Tag: The Chronicles of Narnia

What I write about when I write about movies

sh_ml13

I can’t have been the first person to use that title, right? Originality is not something I concern myself with, a truth which you will see in just a moment as I attack the question of how to write about movies a full week after everybody else has had their say. Deal with it! Anyways, last week Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a blog post at rogerebert.com imploring film critics, especially those on the internet for some reason, to write about the formal aspects of filmmaking in their reviews. The whole article is interesting but if you’ve already read it or don’t want to, allow me to remind you or inform you about the two most relevant quotes.

[I]n criticism of every kind there is appallingly little careful consideration of form. I see a lot of writing that describes what a piece of art is about, not so much about how it is about it.

Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms. They are not just about plot, characterization and theme. Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece.

Otherwise it’s all just book reports or political op-eds that happen to be about film and TV. It’s literary criticism about visual media. It’s only achieving half of its potential, if that. And it’s doing nothing to help a viewer understand how a work evokes particular feelings in them as they watch it.

Aha. Interesting stuff there. A few misconceptions about how literary criticism works (or, how it should work), but some insightful critiques about modern film writing. Except, of course, that it’s kind of baloney.

While I agree with MZS’s premise that movie writing could have more technical discussion overall, I don’t think that everybody necessarily needs to write about shots or whatever. A favorite blogger of mine, Jessica over at The Velvet Café, doesn’t often write about shot length or editing techniques, but she almost always captures the way the plot and characters interact and become living people in the two or so hours of a film. That’s what film can do and she captures it in her writing. I’ve never regretted taking time to read her reviews, even if it’s not a film I’m interested in.

Another blogger I enjoy, Martin Teller, has a different reason to read his reviews. He does often talk about structure and form in his pieces, but he also brings a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of film history (especially in film noir) to bear in most of his reviews. I’ll often end up adding more than just the film he’s writing about to my ever expanding list of movies to watch. In fact, he was the reason I finally got around to Fanny and Alexander, which turned out nicely for me. And his site collects all the reviews he’s written over the many years he’s been writing about movies, so it’s a fantastic resource for reading up about a movie which will delve into both thematic and formal considerations.

And yet another blogger has yet another approach to film writing. Melissa at A Journal of Film writes these giant reviews that pull in literary analysis and references (her day job is as a college writing and literature teacher), formal observations, and a superb writing style the rides the lines between blogging and academic writing (see her amazing review of We Need to Talk About Kevin for an example). She’ll explain how a shot or use of color or sound is used to further the theme of the film and that’s exactly what Matt Zoller Seitz was imploring us to do.

And now to turn these ramblings inwards. What do I write like, what do I want to write like? Well, let’s start with what I used to write like. Here’s my first written review, as far as I can find.

I just watched The Chronicles of Narnia: TLTWATW. I liked it a lot, but I also liked the book a lot, so I might be biased. There were a few pluses and minuses though. The bad: I didn’t much like the child actors. I’m sorry to be mean, but whoever played Lucy really got on my nerves. Also, I didn’t like that they started with (to me) the second story. The order my set was in started with The Magician’s Nephew. While I agree that Wardrobe is probably the better introduction to the series for non-readers, I prefer it the way I read it. Now on to the good: I really liked the way that the filmmakers captured the feeling and look of Narnia. This is exactly how I pictured it as a kid. It was awesome seeing Aslan being the big boss lion. I liked the choice of Liam Neeson as Aslan, I think his voice suited the role perfectly. Ditto with Tilda Swinton as the evil White Witch. I knew from the moment I saw her that she was the perfect embodiment of evil in Narnia. And finally, the battle scene. While it was a different kind of battle than the ones in LOTR, I liked it just as much, and possibly better. This was the kind of thing that you can’t quite get from a book. It was the kind of battle that I always wanted to see, with all the animals and creatures fighting each other. It was awesome. That’s about it for my review. I give it an A-.

Hmm, not exactly high art there – in the film or my writing. That was from the end of 2006 and I like to think I’ve gotten at least a little better since then. 7+ years will do that to you. So will a demanding teacher. I went to the University of Connecticut (go Huskies!) and had a fantastic film professor there. Bob Smith liked to give us these giant scene analysis assignments where we would have to describe a scene from a film we watched in class shot by shot. It was an exhausting exercise but it did give us the tools to describe what was happening on screen in simple and straightforward terms. It would also train us to see repeated setups or times when the director would change his shot. We learned to spot composition and framing and shot length and important props and all that jazz. And that was only half the paper. The other half, which had to be at least as long as the first part, would be an explanation of why the scene was made that way. Since the assignment required us to watch the scene over and over again, we got to know it quite intimately and after the tedium of the description, the freedom of the interpretation meant that the words often flowed out of me and onto the page. It was obvious why John Ford shot each of the sons standing up in the How Green Was My Valley dinner scene from below. Not only was he calling attention to the fact that they were standing, he was painting them in a heroic context. They were defying their father who had, until recently, lorded over them like a sometimes-benevolent dictator. Their refusal of him broke the family so John Ford broke the normal compositions he was using until those instances. It all made so much sense. Bob Smith was teaching us how to watch movies and how to write about them intelligently.

