Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A long book about hobbits

Back in March I said I was going to read The Lord of the Rings, and because it takes me months to do anything I say I’m going to do, I’ve only just finished it (I did read other books first, because I'm also easily distracted). It seemed like something I should have already read, so I could say it was ‘one of the favourite books of my childhood’, or something similar. There was a time that I did try to read it, about ten or fifteen years ago, but didn’t get past The Fellowship of the Ring, because there were other, shorter books to read. This time would be different. This time I would get right to the bottom of every single detail and come out the other side. And now I know more about Middle Earth than the actual, real country I live in. I can point to a place called the ‘Gulf of Lhûn’ on a map. I can name at least five different fictional rivers. I know that Elvish bread fills you up but doesn't taste that good. I know that the Dúnedain descended from Númenor. I know what words like ‘Dúnedain’ and ‘Númenor’ mean.

The most impressive thing about the The Lord of the Rings is this world. Apart from the layers of history, there is an immersive sense of place. Travelling across Middle Earth is being in a place that has never existed, except in the mind of everyone who has read it. It seems that every inch of it is described (it helps that Tolkien has a hundred different words for ‘field’). You can share in Frodo and Sam’s journey because you’ve seen every step of it. The mental distance between the Shire and Mordor is massive, and not just in imagined distance. When they leave their green and cosy land, every step they take is towards a looming darkness. As they get closer to the end, it genuinely feels like they’re going somewhere really, really bad. The ‘Land of Shadow’ is obviously not a nice place, and you can tell ‘Mount Doom’ isn’t going to be a party, but it’s only when you read it that it all starts to seep into your mind. I knew what was going to happen, and I still thought there was no way these hobbits were getting home.

Tolkien was very eager to point out that this story isn’t a metaphor. It is what it is. There is philosophy there if you want, but I think Tolkien just created this stuff because it’s cool. He imagined a world of people and monsters and made them fight. There are long-winded parts, but he is not a boring writer. Boring writers rarely write about undead warriors on flying hell-horses, or armies of walking trees, or the lairs of giant spiders. This is all there because it’s fun, and underneath all the mythology, it is a story about hobbits. They are the little people in a big world that they don’t understand. As they learn, we learn. When everyone else is giving regal speeches about swords, the hobbits are the warm, likable heart of the book. Imagine Middle-Earth without them. Who would we care about? By focusing on the underdogs, Tolkien shows that he cares more about the story than ancient history. From the chase through the Shire to the huge battles, they are always completely out of their depth, and always getting stronger.

And how can they ever take on the Big Bad? Possibly the Biggest Bad of all, Sauron is so evil we don’t even need to see him. He’s so terrifying, being within ten miles of him makes people faint. There is no need to meet Sauron. There is no description of him. He just is. The ultimate evil that is waiting at the top of his black fortress. The books don’t even bother with that literal Big Eye that the films created. Here his ‘Eye’ is just all around you. The closest glimpse we get of him is when the dark mists surrounding his fortress part for a moment, and ‘as from some great window immeasurably high,’ Frodo sees a ‘flame of red.’ We only experience the trouble and darkness that he has caused, and that is enough. It’s a lot for a few hobbits to do.

It is a book that has the power to be both completely enthralling and mind-smackingly dull. The worst parts are when everyone is sitting around in complete safety, and we have to hear about how lovely the elves are. They’re all ‘glimmering’ and ‘glittering’ and full of long stories and songs about a thousand years ago, which aren’t actually of any use to anyone. It all makes the contrast sharper, because the best parts are where the heroes are starving, tired, despairing and hopeless, crawling through a dead land in final desperation. There is no ambiguity here: the goodies are the ones who look good, the baddies look bloody awful, but they do make things dramatic. And then there’s the parts where Gandalf is standing at the gates of a burning city, facing down a black-cloaked fire-headed doom spirit, or where he’s wrestling a towering flame-demon while falling down an abyss to the bottom of the world. Because Gandalf knows what makes a good book: leaving things till the last moment. The boring parts are there to trudge through; the good parts you’ll remember forever.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The last few bullets of Boardwalk Empire

