Thursday, August 22, 2013

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" Is Gaiman's Anchor Work

The teeny little book that a friend gave me as I visited home, a thin hardcover that seemed bite-sized compared to the last four books I'd read, proclaimed itself A Novel under its big title and beautiful cover art.  I gave a knowing little hm.  Neil Gaiman was selling this book differently.  I wondered why, a little, and then forwent the thinking about it and just read the darn thing.

Neil Gaiman gets by on many things, but the key is charisma.  Tall, curly-haired, with a sort of knowing glint in his eyes, he draws an audience like a flea draws varmints--in multitudes, apparently.  He is the Joss Whedon of fantasy writing, and it's little wonder.

Those caught up in the dank labyrinth of Game of Thrones love George R.R. Martin, but the enormously-bearded man is not a peerlike, inquisitive sage, but instead a crafty, devious storyteller who has it in for everyone in his stories--the bloodier, the better, especially if they get naked a few times beforehand.  Supporters of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan are more like archaeologists than bookworms, and Brandon Sanderson lovers "really dig" the dude who writes such "awesome" stuff.

Fantasy writing has its nuances, just as any genre, and Neil Gaiman avoids a certain camp: the camp of making-up-your-own-names, inventing crazy new species, making a storyworld you could play D&D in.  Gaiman pulls out of mythology, folklore, and the urban obscure.  Besides Stardust, his major works are universally set in the modern day, with protagonists living normal lives presented with the delirium, confusion, and beauty of the Other world.  And this is where he finds his niche, his charisma, and his magnetic draw:

Whereas other writers spin fantasies out of their dreams to amuse, startle, and teach, Gaiman always seems, just a little bit, to believe.  His fiction shows the reader a world that lurks beneath their apartment building, or at the other end of the pond behind their house, and instead of a neat moral to tie things up, the final temptation always asks "Why don't you take a look?"

Considering this introduction, it's important to point out that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, essentially, a Neil Gaiman novel.  It follows his patterns, reads in his understated, clearly enunciated voice, and charms and enraptures as he knows so well how to do.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is more.

The book tells the story of an Englishman coming home for a family member's funeral and, by a sort of driving autopilot coincidence, visiting the backyard of an old neighbor.  Behind their house at the end of a long lane sits a pond.  The neighbor in question, the long gone-away-to-Australia Lettie Hempstock, called their pond an ocean, and this memory triggers a leap back into the man's memories as a seven-year-old.  His memories are the substance of the story.

The story of a young boy and his relationship with a family who turn out to be much, much more than they seem follows the same path as many fantasies.  There are dark things at work in his town.  One feels ripples in the water--ripples coming from Coraline, MirrorMask, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, an ebb pushing from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and a deep undercurrent from the tradition of English fairy folklore and other myths.

The story itself is a precious, well-hewn tale that walks down familiar paths with all the fear, wonder, and depth that we felt before, but where Neil Gaiman has spent his career as a jazz musician of folkore, improvising and riffing on what has already been told, Ocean draws it together.  It connects all of the stories of its kind ever told, and what's more, it tries to explain them to us, through the eyes of a seven-year-old.  For the first time, or at least in a new way as fresh as a homegrown tomato, Neil Gaiman hands his audience his heart and the reason that he tells the stories he does.

When facing off against a frightening aberration that is tormenting his family and now threatening to destroy him, our protagonist observes: "It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh.  She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win."

Ocean is so obsessed with children & adults that at first I worried for its well-being.  So many of those stories simply stop at "children are better than adults, they have that intuition thing" and it seems like a cop out to be escapist and displeased with growing up.

But that is not what the book is trying to do.  Like a young religious seeker, Gaiman dives into a secretive world trying to find answers.  Though seven-year-old eyes see the story, the man remembering them is middle-aged.  He is trying to come to grips with a past that he only somewhat understands and remembers.

The beauty of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is how many answers he finds.  This seven-year-old sees "the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty", and though he dreams of escaping to the world in Lettie's "ocean", what he eventually discovers is much deeper, much more real, and ultimately, amazing.

Note: (Added August 4th, 2014) Gaiman's book is not perfect; few are, and even perfectly-engineered books can seem silly.  But the book has grown on me.  There are passages here as powerful and mysterious as the Gospel of John, and just as the fourth gospel brings purpose to the story of Christ as the others cannot, so Ocean, I think, is telling the story of what nerds and geeks and dorks are really after.  Less mature, emotional works can celebrate the educated elite that make up those demographics, showing the innovation and smarts and community grown out of it.  But Gaiman looks past these things to the childlike sense that there are things beyond reality:

"I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.” There is fear and terror here.  But beyond it there is purpose.  When presented with a beautiful possibility of knowledge without hurt, a young witch tells the protagonist boy that knowing everything is no fun, because it means you can't play. "Play at what?" he responds.

