Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Musings on a White-out Tape Dispenser, and Newsmap

There's a curved indentation molded into the plastic of the Bic Wite-Out tape dispenser, just to the southwest of the 'W' in 'Wite-Out', that you can put your fingernail into and, without much effort, get the whole thing to spin around really fast. Satisfying torque. Aside from the noise of the twirling, which is a kind of hollow, blunt scraping sound, you could really just spin that sucker forever and not really have to worry too much about it skittering across the desk.

Anyway. It's slow at work.

Unrelated and marginally more interesting, a co-worker pointed me to this site today: Newsmap.

Newsmap presents all the news items of the day in colored blocks of various sizes, color representing what sort of news it is (world, national, sports, etc.), and the size representing how many articles related to this story are extant on the web. I'm sure it's a bit more complicated than that, but the resulting display is simple, clean, and very user-friendly. If you bring your cursor over a news box, a pop-up window comes up with the a short summary of the story. When you click the box, you're taken to a new window/tab. Me likey. Doubt it'll streamline my surfing much, but it gives a nice overview if you're in a pinch and want to get caught up on the Right Now right now.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Franzen's New Book and New Look at Jack London

Book excitement. Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom", his first since 2001's brilliant "The Corrections", will be released on August 31st. And the reviews! The New York Times calls it "both a compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times" Others are similarly glowing. I cannot wait.

Also, a very interesting article on Jack London from When I was in school and my teachers talked about London, they mentioned briefly that he taught himself to write and then assigned us his short story about the wolf. Or whatever it was about. What we didn't learn was that London was a devoted socialist as well as an inveterate racist. Now I'm not one of those guys who think a writer's biography is just as important as their work, but some of that biographical information might have been useful to know while reading to, you know, place his work in some context.

School always seems to find a way to make fascinating people, places, and things much less so, doesn't it?

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Bit More on Inception

I went on so long writing this comment in response to Craig's comment on my "Inception" post, I thought it might be better to just post the whole thing up here.

First, do go to the comments section and read Craig's comments -- the details he noticed are awesome and seem to put the case beyond a doubt that Leo was trapped in a dream (and also show I was only paying some kind of half-attention). I particularly liked this observation: "There are no establishing shots or lead ins to scenes. Everything starts in the middle, causing you to maybe ask "How did I get here?", not unlike the test they mention in the movie." That is so true, and another great and subtle thing Nolan did to give the whole movie that dream-like quality that's only really apparent after you leave the theater.

Craig also asked: "Why would Dom's subconscious produce so much exposition? Have you ever explained how something works to yourself in a dream?"

I actually feel like I have woken from dreams where I've had what seemed like elaborate concepts explained to me, and during the dream, all that exposition seems so cogent and well-written but it's logic fades shortly after waking, if any stays at all. So the exposition aspect felt correct to me.

Which made me think of an alternate interpretation.

After the movie, the wife and I followed the 'it was all a dream' concept to one possible conclusion: that the concept of 'shared dreaming' that was so integral to the plot was itself an elaborate figment of the dream. We dismissed it because if that were true, all the film's action would be just so much dreamy irrelevance. If nothing of the film can be accepted at face value, then what was the point exactly?

But thinking about it now, it does seem plausible and even narratively legitimate that the concept of shared dreaming was part of a dream. The film, all a dream, could have been the story of a smart guy trapped in a coma or life-support or whatnot, experiencing his subconscious's last best attempt to wake him from his dream and into real life, ending with Leo's failure to rise to that challenge. Because the whole idea of shared dreaming -- with that nifty, never-explained old reel-to-reel-style equipment they were able to just dream up at every dream-level -- did seem sketched in, just present enough to plausibly get the plot and action flowing. Again, to me, very dream-like.

So if it is all a dream, even the shared-dreaming conceit, a lot of the film still works. If Leo were in a coma, the people he cares about most would make appearances, and when they did, strong emotions would accompany them, as they do in the movie. Extreme grief, guilt, and terror in the scenes with his wife, Marion Cotillard, warm regard and affection in the scene with Michael Caine -- maybe the people whose accompanying emotion is most intense are the people closest to Leo in real life. If this is so, one wonders then who Lucas Haas's character might have been to him, as his departure from the movie seemed to particularly wound Leo.

Leo's subconscious, knowing he is not awake, could very plausibly "build" this elaborate dream-plot so that Dream-Leo can confront questions of 'Am I awake or am I dreaming?' which may help him understand his plight so he might then wake from it. Which is why, perhaps, when it is safe within the dream's structure, the dream sets up multiple circumstances where Leo can "practice" waking up, from all those dreams within dreams, to give him the courage to do it the final, most important time. Maybe the end of the climactic sequence, where all of Leo's teammates are waking from one dream after another, is his subconscious's most direct assault on Leo's conscious mind to get Leo himself to wake.

