A Wizard of Earthsea

Last night I finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and I’m quite impressed. It’s one of those books that I’ve started and stopped reading three or four times in the past (once even getting halfway through it) but have only just really read. This is surprising because it’s really a very short novel (192 pages in my edition).

What threw me off I think, was, first, the writing style. It isn’t written like The Hobbit, probably my favorite of these modern short fantasies. It doesn’t have that knowing warm, grandfatherly narrator telling about a little hobbit going off on some crazy adventure. It’s written like an old fashioned folk tale, or maybe even the most interesting history you’ve ever read. Le Guin is almost journalistic in her tone here, by which I mean she packs a lot into a short amount of space. I realized at one point that when I had picked up my book after setting it down, I had skipped a paragraph that took up about half the page. In that half page, I had missed the main characters landing on an island, being received coldly, and setting sail again before the day was over.

Like I said, pretty packed.

The second thing that through me off the first few times I tried to read it, which was when I was 17 or 18, I was too old/too young for it. I was too old to enjoy a the simplicity of it. I remember I thought it was very childish. But I was too young to hear what it was trying to say about responsibility and pride.

Part of what made the book so good was that it was such a powerful morality tale and it never tried to hide that. So often stories try to sneak in the moral as if the reader, especially if the target audience is children, were too stupid to notice. But it also treated me, the reader, with a level of respect that I don’t always see in contemporary young adult literature. I tried to read China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun a while back and it drove me nuts. He decided to throw out everything he knows about prose (and if you’ve never read him, he’s an excellent writer), apparently because he felt his audience was too stupid for the “Show, don’t tell” rule. I was told everything explicitly over and over again. I couldn’t get away from it. But Le Guin avoids that because she respects her readers, young and old alike.

I’ll recommend the book to anyone who likes a good tale, although I imagine that many people will, like I did, have trouble if they’re introduced to it between the ages of, say, 16 and 20. And for those who don’t feel like they can stomach learning about patience and the dangers of pride, I’ll suggest Le Guin’s equally great novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. Very different, but it contains a world just as exciting and wonderful to read about as Earthsea.

Spoilers

I’ve always been that guy that turns to the end of the book to find out what happens. I did this with every Harry Potter book, from the first one when I read it at 10, to the last one which I read at 18. In between, I was constantly scouring the web for information on what happens in the next book. I look for information about movies that are coming out that I’m excited for, and I avidly read reviews of books and movies before I buy them.

It’s a sickness. Really, I need help for it.

But in case you haven’t guessed it, one thing I don’t mind is spoilers. 99 times out of 100, I love them. Every once in a while, there’s a movie or book that I just don’t want ruined. And most short fiction I don’t need a blow-by-blow because, probably, the author will tell me better than you and in less time. But because of that, I’ve always been a little insensitive to people who are just scared to death of spoilers.

I just don’t get it. Who cares? But people apparently do. And according to a UC San Diego study, spoilers can actually make people enjoy stories more. This makes total sense to me. If I like a movie, I’m going to watch it again. And if I enjoy a movie better the first time than I do the second time, I don’t think very highly of that movie.

Books too, but because of the more time-consuming nature of reading a novel (time-consuming is not a negative in this case), I don’t reread things as often as I rewatch movies. But again, if the only thing a book had going for it was its element of surprise, that’s kind of a weak book.

Maybe a better example would be mysteries. I love mystery movies, TV shows, books, everything. But what I love about Holmes and Nero Wolfe and Castle are the way they interact with their colleagues. I’m interested in the intellectual mystery that’s going on, sure, and I want that to be good. But really, every storyline in each of those is the same. Detective encounters crime. Detective collects clues. Detective solves crime. I’m often surprised by the twists and turns, but I’m not looking for shock and awe.

