March 31, 2015

I'll Have What She's Having: Scotch on the Rocks

The second half of season 1 of Outlander commences Saturday night, and the fandom is stoked. One thing I enjoy about them is that—probably because Outlander is good literature, not just a good story—the fans are rather sophisticated. While there are plenty of OH MY GOD HE'S SO HANDSOME!! posts—

—many posts are about subtle literary or cinematic effects. And these people know their theory, especially regarding fandom. If you take it upon yourself to criticize a bunch of women objectifying a good-looking man, they will literally (not literally) reach through the Internet and beat the living crap out of you.

Bonus Scot Humor:

March 30, 2015

Code Name Verity

There are novels that you love, even if they aren't great (for me, Twilight). There are novels that you think are great, even if you don't love them (say, Cosmopolis). Then there are those rare novels that you both love and think are great.

Code Name Verity is one of those for me. It's the story of two young women during World War II, one of whom is a pilot and the other a German-language interrogator. They are English, and best friends. Light spoilers: They end up stranded in France, one hiding with members of the French resistance and one in the hands of the Nazis.

The author, Elizabeth Wein, builds some impressive architecture here. There is enormous historical detail, but it never fights with the story. She's got two narrative voices—those of her two young friends—that are distinct and realistic. She finds a way to have each girl tell her story as it happens—not an easy task when one is living in a barn and the other in a cell. And she has a clever, oblique method for providing the big picture, little glimpses of what's going on in the next cell (which you'd really rather not know) or how the resistance is made up of both saints and jerks, often within the same individual.

Best of all, these characters do incredibly brave things while never for one minute being anything other than what they are: very talented but also very normal young women at the beginning of their lives, being scared, missing their families, trying to do the right thing but wanting desperately to live.

March 27, 2015

Look Who Turned Up on Midsomer Murders Last Night

Sophie Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch's new bride:

Watching this show is like playing Celebrity Roulette. Who will show up this round??

March 25, 2015

Midsomer Win

The last few Midsomer Murder eps I've watched have been a bit cheesy. For example, there seem to be a plethora of episodes in which hippie girls are prancing around in a vaguely cultish group led by an older man:

But "Sins of Commission" does cheese right. These three losers—

are trying to put the hurt on this lovely elderly lady:

 Barnaby's warning you: Don't mess with this one.

Each one tries to knock her off, one by attacking her in her home, another by pushing her off a roof, and another by pushing her off a pier. Little do they know she was trained by Soviet special ops back in the day, and she power-chops them all to their knees, leading with a backward elbow jab, spinning round to bang them on the head, ultimately killing each one. ELDER NINJA!!

March 24, 2015

Detectives Who Break the Mold

I'm rewatching Midsomer Murders this month and falling in love all over again with John Nettles. As the detective in a rural English county, he's so subtle in his acting: physically restrained but natural, not wooden or overly stoic. His character, Barnaby, is a contented soul. He represents a rare happy medium in the portrayal of detectives: He is neither an outsized personality like Poirot or Sherlock Holmes nor a grizzled cynic like . . . almost everyone else.

Too many TV detectives are almost expressionless in their attempt to convey toughness or even trauma. The most egregious example of this in recent years was Mireille Enos in The Killing. If this woman moved a facial muscle in an entire season of episodes, I didn't see it. That doesn't mean she's a bad actor; it probably means that that's what the producers wanted. In contrast, her co-star Joel Kinnaman was fantastic: natural, but with an actual, specific personality.

Midsomer Murders is firmly within the genre of the English cozy murder mystery, but that's not a bad thing when done well. One of my favorite books series is Martha Grimes' Richard Jury books, somewhat grittier but much in the same vein. The debonair, witty Richard Jury is one of my favorite detectives, whom I fantasy cast with Hugh Grant. He's about the right age, with the right looks, and can deliver a line of dry comedy like nobody's business.