This is the real quest of the nerd kingdom, whether they seek after it or not.  And though it may perhaps sink into obscurity, Gaiman's work may become the Gospel of John of the Bible of Geekdom, and hopefully, of all those who choose to imagine.

I recommend The Ocean at The End of the Lane without reservation to any human being, fairy, hobgoblin, kobold, spirit, selkie, or shadow creature that might come across it, or that uses currency to purchase books.  And more especially to those who do not read fantasy, I implore you:  Read this book.  Step into this ocean and see things a little differently.  Or maybe a lot.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Mercy is the Mark: Morality, Murder, and More in "Dishonored"

WARNING: This review contains what might be considered emotional spoilers.  No plot points or characters are revealed, but important events are discussed.

One reason I think I like to write reviews is because I like to read reviews.  I try not to watch R-rated movies unless I have some idea what's made them rated that way, and the MPAA is less than helpful, so I find myself reading three or four reviews of a movie before I watch it.

I was even more stringent when I was considering buying Dishonored.  The 2012 stealth/action game was praised for its setting in the deep, dark city of Dunwall, its exhilarating, creative gameplay, and some gorgeous art design.  Powered on whale oil and choking on a rat-borne plague, I breathed in Dunwall like secondhand smoke, crawling around on rooftops among smoke-belching chimneys and sneaking through houses where plague-ridden wackos set up shrines to the mysterious, malicious Outsider.

The game puts the player behind the eyes of Corvo Attano, the Lord Protector of Dunwall, who returns from a voyage just in time to witness the assassination of his close friend Empress Jessamine and the kidnapping of her daughter Emily.  Guards accuse him of the murder, and Corvo is sent off to prison and condemned to be executed.  Through some fortuitous circumstances, he escapes and meets up with an undercover team of dissenters trying to take back power from the people who stole it from Corvo.

A video game attempt at "The Count of Monte Cristo" ensues, but instead of wealth, intrigue, and betrayal, Corvo gains supernatural powers from the Outsider, wears a frightening mask, and sets out to eliminate the people who killed the Empress and blamed him for it.

This is where the morality comes in.  Early in Dishonored's creation, developers revealed that part of the design of the game was to allow players to win the game without killing anyone.  Corvo's targets can all be killed with a flick of the knife (or, more often, a gruesome, bloody shoving match) but every mission rather clearly presents a possibility to stop them from doing evil while still leaving them alive.  A religious character can be branded with a mark that makes him excommunicated for life, leaving him living but friendless.  Corvo has the opportunity to find a hidden voice recording of a high-ranking official, which, if played over public loudspeakers, is the equivalent of political suicide, rendering him imprisoned but unharmed.

In simpler situations, Corvo sneaks around guards and plague-wild Weepers instead of fighting them, or creeps up behind and knocks them out.  Their snores assure the player that the person they've taken out isn't dead, and will wake in the morning with a sore neck but little else.

This idea fascinated me, and motivated me to buy the game even if the trailers looked like a messy, blood-gluttonous massacre.  That option exists, and I won't talk about it much because I didn't experience it.  I did fight a few times, and it was fun.  Once I accidentally lopped a guy's head off and gasped so loudly that my roommate thought I was having a heart attack.  It seems fun but way too gory for me, and (important and cool) the game changes depending on how you choose to play, as well as the ending.  So I decided not to have that experience, and was interested in what emotional journey the game would take me on.

For much of the game, my choice disappointed me.  The Outsider as a deity is pretty shifty, and blesses Corvo with an array of gruesome abilities, such as sending forth a gust of wind to blow enemies off ledges and Splat-style deaths or summoning a horde of vicious, bloodthirsty rats to rip your enemies to shreds.  Using a short-range teleportation spell called Blink, the rather-awesome Possession, and the obligatory Night Vision, I felt limited.  Weapons, as well, seemed useless, though I did use a couple of incendiary bolts from a crossbow to draw the attention of guards before I sneaked up on them from behind and knocked em out.

Still, this was actually a small issue for me.  I am just as satisfied to explore a gorgeously designed world (which it is) and meet interesting characters and discover a deep, three-dimensional world as I am to use an array of weapons to destroy my enemies.

