, check out Peter Gammons's take on the looming baseball strike. If MLB does have a work stoppage, I will officially set baseball aside. The owners and the players have demonstrated that they collectively do not care about the game, but only about their particular slice of the pie and their control over the knife that's dividing the rest of the pie. A pox on baseball, and all of their houses.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

Barely a week after I proclaimed On Her Majesty's Secret Service the best Bond film ever made, its director, Peter Hunt, has died. Hunt was also a prominent film editor, working on all of the Bond films of the 1960s along with many other films. I read of his passing via AICN. Hunt's filmography can be found here.



Last week I saw M. Night Shyamalan's new movie, Signs. I will now review it in SPOILER-HEAVY fashion. I repeat: There WILL be SPOILERS. I shall make no effort to conceal any plot element of Signs that I think is germane to my opinion of the film. Got it? OK.

And for those who are still squeamish, I will include some blank space so as to require scrolling down to get to the actual review.




































That should be enough. From here on out, if you read this and you haven't seen the movie yet and you read something that you might not want to know prior to seeing it, I accept no responsibility.

Signs is, first and foremost, a very good film. Seeing it, I kept thinking: "This is how The X-Files used to be, back in its early seasons, before it became a Franchise for FOX." Or, even better, this is how Millennium was at its best: not merely scary but also thought-provoking, a meditation not just on What Is Out There Waiting For Us, not just on Things That Go Bump In The Night, but on what purpose there may be to everything. It seems to me that horror is probably the genre most suited to meditations on the problem of evil: Why would a good God allow so much Evil in his own universe? Of course, my own personal thoughts on this subject are not the focus of this article. Suffice it to say, Shyamalan's answer isn't totally satisfactory; in fact, in some ways I find it incredibly faulty. Even at the end, when things have played out the way they were supposed to and faith has been restored where before there was none, it still seems to me a bit capricious, a bit of whimsical action on the part of God. If God could set things up so that everything leans toward the outcome that Mel Gibson's son doesn't die, including his wife's dying words which at first seem so arbitrary as to send Gibson into a tailspin away from his faith but eventually turn out to be the key to everything, then why can't God set things up so that Gibson's beloved wife doesn't die in the first place? Shyamalan's film attempts to answer the question that bedeviled Job, but in the end I don't think he provides an answer at all, much less a satisfying one. Gibson seems to return to faith well before the key event in the film that is supposed to make it all possible. Is this a fault with the film? Not really. I rather suspect that it's a fault with the entire question of evil in the first place. I simply am not sure that there is an answer that satisfies all formulations.

So I don't think that Signs really works as a theological statement, but thankfully that's not really the level that I think it should be evaluated upon. In fact, in this day and age one almost gets positive yardage just for being willing to ask these questions in the first place. Signs is a horror film, first and foremost; and as such, it's probably the most effective one I have ever seen.

Much was made about the role of silence in Shyamalan's earlier films. (Actually, this seems true of The Sixth Sense; I never saw Unbreakable, however.) This is even more true this time out. There are long passages of this film where nothing more can be heard than the breathing of the characters, and Shyamalan likes to stretch out his silences. We know that the silence will be broken, and probably by something calculated to make us jump. Shyamalan does make us jump, but he does so in unexpected ways. The "jump" moments happen not just when characters are walking slowly through an area in which they are terrified to be, but during other moments when the "jump" moment can slip in under our radar. An early example involves a well-timed bark and snarl by a dog, during a scene where two characters are talking in fairly mundane fashion. It's not something jumping out at us in the midst of silence, backed by a fierce chord in the soundtrack; instead, we jump because it's so unexpected at that particular moment.

This careful use of unexpected moments, woven throughout the film, is how Shyamalan generates so much suspense. There is a scene where what may (or may not) be an alien is locked behind a door, and Mel Gibson picks up a butcher knife – not to use it as a weapon, but as a mirror so he can look under the door and catch a glimpse of whatever is behind the door. The film is full of unexpected moments like that, and they add to the suspense and the overall feeling of fear. He also uses humor at odd moments to defuse our fear, so that he can pop one of his unexpected moments at us again. There are some very funny moments in the film, some of them occurring during moments of high tension. The fact that they occur during moments of tension does not defuse the tension one whit, but somehow elevates it.

More interesting is the way almost nothing in Shyamalan's script is wasted. Nearly every single detail in the screenplay has some bearing on the outcome, even moments that in other films are generally used as "filler" or throw-away moments designed only to give us more information on a character. Gibson's brother (Joaquin Phoenix), for example, is a failed baseball player. This seems only to explain why he is so unfocused in his life, and why he has hung around his brother's farm for so long – until the film's climactic scene, when the nature of his baseball failure, coupled with the formerly inexplicable last words of Gibson's wife ("Swing away"), come together in startling fashion. Other details are easily overlooked: early on, we barely notice that Gibson chooses to call his human doctor rather than the vet for the family's ailing dog; only later on do we realize that he has a very real reason for not wishing to involve the local vet. Shyamalan's theme in Signs is the conflict between two worldviews: that there are no coincidences, and that everything is a coincidence. Since he comes down on the side that there are no coincidences, the structure of his screenplay – such that there are, in fact, no coincidences in his story – is all the more remarkable.

