Practice makes perfect

Ukulele practiceWhenever I’m asked for advice from new ukulele players on how to get better, or what secret they need to know to play better, I tell them it’s simple:

Practice.

Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice.

That’s really all these is to it, whether you believe in the 10,000 or 20,000-hour path to accomplishment hypothesis. You gotta practice.

Only when you have practiced enough will your fingers be loose enough, your callouses build sufficiently, and your wrist be flexible enough to play without strain. When you’ve practiced enough you will be able to make chord shapes without having to look them up. You’ll know where to find Bb and D# on the fretboard without stopping to count frets.

Practice. Easy to say, but what with all the distractions – the dog, the TV, the phone calls, the internet, Facebook, the phone again, the neighbour’s kids, the sunny day, the grumbling tummy, the empty coffee cup begging for a refill, the unfinished blog post you’re writing… it’s hard. I find it easiest to go somewhere alone and quiet, and just sit down with some music and work away at it. Close the door and keep the world out for a little while.

I also find it useful to walk around the house with a ukulele, just noodling, fingering the strings, trying chords, maybe even playing a song or two while upright and walking. Sometimes you come up with something interesting when you start out with unstructured time.

I also find just walking around while playing something without really focusing on practice is meditative. It helps me think; clears my mind and makes issues clear. And it helps my motor skills.*

But practice isn’t just noodling around for an hour or so every day. It takes focus, concentration and effort: you have to pay attention to what you’re doing. However, it also needs to be varied and fun. It shouldn’t be a chore you begrudge putting time into. Set tasks, change songs or try to explore different rhythms and strumming patterns. Pick a song you don’t know and learn it: make it a challenge to yourself.

As Dr. Christine Harper tells us:

Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged. But instead of listening to this instinctive voice of reason, we blame ourselves for our lack of attention and yell at ourselves to “focus!”… In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning.

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How many chords?

Chord builder wheelHow many chords does a musician need to know? How many does an amateur musician who plays mostly popular, folk and blues music, need to know?

My first answer has always been, “all of them” because you never know when you need them. But that’s not realistic. After all, there are thousands of chords you can play on a guitar or piano and you simply can’t memorize every one. Well, at least I can’t.

I know a lot of the basic forms: majors, sevenths, minors and so on – but I sometimes have to take a moment and think out something like a B#m7 or a Gsus4. I rely partly on the memory of the basic shapes, and partly on my understanding of how the fretboard works (so I can move a known shape up or down the neck as necessary).

But what about on ukulele, with its four strings – as opposed to the guitar’s six strings (and the piano limited only by the number of keys two human hands can press simultaneously – ten). Surely that must be easier? Well, not much, it turns out. What happens when a chord has five notes and you only have four strings?

Sure, if you stick to a few basic songs and a handful of major keys, you can probably get by with memorizing a couple of dozen  shapes and be able to play a lot of contemporary music. But I am also playing some old songs from the 20s and 30s; songs that have jazz chords. Ninths, sixths. Suspended. Chords you don’t find a lot in modern pop music.

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Reading music and music theory

reading musicI write about reading a lot, because I read a lot of books. There are other kinds of reading – other languages, too – that I don’t write much about. Reading music is one of them. It’s a different language; a symbolic language with its own grammar, punctuation and rules. As far as reading music goes, I’m semi-illiterate.

I’ve been playing music – guitar mostly – since the Beatles had Ticket To Ride on the hit parade, back in the days of AM radio and 45 RPM singles. But I’m self-taught: no classes or schooling, just a lot of practice and playing. And as a result, my knowledge of musical theory is weak. I know more about the technical structures of a Shakespearean play than I do of a sonata or a pop song. I can read HTML and CSS code with consummate ease, but struggle with a musical score.

What I do know has been cobbled together over the years from playing, listening, asking and some reading. Mostly absorbed by osmosis rather than dedicated effort.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand music reasonably well, but more on a visceral level than an academic one. And I understand some musical theory – well, bits and bats of it – partly because you get to know about it – even if you don’t always have the technical vocabulary – by playing and jamming. Like playing 12-bar blues. You soon learn the rhythms, the patterns, the chord changes – even if you can’t confidently talk about I-IV-V patterns.