(Spoilers.) I've always thought that Boardwalk Empire was too much of a big, sprawling history lesson. It always seemed half great, and half a meeting of violent men in hats that I hardly recognised. But in the closing minute one bullet snapped the whole thing into focus. Five seasons of conspiracies and killings given symmetry with a final closing punch. Nucky is shot by Tommy Darmody, the son of the man he killed all those years ago. Now it seems obvious that the show was always operating from the aftermath of that event. Characters were left behind, straggling and aimless without Jimmy to anchor them. Sad Richard didn't know what to do with himself for a long while, except going on an occasional rampage. And I wondered, why is Gillian even still in this show? Now it all has consequence. Even the Young Nucky flashbacks that we've been dragged through this season proved their worth. By putting Nucky's final moments against his decision, many years ago, to give Gillian to the Commodore, we can see that his whole life hinged on one terrible act. On the one hand his job as the Sheriff set him on the path to take over Atlantic City, but it also set the wheels in motion for his death. In an earlier episode, Young Nucky walked into the Commodore's foreboding new palace after the old Sheriff refused to enter. He raised his eyebrows at the rows of hellish artwork and kept going. The writers wanted us to see that, in his ambition, Nucky made a deal with the devil and it eventually cost him. Knowing that Boardwalk Empire rests on this one point gives it a focus that I never thought it had. It was this lack of clarity that I believed was holding it back from greatness. If I rewatched it (which I'm not going to do), the earlier seasons in particular would be far more enjoyable.

Maybe it's an illusion. Maybe it really is a long, confusing history lesson full of loose ends. After all, my favourite character didn't have much to do with Nucky at all. Nelson Van Alden, also known as "George Mueller", also known (by me) as "Old Mad Eyes", was a show all by himself. After one season as an FBI agent the writers sent him off on his own dark comedy, seemingly designed to put Michael Shannon in situations where'd he'd be the most fun to watch. He was a disgruntled salesman, going to door with the maddest face in America, until his colleagues poked and prodded him and he fried a man's head with an iron. Then they sent him to work for Al Capone, just to watch him squirm. He turned simple statements into twisted, bleak jokes. In his final moments, before trying to steal from Capone, he goes through the hopeless plan, realises he is probably going to be killed, and simply says 'This has not been thought through.' Boardwalk Empire would have been emptier without him.

I wonder how it's going to be remembered. In a time when so much great television is being produced, Boardwalk Empire almost seemed like an underdog, something that was always just there being quietly brilliant. It was the odd sort of show that was never compulsive but always captivating; I never hurried to watch the next episode but I was always impressed when I did. It was slow and meandering and whether or not it lives up to the sum of its parts can only really be discovered with a rewatch. We shouldn't take it for granted though, because it's an example of how far modern television has come. This is a real crime epic, surpassing the old film classics in size and scope. It's a different language to film, and has to be judged differently, except to say that it matches them in terms of production quality and performances. This didn't used to be done, and these days we're getting used to it.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Is all my stuff obsolete?

In my lifetime, which seems to be getting longer all the time, I have amassed a lot of stuff. In the bottom of my wardrobe there are stacks of old magazines. There's a lot of them. About fifteen years worth of a games magazine that I was subscribed to. There is no good reason for me to still have them. The magazine was eventually closed down, like all magazines will be, because who wants to own a pile of paper when you can get everything on the internet? And that pretty much goes for a lot of my other stuff. There didn't used to be a problem with it. Now somebody could easily call it clutter. Why have all this physical media when it could be transferred to a computer?

