Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Song of Ice and Fire, pt. 2

I admire George R.R. Martin, I aspire to be him...but, Christ, I doubt I’d want to literally be him. Fanboy rage, anyone? It’s rather well known that Martin has to go through life fending off the snarling, snapping jaws of his own devoted readers. The dude is about two-thirds of the way through writing an epic, gigantic fantasy series that many consider better than Tolkien (if I’m one of those people, I’d never admit it, cough cough). He’s been put on a pedestal by a whole lot of nerds, and the thing about nerds is that they’re utter bastards to the things they love. And George R.R. Martin is not the kind of guy who whips off a book a year. Oh, no. He has so many ideas, so much he wants to include, that he grapples with his own narrative. He’s created a monster. Two monsters, actually: his titanic series and his impatient, judgmental fanbase. Which brings us to the problematic fourth and fifth books in A Song of Ice and Fire. This continues my last post on the topic.

A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are awesome. I loved them. That said, they also suck. Boy, do they suck. For the benefit of non-fans, assuming they haven’t fallen asleep by now, I shall explain why. As Martin wrote the fourth book, it got out of hand: too huge, too sprawling, too many POV characters who needed proper care and attention. The only thing he could do, really, was prune the manuscript, saving a bunch of material for the fifth book. To the utter rage and frustration of many, he did this by dividing the narrative by characters rather than chronology. Picture this: you’ve waited forever, for-fucking-ever, to learn what happens next. A Feast for Crows FINALLY appears on bookshelves, you spend your gas money on the hardcover, and as you begin to read it, you make the horrific realization: someone’s missing. Several someones. There is no trace whatsoever of badass exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen, snarky fugitive dwarf Tyrion Lannister, or crippled mystic-in-training Bran Stark. Jon Snow, everyone’s favorite know-nothing Watch commander, gets a mere cameo. Again, for the benefit of non-fans (who I’m sure have fled screaming at this point), I must explain that these characters are PRETTY FUCKING IMPORTANT AND BELOVED. Instead, we get...Brienne of Tarth searching endlessly for Sansa Stark in all the wrong places? Samwell Tarly puking a lot? What is this shit? Why is half the novel cluttered with Ironborn, whom no one likes? Who the fucking hell is “Areo Hotah” and why does he get his own chapters? Did fan-favorite Davos Seaworth just die offscreen with no fanfare? MARTIN, YOU COCCCCKKKKKK!!!

Yep. All this happened a few years ago so I didn’t experience it firsthand, but I’ve heard a great deal about the hate people have for A Feast for Crows. And I agree, it’s the weakest entry so far. Martin’s decision to leave a bunch of the main protagonists out was a ballsy one and won him little love. He opted to focus on things that, in the long run, weren’t as important. Grandiose new subplots were dragged onstage; we got a whole lot of the scheming Greyjoy family as they scrambled to elect a new ruler, and we met the Martells from the southern province of Dorne, who had their own dreams and schemes going, and it that much. Feast has less action than the previous three books and more meandering. Honestly, my favorite chapters belong to Cersei Lannister, the icy-cold queen mum of King’s Landing, who, up until that point, had been an evil bitch who we all loved to hate. But Feast got inside her head for the first time, and damn if she didn’t become someone I was perversely rooting for. One of the best things about Martin’s series is the incredible, amazing, and numerous strong female characters. Arya Stark, Daenerys, Brienne, Asha Greyjoy, Ygritte...these are women whom all women can root for, women who defy convention and walk their own path while still embracing womanhood. Watching Cersei battle her political rivals and struggle to keep her house of cards from falling down...well, it was far more gripping than Brienne’s fruitless scavenger hunt, that’s for sure. Yeah, A Feast for Crows doesn’t quite work, but the great thing is, it’s still a delight to read. That’s how skilled Martin is.