I play a lot of chords and can finger them on several stringed instruments – but while I can hear one and tell if it’s a major, minor or seventh, maybe a diminished or augmented, I can’t really tell you the theory behind why that is. My passion for making music far outruns either my talent to do so or my technical understanding of it.

So, what with organizing and running a local ukulele group, and focusing more on music than ever before, I think it’s time to buckle down and learn more about music in a scholarly way. I need to be able to speak about it confidently in front of the group.

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Just Six Songs?

The World in Six SongsAuthor, musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says all music can be classified into a mere six types of song. That’s part of the premise in his 2009 book, The World in Six Songs. I recently started reading it and it has opened some interesting areas of thought for me.*

A mere six fundamental themes in song, Levitin writes: friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love. And he provides a chapter for each in what is a literary combination of sciences, music, social commentary, cultural anthropology and personal reminiscence. And he offers a lot of conjecture that, while not necessarily provable, is always entertaining and thought-provoking.

That reductionism seems like a challenge to the reader. My first thought was, are these six discrete or can songs overlap and share categories? What about music without lyrics? Soundtracks? Where do they fit? What about non-western music? What about satire and comedy songs? Storytelling songs? Songs of mourning and lament? What about Gilbert and Sullivan?

What about Bob Dylan? I listen to and play a lot of Dylan’s music and there are some songs that I have never been able to classify or explain, even after decades of familiarity with them. Where do you put a song like Stuck Inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again? or All The Tired Horses? The Gates of Eden?

Or Bach’s Goldberg Variations? The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1? Leo Kottke doing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring on slide guitar? John Fahey’s The Yellow Princess?  Puccini’s Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly? How can a song in a different language you don’t understand move a listener to weep openly? It’s not simply the lyrics. Music reaches inside us in ways we really don’t understand.

And, of course, I immediately came up with my own mental list of songs and tried to fit them into Levitin’s boxes, often without finding a comfortable fit. But that’s part of the fun. Willie the Pimp? the Velvet Underground’s The Gift? The WCPAEB’;s Watch Yourself? Too many to list that don’t fit (as I read it) into comfortable categories.

What about Honshirabe? It’s the classic Zen piece for solo shakuhachi; a stunningly beautiful, haunting piece that speaks volumes to the listener about Japanese culture without lyrics. It is powerful enough to stop me in my tracks and force me to sy stand still and listen, and can easily move me to tears. Where does that fit in the six songs?

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Spoon River: Smith, Goodman and Masters

VERY well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,
Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,
You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.
While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.
Edgar Lee Masters: Thomas Rhodes; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

What is is about poetry or musical lyrics that moves us so differently than just prose? So thoroughly? So deeply it can make grown men cry?

Why can we remember lyrics of songs we heard decades ago, poems we learned in grade school, yet can’t recall what we had for breakfast or what was on the shopping list? Lyrics, perhaps, are different from poetry in that they are interwoven with the rhythm, melody and harmonies of the song, which itself carves a rut in our memories. But both stick with us better than mere words.

Why can a song send shivers up our spine, raise the hair on our arms, sweep us away with its emotions, helpless like driftwood on a river? Why can it dredge up those emotions years later, outside any context?

(Listening to Trio Los Panchos playing La Malagueña Salerosa today brought goosebumps to my arms… but almost any version of that song does that. Perhaps it comes from hearing it played live, by buskers, along the malecon in a warm, romantic February evening in Mexico… and today, years later, it has the power to transport me there.)*

In The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin writes,

One characteristic of poetry and lyrics, compared to ordinary speech and writing, is compression of meaning. meaning tends to be densely packed, conveyed in fewer words than we would normally use in conversation or prose. The compression of meaning invites us to interpret, to be participants in the unfolding of the story. The best poetry – the best art in any medium – is ambiguous. Ambiguity begets participation. poetry slows us down from the way we normally use language; we read and hear poetry and stop thinking about the language the way we normally do; we slow down in order to contemplate all the different reverberations of meaning it contains.

Which strikes me as a singularly catching insight. I thought about those words recently while transcribing some Bob Dylan songs for our local ukulele group. Dylan is a master of ambiguity. Which makes his songs so much more memorable, I suppose. How odd, how amazing, I thought, that I can still remember the words and chords to his songs I learned to play 30 or 40 years ago.

