Saturday, June 23, 2012

Brave: A Case of Inflated Expectations?

I will be the first to admit--from the moment I first spied the luminescent grass and the gorgeous musculature beneath the black shire's coat in the Brave teaser trailer that came out last year, I have been dying to see this movie. The gorgeous visuals set my limbs trembling, as good animation always does. I waited with impatient mouse clicks of checking and re-checking for a full-length trailer, and when that day came feasted with even more savor over the beauty Pixar had in store.

We bought tickets in advance for Friday's showing. I prepped my kids that it was going to be a great treat Friday morning to go see the movie together on one of my rare weekdays off.

So, in the blazing heat of June 22nd, we hoofed across the parking lot of the newest theater in town and took our seats twenty-five minutes early so we could be in the high-center of the theater, my preferred place for seeing a film for the sake of both visual and sound experience.

And from a visual and sound standpoint, Brave did not disappoint. Whatever software development Pixar did to wrangle the mind-boggling textures of Merida's hair, the coats on the animals, the stone, grass, moss--everything--it paid off. I heard one advance reviewer say the environments were reminiscent of How to Train Your Dragon.* Well, only in the way an art student's attempts at the reproduction of an Old Master are reminiscent of the original. Pixar clearly has the leading edge on the technology that makes their films visually deeper than just about anything out there. (OK, Weta workshop gives them a run for their money, but Pixar is still the horse I'd bet on in that race if I were the betting type.) 

Back to the environments, though--the lighting was stunning, and the foliage, rock, and even soil of the world was rendered with the type of detail that was romantically super-real. When I was taking animation history with teacher and author John Culhane in college, he used to talk about how animation, in order to be making optimal use of the art from, needed to take reality and go beyond it. Make it more beautiful than it can be in real life. Somehow, the folks at Pixar do this without slipping over the edge of making the environment somehow too alien. Elements of the characters and environments may be exaggerated, but you still believe them with wide-eyed wonder.

That all being said, visuals are only the smaller portion of a movie's make-up, we all know this. What makes a movie a classic, a masterpiece, is the story. And this is where Brave faltered for me. But I do have to agree with the advance reviewers. This one didn't sing like The Incredibles, or Monsters Inc. or Toy Story or...or...or... It lacked the tight interweaving that I love in the best of what Pixar has offered in the past. (Which is ironic, since a tapestry figures into this film prominently.)

I often point to the writers at Pixar for being the masters of plant and payoff--where no element in the film is wasted. Sure, there were concepts established and used in this film, but simply not to the same "Aha!" effect as I have seen in the past. But the story this time seemed to suffer the effects of being in production for six years, being reworked umpteen times, switching directors eighteen months before the release, and then finally letting the film escape to the public for Disney's usual summer release date. It reminded me of my efforts at painting--where things weren't right and I reworked and reworked until what I had was a muddy, mostly-changed version of what I had set out to accomplish.

I could have lived with a little bit of looseness in the joints of the story if it hadn't been for the fact that the film played a couple of cards that instantly ruin a story for me. The lesser of these two infractions was the use of implied or on-screen nudity. I did not need to see a dozen animated Celts without their kilts on. Yes, it was only from the back, but it was an unnecessary grab for a laugh in a film that had garnered few to that point. I was astonished, to be honest, how quiet the audience was on the opening-day showing I attended. In the first twenty minutes of the film, gag after gag went by without eliciting even a chuckle from anyone. The nudity jokes did not help.

The second card in Brave's hand that I absolutely abhor is the "Men are Fools" card. Throughout the film, every man depicted on screen is a buffoon who can't express himself, who has no wisdom to contribute, and bungles along, only dragged to some sense of civility or competence when a woman sets things straight. I appreciate that women do a lot to help support the men around them, but this worn, stupid depiction of men basically wrecked most of the Brave viewing for me. I found myself folding my arms and gritting my teeth, when I'm usually perched on the edge of my seat, drinking a movie in. Yes, by the end of the tale, Dear old Dad's more relaxed philosophy does seem to win the day, but he gets no credit for seeing a better path. I get that this is primarily a mother-daughter tale, and I know I would love that story, deftly handled. Even a single scene between King and Queen where he gets a moment to show she listens to him and he has real wisdom to imbue would have turned this around for me. It wasn't there, and I say shame on Pixar for contributing to the pile of movies out there that feed the "woman are competent, men are a bunch of idiots" mantra.