how green was my valley 1

I hope you’ll notice an improvement from that horrible first review to my most recent two, those of Noah and Mistaken for Strangers. I don’t put all of my reviews here, any movie about which I don’t have much to say will stay over at my Letterboxd page where they belong. But if I think I can find something really interesting to write about it’ll come here. I named this site Benefits of a Classical Education for reasons beyond just using a fun Die Hard quote (surely you knew it was a Die Hard quote), it’s because I feel like I genuinely benefited from my near-classical education. I like thinking about thinking, and I like writing about the things that I see or read or listen to. I am intensely interested in the way movies are constructed, so I’ll often write about a shot or sequence which caught my eye, like the creation montage in Noah. In that I think I am fulfilling Matt Zoller Seitz’s demands for more formal discussion in film reviews. Of course, that sequence served a thematic purpose in the film, furthering its half-biblical half-humanist vision of the Noah story, so it wasn’t just pretty pictures. I hope I captured that. I didn’t do much formal discussion in my review of Mistaken for Strangers because it’s pretty much a standard documentary for the majority of its running time. The relationship between the two brothers at the center of what started as a typical rock doc, though, was really really interesting to me. And I guess I did write about “the most euphoric credit card I’ve ever seen,” so that’s something formal. I guess what it boils down it is that when I feel compelled to write about a movie here it’s because I’ve found something in it that speaks to me in some kind of way, and it doesn’t have to be formal or thematic or character based, but it can be any of those and an combination of them. All those bloggers I talked about earlier do the same, I believe. That’s why they’re all so interesting despite (because of?) their different approaches. I still have a long way to go. I think I talk too much about plot and I am super self conscious about my propensity for lengthy sentences split up, seemingly at random, by commas. But that’s miles better than where I was and that’s good. I’ve dedicated myself to a career in the classical education system, so I might as well embrace it here and now. I hope you get something out of it.

Top 50 Books List (2012 edition): 30-16

You’ve seen my 50-31 books of all time, now it’s time for the next 15. Get ready for 30-16. Remember, series only count as one spot. Click on the titles that are links for fuller reviews.

30. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

“It’s like when you put instant rice pudding mix in a bowl in the microwave and push the button, and you take the cover off when it rings, and there you’ve got ricing pudding. I mean, what happens in between the time when you push the switch and when the microwave rings? You can’t tell what’s going on under the cover. Maybe the instant rice pudding first turns into macaroni gratin in the darkness when nobody’s looking and only then turns back into rice pudding. We think it’s only natural to get rice pudding after we put rice pudding mix in the microwave and the bell rings, but to me, that is just a presumption. I would be kind of relieved if, every once in a while, after you put rice pudding mix in the microwave and it rang and you opened the top, you got macaroni gratin. I suppose I’d be shocked, of course, but I don’t know, I think I’d be kind of relieved too. Or at least I think I wouldn’t be so upset, because that would feel, in some ways, a whole lot more real.”

I reviewed this book a few weeks ago and it won’t even be the most recent entry onto this list. Just go read that review to find out why this books is so awesome.

29. The Commitments – Roddy Doyle

“Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. Its honest. There’s no fuckin’ bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”

A hilarious novel about trying to form a soul band in northern Dublin. Doyle writes music better than anybody else I’ve seen. It’s hard to do but he pulls it off.

28. Danny the Champion of the World – Roald Dahl

“I was glad my father was an eye-smiler. It meant he never gave me a fake smile because it’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren’t feeling twinkly yourself. A mouth-smile is different. You can fake a mouth-smile any time you want, simply by moving your lips. I’ve also learned that a real mouth-smile always has an eye-smile to go with it. So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you but his eyes stay the same. It’s sure to be a phony.”

This story is the definition of ‘wonderful’. Roald Dahl is one of the best kid-lit authors there ever was, and this charming tale of a boy and his dad and their pheasant-snatching escapade is top notch Dahl.

27. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke

“I mean that two of any thing is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery. Two must always watch each other. The eyes of all the world will be on two, uncertain which of them to follow.”

This, like the Magician series in the previous post, came out after the Harry Potter boom. It deals with magic and magicians, although in a completely different manner. It takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and it is written to emulate the literary style of the time. There are two magicians with wildly differing points of view on how magic can be used to beat the short Frenchman which, of course, builds to an epic rivalry. It’s a large book but completely worth the length.

26. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

“People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say.”

What starts off as a man on a quest to write about the invention of the atomic bomb becomes the funniest post-apocalypse story you’ll ever read. Vonnegut does the sci-fi and the humor perfectly, as always. And the Koans of Bokonon, some guy who made up his own religion, are delightfully insightful while also making fun of the idea of religious living.

25. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

“A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. It was hardly a tune. But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.”

I first heard this series as my father read it to me every night before bed. Then, when I got older, I read it myself. I went back and reread it again semi-recently and it was just as good. Lewis’s Narnia is a vast and intriguing universe with all kinds of different stories to be told within it.

24. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories – Dr. Seuss

“And the turtles, of course…all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”

This is basically a stand-in for all Dr. Seuss books. They formed such an important part of my childhood that they must have a place on this list. His felicity with the English language is something all writers should strive for.

23. Maus – Art Spiegelman

“Sometimes I don’t feel like a functioning adult”

This book (or pair of books) is a memoir and a family history of the author’s father and mother and their fight to stay alive during the Holocaust. Also, they’re all mice. The device of making each nationality a different species is the hook, but the meat is probably the best Holocaust story I’ve ever encountered in any medium.

22. The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh is growing his talent. He started by writing plays, then he moved on to short films (he won an Oscar for Six Shooter), and this year he’s releasing his second feature film, Seven Psychopaths. All of his stories, regardless of medium, share a dark sense of humor and a distinct sense of place. There’s also a surprising amount of heart in each of his stories. It’s quite a feat to get so dirty and then pull out an emotional climax.

21. Watership Down – Richard Adams

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”

This is the story of talking rabbits. It should not, however, be confused with kid-lit. It is a very adult book, full of allusions and philosophical musings. It’s a road book and a settling book and a war book and an escape book. It’s a book about talking rabbits that is as profound as anything else on this list.

20. Hamlet – William Shakespeare

“Lord Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Lord Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet: Between who?
Lord Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.”

Shakespeare is a funny guy. Even his tragedies have wordplay and clever little exchanges like the one quoted above. I don’t know why, then, I don’t like his comedies all that much. He’s a master of tragedy (historical or not), but the comedies never come together for me. Give me Hamlet’s sarcasm any day of the week. Also, ghosts.

19. Cosmicomics – Italo Calvino

“I could distinguish the shape of her bosom, her arms, her thighs, just as I remember them now, just as now, when the Moon has become that flat, remote circle, I still look for her as soon as the first sliver appears in the sky, and the more it waxes, the more clearly I imagine I can see her, her or something of her, but only her, in a hundred, a thousand different vistas, she who makes the Moon the Moon and, whenever she is full, sets the dogs to howling all night long, and me with them.”

Here’s a strange book. A collection of short stories, some with an idea of a recurring character, though he takes different shapes depending on the story that is being told. Each story takes on a scientific concept and extrapolates it out into a kind of fairy-tale. Calvino’s mixture of science and fiction is unlike any other sci-fi you’ll read.

18. Winnie-the-Pooh – A.A. Milne

“What I like doing best is Nothing.”

“How do you do Nothing,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.

“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.

It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

“Oh!” said Pooh.”

Pooh is a bear of very little brain. That doesn’t make him useless. He’s a vital part of our cultural heritage and the world would be a better place if everybody read this collection of short stories every five years. Sometimes it’s important to remember how things really work, and how to have fun, and what’s important, truly. Pooh, despite his very little brain, remembers.

17. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

“When I was a girl, my life was music that was always getting louder.
Everything moved me. A dog following a stranger. That made me feel so much. A calendar that showed the wrong month. I could have cried over it. I did. Where the smoke from a chimney ended. How an overturned bottle rested at the edge of a table.
I spent my life learning to feel less.
Every day I felt less.
Is that growing old? Or is it something worse?
You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.”

Both of Foer’s fiction works have been adapted into films. Both films lose large chunks of the story in order to fit everything into a two hour package. It is those missing chunks that are vital to the power of his stories. They are about everything. Love and loss, happiness and sadness, history and family. This book incorporates two timelines, a diary, a fictionalized version of the author, and a magical realist book that tells the history of a small town in Eastern Europe. It’s beautiful.

16. The Dark Tower Series – Stephen King

“Jake went in, aware that he had, for the first time in three weeks, opened a door without hoping madly to find another world on the other side. A bell jingled overhead. The mild, spicy smell of old books hit him, and the smell was somehow like coming home.”

I could have just as easily picked another quote from this series to stand in for all seven books worth of writing: Go, then, there are other worlds than these. It is a eulogy of sorts in the book, but it gets at the overriding idea of the series. It connects most of King’s works into a grand universe unparalleled in fiction. It’s a huge series, full of pulp and profundity, like all of King’s works.