Signs works as a horror film. It is less than plausible from the standpoint of science fiction: how can the aliens fly across interstellar space but then be thwarted by wooden doors? if water is literally a corrosive poison to them, why would the aliens come to a planet that is three-quarters covered in the stuff? Questions like these, however, should not be asked. Nothing about the aliens is ever explained, and that is actually a strength, because we never know anything that the family in the film cannot also know. Again, the tension is heightened. I've rarely seen a film that displays as much calculation in every facet of its story and visuals as Signs. This film is a bravura performance by M. Night Shyamalan.

I have a fairly high threshold for things that are creepy and skin-crawling. This site, however, very nearly exceeds even my limit. There can now be no doubt: the King of Pop is the single strangest human being on the planet.

Thursday, August 15, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





Frank Black (Lance Henriksen), Millennium. (Image links to The Millennial Abyss, a fine fan site for the show.)

This is one of my favorite television series ever. It was the second series from Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, and it debuted to great fanfare in 1996 and had good ratings initially; however, over time its ratings dropped as the show's tone never varied much from the dark and grim atmosphere of the early episodes. The show centered on Frank Black, a criminal investigator who had a psychic ability to see into the minds of the killers he tracked. As he notably said in the pilot episode, "It's my gift....it's my curse." Thus Frank was torn in two directions, between delving into the darkest parts of the world in which we live and protecting his family from the darkness. Lance Henriksen played Frank Black with immense gravity, creating a character who was absolutely the moral center of everything that went on around him. Even now, three years after the show's cancellation, Henriksen's accomplishment on Milennium amazes me.

The general impression of the first season was that the show basically trotted out a "Serial Killer of the Week", and was thus a fairly hard sell. That criticism was partially accurate, but it downplays the general high quality of those first-season shows. In the second season of Millennium, the subject matter was expanded a bit to include a mix of serial killers, secret societies, Christian mysticism, and Biblical prophecy. Many fans of the series felt that Year Two was the show's best, and I agree; this was when Millennium displayed the most interesting storytelling, with excitement and emotional depth. The standout episode, for me, was the amazing "Midnight of the Century", in which Frank Black must come to terms with his mother's death in his childhood, through ghostly visits and visions. The second season was managed by executive producers Glen Morgan and James Wong, who were also responsible for some of the more memorable early episodes of The X-Files.

The third season of Millennium, though, was a seriously mixed bag that eventually fell apart completely. Part of the problem was the preceding season, which had ended with events of near apocalyptic horror; it is possible that there really was no way for the show to go on after that and remain convincing. Also, Morgan and Wong left for other pastures, and the writing that replaced them was generally nowhere near the quality of the first two seasons. The stand-alone "serial killer" episodes of the third season were not particularly well written; even worse, the "mytharc" episodes brought in all manner of X-Files-style conspiracies, ignored previously established continuity, turned former ally characters into villains with no justification (most egregiously, Terry O'Quinn's character of Peter Watts, a wonderful character from the first two seasons who became a Cigarette-Smoking-Man-style caricature in the third season), and generally foundered. Frank's wife, who had died at the end of Season Two, was replaced by Emma Hollis (Klea Scott), a new FBI partner for Frank who was never sharply drawn as a character at all. By the time Season Three was half-done, it was clear that the show would not be back for a fourth, and Chris Carter took quite a bit of heat from fans for seemingly abandoning a show that had had so much promise and had reached such heights during its first two years. Still, Season Three had some good moments, particularly a Christmas episode called "Omerta". Nevertheless, I remember Millennium almost solely on the basis of the first two seasons -- much like fans of the original Star Trek series, who will waste little time telling you how bad their Season Three was.

It was Millennium, coupled with The X-Files, that led to my re-discovery of the horror genre. For that alone I am forever in its debt.

This is who we are.

A few discussions have taken place lately -- here and here -- about the things that Stephen King says about plotting in his book, On Writing. Basically, King is very much against the use of outlines and making careful determinations of each event, as it is to happen, in his works prior to writing them. His approach is more spontaneous, and I was thrilled when I read it, because it mirrors mine quite nicely.

I don't generate outlines of my plot prior to writing a story, nor do I write character sketches of the main players. I start with one thing: a situation. This can take many forms, but generally it's a one-sentence statement of the fix that my main character either is in at the beginning of the story or that (s)he will get into early on in the story. Here are a few examples of situations I've used:

:: A book from the library happens to contain a note written by a woman who was murdered fifty years ago.
:: A pen collector's latest pen is haunted.
:: The new beer that a bartender has just started carrying is magical, with some very strange effects on the bar's patrons.

Now, there is a ton of leeway there for exploration, and the first thing that I have to establish is the main character. Basically, the question I ask myself is, "Now, what kind of person would get him/herself into this situation?" So, I decide who finds the note in the book (a lonely artist who has lost his inspiration), who is that pen-collector (an apostate Jew who fancies himself a writer but who can never finish a single work), and who owns the bar (a woman in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania). This isn't to say that these situations couldn't happen to someone else; in fact, they most definitely could -- these are merely the people who, in my mind, have ended up thus. And then, once I know Who has What Problem, I go from there, pretty much letting my characters determine their own actions. At least, that's how it feels to me. In each of my stories, I have at some point felt a certain bit of surprise at one or more junctures along the way -- and that's me, the writer, being surprised. I love those surprises, and they cropped up even when I was using outlines. Then, I would end up feeling slightly resentful either of the surprise, because to follow it meant shelving The Outline, or of The Outline itself -- because the surprise had just revealed it to be at least partially bogus. Thus, I stopped outlining altogether, except for a single project of mine -- a lengthy bit of self-indulgent Star Wars fanfic that I only work on very sporadically, and thus I find an outline helpful in knowing just what was going on when I stopped last time. Once I have my situation and my protagonist, I start writing with the protagonist, get him/her into the mess, and then watch him/her try to get out. As often as not, I will know the ending in advance; but even when I do know the ending, somehow it always turns out quite unlike what I had known would happen.