A Dance with Dragons is loads better, though not without its narrative gremlins. The first chunk of the book takes place concurrently with the previous volume, forsaking Westeros (for the most part) to focus on the far North and the lush, bloodsoaked Eastern continent of Essos. Here’s where Martin really broadened his canvas, and also where the series as a whole started feeling top-heavy to me. We get our fix of Dany, Tyrion, and Jon Snow, and their adventures do not in any way disappoint, but the farther they travel from the previously known narrative atlas, the more one wonders if Martin can reign things back in. The story used to be about who would get to rule Westeros and what to do about those undead Others beyond the Wall, and it is still about those things, but it’s also about a zillion other plots and missions and vendettas and mysteries and personal journeys. This is best illustrated during the second half of Dance, when the timeline catches up with that of Feast and Martin jumps around, visiting all his characters and just sort of...checking in. Nudging each subplot further along in a vague kind of way. I know he’s got two more books to go, each clocking in at over a thousand pages, but considering how many plates on sticks he’s now spinning, how’s it all gonna fit? Dance is a wonderful book, I loved every page, and when it ended, I felt a little anxious. Do we really need another claimant to the Iron Throne? Does anyone really care where Rickon’s been all this time? When the hell will Dany stop dragging her feet and sail for Westeros? How long’s it gonna take Arya to become the hardcore ninja assassin she was always meant to be? I know this is confusing to non-fans (who I must have reduced to a fetal position by now), but imagine how it is when you care about all this!

Basically, Martin needs to drop an asteroid on Westeros. I don’t mean that literally (well, it’d be cool, but...). I just mean that he should grab all his scattered, far-reaching plot strands and find a way to knot them tightly together for the big, epic finish we all crave. We already know he’s brutal to his characters (Dance ends with the maybe-death of yet another beloved main protagonist), so I’m guiltily wishing he’d cull away a lot of the peeps we don’t really need and find his way back to a focused narrative with main characters in the single digits. I’m sure we could spend many more books wandering through the glorious vistas of his fantasy world, but if we do that, dude’s gonna croak before he wraps it all up. He’d BETTER have a fucking endgame in mind, and he’d better get there without another bushel of sidequests and distractions. Now do you see why I’d never want to be George R.R. Martin? His series is a fucking frankenstein monster and it’s all his fault. And we, his fans, know it. Hell, I remember reading an entire New Yorker article devoted to the love-hate relationship between Martin and his readers. Now that I’ve read the books too, I get it. The Winds of Winter should be out next year. Should. Should should should. Meanwhile, the forums are getting nastier and Martin’s growing older and, oh yeah, that silly little TV show is catching up...............

Why does all this make me so gleeful?

To be continued! Someday!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Pacific Rim

Checking another one off the Cautious Enthusiasm list!

Some directors get away with a great deal because we love them. Their movies rarely fail to entertain, so we allow them to indulge their specific stylistic flourishes even when they become punchlines. Hey, they’ve earned the right to stick an “-esque” at the end of their names, yeah? That’s why I don’t mind Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s windup-toy whimsy, Tarantino’s smug fanboy plagiarism, or whatever the hell psychotropic drug Tarsem Singh is feeding his production designers. And Guillermo del Toro? He could make a PSA about slippery linoleum and I’d still pay to watch it. So when he decides to make a summer blockbuster in which giant monsters called Kaiju (Japanese for “Pikachu”) get into deafening punching matches with equally giant robots called Jaegers (German for “beer”), I’m nervous. What about del Toro’s baroque sensibilities? Where will there be room for gold filigree and organs in vats and goblins with bicycle wheels fused to their armpits and the other stuff he usually incorporates? They’re what make him an awesome director, not his box office numbers!

I’ve seen Pacific Rim and it’s all good. He needed to get this one out of his system and I can dig it. This film is DUMB, but not Transformers dumb. Transformers dumb comes with a side order of vicious cynicism: “We know perfectly well that you’re gonna spend money on this turd and buy Mountain Dew just because Bumblebee’s on the can, so let’s not pretend anyone cares about the actual movie here. Present your anuses for sodomizing now.” Pacific Rim is a seven-year-old boy who drank five things of Crush for lunch and is flailing around on his bedroom floor with all his toys, going “POW!!!! SPLAT!!!! NEEEEEYYYYOOOWWW YOU’RE DEAD!!! I SAVED THE WHOLE WORLD!” Having an enviable degree of fun. The boy grew up to be Guillermo del Toro in this case, and someone gave him enough money to make a movie where characters are named things like “Stacker Pentecost” and talk about dimensional rifts and telepathic linkage with a straight face. Where everything is huge and loud, but in a kinda joyous way, even when the future looks bleak. Believe me, del Toro knows what movie he’s making. Me and my friends couldn’t stop giggling. He knows when to milk a shot or angle for shamelessly cheesy badassery, when to turn up the Dubstep. He knows his characters are total cutouts and that we’ll guess who’s gonna live and who’s gonna die three minutes in. So?