Are racks of CDs now plastic irrelevancies when they can be contained invisibly in a silver box? In fact, CDs are easy to get rid of. The discs are only a storage medium for data files. It's the music that counts, and that can be stored on a computer. Transfer them over. Get rid of them. Yes. But what if I don't want an album on iTunes, but would still like to keep it? Okay, I'll keep a few. Not many, though, right? After all, some new computers don't even come with optical drives, because why would you even need one, like some loser stuck in 2005? Technology is marching forward, determined to leave physical media in the past, and if I'm not on board then I'm just not doing it right. The last few years have been a tipping point. Some people have ruthlessly cleared their shelves, and some, like me, haven't really bothered.

I might be changing my mind. For instance, I've been slowly going off the idea of owning films. It might seem like a good idea, but in reality I'll watch a DVD once then put it on a shelf forever and never touch it again. And what's the point in that? I used to watch all the commentaries and little extras. They just seem like a novelty now. So I should get rid of the DVDs. Well, maybe. Mostly. Everyone needs a few favourites to watch sometimes, and I'm not convinced there's a proper digital alternative. A streaming service like Netflix will only ever have some things, and I like the idea of owning a collection. It's possible to download films to iTunes and connect them to a television, but who really does that? And when it comes to books, I still choose to be stubborn, even though I could make the same arguments: paper is just a material for displaying words, words that could be on a screen, and I only ever read these things once. The difference, though, is that unlike data on a disc, books are real objects. They are nice to own. They are nice to have. The only time I see the point in e-books is when I'm trying to clear out old books, which isn't that often anyway. Maybe I would read more without wondering where I was going to fit each new book onto a shelf. Maybe I wouldn't.

There's a brutal and kind of appealing way to approach all this. I've read articles that say we should throw everything we're not using away and live in rooms of pared down minimalistic beauty. Just clear everything out, the articles say, get rid of anything that is clogging up your air space and keep the essential things. I imagine, though, that this is more fun to think about than it is to actually do. Tidy is good. I like tidy. Actually, that's not true. I like tidying. That's the satisfying part. A tidy room is boring. There's nothing to tidy. Even writing about tidying is fun. Not going to watch that film again? Throw it out the window. Why do I have these old books? Get rid of them. Make space. Start fresh. Sounds good. Sweeping away all these physical objects might be fun, like I was lessening some imagined burden, but I suspect there isn't much difference between an almost empty room and the lair of a psychopath. Because what would I have if I threw everything out, dumped all my films, pushed all my books onto some little device? A lot of empty shelves is what I would have.

Using books as decoration seems like a hollow argument, but the media we surround ourselves with is part of our identity. Lining a shelf with certain books is saying 'this is what I like, these are my favourites'. There are some objects that relate to my history. Like my vast collection of Nintendo games that I could never part with, even though they take up all that space. And the stacks of magazines that I believe have some connection to the time I read them. I will never really look at them again, I know that, but I do need to keep some stuff from the past. This is where I disagree with the constantly evolving idea of newness, with all the yearly updates of slim computers to more efficiently hide and organise our things. Yes, CDs and DVDs are on their way out, but we need to keep some real objects from the past, not virtual versions of them. Tidy is good, in moderation. Prune the DVD collection. Donate old books. Clear CD racks. The rest can stay. Some of my stuff is obsolete, but I'll keep it anyway.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The mystery of whether I enjoy Mad Men or not

I want to like Mad Men. It seems like the right thing to do. It seems logical to like Mad Men. But I don't. Not much, anyway. Maybe not at all. I've only seen one season, which doesn't seem like much, but is still thirteen hours long. If I had done anything else for thirteen hours, I would probably know if I liked it or not. I will watch more of Mad Men. One more season. Maybe two. Because I really, really want to like Mad Men. It's an important television show. It's part of discussions about important television shows. I am not having these discussions about Mad Men, but one day, when somebody asks me what I think of it, I will have an intelligent answer. And maybe I'll be able to say I enjoy it. Or maybe not. The problem is that I admire it rather than enjoy it. It is an extremely well-made, well-written, well-acted series, and it has literary things to say about American society. Long articles can be written about the themes that run through each episode, and how they show up through metaphor and plot. Identity, racism, sexism, outdated social attitudes. All very interesting. But I don't want to write an essay. I want to be entertained.