And they are songs that have no particularly deep emotional contact for me – not necessarily songs I listened to with a lover, shared with a friend or simply found emotionally fulfilling. But I can simply pick up a uke and strum out Memphis Blues Again, It Ain’t Me, If Not for You, I Shall Be Released and The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest or a dozen others without giving much thought to words or music: they just spill out like old, familiar tunes, even though I haven’t likely played them for years.

It’s like the music is a meme; an intellectual virus that binds itself to your DNA. Like herpes; one it takes hold it never leaves and unfolds itself when called out. How and why does it do that? It’s the subject of many books, including Levitin’s.

I HAD fiddled all at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away.
Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.
There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.
Edgar Lee Masters: Blind Jack; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

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The 2013 Great Gatsby

Great Gatsby party scene
Watched the 2013 film of The Great Gatsby last night. The first half was spectacular, grandiose and captivating, if somewhat over the top. Like Busby Berkeley meets The Fifth Element. Extravaganza, spectacle and excess.

The film doesn’t feel like it’s set in New York of the Jazz Age. It’s too shiny, too polished, too mechanical, and not gritty enough.

That’s actually okay, and had director Baz Luhrmann chosen to make Gatsby into a scifi film set not the roaring twenties, but rather some futuristic world where the fashion craze is for 20s’ costume, it could have worked better. It would have accounted for the music, for the sets, for the Dark City- or Fifth Element-like vistas we get of New York.

One of the disconnections in the movie is the music. While updating era music with modern technology and sound works well – the Gershwin is great, and the positive influence of Brian Ferry and his orchestra is felt in much of the soundtrack – the hip hop is jarring. It pulls you out of the setting, releases you from your necessary suspension of belief to fall into the gravity of the reality: this is just a movie and we’re here today, not yesteryear.

The second half of the film seems to drift away from the great spectacle into an overblown period piece drama. Downton Abby without the accents, but also without the gangsters or the street life. Big sets surround little people and little problems. The morality tale F. Scott Fitzgerald wove into the novel seems diminished, while his illusionary, glittering world towers above us.

What started out with such promise just slides into predictability. Maybe that’s because I read the book (albeit many decades ago) and I knew the ending. Maybe it’s because Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby and one can never watch him without thinking of the film Titanic. Not to mention he doesn’t have a great range of expression.

Like that movie, this one has an inevitable (though metaphorical) iceberg Gatsby has to crash into, bringing about his ruin. And that ruin symbolizes the fall of the American dream that had built such fantasies. It’s an almost biblical theme that deserves big treatment, but doesn’t live up to its potential.
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The Wild Women of Wongo

50 Sci Fi Movies Who can resist a film with a title like that? Or Zontar, the Thing From Venus? Robot Monster? Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet? The Atomic Brain?

Clearly, I can’t. I love this stuff. B-films, especially scifi B-films. But I am a tad disappointed with this Mill Creek package.*

I recently received the set of SciFi Classics Collection: 50 Movie Pack, a 12-DVD collection, cover shown on the left. It turned out to be the same set I already had, just with a different cover, and a substitution of four films from the original lineup. Damn, that was $10 wasted.

Okay, I can live with the loss. The original packaged set (the “red box” package from Treeline) came with these 50 movies (as per a review on Amazon, with some alternate titles listed):