I think what the NPR article says about a lot of the spoiler-heavy nature of modern drama being the fault of Lost is probably pretty close. Lost changed the way a lot of things are done in that sort of long-distance storytelling. But you’ve got The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects to blame too. (And by the way, without the twist ending, The Usual Suspects doesn’t hold up too well.)

Personally, I think it’s much more important to let ourselves fall into whatever plotline the artist has for us, whether that’s a filmmaker, TV writer, or novelist, and see what we can do. You don’t need to go spoiler-crazy like me, but calm down when we tell you that Planet of the Apes takes place on a future earth. Seriously, I knew before I saw it, and it’s still one of my favorite science fiction movies.

Sidenote: I totally have that shirt at the top of the NPR article. The “Snape Kills Dumbledore” business pissed off so many people before the Half-Blood Prince movie came out. Take that!

Farewell, Hero

Jim Emerson and the British Film Institute ruined Christopher Nolan for me.

Well, OK. In all honesty, Christopher Nolan has more to do with my opinion of him changing than either of them, but they were the ones who pointed it out to me. So…here’s the deal. A few days before The Dark Knight Rises came out, I read Emerson’s “Preparing for The Dark Knight to Rise.” In it, he points out the flaws in Nolan’s filmmaking thus far. He says, “Nolan (in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) has dared to aim for ‘thematically ambitious’ superhero movies… that also, unfortunately, don’t have a very rich or sophisticated cinematic vocabulary. There’s no reason somebody can’t make a serious work of art using a superhero as a major figure, a comics-inspired movie that’s also a complex and resonant piece of filmmaking — or that it can’t be challenging and rewarding and fun and popular all at the same time. It just hasn’t quite been done yet.”

And that bold portion (emphasis mine) is what hit me like a ton of bricks. Nolan does the same thing with nearly all of his scenes. They’re static. Not the camera. The scenes. Picture any non-action scene from any one of Nolan’s movies. Now tell me, would it be difficult to perform that on a stage? And this in itself isn’t a huge problem. Look at 12 Angry Men! It’s 12 men in essentially one room for the whole film. But there is interplay between characters. Their faces matter, their posture, the things they do. The last scene when they all turn their backs on the angry juror is powerful in the way they all move away from the emotional center of the scene. But when does anything like that ever happen with Nolan? If there is action, the camera is moving with it, most of the time.

So I thought, Well, let’s see what happens tomorrow night when I see The Dark Knight Rises. About what you’d expect visually. But worse, I realized that it was just a superhero movie. The Dark Knight was incredible because of the nihilism of The Joker, and that intense dilemma that all of the main characters face of whether or not the truth is good enough. And I went in expecting something similar here. It had such potential, too. The Joker broke Batman’s moral code nearly to its breaking point, and Bane is well-known as being “The Man Who Broke the Bat.”

But I went in expecting the philosophical and moral dilemma that Nolan showed me he could produce with The Dark Knight and Memento. Instead, I got an admittedly satisfying and thoughtful conclusion to a wonderful superhero franchise.

Then a couple weeks after TDKR, I read the BFI article on Christopher Nolan, in which they call his movies, “superior airport novels with complex structures….” They speak as if his greatest strength were his dedication to bringing quality blockbusters rather than the painful Battleship-type crap Hollywood likes to give us. And you know, I think that’s about right.

Look, Inception wasn’t as good as you think it was. Don’t believe me? Think about the “big” blockbusters, the ones that started it. Jaws, Star Wars (the original), E.T., Indiana Jones, even Jurassic Park. Now tell me, strip down the shifting narration and unconventional plot structure, and is Inception really that much better than those movies? If those five movies had come out at the same time as Inception or The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises, would they still look as great? I don’t think so. I think it’s an above average techno-thriller with some inventive and admirable narrative choices.

As the BFI points out, if you’ve seen one Nolan movie, you’ve seen them all. And I have seen them all, from his short, “Doodlebug,” to TDKR. They’re the same. They’re movies about how careful we have to be, or else reality will slip through our grasp and, by the way, sometimes you have to do things you don’t like.