I want to enjoy it. And that will only happen if there's a story I care about. From what I've seen of it so far, there isn't. I understand that it's a toned down, not-much-happens sort of show. I'm not against that. There just needs to be something going on that I can engage with. I don't really like the characters, but characters don't have to be likable. When the characters aren't likable, I look for something in the story. And when there's not much going on in the story, I watch something else. Don is a mope, who is full of little mysteries I think I'm meant to care about, but don't. His wife is bored. Peggy's alright. Joan reminds me of those really good Firefly episodes. There's lots of advertising meetings that all seem to involve the staff coming up with silly ideas, then Don saying 'No, that's not right. You have to consider the truth of the human condition, which I will now explain to you.'

His relationship with his family seems to be the main focus, but I have no sympathy for him. He looks constantly depressed at all the nicest family gatherings, then goes and sleeps with someone who's not his wife, and I'm meant to feel sorry that he feels so disconnected. Why is he doing this? He doesn't really say, but I think it has something to do with the themes. Those themes that need analysing. All the answers will be in there, not in the scenes where he sits in his office and stares at the wall, looking perplexed about this materialistic society and his existence in it, and the themes that are ruining his life. The episodes go by like this and I end up feeling different - not uplifted, not tense or excited, but interested, and a bit glum.

The reason I'm writing this, after only seeing one season, is that I want to make a record of how wrong I was. I want to have a revelation and realise that I love Mad Men, and I want to watch all of it, then watch it again and again. I'll appreciate it in all its deep and nuanced and brilliant complexity. I was wrong back then, when I hadn't really gotten into it. I'll own boxsets because I love it so much. It'll be wonderful. I will be a fan of one of the best TV shows ever made and I will write about it here. I really want to like Mad Men.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A short book about hobbits

I've been reading The Hobbit, which is probably the literary equivalent of a nice cup of tea. There's something comforting about it. It can't be nostalgia, because I don't really have any memory of reading it before, even though I found a scruffy old copy of it in my wardrobe. It reads like a gentle wander across Middle-earth, and that's a nice place to be if you're not actually there. Yes, there's violence and terror, but it's a cosy story. Unspeakable danger isn't so bad when it's narrated like a bedtime story. And there's not much to think about, because there are only hints of the deep mythology that Tolkein would create later, like it's just dipping your toe into a very deep pool. Apart from everything else, The Lord of the Rings and the other work that surround it are a masterpiece of world-building. There's more there than anyone could ever know. If you wanted to, you could learn about the history of every blade of grass. And I'm starting to think that's the best way to read it. I've read The Fellowship of the Ring before but then stopped, because, after all, it is very long and sometimes very boring. Maybe I wasn't reading it right. The problem is that I already know the story, so reading it passively isn't going to work. Instead, the fun is in the details. It's like a game to piece it all together, with the maps and the timelines and Appendix B with the things about the stuff. There's a whole world in there. Whether it's worth it or not, I'm not sure. The Hobbit is a children's book, and quite short, so I don't know if my interest will last much further. If I make it all the way through, I could read The Silmarillion, which is mostly in another language.

This is all a contradiction, because I've never had much patience with long books, and I expect I'll leave Frodo somewhere in a field again, halfway through his adventure. I do like the idea of it, though. This is why I don't mind The Hobbit films being too long. They're indulgent escapism. And I can just about see how they did it. The book does fall into three pieces, each with a neat climax, and it can be stretched out to three films if you really take your time and invent some other things. I'm glad they did it. It's fun to be in that world again. At the very least, I'm now the sort of person who browses the Lord of the Rings Wiki for fun. There's a lot on there. I could read that instead.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Bad people ruin good books

I read a book that I really wanted to like. It wouldn't let me, and I'm starting to think it didn't want me to. It's The Magicians by Lev Grossman. The problem is not the story or the ideas. These are good. A teenager is admitted to a school for magic and goes looking for the fantasy worlds he's read about in books, expecting them to be real. It's a story about the idea of escaping into a fantasy place, and what that does to people. This character thinks he'll find fulfilment on a magical quest, and even when he's found it he's always looking for another secret door to take him somewhere else. It's a clever and sometimes brilliant view of the fantasy genre, managing to build its world and still be a parody of itself. It's a fantasy book for people who have grown up reading fantasy books.