  • The Incredible Petrified World
  • Queen of the Amazons
  • Robot Monster
  • She Gods of Shark Reef
  • The Amazing Transparent Man
  • The Atomic Brain
  • Horrors of Spider Island
  • The Wasp Woman
  • Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet
  • Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women
  • King of Kong Island
  • Bride of the Gorilla
  • Attack of the Monsters (aka Gamera vs. Guiron)
  • Gammera, the Invincible
  • Santa Claus Conquers The Martians
  • Teenagers From Outer Space
  • Crash of the Moons (Rocky Jones)
  • Menace From Outer Space (Rocky Jones)
  • Hercules Against The Moonmen
  • Hercules and the Captive Women
  • Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon
  • Hercules Unchained
  • Lost Jugnle
  • Mesa of Lost Women
  • Assignment: Outer Space
  • Laser Mission
  • Killers From Space
  • Phantom From Space
  • White Pongo
  • The Snow Creature
  • Son of Hercules
  • Devil of the Desert vs. the Son of Hercules
  • First Spaceship On Venus
  • Zontar, the Thing From Venus (remake of “It Conquered the World”)
  • The Astral Factor (aka “The Invisible Strangler”)
  • The Galaxy Invader
  • Battle of the Worlds
  • Unknown World
  • Blood Tide
  • The Brain Machine
  • The Wild Women of Wongo (yeah, it’s really in the collection!)
  • Prehistoric Women
  • They Came From Beyond Space
  • Warning From Space
  • The Phantom Planet
  • Planet Outlaws (Buck Rogers)
  • Colossus and the Amazon Queen
  • Eegah
  • Cosmos: War of the Planets
  • Destroy All Planets (aka Gamera vs. Viras)

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Makes you feel happy, like an old time movie

Classic movies coverThere’s something touching about a classic film, something magical about a B&W movie, about a film shot between the wars in that period of recovery and optimism; a film that was new when my parents were young, full of life and hope. A movie from the days before CGI, before green screens and 3D. Before slasher films, before graphic sex and graphic violence.

It’s a combination of art and innocence, of technology just starting to blossom, of storytelling finding new avenues for expression and sometimes not quite sure about it. Others are bold statements about style and expression; avant-garde art.*

There were, of course, B films and bad movies then: not every film was a work of art;nor  a masterpiece of acting and direction. Yet I find I can sit through a 1930s’ B-flick, even a bad one, and still enjoy it, when I can barely keep still for today’s B-roll (movies like Transformers are like dentistry without anesthetic…).

Even a lot of the A list today has me fidgeting and looking at my iPhone (of course, we watch them at home, on DVD… that way I can get up and get a glass of wine to numb my aesthetic senses…).

I could watch some classic films endlessly – Casablanca, Maltese Falcon, the Hunchback of Notre Dame (almost anything with Charles Laughton is repeatable for me), King Kong, most of the early monster movies (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, the Invisible Man and the Mummy, although the sequels generally pale in comparison to the originals); the Thin Man films, The Big Sleep, The African Queen, Singing in the Rain, the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” series, the Marx Brothers, WC Fields…

Acting is sometimes histrionic, especially in the earlier films, as if the actors are not quite sure they’re in a talkie and have to overact rather than just speak their lines.

Gunfights without blood, car crashes without fiery explosions… without the sound and special effects we’re so used to today, actors had to get your attention by themselves, not depend on external effects. Directors had to use light and shadow in different ways, and some – like Alfred Hitchcock and Frtiz Lang – exploited the chiaroscuro very effectively.

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Coriolanus on Film

CoriolanusCoriolanus is a tough play, full of politics and angry people and shouting mobs. It has no comic relief, no jesters, no romance and no real heroes. No great soliloquies, unsympathetic characters, uncomfortable double dealing, treachery and plotting. No powerful subplot as a counterpoint. Pride, arrogance, and power dominate.

Coriolanus himself is empty, driven, bereft of the great passions that animate Shakespeare’s other main protagonists.

Except the passion for revenge, which comes upon him halfway through the play. Before that, he seems an automaton, as fixed in his role as an aristocrat and soldier as Tsar Nicholas was, with little softening humanity to give the audience something to like. And like as wedded to his fate as the Tsar.

Harold Bloom wrote:

Shakespeare subtly does not offer us any acceptable alternatives to Coriolanus’s sense of honor, even as we are shown how limited and crippling that sense becomes when it is challenged. The hero’s mother, his friends, and his enemies, both Roman and Volscian, move us to no sympathy whatsoever.

And yet… even if there’s not much noble in Caius Martius, he has honour and enough incipient tragedy about him that we feel keen interest in his story. He is, if nothing else, true to himself, with no apparent ulterior motives or hidden agendas to guide his deeds or words. He’s a soldier; he does his job without questioning.

Scholars aren’t even sure if the play was performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime. But after the Restoration, various directors dug it up and molded the play to fit some contemporary political event or cause. Even today, it’s considered popular as a symbolic political work, easily adapted to modern views.