I don’t hate Nolan. But the Coen Brothers are back to being my favorite working directors. He’s still a good filmmaker, and I’ll still watch and rewatch his films. I just don’t think I’ll look at them as if they were the only novel thing in movies the way I used to.

Why I Chose not to Take Part in Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day

A lot’s been said about this, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on anything that has happened in the last few days. I don’t have a great deal of theological training, though I have had more than some. I don’t know everything about Chick-fil-A, and I haven’t received any special revelation from God about how to put all of the complicated pieces of the homosexual issues surrounding Chick-fil-A with a comprehensive view of the gospel of Christ.

What I do have is (hopefully) a generous portion of common sense and a love for my friends and family (straight and homosexual alike), the church, and yes, those that I don’t know within the LGBT community. While my first instinct was to join the throngs of people at Chick-fil-A yesterday (and get a delicious chicken sandwich and sweet tea), after some thought, I decided I did not want to be a part of that scene.

First, the facts. Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A, when asked if he supported a biblical definition of marriage that he was, “guilty as charged.” All right. Fine. But, this sparked controversy in the LGBT community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) and its supporters. One difficulty lies in the fact that Chick-fil-A as a corporation has given money to the Family Research Council (FRC) and organizations that try to promote a Christian approach to “curing” homosexuality.

The FRC is viewed by one group as promoting hate speech because of the false claims they’ve made, such as saying that homosexual men are very likely to be pedophiles, that life expectancy is decades lower among homosexuals, and other claims that have no factual basis.

But even the idea that corporate funds go to promoting a one man, one woman definition of marriage comes at a bad time. A couple weeks ago, astronaut Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer, leaving her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy without the benefits that would be given to the husband of an astronaut. This already had people upset and many have seen Cathy’s comments as being emblematic of the mindset that prevents the O’Shaughnessy from being treated the way a heterosexual partner would be. While there is not an actual connection, that is one of the things that has become tied up in the Chick-fil-A controversy. As so often happens, it is not just a simple matter.

Aside from the specific issues, it must be understood that coming out still causes children and adults to be mocked, bullied, and discriminated against as if they were less of a human being because of their sexuality. I believe that my Christian faith calls me to turn against that kind of treatment. If my words or actions contribute to one person’s self-hatred, or causes their lives to be worse in some way, then I am not showing them Christ’s love. The people at Chick-fil-A yesterday believed they were standing up for the 1st Amendment rights of the Cathy family or standing against political support for gay marriage, but many people on the outside heard, “Homosexuals are lesser humans than heterosexual humans.” This isn’t what was meant (I hope), but it was heard that way because neither side seemed to take the time to truly understand what was being said.

But I do not believe that homosexuals are less than any other people. So, because of those factors, and because of the issues with Chick-fil-A, I decided I could not in good conscience join in Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. It came down to this for me; what was more important, supporting a growing, multi-billion dollar business because they are run by Christians and possibly hurting my witness and hurting the feelings of my friends in the LGBT community, or avoid it and find a way to calmly discuss my views? I admit I failed yesterday at being calm while explaining my thoughts to my dad. I’ve apologized, but it still happened. Hopefully though, this is a better explanation that more people can read.

In summary, I believe that the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, while carried out with good intentions, was actually provoking a battle unnecessarily. This is a hot-button issue, and it causes people to turn away from Christians and our message anyway, but getting excited by supporting a business that isn’t struggling because they happen to agree with Christian culture doesn’t seem like a very loving attitude to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but like everyone else, I can only do my best when making decisions like this.

My message to Christians: don’t forget that gay marriage isn’t an abstract political and moral thought experiment. It’s an issue that affects millions every day. And while it may seem that our rights to disagree with modern culture are disappearing, we need to be careful not to cling to those rights more than we ought. If that goes away, it’ll be sad for America and for us, but remember, “if God is for us, who can be against us?”