27 December 2010

Book Review: Don’t Look Now: Stories

Don’t Look Now: Stories (2008)
By Daphne du Maurier. Selected by Patrick McGrath.

I have recently started an immersive journey through Cornwall, although not of the physical variety, since economically I don’t have the luxury of taking myself there. After a few years of vague fascination with the tip of the southwestern peninsula of Great Britain, which reaches out into the Atlantic to terminate in the pincer claw of Lizard Point and the Penwith Peninsula, I started to do harder research into its history and customs that separate it in weird and wonderful ways from the rest of the island that lays east of the river Tamar. My reason for this intensification of interest is, of course, for writing purposes. And if anyone wants to make a journey into Cornwall that involves fiction, he or she will have to spend some quality time with the Grand Dame of the land of tinners and smugglers, Daphne du Maurier.

Du Maurier (1907–1989) achieved enormous success as an author of twentieth century popular literature. On first publication, most of her novels received dismissive critical notices as “romantic thrillers for women,” while they ran through printing after printing to satisfy public demand. However, du Maurier’s novels have managed to escape the dustbin of most bestsellers of yesteryear and they remain in print and popular as ever today. Critical opinion has also turned around, and the author is now respected as an excellent wordsmith and crafter of plots, a literary descendant of Wilkie Collins, and as the twentieth century “voice” of Cornwall.

21 December 2010

Tron: Legacy Disappoints

Tron: Legacy (2010)
Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Starring Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Disney has sunk a hefty amount of money into the making and marketing of Tron: Legacy as a blockbuster and a future franchise. Given the long-term currency of the 1982 original, this is what you would expect. The IMAX 3D release that coincides with last year’s release of Avatar makes Disney’s scheme of conquest obvious.

And yet, after watching the film, I have to wonder if Disney had any idea what they were doing with this, uhm, strange and mostly airless film. It’s decked with gorgeous neon visuals and special effects, but it is neither an action extravaganza to grab the young viewers nor an intelligent enough follow-up to the heady ideas that Tron smashed around in 1982 at the edge of the computer revolution. It appears that the revolution has not been televised. Or not screened.

Tron: Legacy is no fiasco—it will make a profit and I imagine that international box-office will make up the significant part of it—but it’s only “adequate” all around. Considering that I went into the film with the realistic expectation that it might very well suck, I can say with enormous lack of passion that I am “satisfied.” However, this won’t be a film I’ll want to revisit the way I do its predecessor, nor will it make it onto my DVD shelf. The benefit of the IMAX 3D presentation is significant enough (see it in this format if you can) that my disappointment would increase in its absence.

13 December 2010

The Original Tron Is Still Great

Earlier this year, I marched stolidly at the front of a phalanx to defend the original Clash of the Titans right before its re-make was about to hit theaters. I found the re-make more palatable than I expected, although I have since gotten frosty about it after watching it a second time when the DVD came out; the sucker just doesn’t hold up. Although a sequel to the re-make is now in the works, I think the status of Harryhausen’s 1981 film remains secure. It may even improve.

Now I am facing a deceptively similar situation with this Friday’s looming release of Tron: Legacy. I am here to defend the 1982 film Tron, a movie that balances on a triple-edged knife’s tip of nostalgia, prescience, and ridicule.

However, my position with the new Tron is different than that of Clash of the Titans. The forthcoming Tron: Legacy is not a re-make, but a sequel, and this puts me less on the defensive and instead rezzes me up. The early reviews are lukewarm, but at least Tron: Legacy isn’t trying to override the memory of the first, and it has brought back the original star Jeff Bridges as well as director Steven Lisberger (this time in the role of producer).

During the early stages of the “New Tron movie” development, Disney did consider doing a re-make, but thankfully someone in the Mouse House realized that a sequel was a better plan. Developments in computer technology between 1982 and 2010 provide an opportunity to explore how the world of computers from the original film have changed—how the grid and the primitive Internet have expanded to rule the world and transform into a reality parallel to our own—and that is fertile grounds for a sequel. A sequel almost seems a necessity.