Now, this approach sometimes leads me to wrong turns. I started three drafts of the "pen-collector" story before I realized where I kept going wrong and subsequently finished it, and just this week I completely restarted the bartender story after I realized that I began it at the wrong point and had some of the events wrongly sequenced. Stopping and starting over, beginning drafts with no assurance that they will be finished, and sometimes having to shelve works for a while until I figure out what went wrong: these are all part-and-parcel of my writing process, a process which works for me and which I find enjoyable -- especially during those Eureka! moments of realization, when I recognize the correct resolution to an outstanding problem and, implementing that solution, have the rest of the story write itself. This isn't to say that this process will appeal to all other writers; far from it. To some writers, the approach I've described above is anathema. They look at this and say, "Good God, man! How can you stand to start a story and not know if that's the correct starting point? and how can you possibly write the beginning and middle of a story if you don't know how it ends?" To those authors I shrug and say, "Good God, man! How can you stand to just knock off the next part of the outline each time you sit down to write? and how can you resist it when a plot development that's not in the outline but would totally rock pops into your head?" Both of us would answer the same way:

"Well, it works."

That it does. So if Stephen King wants to start a novel with nothing more than the kernel "A teenager named Carrie, whom everyone hates, turns out to have psychokinetic powers", and if J. K. Rowling wants to write the last chapter of Harry Potter, Book VII before she's even finished Book V and started Books VI and VII, well, bully for both of them.

Well, now I have a reason for that roadtrip to Calgary that I've always wanted to take....

(link via Julie Winningham.)

I've caught up on some animated films during the past week. (When a member of one's immediate household is three years old, one quickly becomes conversant on animation.)

:: Dinosaur. This film, which combines computer animated dinosaurs with live-action backgrounds, is visually amazing -- and narratively boring. There is a wonderful opening sequence, detailing the "adventures" of an unhatched dinosaur egg after its mother is driven off and its brethren stomped upon. The egg is stolen by some kind of dino-mouse, taken into the woods where it is dropped into a stream, bobs along in the water somehow not being eaten by dino-crocs or stepped on by brachiosaurs (I think), and plucked from the edge of a waterfall by a pterodactyl. Then it ends up on a peaceful island populated by fuzzy, mammals that I think are lemurs. (I'm no paleontology expert; were there mammals during the time of the dinosaurs?) All this is told only through seamless visuals and a wonderful music score by James Newton Howard. However, then the egg hatches, and we then discover that all the animals speak English (except for the villainously ravenous carnotaurs, who only eat other dinos and roar a lot). And thus, after one of the more impressive opening sequences Disney has ever done, we're right back in the midst of what could almost be termed the "Standard Disney plot": plucky orphan with the heart of gold finds a loving family that is nevertheless not his own, and over the course of many adventures he saves his adopted family, learns his heritage, earns the respect of the Gruff Chieftain, and in the end has his own family. We get the obligatory "Young guy knows what to do, but the Gruff Chieftain won't listen to him and takes it as a challenge to his authority" business, and there are the obligatory outcasts and misfits who don't fit in but who end up being Our Hero's closest friends. It's all very slickly handled, although I felt a bit of a pall hanging over the proceedings -- after all, I know that none of it really matters because all of these beasties are going to end up dead, with some of their bones on display in a museum millions of years hence. The film is probably best for young kids who are fascinated by dinosaurs (what young kid isn't?) but who aren't ready to see other young kids nearly torn limb-from-limb in Jurassic Park. Dinosaur isn't bad, but it's really nothing special.

:: Hercules. I can't believe it took me this long to see this movie; maybe it had something to do with the baggage of that Kevin Sorbo television series or something. Anyhow, this is Disney's take on Greek mythology, and it's smart and funny. This is a frothy, light entertainment that is probably the most fun bit of traditional animation Disney has done since Aladdin. (Disney's best entertainments these days seem to be coming from the Pixar division, where the Toy Story films are made.) The film opens with portentious narration by Charlton Heston (very sad about Mr. Heston's illness, by the way) that is interrupted by the Muses, who demand to tell the story themselves. After Mr. Heston says, in that wonderful Heston fashion, "You go, girl", the Muses come to life and become a Greek Chorus by way of a Gospel Chorus, commenting on the action throughout the film. (A nice in-joke is that the Muses are first images on a Grecian urn.) You normally wouldn't think to hear Gospel-style music in a film about a Greek hero, which is part of the charm of this movie: it cheerfully mixes-and-matches so many genres, and is packed with so many witty asides and in-jokes that after watching it one almost wants to see it again immediately just to see what was missed. For instance: two children who are in danger before they are saved by Hercules yell out, "Somebody call I-X-I-I!!". Hercules has a personal trainer, voiced by Danny Devito, who is just like all those cynical old trainers in boxing movies, right down to the "This guy was my best, but he couldn't get it done" bit. (That "best guy" turns out to have been Achilles; later on, some townsfolk jeer him: "Hey, nice job with Achilles, especially his heel. Ya missed a spot!). The villain of the film is none other than Hades, the Lord of the Dead (above whose domain a sign reads "Over 50000000 Served), and he is voiced by James Woods. The drawing style of the film is markedly different from many of the other Disney films, and yet is somehow perfectly fitting with the story. The music and songs are surprisingly good. Hercules seems to be an underrated film in the Disney pantheon.

