"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Monday, October 31, 2011

Television in a sad state of affairs

Take a look at this picture.

Now look at this one.

See any similarities? Oh, I don't know, maybe the fact that both NBC and ABC think that by putting actors in modern dress in the middle of a dark, foreboding forest atmosphere and surrounding them with other actors dressed up as princesses and monsters....you get a fresh and exciting new take on fairy tales? Not quite, I'm afraid.

The press shot for Grimm, trying very hard to be creepy, suggests that we might have "thought they were just fairy tales." Actually, sir, I thought "they" were highly complex folk tales with a long oral, written, and cinematic tradition, a form of storytelling that is ripe for innovative rewrites and adaptations, but which gains nothing from simply being updated and spruced up with some fancy CGI.

Bitterness aside, I appreciate the impetus behind both new series, which I sampled this weekend in my ongoing effort to see and read everything fairy-tale related. Once Upon A Time imagines that the traditional fairy tale characters, through a very complicated series of events, have become stuck in a small town in Maine and need to be saved by the long-lost daughter of Snow White, who in turn has a long-lost child, a son, who was adopted by the Evil Queen, who doesn't know that she's the Evil Queen but is evil nonetheless. Really, don't ask for clarification. It would only make things worse.

This is standard fairy tale adaptation fare - what if we make all the fairy tale characters real and mix them up with normal people? - but just imagine for a minute the reverse. What if, instead of having the fairy tale characters think they're regular people, we had regular people thinking they were fairy tale characters? That might be a bit more psychologically interesting. And it would also address the problem our society has of making us believe that our lives will turn out happily ever after and that we'll all become princesses - a problem that lies at the root of stuff like Once Upon A Time.

Grimm is a little less guilty of this kind of wishful thinking, and I actually thought the premise was kind of cool - a cop learns he is the last of the Grimms and must fight the monsters his ancestors wrote about, who are all in disguise as humans. It might be my weakness for crime shows, but I had a little hope for this one. Unfortunately, instead of fantasy and crime drama combining into one glorious whole, I got a contrived script, complete lack of psychological depth, and very poor acting. Blargh.

So to cleanse my palatte, I watched this for the second or third time, and it was brilliant as ever:

Maybe I'll write an in-depth review of it in another post, but for now, I'm just basking in its wonderfullness.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


The clock seems to be ticking very fast these days, and I don't think it's just because I have a couple of chapters of my thesis due in six weeks. Do you ever get that feeling that you're working too hard and yet not working hard enough at the same time?

On the one hand, I'm struggling to get through the stacks of books I've checked out of the library, all the while researching more books and articles to flesh out my already-five-page-long bibliography. I'm enjoying the reading, so why not step it up and just read and reflect full-time?

On the other hand, what I really want right now is to spend a day going for a hike and having a picnic or wandering through a city and visiting a museum. I already feel like I just don't have enough time to do all the things I want or to do them with the attention and care I'd like. And yet there are always more - or other - things I'd like to be doing.

On a day during which I completed some time-consuming assignments, had a successful meeting with two of my favorite professors, sat in the sun with friends, and spent an hour reading a great work of western literature, my happiest moment was the five minutes of walking back to my dorm over the lawn with a hot cup of tea in my hands and real grass and dirt under the soles of my shoes.

I've been at this school, on this campus - a square mile? It's not big - for going on four years now, and I think my sense of dissatisfaction comes down to the feeling that nothing in my immediate environment can hold my attention because nothing is new to me. I was shocked today when one of my friends greeted a girl I'd never seen before - but is it really that bizarre for a friend to know someone I don't? Around here, actually, it is.

As lonely as I was last year in Paris, I miss the possibility and flux of cities, and as much as I admire the manicured lawns and the charming fountains on this beautiful campus, I'm longing for the rough edges and the constant change of real nature. Here, the seasons and the temperatures are all out of order. Yesterday it was practically raining it was so damp and cold. Today the sun shone all day. The air-conditioning can't seem to keep up - the other day, it was warmer to sit outside in the rain than to sit inside with cold air blasting out of every vent. I'd like to be in a place where I could really feel the season changing, where I could curl up in a warm tea shop and stride against chilly autumn winds, where I could watch the leaves falling off the trees or the scarves getting wrapped more snugly around people's necks.

