Tuesday, February 21, 2012

There Will Be Disappointment and Peculiar Children

There Will Be Blood

Way back when I was still in school working on my degree in English, I had a particular English professor. There was one pretty sure way to do well in his class and that was to have "huge... tracts of land." True story: One day after class a female friend and I were waiting to ask him a question. We were both English students and in the same year, so we had a lot of classes together, and this wasn't the first time we'd been in this professor's class together. So, finally, he turns to us and before whichever of us could ask whatever question it was, he looked at her and said, "You don't happen to play volleyball, do you?" It wasn't until much later that we realized what he'd meant by that question. Huge tracts of land.

Being male, I didn't have huge tracts of land, so I had to rely on the alternative method of doing well in his class. In actuality, I'd accomplished that the first semester I'd had him. It's going to sound easy, but, really, it wasn't. The way to be even more assured of doing well than having huge tracts of land was to write a paper that was beyond his grasp. Scores of kids went into his classes with the assumption that that was an easy thing to do. Easy A. Just write a "deep" paper that the professor couldn't "get," and he'd give you an "A." And this was true. But it took a lot more to be able to do that than most students had in them. I did it with my very first paper before I'd heard about that "trick." I sort of became his prized student and everyone always wanted my help with their papers.

Several years ago, my wife and I decided we were going to watch all the "Oscar" movies. Mostly, this means we're watching the best picture winners, but we also branch into the ones nominated for best picture and some with best actor and actress wins. The idea here is that these should be the best movies of each year. However, sometimes, movies win not because they are good but because the professor just couldn't understand the paper. Because the critics or the panel or whomever didn't understand the movie, they assume it must be "deep" and decide it's great. Mostly so as not to look like they didn't get it.

We recently watched There Will Be Blood, and this was just such a movie. Now, I'm not going to say that Daniel Day-Lewis didn't deserve the best actor Oscar for the movie; he certainly did. He was tremendous and scary. But the movie was also nominated for best picture, and I have no choice but to believe that it was nominated because people just didn't understand it and decided, because of that, that it must be great and deep. It was based on an Upton Sinclair novel, so that must be true, right?

I haven't read Oil!, so I can't speak for the novel, but I was extremely disappointed with the movie. It wasn't about anything. Which is not to say that it wasn't about anything except that it wasn't. It was only about something in that it was about the life of Daniel Plainview, but it wasn't anymore about anything than the life of someone off the street is about something. Things happened. Lots of things happened, but none of them were about anything. You get to the end of the movie and look back and the only thing to say about it is, "what was that about?" and there's no answer for that question. I suppose, maybe, some people may consider that deep, but I call that not being about anything, so, really, what's the point?

[Note: I looked up some stuff about the book, and it backs up my assumption that the movie isn't about anything. The movie switches the main character to a supporting character and focuses on one of the supporting characters. A character which does not make it all the way through the book and a character without an actual plot arc. Basically, the movie ends at around the point where the book is really getting into whatever is going on. This would be kind of like making an adaptation of The Three Musketeers with Porthos as the main character and ending the movie when he gets wounded and has to stay behind.]

Related to that was the music. The music was... well, I have no good word for it. The music was the kind of music that makes you think something bad is about to happen except that it played that way throughout the entire movie. It made my wife tense so that she kept actually talking about what could be about to happen, and it (the music) was very distracting from the whole experience of watching the movie because nothing was ever about to happen. Well, except for a few times, but, mostly, no, nothing was about to happen.

The best part of the movie, the most artistic section, was the first 10 minutes or so. At first, there's no sound. Then, there's no dialogue, just Plainview doing his thing. Just a solitary man without sound in his life because he's alone. The movie descended from there, and I felt like I'd wasted my time after it was over; although, the conversation my wife and I had about it the next morning at breakfast made it worth watching, I suppose. Neither of us liked it, though, which is saying something.

My biggest issue, I think, is that the character ends up just as he started. He undergoes no change. No change means no story. When it comes down to it, this is a man vs himself story, but Plainview not only didn't win, he didn't even bother to show up for the conflict.

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children

I wanted to like this book. I expected to like this book. I mean, it has a great title. It also has a great cover. And it has a novel idea, the idea of using photographs as part of the story. I'd heard so many good things about this one from people posting about it and such, I figured it must be good. Plus, it was recommended to my wife by people she knows. And, well, it is a best seller, but, maybe, that should have served as a warning. I mean, I really know better than to trust that best seller=good book. It can mean that, but, more often than not, it's a signal to be wary.

All of that said, I didn't enjoy Peculiar Children. The first thing that really bothered me, and I mean it really bothered me, was that the Jacob went on and on about how he must be losing his mind. It was just annoying. The constantly trying to convince himself that he was crazy. Even when he was past the point of finding things unbelievable, he continued to tell himself that he must be going crazy and couldn't have seen or experienced what he did see and experience. If the author wanted to cast doubt on whether Jacob's experiences were real or not, he should have found some better way to do it, because the audience is never in a position to doubt Jacob's experiences, so the fact that Jacob doubts them is completely unrealistic. Especially since it's told 1st person.