:: Kiki's Delivery Service. And then, we have a masterpiece. This Japanese anime is by the magnificent Hayao Miyazaki, who is sometimes called "the Japanese Walt Disney". The film tells the story of a young witch named Kiki, who has just turned thirteen. Thus, by tradition, it is time for her to leave home and go into the world. This she does, taking her cat Jiji with her as she flies away on her broom to seek her fame, fortune, or merely her life. She settles in a city by the ocean, where she is befriended by a pregnant couple who own a bakery. Moving in with them, Kiki starts a delivery service, making her deliveries by flying the parcels on her broom to their destinations. And, she makes friends: a boy who adores aviation and is totally fascinated by Kiki and her ability to fly via broomstick; an old lady who is blissfully unaware of her granddaughter's lack of appreciation for her; a painter who lives in the country. The locations of the film seem to be European, but it's a Europe where dirigibles are still in use and apparently World War II never happened. (None of this is really clear; one of the charms about the film is that it is totally convincing of its setting precisely by not spelling out any of its details, but by simply showing it and the people who live there.) Kiki is a charming character whose problems seem real and difficult, although not insurmountable. There is no evil threat here to be surmounted, only the normal difficulties that arise from maturity and dealing with other people. Miyazaki has a wonderful eye for the way people speak and behave; it's a testament to his skills that he can make a movie about a witch who comes to live in the city and not a minute of it feels contrived or implausible.

The animation is, of course, wonderful; that goes without saying in a film by the man behind Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro. Here, Miyazaki captures the essence of flight to such an amazing degree that I have to wonder if he actually has experience with broomstick flight. In any event, the way he depicts flight in this film is completely convincing, far moreso than the broomstick flights in, say, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The Disney Company now owns the distribution rights in the United States for all of the Studio Ghibli films (Ghibli is Miyazaki's production company). They are bringing these films out fairly slowly -- they've had a dub of Laputa: Castle in the Sky in the can for a couple of years now -- and with relatively little fanfare, which I find surprising. (I only learned of the US release of Kiki when I spied it in the video section of my local supermarket.) Disney's intention seems to be to capture a fairly sizable share of the anime market in this country, but beyond that seems to have little interest in expanding that market by promoting Miyazaki's films as the first-rate family films that they are. Not all anime is about robots that fire lasers from their eyes and the cyberpunk teenagers who battle them; the films of Hayao Miyazaki not only reveal the breadth of anime but also provide beautiful alternatives to watching Peter Pan or The Lion King for the tenth time in one week. Princess Mononoke probably isn't appropriate for very young children, with its violence and fairly dark storyline, but Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro are family films in every sense of the word. So, for God's sake, see these movies!!!

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

I've added a permanent link to Terminus's blog. Thus far he's captured my interest.





In keeping with my recent retrospective on the James Bond films, I found this site -- linked by the picture above -- that is devoted to all manner of 007-related artwork, from the original covers of Ian Fleming's novels to the poster campaigns for each film and an analysis of the main title sequences of each film. It's a great site. I always wondered if the incredibly long legs on the poster for Octopussy were intentional; now I know. (They are, and the reason is one I wouldn't have suspected. It has to do with forced perspective when viewed from below.)

(By the way, playing Bond in the image above is an actor named Bob Simmons. His version of the "gunbarrel sequence" was used on the first three Bond films; a version wasn't filmed with Sean Connery until Thunderball.)

In the "Wild, Wacky Stuff" Department:

There was a young man hight Jaquandor
Who wished he were born in Numenor.
When advised it had drowned
He made nary a sound
But fell in a faint to the bar floor.


That was written by, of all people, Guy Gavriel Kay on the message boards over at Bright Weavings. It seems that GGK (as he is known to his fans) has a book of poetry, entitled Beyond His Dark House, coming out in April of 2003. This is exciting news, but not nearly so exciting as my finding myself immortalized in verse by such a fine writer as Mr. Kay. (Although, a limerick?! Of course, I brought it on myself by suggesting on the message boards my hope that none of his works begin, "There once was a man fron Nantucket...." I offered a bit of proper poetical response; the thread can be read here. Mr. Kay is from Toronto, by the way -- it's part of my joke.)

In the absence of a new novel by GGK (that will probably be another year to eighteen months in the offing), a book of his poetry will be fascinating. Here is a bit of his verse that I have loved since I first read it. It is from his novel, A Song For Arbonne (currently out-of-print, but a reissue in trade paperback is due out this fall):

Even the birds above the lake
Are singing of my love,
And even the flowers along the shore
Are growing for her sake.


It's a funny thing about people who decide to tempt fate: what happens if they take up Pascal's Wager and lose?

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has existed for over one hundred years. How many of its musicians, in that time, have been African-Americans?

One.