But that Tron: Legacy got made at all is a celebration of one the weirdest, long-term success stories of science-fiction cinema: how a “video-game craze” movie that got a lukewarm reception on its original release turned into a piece of technical prophecy, an oracle of the modern hi-tech zeitgeist.

Yes, but is it a good movie?

I shall answer that question at the full review at Black Gate. . . .

06 December 2010

A Writing Lesson about Pettiness from Poe

In his famous essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944) noir author Raymond Chandler discusses the separation between loftiness of subject in writing and its literary success:
Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writers the stuff, and what he has in him to write with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.
Chandler’s thesis here also applies to an author’s intention as well as his or her subject matter. Most of us can safely say that anyone who sets out to write “The Great American Novel” or “The National Epic of [Insert Nation Here]” will inevitably fail at that task. On the other hand, an author might produce an enduring work of literature if he or she simply sets out to jab some pins into another author over a petty feud. That may sound dull-minded, like a schoolyard tussle over who was next in line for handball, but if the mind behind isn’t actually dull, then the result could be a masterpiece.

Case in point: “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe. If you haven’t read this 1846 tale of revenge in Italy, than you must have been home sick from school that day in sixth grade.

Read the rest at Black Gate. . . .

02 December 2010

NaNoWriMo Victory 2010—with qualifiers

Hey look, it’s my National Novel Writing Month badge! Third year in a row picking up one of those, although the circumstances were a bit different this time. And honestly, not as fulfilling.

My grand total for this year is 63,728 words (or thereabouts), which is under my total for the last two years, although I reaches the 50,000 word barrier right about on schedule.

However, as I’ve discussed before, I didn’t write a novel this year, but short stories. I completed seven stories and got halfway through a seventh during the last two days. (And that last one was almost an afterthought, and I’m going to start re-writing it from scratch.) The pieces range in length from a 3,400-word short to a 20,000-word novella. Some came out very well—indeed, one of them is already revised and at market—and others . . . well, I’ll see how I feel about them later and if they warrant further work.

I learned a few things from this NaNoWriMo “rebel” experience.

First, I discovered I need to plan my short stories as thoroughly as I plan my novels before writing them. Charging into a short story without a solid outline of the events and a determined ending tends to make me write rambling work that loses my interest. I don’t slavishly stick to my outlines, and frequently come up with different endings, but having one in front of me keeps me moving and gives me an “assignment” each day. Because I crammed the stories together closely for NaNoWriMo, a few ended up not getting enough planning or time to kick around in my head. A few days spacing them out, working on ideas, trying some practice exercises—that seems to be how I operate best with short stories.

Second, I really missed writing a novel during November. I love writing novels; I love the immersion. Short stories can be a thrill, but they provide only a small period of immersion, and writing them in a row doesn’t provide the all-encompassing feeling of a novel. I missed writing a novel so much that I’ve decided I’m going to hold my own personal National Novel Writing Month in February (dangerous, since it’s the shortest month, requiring 1,786 words per day instead of 1,667) and pen a novel idea that came to me during November . . . something I originally wanted to write as one of the shorts, but after a discussion with some other writers at LOSCON, I recognized that the story wished to be a full-blooded book. So I have a two months to work on planning and research, and then I’ll throw myself into the fray again.

In the meantime, I have a heap of revising to do on about ten different stories from the past few months that need to be taken to their final versions. I also have notes for a few new stories to write this month—appropriately outlined, of course.

Cheers to everyone who won NaNoWriMo 2010, and to everyone who tried NaNoWriMo 2010. My one piece of advice for those who finished: don’t start revising yet. Wait until at least January. Write something else, like short stories or a travelogue or sketches for a new novel. Keep busy. But let that new novel simmer a bit.