Which is what Ralph Fiennes does well in his 2011 film of the play. Fiennes both directs and acts the central role, brilliantly in both cases.

I’m always leery of Shakespeare in modern clothes. It sometimes seems artificial and contrived to have modern-day characters strutting around speaking 16th century lines. But not in this Coriolanus. The stagecraft is remarkable, and the date language seems made fit for the setting. I was glued to the screen as it unfolded, and stuck to it for the entire two hours. The pacing is brisk, with plenty of action and emotion. It feels modern, relevant.

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Review: The Life of Pi

Life of PiWe watched Life of Pi last night, a film that has garnered much critical acclaim and won four coveted Oscar awards (although it has not been without controversies). I had struggled somewhat with the book (for reasons given below), but the lavish praise for the film made me decide to try again.

I had read about the movie’s stunning camera work and CGI graphics, and these do not disappoint. It’s a beautiful film, and the CGI is amazingly lifelike. I puzzled over what was real and not in many scenes. But the story itself…

While sometimes described as a “fantasy adventure”, the novel is really an allegory about the search for meaning in religion. It’s also about the relativity of truth.

One of the delights of fiction is than an author can conjure up a situation, a landscape, an event and give his or her characters the chance to explore that imagined world and determine what it means to be human under those circumstances. That’s one reason I like science fiction: it has no boundaries to the imagination. But sometimes an author is trying not just to use this world to explore the human condition, but rather make a point, to teach, to pontificate what he or she believes is the message we readers need to absorb.

I felt Martel’s message, lumbering through the pages, was heavier-handed than his actual words. And that too often he meandered down his path rather than walked us towards it (compare the 300-plus pages of Life of Pi to  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s brief little allegory, The Little Prince). Even Paul Coelho, that author of so many allegories, is briefer in his tales of self-discovery.

Martel’s writing is fairly smooth and light throughout most of the book, but I personally found it dragged, especially in the beginning. The core of the tale – Pi’s survival at sea with a tiger – doesn’t being until Chapter 37, a third of the way into the story. By then I was muttering “get on with it” to myself as I read through the pages.

The tale – when it finally began – struck me like a modernized Book of Job: a human suffering the vicissitudes of life and his hostile environment while struggling to keep faith, illogically at times, with an arbitrary, unresponsive or sometimes downright cruel deity. Again, I found it stretched on longer than necessary. Like Job, our Pi has to go through numerous challenges to test his faith. Continue reading “Review: The Life of Pi”

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Appreciating B-Movies

Bubba Ho-TepIt drives Susan to distraction that I love B-flicks. She squirms and fidgets if I put one into the DVD player and can seldom sit through an entire movie. They get cut off mid-film, and saved for me some time in the vague future when I might have an evening alone to finish watching it and the others in the category.

Overacted, melodramatic, clumsily scripted, wooden dialogue, transparent effects, low budgets… what’s not to like? Okay, not all of them, but some fit that description. The range in B-flicks is great: from the truly abysmal to brilliancy (albeit usually unrecognized, otherwise it would be on the A list…).

Being in the B-list doesn’t mean it won’t have an appreciative audience, or achieve cult or popular status.

To me, the B-movie industry is often the most creative, most innovative and most entertaining, in part because it tries harder on a smaller budget. Having a big budget didn’t save Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Or Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.

True, a lot of B-films are knock-offs of A-list entries, and sometimes crude ones at best*, but I think of them like sports fans think of farm teams and junior leagues. These movies are where the greats learn their skills, develop their talents, and practice their art. A lot of talent emerged into greatness from training in the B-film league.

It’s also interesting – for me, anyway – to see how someone takes an idea that succeeded in another film, and turns it into their own adaptation. Nothing wrong with that – writers, playwrights, singers and artists have been cross-pollinating with other artists for millennia. Shakespeare and Chaucer did it. If it wasn’t for plagiarism, we wouldn’t have a lot of the great works of literature and art today.

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Little Dorrit: BBC Drama

Little Dorrit BBCWe just finished watching the 14-part BBC series of Little Dorrit. As usual with most BBC series, it was superbly cast, acted, paced and filmed. Each episode was a mere 30 minutes, and almost every one of them ended in a cliffhanger fashion that made you want to watch just one more.