Just a possibility. Some of this stuff I feel like I could argue with myself about ("...but if that's so then the whole Saito sub-plot which was so awesome isn't as awesome. And if that's so, the whole move becomes purely a technical exercise in precision without any real identifiable heart.", etc.) but I think the movie is left open to interpretations like that. I almost feel that the Nolan brothers might even have some page-long "secret script" that explains What-was-really-going-on, but then that may be overestimating Nolan, which I guess is possible.

But it's also just fun to talk about this movie.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Wherein this Blogger Reviews Two Novels, one being 'The Passage" by Justin Cronin, and the other being "The Secret Speech" by Tom Rob Smith

Been reading a bit this summer. Just finished a couple books I thought I'd let you know about.

1.) "The Passage" by Justin Cronin. This was billed by some as the event book of the summer, none more vehemently than by Stephen King. He gave the slobberiest blurb for the dust jacket, called into 'Good Morning America' while Cronin was on to gush about the book, and hell, during my moment with the King during a book signing in November of last year, this was the book he told me to read, (not, as I first thought, "The Bastard" by John Crowley, which doesn't exist). So, massive doorstop in hand ("The Passage" is 1,000+ pages long), I was primed for a sweeping, "Stand"-esque post-apocalyptic vampire story that would wash away some of the residue of awfulness the 'Twilight' stories had deposited all over the popular culture. And though the book hasn't had a 'Twilight'-like cultural impact its publishers (or King) hoped it would, it compensates by being a pretty good novel.

For the first and best section, we follow a young girl named Amy while she's in the care of a wide and harrowing assortment of people. First her mother, than a nun, then an FBI agent whose own daughter died some years ago, and finally a secret project in the Rocky Mountains that's attempting to weaponize something that really shouldn't be weaponized. In short order, that which was contained within the mountain escapes, mere horror is loosed upon the world, and the world's population is quickly divided into 3 camps: the dead (most), the infected (plenty), and the survivors (very very few). That's about all I can tell you without giving you more information than you need to enjoy the book, but I will say that a lot of readers, including myself, found the 2nd section of the book to be a bit jarring.

Though "The Passage" is clearly intended for a wide readership with its horrific and energetically described violence, visual action sequences fit for a Tony Scott movie, and a big cast of identifiable likable characters, it is not without its own moments of prose-poem lyricism that seem more suited to a more staid "literary" novel, perhaps written by a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop (which Cronin happens to be). "The Passage" is long, and I like that Cronin takes his time when needed, particularly in the second section. I was disappointed that more practical considerations seemed to take precedence over his artistic motives as the third section unfolded. I felt like Cronin realized he'd lingered too long over the plot previously and now had to get things moving if he wanted to have the book wind up where he'd envisioned. The effect makes the fast-moving third section feel like a summer action pic, and, worse, a summer action pic that was rushed into production without a strong script.

The acknowledgments at the end seem to confirm my suspicions somewhat, as quite a few words are dedicated to thanking Ridley and Tony Scott and the fine folks at Scott Free productions for ... well, it's not clear what Scott Free did for "The Passage" pre-publication other than buy the movie rights, but I wonder. I like my novelists to keep on one side of a bright white line between their work and the films Hollywood sometimes makes from them, and including a 'thanks' to a production company in one's novel would seem to blur that line. I want the filmmakers to have to figure out how to adapt a novel into a movie, I don't want the novelist trying to tailor their book to make it more multiplex-friendly. The suspicion this may have happened is, I think, a reasonable one.

Which is not to say that part 3 of "The Passage" is lousy, because it's not, but it wasn't as nearly as impressive as the first parts, which is a shame. Two more books are set to follow this, so I'm hopeful Cronin will turn off his inner screenwriter and concentrate on putting out two novels that work best as novels and let Scott Free worry about adapting the stuff into good movies.

2.) The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith. The follow-up to Smith's brilliant debut novel, "Child 44", "The Secret Speech" has a lot to live up to, and for the most part, sadly, falls short.

Set in the Soviet Union shortly after Stalin's death, we are once again joined with former MGB Chekist (MGB was the precursor to the KGB), Leo Demidov who, with his wife Raisa, is now raising two girls orphaned when Leo's MGB team murdered their parents during the events of "Child 44". The horror that brought this family into existence continues into the fraught Demidov household. Though Leo has resolved, naively, to be a loving father to his adopted daughters to counterbalance the evil of what he did to their parents, 14-year old Zoya, the elder of the two daughters, is consumed with thoughts of vengeance against Leo. She sneaks into his room each night and places the edge of a kitchen knife to his throat, daring herself night after night to kill her adoptive father and avenge her parents. Soon, other ghosts from Leo's brutal past emerge to make Leo's life hell and the novel gets going.