And in what year was that musician hired by the orchestra?

2002.

That is simply amazing to me. More on it here, courtesy Norman Lebrecht.

Apropos of the decennial Sight & Sound poll of the top ten films of all time is interesting article by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News, in which he describes his general ambivalence to these types of listing exercises. Basically, he feels that it is folly to attempt to distill a lifelong love-affair with film down to a list of ten, and only ten, films. Knowles is at his best when he gives full flower to the passion he holds for the movies, as he does here.

Ah, we're three weeks into NFL Training Camp Season. Rosters are being shaped, we're starting to get an idea of what our teams' weaknesses will be (in Buffalo, guess what? It's the offensive line....) as well as their strengths, and most importantly, the Tuesday Morning Quarterback has returned.

TMQ is the name of the weekly column by writer Gregg Easterbrook, who is a witty and knowledgable football observer. He is also brings a surprising amount of erudition to the table: this is a guy who composes haiku about football and peppers his columns with all manner of literary allusions. For a different slant on the sport of American Football, check his column out. (Fans of the Washington Redskins who are new to TMQ should check out next week's installment, when Easterbrook says he will outline just why he calls them the Chesapeake Watershed Region Indigenous Persons.)

Monday, August 12, 2002

I've linked to Steven Den Beste almost since I started this site, not because I agree with his viewpoints -- more often than not, I don't -- but because even when I disagree with him I find him very thought-provoking, and generally enjoyable to read. It's not uncommon for me to finish reading one of his posts and think, "He's wrong"; but not until the last few days have I read a post of his -- two, in this case, here and here -- have I said afterwards, "How disappointing."

Den Beste's strength is almost always in the formulation of his arguments. He presents his viewpoints with a great deal of logical rigor; he shows that he has carefully considered his premises and frequently he'll provide extensive justification for them alone before proceeding with his conclusion. This can lead to some very long posts indeed, but that's fine with me. (For the most part, anyway. His recent epic analysis of the scientific plausibility of the film Reign of Fire went over the top, but even he admitted so.) I find it sad, then, that he so eagerly employs rhetorical misdirection, non sequitur, and argumentum ad hominem in a recent flap with Demosthenes.

He recently announced that he was planning to search for "an intellectually honest antiwar voice in the blogosphere". Judging by the post in which this announcement appears, he considers "intellectual honesty" to consist of logical argumentation, presentation of alternative courses of action, and avoidance of fallacious reasoning and fuzzy thinking. And judging by the two posts that disappointed me, he has not found those things in Demosthenes. The problem is, he does not demonstrate this. Instead, he goes another route: he questions Demosthenes's sincerity and background, now basically insisting that because Demosthenes does not post under his real name, nothing can be known of his background and thus his arguments cannot properly be evaluated. But more than that, he ascribes certain motivations to Demosthenes for wishing to remain pseudonymous, motivations that he creates out of whole cloth. Steven says the following:

When someone won't even reveal his name, it should set off alarm bells unless he provides a legitimate reason for keeping it secret. If someone is confident about what they're saying, they should be willing to own up in public to holding those opinions. A person who debates anonymously may not be wrong, but you should certainly be far more skeptical about anything they say.

All of this is, though, totally irrelevant. A logical argument is a logical argument, regardless of who advances it or why. I am disturbed that Steven, who is normally so stringent in his own logic and insistent on similar rigor in his opponents' arguments, has drawn the line here. It seems to me that I should be equally skeptical of Steven and Demosthenes; not because one posts under his own name and one doesn't, or because one uses a quality commercial program to update his blog on a server that he himself owns and one uses a free (if temperamental) blogging tool to update his blog that is hosted on a free server, or for any other reason. I should be equally skeptical of both because both are advancing arguments. That is the only reason for skepticism.

Now, knowing someone's background can certainly illuminate their motives. Knowing the business background of George W. Bush, for example, I am skeptical of his motives for wishing to drill for oil in ANWR and for his general ambivalence about conservation strategies. But that still has no bearing on the actual question of whether we should drill there. Likewise, I am skeptical about President Clinton's decision to launch a military strike on the very day that the impeachment vote was to be held -- but that does not imply, in itself, that the military strike in question was unnecessary.

Secondly, Steven interprets Demosthenes's decision to use a pseudonym as "shame", as in, "D. is ashamed of what he writes". This is simply not borne out by what D. has written of his pseudonymity. It could be true; but then, I could also think of any number of other possible motivations based on what he has said on the subject. Thus, in the absence of a definitive word on D.'s motivations, Steven employs a Strawman. (And as he demonstrates here, he is quite aware of what a Strawman is.) And still, it has no bearing whatsoever on the logical validity of his arguments or, more importantly, the moral authority of his arguments. This seems to be Steven's real sticking point: he provides no analysis at all of D.'s arguments as logical constructs (at least, not in these posts; he has done so in the past and now I must wonder why he has suddenly stopped). Instead, he questions D.'s moral authority. This is a red herring. As Plato argued in the Euthyphro: "What is moral is not moral because the Gods love it; rather, the Gods love what is moral because it is moral." Or, put another way:

Moral authority does not come from whether or not one uses one's real name. Moral authority comes from advancing a view that is morally correct.