You might not think of Charles Dickens that way, but much of what he wrote was for serial publication: in weekly or monthly magazines. To keep his audience hooked – and buying the magazines – he wrote cliffhangers. Not perhaps as gripping as, say, episodes of TV’s show 24, but his audience kept coming back for more.

Little Dorrit ran in 19 monthly issues, between December, 1855 and June, 1857.

Watching the series also made me want to read the book – I have read other of Dickens’ works, but not this one. Now, after watching, I can’t imagine why not. It’s a great story. I pulled it off my shelf and stared it this week.

Little Dorrit is both a social commentary and a complicated story. It has – as other Dickens’ novels have – a large cast of characters, often eccentric to the point of caricature. Mr. Barnacle of the Circumlocution Office, for example. His readers loved the characters, loved the caricatures, and understood the reality they thinly veiled.

Modern novels – your James Patterson, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell for example – are structured differently. The basic idea of a lot of popular fiction is to hit the readers over the head with a strong first page and drag them into the novel and the action right from the earliest lines.

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Snow White and the Huntsman reviewed

Snow WhiteTake one part Brothers Grimm and one part Malory’s Morte d’Artur, add a dash of Tolkein, a pinch of Joan of Arc, a sprinkling of Robin Hood and a sprig of English folklore; mix it in a bowl with copious CGI, great natural settings, remarkably good stage sets, and what do you have? The 2012 film, Snow White and the Huntsman.

The epic film (at least in the two-hour-eleven-minute extended version we watched last night) was an action-packed adventure that never made us feel it was dragging excessively.

Seems we and the critics disagree. I was impressed by the sets, by the stunning sites chosen for the outdoor segments, by the costumes and by generally very good CGI effects (aside from the mirror-oracle character which seemed unfinished).

It’s worth watching the bonus material to get some insight into how the sets and costumes were made and locations were chosen. A remarkable amount of work went into this movie.

Is it Snow White or something new, drawn from the legend but retold?

For that, I went back to the original story last night (actually one with copious sidebar notes), after the movie.*

The Brothers Grimm collected many variants of the tale during their years, and tended to both blend them together into one version for their books,and to alter their substance to suit their particular social, religious and cultural views (for example, in many original versions of the Snow White and other tales, the villain is the mother, but the Grimms changed this almost universally to an evil stepmother, thus altering the psychology of the story).

Movie posterThe movie (plot here) has at its core the Grimms’ basic tale (not, thankfully, the Disney cartoon version which has become iconic for so many people), although not quite as grisly as the Grimms’ (in which the wicked queen demands the huntsman return with Snow White’s liver and lungs so she can eat them). But it ventures into other paths, some for poetic licence (to develop, for example, the romantic interest), others to extend the action and create some opportunity for the action and battle scenes.

In the original tale, Snow White is seven years old. There is no real indication of the passage of significant time in the story, although she weds at the end, so one has to assume at least that many years have gone by (men and women often married young in medieval times). In the movie, the the gap is filled in by Snow White’s imprisonment where she grows up (and gets makeup, apparently).

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Shaolin: the film

ShaolinI like Chinese films, particularly the epic wuxia films. They are often a refreshing change from the effects-driven/CGI monstrosities pumped out by Hollywood. They remind me of the westerns of the 1950s, usually with good and bad sides in stark relief. Subtitles don’t bother me (better them than dubbed).

I’ve watched the Chinese film industry mature over the past three decades and the quality has become remarkable. Cinematography is sometimes breathtaking. One of the  most appealing aspects is that they tend to do more with people than with special effects, which gives crowd scenes a more human, less manufactured feel. Gotta love those cast-of-thousands moments.

I also like the mix of reality and the fantastic in wuxia films. Martial arts fight scenes have a dreamlike quality that contrasts with the inexorable, inhuman violence when guns and artillery are introduced. Contrast seems important in Chinese films, although it’s not often subtle.

Wuxia is only one part of Chinese film – like Hollywood westerns – and they have many good dramas about life and ordinary people, but wuxia films are by far more entertaining and captivating to me (with a few exceptions like Ang Lee’s 2007 Lust Caution).