With "The Secret Speech" Smith continues the ghastly tour of Stalin's USSR he began in 'Child 44'. In that book Smith showed how Stalin's MGB terrorized an entire society into submission by turning all citizens into informants: even a close friend was capable of sending an innocent person to the gulags; often, if they did not inform, it was they who were shipped off to Siberia to be worked to death. And though Stalin's notorious gulags are referenced in "Child 44", it isn't until halfway through "The Secret Speech" that Smith manages to steer the action into one of them. But the exigencies of the plot give us not a dramatized depiction of the gulag's horrors, a kind of airport-y distillation of Solzhenitsyn, which is what I'd hoped to read, but rather a fast-moving prisoner revolt inspired by the secret speech of the title. The day-to-day of the gulag is not explored here, which I found disappointing.

If "Child 44" read like a talented writer's bid to pen the thriller everyone would talk about for years, 'Secret Speech" reads more like the second book the author had to write to fulfill a contract. It's a page-turner, no doubt -- the short, snappy sentences and short, snappy chapters make the pages seem to turn of their own volition -- but this fast pace may be "The Secret Speech's" fatal flaw. Smith's engineered this thing to move so quickly that "Child 44"'s moral fog and pungent atmosphere of dread -- novelistic effects achieved only when the plot is allowed to slow down -- are almost entirely missing from this second novel in this series. The result is a story that vanishes from the imagination the instant the last page is turned.

Though I was disappointed with "Secret Speech", the quality of "Child 44" gives me room to hope that the third and, I would assume, final book in the Leo Demidov trilogy will exceed this installment.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

"They hide in plain sight."

I checked out the 2-hour premiere of AMC's new conspiracy-themed drama "Rubicon" last night (2 million people tuned in, a record for AMC original programming) and really enjoyed it. I was impressed by how entertaining the creators, Jason Horwich and Henry Bromell, managed to make two slowly paced hours so enthralling.

The premise, briefly: Will Travers (played by James Badge Dale), is a mild-mannered widow who works as an analyst for a small, unnamed intelligence agency in New York. They break codes and find out the names of guys who appear in long-lens photographs. When Will's boss is killed in a commuter train accident, the weird crossword puzzle clue Will discovered a few days prior, the one clue that appeared in 11 different newspapers' crossword puzzles on the same day, seems suddenly relevant. The first, subtle shadings that something is off about his boss's death begin to take shape in his mind.

"Rubicon" derives most of its narrative frisson from the dramatic irony of watching Will go about his normal life while we, the audience, know something shadowy and dangerous is playing just beneath the surface of things, contemplating a move that could end Will's life. Watching the show I was reminded at times of 'The Matrix'. One of my favorite sections of that movie are those scenes before Anderson understands the truth of his existence. Now imagine that section expanded to a 13-hour season of television and you've got 'Rubicon', more or less.

One of the reasons why 'Rubicon' is better than your average show is that the show-runners give the audience space to figure out what's going on without beating anyone over the head. One example: early on in episode one, we see Will Travers's boss, David (played by Peter Gerety who "Wire"-freaks will remember as Judge Daniel Phelan) through Will's office window, avoiding the number 13 in the staff parking lot like it's covered in Ebola. He's a superstitious guy, David. Later on, after David's died in the train crash, Will goes back to the train station and finds David's car parked in the parking spot numbered '13'.

There are a number of ways the show could have handled the revelation. What they didn't do was have Will go up to the number, look down at it in disbelief, then cut to a 2-second flash of the earlier scene where David had avoided the '13' in the parking lot. Nor does Will murmur: "But David hated the number thirteen!" The writers handle it subtly, and visually. That whole show don't tell thing. They let us figure it out with Will.

Another thing 'Rubicon' does well is capture the nuances of working in an office. It's actually the dynamic in Will's 4-man analyst unit that's been sticking in my head all day today. It's depiction of working in an office is not satirical or blown up to outlandish proportions, but a look at a real honest-to-God office. The show gives an impression of what it's like to work long days and long weeks with the same idiosyncratic people, how it feels to do mentally draining tasks all day, everyday, and how crushing the pressures from 'the bosses' can seem. Because Will gets promoted halfway through, and this was particularly well done, we see how those pressures seem amplified the higher the corporate ladder one climbs.

My one worry for the show is that it may have the same dramatic longevity of "Prison Break". Once that tattooed freak broke his bro out out of the pen, the wind seemed to go out of the show's sails. Before long they were breaking back into another prison just to break out again. Once 'Rubicon' reveals the conspiracy, where does the show go from there? Does it just go deeper and deeper? Or does it shift from discovering the conspiracy to trying to expose it? And will viewers stay interested if it takes 3 seasons to reveal it?

Bottom-line is this show's got a great tone, great characters, and some nicely played moments of real creepiness. If there existed a world where a powerful, moneyed cabal could plot something of the magnitude of 9/11 without anyone learning the truth, then that is the world 'Rubicon' inhabits. For me, exploring that world has a lot of dramatic potential. I'm looking forward to episode 3.

(The show airs on Sundays at 9PM on AMC for those who're considering setting their DVRs.)