If D.'s position is the moral one, then that is all the moral authority that he needs. To insist that he provide background information, to properly demonstrate his moral authority, is to ignore the logic and instead focus on the person. This is utterly fallacious. In Steven's words: Demosthenes would, I suspect, respond to that: "Listen to the arguments, not to the arguer." But if the arguments are convincing, then why doesn't the voice who presents them act as if he believes them? Well, consider the reverse: if the arguments are not convincing, then why does it matter in the slightest how the voice who presents them acts? If a token of sincerity is to be demanded before an argument will even be listened to, then I wonder how Steven can justify disregarding what might be the ultimate form of sincerity: the willingness of the Palestinians to blow themselves up, as long as they take some Jews with them. But, as Steven adroitly points out here, logic has little to do with sincerity. Or some illusory standard of "moral authority".

Finally, I must ask one more thing: what would knowing D.'s real name actually prove? What would it establish? You don't really know anything about D. right now, and knowing his real name wouldn't change that (unless, of course, he happens to be someone famous -- but then that would probably fall under Steven's qualifier of "a legitimate reason" for pseudonymity). Steven says, By posting under a pseudonym, Demosthenes in his person is accountable to no-one. He can lie, cheat, distort, deliberately deceive, or libel with impunity, because there are no potential consequences for him in doing so. But all of this is true of people who use their own real names; witness some of the invective spouted by such shoddy thinkers as Jerry Falwell or Ann Coulter. A real name no more implies "truth" than a false one suggests the possibility of "falsehood". In fact, this is something that Steven once even admitted in this post, in which he writes in part: You don't know me. You don't know anything about me. You can't tell what kind of person I am from what I write here. I only show you what I want to show you, and some of what I show you is deliberately faked. You can't judge my behavior by what you see here, because you don't know what I do in real life. Steven, it appears, wishes to have it both ways: when convenient, he can claim, "You know nothing about me because I make some it up"; and when convenient, he can ignore an opponent on the exact same grounds.

And finally: I myself post under a pseudonym, which I assume is OK with Steven because I rarely if ever delve into the political world. But even so, I feel I should perhaps say why I do so. It's not out of embarrassment, shame, or anything else. I use this journal to explore my own ideas about art -- mainly books, music and film. Just about all of my close friends know about the blog, and they know who I am. My pseudonym is taken from a comic book from the 1980s called Six From Sirius; I started using it as an AOL screenname and I've grown used to it. I don't conceal my background, but I don't include a bio, either; perhaps I should. Suffice it to say, though, a casual reader of my blog knows that I write fantasy and horror (although I am as yet unpublished) stories and am working on a novel; that I live in Buffalo, NY; that I am a fan of the Buffalo Bills an the Pittsburgh Pirates; that I love figure skating; that Berlioz is my favorite classical composer; that I adore film music; that my favorite author is Guy Gavriel Kay; that my favorite movie is Star Wars (and that I consider The Phantom Menace a good movie); that I attended college in Iowa (specifically, at Wartburg College; that I majored in Philosophy and minored in Music; and that I am married with a daughter who is three. I've probably revealed even more than that about myself, and I'm sure I will reveal more as time goes on. I'm not "concealing" my name; I just don't find it terribly relevant to what I have to say here. Of course, that will change when I finally break into print, because I plan to publish under my real name -- at least to start with, because there are vagaries of the publishing world that make pseudonyms necessary for business. (To assume that writers use pseudonyms as a means of "avoiding the pressures of fame" is, quite frankly, an example of ignorance of realities in the publishing world. Many authors use pseudonyms because their early works, published under their own names, didn't sell and therefore publishers won't take the chance on publishing more under that name. It's an effect of the "blockbusterization" of publishing, where the backlist is nearly dead and the midlist is shrinking ever faster, and where authors used to be given six or seven books to get into best-seller territory, now they have to do it in two or three.) When that happens I will, of course, plaster a gigantic announcement to that effect here. And now, on with The Show.

A hearty "Welcome!" to people arriving by way of Demosthenes's link. As he points out, mine is not a political blog. I've outlined my reasons for avoiding politics in the past; although I am a fairly solid liberal, I choose to leave the political discussions in the hands of people like Demosthenes (and, from a different standpoint, Steven Den Beste) in favor of other pursuits. Mainly, I talk about books, music, films, sports, and the culture and future of my city (Buffalo, NY). I only dabble in political discussion on a very sporadic basis, and even then mainly when I read something that strikes me as particularly wrongheaded.

(Thanks to Demosthenes for the plug!)
I am attempting to add a commenting system to Byzantium's Shores. This is the test post; hence its complete lack of content.

Sunday, August 11, 2002

Every ten years, a British magazine called Sight & Sound (the official magazine of the British film institute) polls a number of directors and critics to determine the greatest films of all time. Two lists are generated for each group, and it is interesting to compare the lists, note where the directors and the critics diverged, and realize that neither group lists a film made since 1980. Both lists name Citizen Kane as the top film of all time. For the complete lists, plus additional commentary and some samples of the lists given by the critics and directors polled, read Roger Ebert's column on the subject.

It's always a bit surprising to find an idea that one has had also occurring to someone else. It's particularly surprising to encounter it somewhere in the Blogosphere -- well, maybe not "surprising" per se, but rather "interesting" or "eerie". I'm tempted to ascribe it to the old canard that "Great minds think alike", but I've only discovered Terminus's blog today, and thus any such statement would be premature. Anyway, Terminus has started his own cycle of James Bond reviews. He's doing it one film at a time though, leading up to Die Another Day, as opposed to plowing through them all at once, as I did. He is also discovering, as I did in college when some friends and I decided to try watching the entire series in order, that it's hard to actually find them all at the video store.