But here's the problem: The world isn't three-dimensional.  When Corvo stepped out of prison into the Hound Pits Pub, it was clear from the first look that the men and women enlisting him to help were not motivated by noble ideals.  Seeing echoes of City 17 and Half-Life 2 (carried over with the handiwork of art director and conceptual artist Viktor Antonov) I expected a world like that--dark, frightening, but filled with people to whom I could relate.  

The world of Dishonored, instead, is filled with people I didn't care about, and who in many ways I abhorred.  Their dialogue has no hope, no connection to other people in their lives.  I read a few books that detailed bizarre rituals or showed perverted sexual plots from plays.  I asked myself for the first several levels: "Why, if Corvo is a deeply moral man who cared about the Empress and Emily, does he agree to join Havelock and the rest?  They offered him revenge, but what does he care about that?  Why, if I refuse to kill, do my missions revolve around getting rid of people?" I failed to see a motivation for Corvo, and without that the story fell flat.  Part of this came from the choice for Corvo to be a silent protagonist.  I finished Bioshock Infinite a few months ago, and understanding Booker's amoral, hardened background, I had very little difficult roleplaying in his persona.  Violence was normal to Booker, and his motivation was strong--"Give us the girl and wipe away the debt."  Even if I didn't agree with him, I was able to learn from being in his shoes for a few hours.

At one point later in the game, everything changed.  A plot turn yanked Corvo from safety to being imprisoned again, and I had to find my way to my captor (a man with great significance from earlier in the game) and take him down.  Suddenly Corvo had motivation--people I cared about were in danger, and time felt short.  I escaped in a hurry and, immersed in the character, I didn't take the time to sneak past the people guarding me.  I dispatched them and hurried to find the man who was responsible for much of this.

The best scene of the game followed, and the conversation and one-on-one fight that follows are well-written and gripping.  I chose to spare his life, to which he replied: "And you choose mercy.  Extraordinary."

Corvo escaped into the dim evening and watched a train dump plague corpses into a trench full of the dead, and overheard a sick man talking to his friends in desperation, still hopeful for his own life.  On a bridge above us, two men talked about how they would escape the plague district, their cluelessness and despair becoming very clear.  

The Beautiful Hidden Paintings Of Dishonored

In the course of a view moments, I was transported from a hostile world of sick, unpleasant people who I could only really help by not stabbing in the face.  Instead, I entered a deeply wounded city, where people dreamed of many things that I could not give them, but wanted desperately to.  I snuck by them and hurried through the insanity raging around me, desperately trying to find the one person who still mattered to me.

Because of this experience with its last few levels, Dishonored won me over.  Its message came through for me--that in a world full of evil, it is hard for good to make any difference.  For most of the game, it seemed that no one cared whether I had integrity--whether I cut people to pieces or expended enormous effort to keep everyone alive, people greeted me the same way.  But by the end, it made a difference to me.  I loved the people of Dunwall with their flaws (though I could have loved them sooner if they were written better) and wanted to help them, even if it was harder for me.  It taught me, to some degree, that goodness is not always rewarded by the world, but it is rewarded in small ways.

If we did a do-over, I'd say to the developers: To give more strength to your peaceful-playthrough idea, make the missions about things other than getting rid of the bad guys.  Give us a chance to see what the people of Dunwall need.  Could Corvo get supplies to the flooded district?  Who would he have to convince, or steal from, to do so?  What about his mother?  Does she live in the city?  Wouldn't he want to find her and make sure she's okay?  These kind of missions would be much more engaging, and allow us to care about what we see, grieve for the sadness, and fight for better things.  

Anyway, I don't make video games, but that's what I think.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Small Things Make Big Differences in 'World War Z'

In a troop-carrier plane en route to South Korea, impetuous, passionate Harvard grad Andrew Fassbach (Elyes Gabel) tells bearded U.N. tough fella Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) something about the disease that for an hour of screen time has been ravaging the planet.

"Mother Nature is a serial killer," he says, a lilt of excitement in his voice, "No one's better or more creative...[but] she leaves crumbs.  Now the hard part, why you spend a decade in school, is seeing the crumbs for the clues they are.  Sometimes the things you thought were the most brutal aspect of the virus, turns out to be the chink in its armour...and she loves disguising her weaknesses as strengths."