Most westerners got introduced to modern Chinese films through Ang Lee’s great Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, launched in 2000. Other films like House of Flying Knives, Hidden Kingdom and Red Cliff followed. They are combinations of sprawling epics in the Gone With the Wind style, and retelling of Chinese history and mythology, with a bit of Shakespearean drama to enrich the characters. I’ve collected numerous of these post-2000 films. They’re a long way from the Bruce Lee style martial arts movies, and if you haven’t watched any, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Yesterday I found a DVD display at Wal-Mart with several recent titles, all priced at $10. For our Saturday night viewing, I chose Shaolin: Protect the Temple, a 2011 flick with Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and Jackie Chan, directed by Benny Chan. It also stars the lovely Fan Bingbing, who, unfortunately, doesn’t get as much screen time as she deserves.

Like many wuxia films, Shaolin is essentially a martial arts movie, but following the current trend has complex plot lines, deep historical roots, and grand characters in the Shakespearean-King Lear, Henry V or Richard III mold.

The underlying theme is the clash between the modern and the traditional. The late colonial and post-colonial period from around 1880 to 1930s is ripe for stories of nascent nationalism and the often violent shift from the pre-industrial past to the modern era*. It’s a bit of nostalgia, too, for a time when people lived simpler lives.

Shaolin film cover 2Shaolin is set in the violent period of the Chinese Warlord era, before the even-more-violent Civil War that eventually put the Communists into power. Ruthless warlords fighting for territory, power and gold. Unscrupulous foreigners (Westerners who seem but are never quite identified as British) want to drive a railroad through their warring fiefdoms. These foreigners not only expect to profit from the rail, but are also snapping up every Chinese treasure and antiquity they can find. Okay, it’s a fairly blatant bit of nationalist propaganda.

The warlords fall out, and a double-cross becomes a triple-cross and the lead warlord, Hou Jie (Andy Lau) goes from ruler to fugitive after an ambush. He ends up a refugee in the very Buddhist monastery he had despoiled a few weeks earlier. That’s karma for you.

Like so many of these films, it’s also a tale of personal redemption in the Joseph Campbell-Hero’s Journey style. Hou Jie has to overcome his past, and discover inner peace among the Buddhists, and they have to learn to accept the former general. But the victor in the triple cross, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) is hunting for Hou Jie and inevitably they have to confront one another. Along the way we have a massive army-versus-unarmed-but-martial-arts-trained monks battle, with guns and cannon blazing. The monks also have to save China’s heritage from the evil foreigners while they battle the warlord’s army, and protect the refugees displaced by the conflict.

Jackie Chan’s role is a bit ambiguous; he’s the fool (in the trickster model), and his character is sometimes a bit out of place with the melodrama of the others, but it’s not overplayed.

Without giving away more, I’ll finish by saying it’s a very satisfying film, well worth watching, with great fight scenes, even if the climax is rather predictable, albeit spectacular.** I think today I’ll go back to the store and see what others are for sale.

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* If you’ve read Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, you know a version of that that tale from an African perspective – more personal, without the fireworks though.

** Like most wuxia films, the end is both a moral and closure. Evil must be subdued and the world set right. Again, much like a Hollywood western or one of the Star Wars films.

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Perfect Sense

Perfect SenseI have always liked sandbox stories; tales in which the author could stretch his of her imagination, place ordinary characters into a seemingly normal situation, then see what happened when the conditions were changed.*

Sandbox environments are virtual places were you can test ideas, explore paths, examine consequences to actions without spilling over into the real world. They have all the appearance of the real world, but the parameters can be changed to suit the tinkerer.

Programmers often create sandbox environments to test programs; anyone who does web development does so in a sandbox before putting the pages into use. Games like SimCity and Tropico are sandbox games where players construct virtual societies in a semi-realistic setting.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a great sandbox novel. So was Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Both were made in to movies, as well.I, however, seems to have been written solely for film.

Warning: spoilers below.

Perfect Sense is a story about what happens to the world when one thing, one little thing, goes wrong. How would we deal with the loss of our sense of smell? How would we change, how would we cope; what would it mean to ordinary men and women trying to maintain relationships, jobs and families?

In Lord of the Flies, it was the loss of the social anchor of the urban environment that starts the downhill slide; we watch the children descend inexorably into primitive, tribal behaviour.