(And apparently someone named Ed is doing a Bond retrospective. Hmmmm....)

Ah, the wonderful world of Buffalo politics. Current Mayor Anthony Masiello, who is in the first year of his third term as Mayor, has a new problem to deal with: his predecessor, James Griffin (who held the office of Mayor for four terms and was at the helm during the implosion of the Buffalo economy starting in the late 1970s) has produced a petition calling for Mayor Masiello's removal from office and the holding of a new election. Presumably this is because Masiello has, for the most part, been unable to stimulate any real economic development in the city. While Masiello's performance is far from admirable (and is barely adequate, if even that), it's laughable to see the former Mayor, a man whose administration was marked by all manner of cronyism and corruption, shilling for his ouster. It's yet another distraction that the city doesn't need.

Saturday, August 10, 2002

James Bond Redux, conclusion.

Parts I, II, III, and IV.

:: The Living Daylights. After Roger Moore's departure from the role of James Bond, a casting search was begun for the next film in the series. Pierce Brosnan almost won the role at that point, but he was unable to escape his contractual obligation to NBC for the Remington Steele television series (which, incidentally, was cancelled soon afterwards). The role went to Timothy Dalton, who decided to base his portrayal of Bond more on the character as described in Ian Fleming's novels than as portrayed by Connery, Lazenby, and Moore. Dalton's Bond smirks less, and is a much more serious person in general. I greatly enjoyed his concept of Bond, and it would have been nice had he been able to do it in more than two films. In any event, once again the producers of the series decided to "dial it down a bit" after a pretty excessive installment. A View To A Kill had been roundly panned by critics and fans alike, and thus The Living Daylights was written to be a more streamlined espionage thriller, which it succeeds in being. This film is another high point in the series, presenting a story in which there is no villain bent on world domination but rather a trio of villains who are involved in a scheme involving diamond smuggling, gunrunning to Afghanistan, and disinforming British intelligence. The plot twists and turns more than is typical in a Bond film, which is rather refreshing. Bond is kept guessing throughout, and at times he has to trust his own instincts to get him through a certain tough spot. The heroine here is a lovely blonde cellist from Bratislava named Kara, who just happens to be the girlfriend of a Russian official who wishes to defect (or so he says). Bond is actually supposed to kill her early in the film, but he refuses to do so, and eventually she is drawn into his efforts to find out what is going on. (In a particularly charming scene, Bond and Kara are about to flee the KGB, when she realizes that she has forgotten her cello and insists on getting it. No real musician would ever leave their instrument behind -- especially when it later turns out that the instrument is a Stradivarius. This, of course, is revealed only after Bond has managed to put a bullet hole in the cello.) Her character is quite strong, as evidenced when she talks back to a Mujaheddin commander. Instead of a single villain, here there is a team of three: an American arms dealer named Whitaker, the defectee named Koskov, and an assassin named Necros. All are interesting and menacing characters -- particularly Whitaker, with his encyclopedic knowledge of war and weaponry and his hallway filled with statues of folks like Hitler and Genghis Khan. There is also a Russian general, played by the wonderful John Rhys Davies (Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gimli in Lord of the Rings) who is caught in something of a crossfire. The action sequences are first-rate, including a teaser sequence featuring a trio of agents parachuting onto the Rock of Gibraltar and some amazing stuntwork involving a cargo-plane during the climax. John Barry's music score is one of the best in the series. The Living Daylights is one of the very best Bonds. (The Gadgets: Bond drives the Aston-Martin again, although its weapons have been upgraded. Instead of whirling tire-spikes, the wheelhubs fire lasers which cut through the chassis of a car alongside Bond. The car also fires missiles and carries outboard skis for snow-driving. Bond's other gadget is a key-ring finder equipped with lockpicks, an explosive charge that detonates at the sound of a wolf-whistle, and a stun-gas pellet that discharges if he whistles the opening notes of "Rule Brittania". This is everything a Bond gadget should be: simple, elegant, and when used cleverly, totally lethal.)