The next issue I have with the book is that Jacob makes grand, sweeping, general statements about things fairly frequently early on in the book and, then, immediately contradicts them with more specific examples. And this is more of an editing issue, but the story occasionally slips into present tense. It's told past tense but every so often there will be a few sentences in present tense. It makes me wonder if it was written present tense and the author's editor or published wanted it changed, and they missed some passages. It was very disconcerting every time it happened, though. (And it was probably heightened for me, because one of my creative writing students has this problem of switching back and forth between past and present tense, so I'm hyper aware of it, right now.)

But my biggest issue with the book by far is that, out of nowhere, there is time travel. What the heck? Seriously? In general, authors should just stay away from time travel. Especially when the author is trying to pass of magic as science. [There will be a post about this at some time.] Everything in Peculiar Children is told from a very modern, scientific perspective, but, then, there are all of these stupid things the author throws in because he wants it to be that way although there is no scientific reason for it. Like technology from the present not working in the past. Why? Were the laws of physics different 60 years ago? I don't think so. It's just DUMB! Also, if people from the past come to the present, the weight of all of their years catch up with them, they age super fast, and they wither and die. Why? Because the author wants it to be that way not because there is any scientific rationale for it. It's a STUPID idea! Not just in this book, either. This is something I see trotted out a lot, and it's just DUMB! From a scientific point of view, at any rate. If you want it to be that way, just write a fantasy story and make it magic so that you don't have to explain it. If time travel was possible, scientifically, there is no reason why anyone should suddenly age by jumping into the future. That, by definition, would mean that time travel is not possible. At least not in a way that anyone would want to do it. Oh, and he conveniently forgets about all of this at the end of the book, because it suits his plot. None of the time travel stuff is even consistent within his own world, and that is something that screams bad writing at me. When you make up a world, be consistent to your own rules!

There are other issues and inconsistencies, too, but, even if there weren't the time travel thing would be enough for me to not like the book. The hollowgasts, the big bad in the book, are freaky early on when they're just being talked about, but the actual thing in the book doesn't fit the image of what is created early on, and what they end up being is really rather dumb, beings that crawl around on their tongues. >insert eye roll here<

All of that said, there were some spots where the writing really took over and pulled me in. I could actually get immersed in the story from time to time. Until something new and stupid popped up, then, I would sigh and wonder how I'd forgotten how dumb the book was overall. The worst part is that I still want to like the book. I want to like it in that I wish the author hadn't decided to throw in time travel and all of the other stuff he did that makes me not like it. I wish someone had been there to say, "hey, this time travel stuff is inconsistent at best. You need to tighten this up if you want it in the book."

There are two lessons to learn here:
1. Don't use magic as science. Just don't do it. If you don't have good science to go with what you want to happen, don't present it that way.
2. Be consistent to your own world. One of the biggest issues with, well, all stories are authors doing whatever they want under the umbrella of "magic" (or whatever) and losing all consistency. If you have a rule, follow it. (So, if you're characters can't leave their time loop at one point in the book because they will age 80+ years and die within a matter of hours, don't decide at the end of the book that this is no longer an issue.)

Both of these works were disappointments, which is unfortunate since I wanted to like them both.

[Note: "The Evil That Men Do" is now available for the Kindle. And only the Kindle. Yeah, sorry about that for you Nook people, but I've put it in the new Kindle only program, so that's where it will be for the next few months. Lucky for you all that there is a free Kindle app for the PC (which is what I use), and it's a fairly short work that won't chain you to your PC for several days. See the link at the right to purchase "The Evil That Men Do," or click on the Tiberius tab for more information.]


  1. So should I watch the Daniel Day Lewis film or not? I get the impression you didn't like it but were glad that you watched it. So are you recommending that I watch it so that I have watched it even though watching it is probably not worth the time? Because sometimes it is worth the time to watch something that is not worth the time to watch.

  2. I thought "There Will Be Blood" was a good portrait of a very evil man. Sort of like "Citizen Kane" or "The Social Network" or "The Godfather Part II" without the whining about how lonely and isolated he becomes as he acquires wealth and power. Unlike Charlie Kane or fake Zuckerberg or Michael Corleone he didn't care that he was alone and unloved at the end. He had his huge house with the bowling alley in it and his money and stuff. That's what I got out of it.

    I remember in 2009 I watched quite a few of the Oscar contenders from 2008 (Slumdog Millionaire, Benjamin Button, one or two others) but the last couple years I've lost interest. I knew "The King's Speech" would win because any movie combining the British monarchy with WWII (two of Hollywood's favorite subjects) was destined to win. Just like this year I know "The Artist" will win because there are no British royalty movies or WWII movies (I don't think) so there's nothing else Hollywood loves more than itself. Personally if I want to watch a silent movie I'll rent a Charlie Chaplin movie; why watch a knock-off when you can watch the real thing?