March 18, 2015

Nano-Seminar on Film Composition

Baltimore filmmaker Jacob Swinney put together the first and last shots of a bunch of films, side by side for comparison. It's fun to see how the scenes are either similar or distinct in terms of color palette, content (nature vs. city, person vs. object, an individual vs. a pair or a group), and form (moving image vs. still image, close-up vs. panoramic or mid-range):

‘First and Final Frames’, The Opening and Closing Shots of Dozens of Films Played Out Side by Side

March 17, 2015

Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes)

I'm in love. This is the second Argentinian movie of the last couple of years that has landed on my all-time-favorite list (the first being The Secret in Their Eyes). Wild Tales is an anthology film, made up of five stories held together by a common theme (but not storyline). In this case the theme is revenge, and writer and director Damián Szifrón makes it sing. The stories have it all: comedy, tragedy, farce, stupidity, pride, romance, privilege. There are grand stages and very intimate ones. There's no overlap here, but knowing that the stories all deal with revenge gives you a little zap of suspense; as each character is introduced, you can't help wondering, Is this going to be the victim? The avenger? Both?

There's something about Wild Tales that reminds me of The Grand Budapest Hotel. A freedom and occasional zaniness that don't erase deeper meanings. Seriousness and farce absolutely entwined. Crafted by a director with a perfect sense of timing and cinematic effect.

I'm especially appreciative of the first 5 or 10 minutes of the movie. It's like the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring (telling the prehistory of Middle Earth and the ring) and the first scene of Casino Royale (which has James Bond chasing a free runner through industrial ruins): A knockout first scene that would alone justify the ticket price.

March 10, 2015

Testy Tuesday

If I am reviewing your poetry submission, here are things I don't want to read about. At all.

—Any wildlife in your backyard, no matter how closely observed

—Your elderly relative who you have wonderful memories of who is now old and whose physical depredations you will recount with an unflinching eye


—Any occurrence of the word "bird" "moon" or "luscious"

March 8, 2015

The Stars of Tomorrow—On Your TV Today

British mystery series are just efficient little incubators for talented actors. I've been rewatching the Poirot reboot of the 2000s and am amazed at who pops up, usually a year or two before they make it big:

Michael Fassbender:

Emily Blunt:

Benedict Cumberbatch:

Rupert Penry-Jones

Tom Mison (practically unrecognizable from his Sleepy Hollow character):

Jessica Chastain:

And don't forget Sam Heughan, though he was on Midsomer Murders:

The list could go on and on: Damian Lewis, Jamie Bamber, Christopher Eccleston, Kelly Reilly, Toby Stephens . . .  It's also fun to guess if guest stars are related to other actors: Lou Broadbent, Serena Scott Thomas, Julian Firth, Peter Penry-Jones. And to read through the credits at the end and chuckle at how little difference there is between the actors' names and character names. Bruce Montague, Oliver Beamish, and Amanda Abbington all sound like they could be Agatha Christie creations.

It was particularly gratifying to see Sam Heughan's turn on Midsomer Murders, since it ended up being one of my favorite episodes of that series, a clever replay of Hamlet.

March 5, 2015

There Will Never Be Any Work of Art Greater Than This

Walking in the deep snow today felt like walking through the greatest cathedral ever made.

March 4, 2015

Anne Elliot and the Paradox of Interiority

Persuasion's Anne Elliot is considered to be the most "interior" of all Jane Austen heroines. She does very, very little during the course of the novel. And she talks very, very little during the course of the novel, even with her love interest Captain Wentworth. Their reconciliation consists of a handful of exchanges, mostly brief and superficial. What we know about her thoughts and history comes mostly from her interior ruminations, not dialogue or action.

And yet: She is the one Austen heroine who completely busts out of, not just her unpleasant family or provincial town, but the entire society in which she has been raised. Wentworth is a naval officer. Like Mrs. Croft, Anne can expect to spend at least some of her years on ship with him. She's the polar opposite of Emma, who yakkity-yaks her head off but is very clear to Knightley that she doesn't want to leave her home, much less her village or country.