In Blindness, the majority of people lose their sight, and the author asks us to imagine what life would be like for not only them, but for the remaining few who prove immune to the blindness. In Saramago’s sandbox world, the “one-eyed man” is not king, but either tyrant or slave.

The former is set on an uninhabited island, the latter in an unnamed city. Despite the differences, both are “jungles.” Perfect Sense has a worldwide backdrop,but is predominantly set in the streets of urban Glasgow.

In both Golding’s and Saramago’s novels, humans show themselves unable to cope effectively with significant change: becoming violent, brutal, authoritarian and cruel. Once the veneer of civilization is rubbed away, the authors tell us, we become little more than animals. By extension, the authors imply that authoritarian states are therefore uncivilized and barbarian.

While the image of the children becoming savages was chilling, Saramago is far more graphic in his description of the madness and brutality.

Also in both these novels, the change from civilized to uncivilized setting is abrupt and overwhelming, crashing down upon people unprepared for the event. In Perfect Sense, it’s a gradual descent, a slow but inevitable slide.

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=iexMJrBzZtA]

Perfect Sense doesn’t tumble you into some apocalyptic nightmare: it eases you in, lets you see how people cope, come back to their jobs a little less whole, but still carry on. But the stiff upper lip trembles a little more with each step.

The film stars Ewan McGregor as a chef, and Eva Green as an epidemiologist, both competent and believable actors. McGregor is probably best known as playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the last Star Wars films. Green starred as the deliciously evil Morgan in the otherwise forgettable Camelot TV series, as well as in other films. They work well together, playing two somewhat disaffected, disenchanted and slightly flawed, self-centred characters who have so far been unable to connect closely with others. As the world crumbles, they unite with one another, two against the odds.

It’s actually quite poignant at times, and pleasantly steamy. The DVD cover calls it an “apocalyptic romance.” But the romance isn’t quite given the time and space it needs to blossom – it’s a bloom doomed to wilt before it opens fully. They’re not going to be the new Adam and Eve in the reborn world of the future.

What is intriguing in this film is how the author, Kim Fupz Aakeson, stages the collapse, like a slowing falling line of dominoes. First we lose our sense of smell. But we adapt, we work around it, and learn to live in a world with one less sense. But then we lose our sense of taste. That’s more difficult – what would a chef do in a world where no one can taste the food? Again we struggle, but eventually come to grips with the loss.

Each time we come back, each time it hurts more, and takes longer to surface. Each loss is accompanied by something else, an emotional or physical trauma – a brief bout of overwhelming depression, an unstoppable urge to eat, a profound sense of loss, violent anger… But humans are resilient. We manage. The seeming “ordinariness” of it all is what creates the counterpoint to the tension of the descent.

Then comes the loss of hearing. That almost shatters us, but we crawl back one more time, shaken and scarred, but we adapt as best we can. Until the end, of course.

You can see it coming. The disease is pitiless, relentless. It strips us of our senses, and our humanity. When one loss fails to devour us, another follows. How much chaos, tragedy and disruption can humankind stand before crashing into madness and anarchy? Where is our tipping point? After hearing goes sight. And after that…

Unlike Blindness, there is no indication that anyone is immune. The disease strikes everyone. There are no unaffected few to guide the rest – or at least no indication of any – no one to shepherd the afflicted. Unlike typical “survivor” tales – the Walking Dead, the BBC series Survivors, Day of the Triffids, etc. – everyone falls prey to the disease. No enclaves of saved and safe souls to rebuild the world later. As a parable for humanity, it sure has an unhappy, albeit predictable, ending.

The film has had mixed reviews. While not exactly an uplifting flick, it’s got great production value, stylish sets, good acting, and the premise makes you wonder how you yourself would manage the loss while you’re watching others struggle with it. “What if…” will go through your mind many times after the film has ended.

For the $5 price tag** , it’s a good buy.

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* Novels that brush up against the borders of science fiction and fantasy may also be sandbox novels, although by far not always – usually only when the scifi or fantasy setting is a metaphor or allegory for the modern world rather than the focus of the tale.
** I found it at the discount store in the former Shopper’s Drug Mart in Collingwood.

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