Or at least, it would be. The problem is that it's a good story ruined by the decision to make most of the characters awful gits. I didn't want to spend any time with them. They're not villainous, just the sort of people you could meet in real life and wouldn't be friends with. Selfish, privileged, and miserable in their best moments, and really, really horrible in their worst. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not. It's a brave decision to turn the reader against the characters, except I was worried that I was meant to be relating to them. They have recognisable problems. They act and speak like real people. Only, real people that I don't like. I don't remember another time that I've put off reading a book because I could only handle so much of a character in a week. I'm sure somebody, somewhere, must like them. Possibly the author, although it read like he wanted to see how far he could push them down before trying to redeem them. They are realistic, well-written portrayals of rubbish people.

Characters don't have to be likable, but they do have to be interesting. This lot were neither. It feels like a contradiction, because I admired almost everything else. There were elements of the plot that were genuinely surprising and unsettling, with a proper sense of otherwordly nightmare. I like that kind of thing. I wanted this to be one of my favourite books. Obviously, there's plenty of fiction with horrible protagonists. Murderous thugs and villains that you want to watch or read about.This isn't that. This is pretending the heroes are relatable when they're actually deeply irritating. The Magicians is the first part in a trilogy. I want to read more but I can't, because I'd have to deal with these mopes again. It's not worth it. Five hundred pages can seem like a very long time. I'll forgive a book for being a bit boring if I like being with the characters. I can't forgive one that invents a world and a story that's completely brilliant, then sabotages it with people you only want to slap.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Firefly gets cancelled every time I watch it

Rewatching Firefly has reminded me why it was so good in the first place. Where other television sci-fi fills its episodes with cosmic sorrow or grumpy aliens, this is about family. A bunch of characters on an old ship, floating around in space. It's just them. There's no vast fleet to think about. Only nine characters, and you care about them all. That's why it's so hard to see it end every time. The mythology of the expanded world is nice, and the space cowboy thing is so good it's seamless, but it's the characters that make it. It's hard to think of any other cast that fit together so well. When Mal says 'You're on my crew' to Simon, you really believe he means it. I'd choose this over Galactica's army any day. On one of Adama's moody days, there isn't much fun to be had with the thousands of people in the fleet. On the other hand, I'd watch a whole episode of the Serenity crew just having dinner. They wouldn't even have to nearly die or anything, they could just sit at the dinner table eating noodles and having a chat. I'll never get to see that episode because inevitably, every time, every single time I watch it, it gets cancelled. I pretend it won't. On episode six I think it'll go on forever. On episode twelve I start to get worried. Then I'll watch Serenity and pretend that nothing bad is going to happen.

At the same time, I wonder how its shortness changes our perception of it. These characters are preserved in one short season. It's easy to think they'll never change. That they'll go on like this forever, and we just won't see it. But they would have changed, obviously. By season three the crew might have looked completely different. The family would have been lost, people would have been replaced. There are unfortunate events in Serenity that prove that. Except, in my imagination, it would have always been the same nine. And there also isn't room for it to be bad. In every long series, there are times when the quality dips. The 'boring middle part of Firefly Season Four' can never happen, even though that sounds quite good. It might have been saved from all the criticism that happens to normal, not-cancelled shows. It sits above all that as something perfect and shiny, with an imagined legacy that isn't ruined by being real. It's easy to forget that this all happened ten years ago. It's still being talked about because it was ripped away from us, it's only half there, maybe inspiring more love than a proper run would have. When somebody awful decided to cancel it, to dismantle this whole world, they probably didn't know what they were starting.