Time's flying by, but nothing's changing.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Surrounded by Books

I saw this picture this morning on Tumblr, thought, Wouldn't it be nice to spend my days surrounded by that many books? And lo, I proceeded to spend the day perched on my bed, surrounded by about that many library books. It's thesis bibliography day!

Although my back is now stiff from bending over so many books, it's been a lovely three-and-a-half hours of flipping through pages, skimming the fine print to find out exactly when each book was originally published and where.

I also noticed (really noticed, that is), how lovely it is that books are printed in all different shapes and sizes and with different weights of paper, cut in different ways. DVDs and CDs and especially computer screens are so horribly uniform and cold - they've got no smell, no texture, no weight. I think even more than reading books, I like handling them and learning to recognize them by their covers and their unique shape.

I just don't understand Kindle.

Now I need to go put all my books back on my bookshelf.

Photo: http://scarlettshaney.tumblr.com/post/11584628886

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Slightly Disappointed Expectations

I just watched The Corpse Bride last night - one of the many many films I want to see as background to my thesis - and once again my expectations about Tim Burton were set a bit too high.

I didn't grow up on Burton, haven't ever seen The Nightmare Before Christmas (which most people seem to be intimately familiar with since childhood), but I've always thought his films would resonate with my interest in animation, weird/dark/fantasy worlds, etc. Alice in Wonderland was the first of his films that I actually saw, and I was disappointed. The film was OK in and of itself, but it most certainly did not provide the crazy visuals, dark atmospherics, and general inventiveness I had been led to expect.

I wanted to give Burton a second chance, but I feel the same way about The Corpse Bride. First of all, the animation was pretty uninteresting. The characters were different shapes and sizes and had various cartoonish deformities, but they all moved with the same unreal, unweighted, ungrounded glide. I get that they weren't supposed to look human, of course, but I feel like the animators had their priorities all wrong when they sorted out the human qualities and the puppet- or doll-like qualities. You can make your characters very surreal and weird, but they should maintain some kind of relation to gravity and they should be blessed with some richness in their tics and movements. Hayao Miyazaki is a good example of this - I remember hearing that his animation team visited a dog shelter in order to study the way that Haku's snout should be drawn when he becomes a dragon in Spirited Away. They were creating a creature of fantasy, but it was grounded in the reality of a common dog, so that the viewers can recognize it and believe it.

In terms of animation/design, I also really didn't like the characters' eyes - eyes are SO important, windows to the soul, all that, but these were just white spheres with a black dot. There was no shading, no rough edges, no way that I could see these characters as anything but the products of a computer.

My second qualm with the film is the demystification of the underworld. The more I see, the more I read, and the more I myself write, the more I learn that, simply put, less is more. For example, in Doctor Who, my favorite aliens are the Weeping Angels, and I think a lot of people share that preference - why? Because it's when you can't see them that they can attack you. You can never see them in their true terrifying form. Cue imagination to run wild. In this movie, Burton created one single moment of mystery - when we saw the Bride's hand as both a dead tree branch and a hand at the same time. But even then it was pretty darn clear that it was a hand. And after that, she rose up out of her grave, we saw her head-to-toe, and all the enigma went out of the film. This isn't to say that artists shouldn't try their hand at depicting something like the underworld or the dead. But you can do it in such a way that every revelation creates more mystery. This is especially true of animation, because you can create such amazing atmosphere and such complexity in the imagery. Think about the kitchen in Ratatouille. So much detail! And yet you felt like you'd barely scratched the surface of the place. But Burton definitely did not succeed in capturing any of that richness in the story or the visuals.

Being a kind person, though, I'm going to give him a third chance and watch Edward Scissorhands.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Art of Foolproofing

I was looking through some old Cook's magazines and noticed the preponderance of the word 'Foolproof' in the names of their recipes. Foolproof Peach Shortbread, for example (which by the way sounds delicious). It got me to imagining a foolish person who could inadvertently do everything they can to ruin the peach shortbread but would always be foiled by the recipe's excellent foolproofing. But does a foolproof recipe lower itself to the mental level of the foolish cook in order to accommodate him or her? Or must it be super-intelligent, to make up for the lack of a cooking knack in the fool?