If Jane Austen had lived past 42 years, where would she have taken her later heroines?

March 3, 2015

Thompson, Branagh . . . I've Got Plans for You

Since Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility

is the best adaptation of that novel,

and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V—

and Hamlet—

are the best adaptations of those works,

I humbly request that Thompson and Branagh stop dicking around and devote the rest of their lives to filming the entire oeuvre of Austen and Shakespeare.

March 2, 2015

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Virginia Woolf famously said that "of all the great writers [Jane Austen] is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness." What she meant is that Austen doesn't have stand-alone passages of great brilliance like Hamlet's soliloquy or long, beautiful, atmospheric descriptions like Dickens's famous passage on the London fog. Austen's greatness is so tightly woven into the entire fabric of her works that it's impossible to pull on one thread and observe it.

Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, a young woman who was persuaded by an older friend to break her engagement with the man she loved, Captain Wentworth, because of his lower social standing and lack of money. For eight years she has regretted the loss of that love and slowly withered, losing her "bloom" of youth and beauty. Now Wentworth is back in her social circle, but this time rich and well-regarded, and Anne is compelled to watch the young women around her swoon over him and be courted in return.

Persuasion was the last book that Austen wrote before she died at age 42. Many critics love it for its more melancholy, dark tone, but I've always found this view overstated. The 1995 film adaptation emphasizes Anne's homeliness and pathetic situation in life, but the novel itself makes Anne neither homely nor pathetic. Within the first quarter of the novel she has regained her "bloom" and she has friends who like and esteem her (though the members of her family are not among them). She's not someone in crisis; she's someone who has come to terms with her decisions and her losses. Unlike the heroines of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, she doesn't need to be transformed through the course of the novel; she's already been transformed—she just needs a second chance to show it.

Virginia Woolf makes the case that Persuasion is quite flawed but intriguing because it signals a transition to a new stage in her writing—a stage that we never got to see because she died shortly after Persuasion was published. Woolf's essay on Austen is here and is devastatingly poignant about what we lost because of Austen's early death.

What remains, though, is great. Jane Austen pulled the English novel back from the excesses of romantic and gothic melodrama and made it sharp and biting. Most important, according to scholars like John Mullan (a summary of whose excellent book on Austen can be found here), is her invention of an entirely new type of narration: indirect free speech.

Indirect free speech is the use of a normally omniscient, impartial third-person narration to convey the thoughts of a particular character. Here are examples to contrast:

3rd person narration:
"It was raining outside, so she decided not to go out because she didn't want to ruin her hair."

1st person narration:
"It's raining outside. I'd better stay inside; Mother would be so upset if I showed up with my hair in disarray."

Indirect free speech:
"It was raining outside, so she stayed inside. Obviously one cannot risk appearing in public with damp hair, especially if there is a rather eligible young man in attendance."

What's cool about indirect free speech is that it opens the way for irony. The narrator, supposedly omniscient and impartial, is relating the point of view of the character (a vain young woman) as if it were a universal truth while actually making obvious the narrator's distance from it and (usually) disapproval of it. 

This is the whole tenor of modern, informal communication, isn't it? Once at work I overheard a young guy talking to a young woman (one he obviously liked) about music, specifically some sub-sub-genre that he was into . . . "neo-soul bluegrass" or "Finnish pop electronica" or something.  As he's blathering on, she is saying "Sure, sure . . . " with the straightest face possible but unmistakable sarcasm for anyone watching from the outside. The subtext: I'm speaking as if your knowledge and enthusiasm about this subgenre are universal, like we all listen to it, but really I'm emphasizing your singularity and my distance from you."

Austen scholars assert that Austen was the first novelist to employ this technique. If so, this is rather huge. Did Jane Austen invent modern irony?