Fassbach's insight turns out to be invaluable for the people trying to find a cure for a virus that, twelve seconds after infection, transforms people into ravenous, mindless flesh-eaters.  One might say the same of certain movies as he did of Mother Nature--that a film disguises its weak plot with big action, disguises its two-dimensional characters with big plot points or big actors, etc.  That is not the case about with World War Z--in fact, the opposite is true.

'World War Z' thrives on its own imaginative and emotional steam, even if the final product doesn't look quite like the blockbuster some expected.  What some might see as weaknesses are in fact its strengths, and the result is a film that brings to tears more often than it elicits a frightened scream.

The story starts with a montage of news clips, most of it meaningless, some mentioning a particular virus.  Pundits incite worry and other pundits mock the worriers.  Meanwhile, shots of insects are interjected into the slanted opening credits.  Ants devour huge beetles.  Ants eat each other.  It's all a little freaky.

But then we're thrown right into the very human lives of Gerry and Karin Lane (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters, having a normal day in Philadelphia, PA.  Dad is called upon to make pancakes for breakfast, Mom asks the older daughter if she's got her inhaler, little daughter hears some words on TV and asks "Daddy, what's martial law?" He answers cleverly "It's like house rules, but for everybody."

The film's greatest strength is established in this sequence, and it sustains the whole film: it is people.  Pitt and Enos (a BYU acting alum, at which I shout for joy) try desperately to live normal lives, but it is clear that they have lived difficult things before.  Their performances are grounded and understated, and following them around for the first forty minutes just trying to find somewhere safe makes up the most gripping, moving experience I have had in a theater this summer.

I am tempted to tell the whole story, but it begs being experienced.  My near-nonexistent understanding of Max Brooks' novel is that it attempted to be a what-if-it-really-happened scenario.  It is not supernatural, no aliens are involved.  The characters in it, including high-ranking members of the U.N. and U.S. governments, are clueless, cut off, and trying to figure things out with extremely limited resources.  It is precisely the natural quality of it that makes it stand apart from other zombie movies.

So what are the other little things that make it good?  The zombies do not immediately seem to be that incredible an achievement.  In fact, one on one, they are positively mediocre.  Just make-upped actors twitching around (though the transformation process, making a helpful human friend into a ravenous foe in a few spastic seconds, is chilling) and shuffling in the normal zombie fashion.  Heck, they look like characters out of "Warm Bodies." But it is in groups that they are like insects, swarming in thousands.  Shots from the trailer show thousand of ravenous humans climbing on top of each other, trying to get to the top of a huge wall, and hundreds of people leaping onto a bus, making it so heavy that it falls and crushes their friends.  This careless, insect abandon contrasts sharply with the character's intimate attachment to each other, leading to the next thing that works.

The film is full of tiny roles.  In fact, every role is tiny.  The little girls have a few scenes (and they are wonderful and believeable) and Gerry and Karin anchor the entire thing, but the rest of the film hops around from Philly to the Atlantic Ocean to South Korea to Israel to North England and plenty places else.

I wrote in my review about Man of Steel here that human beings weren't portrayed honestly enough.  They seemed like idealized caricatures, beautiful people who we didn't want to see die just because they were people.  World War Z succeeds brilliantly where Man of Steel failed.  A man who at first terrifies us then makes us cry with gratitude when he gives something invaluable to our protagonist.  A soldier in South Korea (played with integrity by James Badge Dale, who you may recognize from another movie this summer) (first to know it without looking it up gets points) appears to be another Call-of-Duty playing American dude thrown into incredible circumstances.  He's not a terribly honorable man.  He's a jerk.  But he is as real as they come, and that's what we need as an audience.

I could talk about more people--the Tenth Man in Israel, a girl who Gerry saves and who helps him out later, and others.  The film is full of them.  Matthew Fox makes a cameo as a helicopter pilot and I'll be surprised if he says five words or even has a shot of his face in the movie.

While 'World War Z' reminded me and will remind you that people matter most, I was struck by something else watching it.  I am an actor and many of my good friends are actors, and watching this film I saw actors.  But because of the measured reality of the writing and the integrity of the performances, I began to watch people instead.

Film and theater are a shared illusion.  The audience must trust all the artists--actors, writers, directors, designers, technicians--in order to truly experience something that will change them.  The audience themselves must decide to agree to the illusion, and believe it themselves.  It's hard to do that when writers and actors portray life falsely, whether it be through making things too dark or too light, too sexual or too chaste, too complicated or too simple.

It is not easy, and it is not common, but when it happens it affects us.  And it may just be that I've seen too many superhero movies this summer, but because of a lot of little things, that's what happened to me when I watched 'World War Z'.