It's a bit depressing to think that recipes feel the need to protect themselves against human incompetence, especially recipes in a magazine like Cooks, which is the most elite cooking magazine I've ever encountered. It's equally sad to think that we don't use the word 'Fool' anymore. It's a nice word, because it conjures a kind of harmless, lumbering stupidity and, at the same time, the wise fooling of Feste and his Shakespearean compatriots, who masquerade as fools in order to show others, usually kings, that they are the real fools. I think we should bring both foolproofing and Shakespearean fooling back into style. Luckily, we don't need to worry about the fools themselves, because there are just as many of them as there ever were.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

some quotes

A couple of quotes I liked - cited in a book I'm reading about the Quay Brothers' films. The book is a little too theoretical for my liking, but the sources are interesting.

"...theorizing is what one does in the barren intervals between good films: once one's enthusiasm for the last work has died down, one finds oneself stranded in an imageless wilderness, and, left with nothing to think about, one begins to think abstractly."
- Paul Coates

"The writer is not tied to the physical concreteness of a given setting; therefore, he is free to connect one object with another even though in actuality the two may not be neighbours either in time or in space. And since he uses as his material not the actual percept but its conceptual name, he can compose his images of elements that are taken from disparate sensory sources. He does not have to worry whether the combinations he creates are possible or even imaginable in the physical world. . . . The writer operates on what I called the second or higher level, at which the visual and auditory arts also discover their kinship. We understand now why the writer can fuse the rustling of the wind, the sailing of the clouds, the odour of rotting leaves, and the touch of raindrops on the skin into one genuine unity."
- Rudolf Arnheim

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Books are cool....but why?

I've been reading books a lot this weekend, which in and of itself is unusual and blog-worthy. Most of my reading when I'm at school is confined to scholarly articles and a couple of newspaper pieces. However, I've spent the last few weeks checking quite a few books out of the library. In fact, I'm in the process of transferring every book about anything related to my thesis from the library to my room. I'm starting to run out of space on my book shelf.

Until now, I've been content to admire the books accumulating. This weekend, though, I started reading them. And they are so good. Thus far, I've been reading about some filmmakers whose work relates to my thesis topic - or at least, I hoped it would relate. So I've been elated to discover that it doesn't just relate. It's sparking ideas, pointing to connections, clarifying concepts, and offering leads. And it's so fun to see the idea of my thesis (the biggest idea I've had to come up with during my college education) being confirmed by professional writers and filmmakers. The main thought in my head when I'm reading the analysis of these films is a giant YES!

Aside from assuring me that my thesis actually might work out, these books are just plain interesting. The main topic is the influence of fairy tales in film, but the wider scatter of ideas I'm exploring includes the manifestations of archetype, the role of national culture in a filmmaker's approach to an internationally known story, and the variations on imagery that pervades a certain tradition and even appears across multiple traditions. Things like the use of mirrors to represent split identities, fractured social orders, distorted perceptions, or prescient, omniscient vision. This is just so interesting to me.

At a certain point, though, as I was reveling in all this wonderful literary/cinematic theory, I started to ask myself whether I was appreciating it as a fiction writer or as a critical reader. Do I love this kind of analysis because it inspires me to write a story that plays with mirror imagery, or do I just relish the intellectual thrill of gaining a different perspective on a text or a film or even an entire cultural tradition? And are those two things even separable for me? Because writing - critical writing but also fiction writing - is how I express and explore both the inspiration and the thrill. I think that for me they're intertwined. I could have the desire to write stories without concerning myself with cultural observation and criticism, and I could appreciate literary theory or the academic interpretation of a film without wanting to then create my own stories. But instead, in typical fashion, I want both.

Anyway, enough speculation. Back to my reading. Trust me to start questioning my intellectual standpoint and creative identity while I'm supposed to be working on my thesis.