    I don't really like time travel either yet I used it in two different Scarlet Knight sequels. (The sixth one has one character going backwards and another going forwards in time.) So maybe I should just quit griping about that.

  3. Michael: Well, it depends. If you want to see Day-Lewis doing some incredibe character immersion (that may be a better term than acting for what he does), then, yeah, you should see it. It's not worth watching for the story, though, since there's not one.

    Grumpy: I think my big problem with that idea is that they had to bring in another character for Plainview to actually tell about how he hates people. There's very little within the actual story to show us any of this, so they have to come out and say, "hey, I hate people."

    As for time travel, I suppose it depends on -how- you used it. There are some great time travel stories out there (The Doomsday Book, Timescape (although, that's not really trave), A Sound of Thunder), but you really need to know what you're doing when you use that one. Don't just throw it in because it's cool. That's what I felt like with Peculiar Children.

  4. You're right that Day-Lewis deserved the Oscar, because his performance was brilliant. The film was odd, though. I think that's the best word I can use to describe it.
    Every year I go on a quest to see as many of the Best Picture contenders as possible before the awards. This year, I just haven't had the inclination. I think I've watched two of nine. And one was the 'stupid horse movie.' (Technically 'stupid horse movie II.' My wife insisted on seeing Secretariat as well.)

  5. Alex: It was odd, but I don't think it was odd in a good way.
    So you didn't like Warhorse (that's WWII, isn't it?)? I want to see it.

  6. I did not see the movie. I do try to watch all of the Oscar nominated movies if I can. I saw that someone commented on War Horse I really enjoyed that movie but it was sad. I liked Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children. I am not sure if it is because the pictures were so cool and the idea terrific but I did enjoy the story for what it was....not a literary masterpiece but entertaining.

  7. I am hit and miss watching Oscar nominated films, much like literary fiction, I usually find that I don't enjoy them very much. Lots of people staring into the middle distance and long periods without dialog.

    Whatever, I'm being pretty generic, I'm just saying, I'm disappointed more often than not.

    I'm glad you got The Evil that Men Do up. I'm sure that will look good on everyone's Kindle.

  8. Rarely do I love what critics do. I've often wondered if I am just not sophisticated enough but it doesn't make me say I do like it. I haven't seen many movies that are contenders this year. I do think Nick Nolte deserves recognition for his role in Warrior.

  9. Miss Peregrine is on my TBR list. I'll probably still read it eventually but it might move to the library list rather than the buy list.

  10. We had pretty much the same reaction to "There Will Be Blood." And also "Atonement", which started out great and ended with extreme disappointment.

  11. I had a similar impression of Miss Peregrine. It felt very much like the author just thought of a Cool Idea and then slapped together whatever came into his head to support the Cool Idea without really thinking it through. Overall I thought it had potential but was disappointed.

    And I totally agree with your two lessons. I HATE it when authors explain things that happen by saying either "It's Magic!" or "It's Science!"

  12. Jennifer: Yeah, I know you liked Peculiar Children, and, really, I was doing okay with it until the time travel came into it. There were some issues, but they were the kind I could overlook. But the time travel sent it all down a bad road, especially with all of the contradictions in how he handled it.

    Rusty: Mostly, I'm okay with the nominations and winners. I don't always think they are great, but I usually don't think they're bad. There Will Be Blood, though, was bad. Except for Day-Lewis.

    I hope it looks good on everyone's Kindle. So far, though, people don't seem to be agreeing with that (based on the (lack of) sales).

    Nancy: I think critics take joy and pride in "liking" things that don't make it with the general public. Like liking bad wine because it's French.
    I haven't seen Warrior.

    Sarah P: It's unfortunate, because the book looked so promising and loads of other people have loved it. It does seem to be a love or hate book based on the reviews I'm now seeing.

    Sarah: I can't remember if I've seen Atonement. I'll have to check and avoid it if I haven't.

    Sarah McC: Yep, that's exactly how it seemed. If he'd actually sat down and worked out rules for all of his time travel crap, it may have been okay, but he just used it to be able to do whatever he wanted to happen at any given time so that there were no rules.

  13. Yeah, I felt the same way about "There Will be Blood," including the music. I feel like they put that music in there to breed a sense of something coming, as if it would pick up the pace of the movie. I'm so glad I was able to do 20 other things while watching this movie, because I stuck it out, thinking maybe it would get better, that there'd be something for me to care about. There just wasn't. I didn't care.

    I haven't read the book yet, so have no opinion. I am intrigued at the idea behind it with the photos, and I've seen reviews all over the place, but it hasn't been my first choice to purchase when buying books yet, so we'll see.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  14. Shannon: Yeah, that's how we felt about the music, too. I feel like they kind of cheated me that way. Lied to me.