Nothing in Pacific Rim makes much sense. Monsters from a dimensional rift start fucking up our cities, we build huge robots to strike back, they evolve in turn, and it becomes a Freudian contest of who can out-phallic-symbol the other. The film’s also suffering from what I like to call Snow White Syndrome. If you think about it, the original Snow White story features the world’s dumbest princess versus the world’s most incompetent evil enchantress, and the winner is whoever fails the least. Same thing here. Out of all the weapons to fight the Kaiju with, why would we design humanoid robots? Bipedal things fall over easily, hello! And why rely on two pilots who are telepathically linked, so one nasty flashback or killer hangover can ruin everything? On the other hand, why are the bad guy monsters taking forever to assault us, sending one foe at a time, giving us endless opportunity to retaliate? Are they taking tips from the dumbfuck aliens in Independence Day? And why do both the Kaiju and the Jaegers have an arsenal of powers, weapons, and attacks, but only remember to use each one exactly once? When a beastie gives off an EMP that shuts down not only the Jaegers but also the good guys’ HQ, our heroes would be in huge trouble if ANY of the subsequent Kaiju EVER did that again. The stupidity knows no bounds.

So...this movie is a juicy mound of silly fun. Del Toro had fun making it. Why can’t we have fun watching it? He keeps his playful touches even in the midst of generic action. The movie is bursting with neon colors (the Kaiju look like they’re off to the rave) and a fetishistic level of detail. The actors are fetishized too: Charlie Hunnam (as the haunted hero) squares his all-American jaw from within his sexy robo-armor, Idris Elba (as the hardass yet empathic commander) soaks the screen in daddy-figure charisma, and when Ron Perlman shows up...well, I won’t spoil that one because everyone should have the chance to lose their shit. I do pity poor Rinko Kikuchi, the token woman, stuck with a goo-goo-eyed, virginal Little Sister role who can’t operate without the penis-sporting guardians in her life. Oh, and Charlie Day pretends to be Rick Moranis and fails. But all these folks are the little Playmobil people dwarfed by the towering Robot/Monster Action Figures with Extendable Parts and Real Working Missiles on young Guillermo’s bedroom floor. Deal with it.

My biggest grievance is that one movie can’t contain all del Toro’s ideas. His Hellboy series suffers from the same problem, but it’s really bad in Pacific Rim because of all the time hogged by epic beat-downs and crumbling skyscrapers. It’s like Oblivion in that there’s too much narration at the beginning, but worse because of all the interesting stuff we glimpse in the opening montage that’s never dwelt upon again. Having just re-read the amazing World War Z (screw the movie; the novel is a horror masterpiece), I wanted Pacific Rim to go the same route and paint a global picture. How does humanity react to the Kaiju threat? How does each nation respond? We get glimpses, and the Jaegers are clearly defined by the culture that built each one, but there’s no time to stop for details. What about the whole telepathic-link thing? How was it invented? How does it work? That could be a film all by itself. So could one subplot involving a shady underworld devoted to scavenging dead Kaiju parts (those scenes are when the movie is most del Toro-esque). And the bad guys -- what’s their world like? How do they make/breed the Kaiju? Del Toro must have all this on record somewhere; you can detect the joyful effort he put into world-building. But he needs a different medium to share it with us. He needs a long comic series, or a thick trilogy of novels. One film is not enough; it has to live in the present. And I doubt there will be more films because Pacific Rim kinda flopped. Bless his heart, del Toro isn’t gonna compromise his weirdness enough to appeal to the drooling masses. But he’ll always have us faithful. We get it. Even when it’s stupid and indulgent, we get it. What director could ask for more?

VERDICT: If you go bonkers for del Toro, Pacific Rim is a movie to squee at!