:: Licence to Kill. In my view, this is the most underrated of all the Bond films. It performed poorly at the box office when it was released in 1989, backed by a lackadaisical advertising campaign and tough competition from films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon II, and even Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The film takes place entirely in the Caribbean and in Latin America, and it marks a stark deviation from the standard Bond formula. He is on no sanctioned mission for Her Majesty's Secret Service this time; in fact, he is acting totally on his own, at one point running from a meeting with M who has personally come to chew him out for his vigilante behavior. The reason for his actions is a druglord named Franz Sanchez, who has escaped US custody (Bond had helped put him there in the teaser sequence), killed Felix Leiter's young newlywed wife, and seriously maimed Felix himself. (The manner of Felix's maiming is actually taken from Ian Fleming's novel of Live and Let Die.) Bond goes after Sanchez, destroying parts of his operation before ultimately infiltrating it with the help of the beautiful CIA agent Pam Bouvier, played with terrific sass by Carey Lowell. ("Are you armed?" she asks Bond at one point. He shows her his Walther PPK, at which she shakes her head sadly and shows him her sawed-off shotgun.) Miss Bouvier is the strongest of all the Bond heroines; she is tough, fearless, and she gets to save Bond a number of times. There is palpable chemistry between her and Dalton; there is also great chemisty between Dalton and Robert Davi, who plays the evil Sanchez to the hilt. Davi's Sanchez isn't merely evil; there is a sense of honor behind the things he does. "This isn't personal; it's just business," he says to Felix Leiter before having him horribly injured. The film's closing action sequence, a gonzo chase scene down a series of dusty mountain roads involving a series of tanker trucks, is one the most exhilarating action set-pieces in any Bond film. The music is provided by Michael Kamen, and it's a surprisingly effective mix of Latin elements and Kamenesque action writing. (Kamen also did the music for the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard films.) Licence To Kill should be more popular than it is. (The Gadgets: Here Bond works with a rifle that responds to his palmprint alone, a tube of toothpaste that actually dispenses plastic explosive, and a lighter that is really a flamethrower. Q has his beefiest role in the series in this film; he comes to equip Bond after a worried Moneypenny begs him to, and he actually helps out in the field. He has two especially nice moments: one where he tries to console Pam Bouvier when Bond has gone off with Sanchez's stunning concubine, and one where he dresses as a farmer along the road as Sanchez drives by on the way to his hideout. In this latter scene, Q speaks into the broom he's holding, which is really a microphone, alerting Pam that Sanchez is on his way. Then, that accomplished, he tosses the broom aside and walks away -- a wonderfully funny character moment after all the times that Q has chided Bond over the years for never returning his equipment. Of course, I've always wondered: if he always wants it back, why does he almost always set it up so it explodes?)

:: GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough. (Given that these films are the most recent, I'm lumping them together into a single capsule.) Due to legal wrangling there was a six-year gap between Licence To Kill and the next Bond film, GoldenEye. In that time Timothy Dalton decided to move on, and thus Pierce Brosnan finally took over the role, and he's had it ever since. As far as I am concerned, he's welcome to it until he's too old or he simply doesn't want it anymore. He brings to the part a blend of Dalton's seriousness, Moore's playfulness, Lazenby's emotion, and Connery's toughness. Some feel that Brosnan doesn't have the physical gravitas to really be convincing as Bond, but I don't agree. In fact, I think he's getting better -- his performance in TWINE was his best Bond yet. We'll know more in a few months, when Die Another Day is released.

As for the films themselves, I've enjoyed all three, although each has its faults. GoldenEye is quite good, although its setup takes too long, its music (by Eric Serra) alternates between merely functional and utterly horrid, and at several points it meditates on deeper aspects of Bond's character in a way that reminds me of the psychological baggage that has been pumped into the Batman character ever since Frank Miller's Dark Knight series came out. The heroine, a Russian computer operator played by Izabella Scorupco, is lovely and strong; Sean Bean's villain is excellent. His scheme, though, is a bit hard to swallow.

Tomorrow Never Dies is one of the most relentlessly paced Bond films; its emphasis is most definitely on action over plot. Bond is less a spy here than an action hero, and although the film works I'm not sure if that change is a good one. I'm of the opinion that James Bond should do more spying than heroics, but TND is chock-full of action set-pieces and the effect is generally overwhelming. Nevertheless, there is a lot to like in the film; Michelle Yeoh's heroine could be an action-star in her own right; Jonathan Pryce's media-mogul villain is in the best tradition of Bond-baddie-megalomania; David Arnold's score is a tremendously fun listen. TND is not a bad film, but pedal-to-the-metal really isn't the proper pace of a Bond film.

The World Is Not Enough. The title is an allusion to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Part of that film's plot deals with heraldry, and "The world is not enough" turns out to be the ancestral motto of the Bond family. I found this film a mixed bag. Robert Carlyle's villain, a terrorist who is dying from a bullet in his skull that also has rendered him impervious to pain, is one of the creepiest of Bond baddies. Sophie Marceau may be the best femme fatale of the entire series. In this film, M actually figures in the action, giving Judi Dench something to do other than tell Pierce Brosnan what to do. Desmond Llewelyn plays Q for the last time, before his role is taken over by John Cleese, a perfect bit of casting if ever I've seen one. "Ah, there's the famed 007 wit," Cleese says. "Half of it, at any rate." (Tragically, Llewelyn himself died in a car crash shortly after the film's release. He was 85 at the time.) The film involves more espionage than Tomorrow Never Dies, but there are also some incredibly loud and over-the-top action sequences -- particularly a boat-chase on the Thames and the climax on a submarine that looks strangely like the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The plot's twists and turns are sometimes hard to follow, and at times Bond's actions are unexplainable. The worst thing in the film, though, is its heroine: Denise Richards has less charisma than any other leading lady in any other Bond film, by far. From the first moment she appears -- when the film tells us that she is a nuclear scientist, and her name is "Christmas Jones" -- her character is completely unbelievable. The World Is Not Enough gives me the impression of a film that needed one more draft of screenplay done, and one key role re-cast entirely. (Special note: this film would be an excellent instructive example for people who don't believe that letterboxing for home video is desirable. In the fullscreen video release, some of TWINE's action sequences -- most notably a fight and chase in a nuclear missile silo -- are all but impossible to follow. I don't know if the film is out on Widescreen DVD, but that would be the way to see it.)

:: Die Another Day. See you this winter. View the trailer here.