Overall, I wouldn't discourage anyone from going to see the film. Much of it was beautiful and wonderful, and there is a very well-played poignant moment between Merida and her mother that offers a turning point in their relationship. But in general, the story points of the film came off less polished than I've come to expect, and no theme or point rang with the clarion peal we viewers usually count on Pixar to deliver. 

Yes, I concede that I am infinitely hard to please anymore. But that's what happens when you've been presented with a steady diet of film delicacies, and suddenly you get a plate of generic spaghetti with jarred sauce. (Even if the sauce came in the most beautiful jar with a label so stunning you could almost cry looking at it.) My faith is not shaken, though--I'm still looking forward to summers to come, and pray this story slump Pixar has found itself in will ebb.

*Please don't get me wrong. I adored How to Train Your Dragon. But I must stand firm on my opinion their use of the technology was deft, but not as masterful as the Pixar team's.

Monday, June 18, 2012

You Can Only Account for So Much Stupidity

I am a huge fan of David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants, a column of writing tips he sends out now and again. Today he was talking about how you can't expect every one who reads to be a rocket scientist, but sometimes, it can be astounding how completely...well...numbskulled people can be when they comment or complain about books. Here's just a part of what he had to say about one such reader...

Yet sometimes a reader will be so obnoxiously asinine, so resplendently stupid, that you just have to sit back in awe. For example, I got a review on from a young person who just found that the Runelords had too many unintentionally comic images. Mainly he objected to the word “ponies,” which only came up once in the novel.

Ponies, of course, are breeds of horses often derived from populations found in mountain ranges. They tend to be heavy-bodied, small-hooved, large-chested, and have great endurance. When you ride one through thick brush or trees, you’re less likely to get knocked off your horse by low-hanging branches than if you ride a larger mount, and on mountain trails they tend to be sure-footed so that they don’t slip and send you flying over a cliff. With their large chests, they can draw air easier at high altitudes. For this reason, they’ve been used for combat in mountainous terrain around the world throughout history. So when I mentioned in the novel that bandits had used mountain ponies to make quick strikes in one rugged area, the reader said that he found himself imagining the bandits riding “My Little Ponies.” As he imagined this, he laughed inanely.

Sigh. If you’re more familiar with My Little Ponies than with real horses, is it the author’s fault? Should the word “pony” be forever banned from literature? If, among three million readers and a host of very bright editors you’re the only one who had a problem with the word “pony,” shouldn’t you consider that maybe you’re the one who has the problem?

Maybe you shouldn’t smoke crack while you’re reading.

Or maybe it really is me. I have difficulty relating to a person whose IQ is too close to that of an earthworm.
 I really needed that post today, to remind me not to try to write smarter than I am (which ulitmately makes a person sound stupid), and also to assure me that sometimes people are just not operating with working bulbs in all the sockets. Thanks for the laugh, Mr. Farland, as well as the dose of reality!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Nit to Pick: Passive Voice

As writers, we all have the ginormous job of learning the craft of writing. Just like you wouldn't try to build a house and expect it to stand without first learning something about carpentry and architecture, you can't expect to just sit down and punch out a story with the expectation it won't stink unless you get a sense of what rules exist and why.

When I was in junior high and high school, we spent a lot of time focusing on eliminating passive voice from our writing. Though I may have cursed the Downingtown Area School District's secondary English department while I learned under their tutelage, I am immensely grateful for the way they taught me good mechanics back in the day. Now, when I say passive voice, I mean the classic, grammatical definition, which is:  "the voice used to indicate that the grammatical subject of the verb is the recipient (not the source) of the action denoted by the verb." It is a very specific construction rule...not a nebulous, opinion-based situation as some critiquers would have you believe.

The phrase "passive voice," in some writing circles, has come to encompass anything that happens in the story that is a little weak in terms of character choices or wording. People seem to throw the term like a lead blanket over phrases written with being verbs, or in perfect tense, or just blandly. THIS IS NOT WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT--and it makes me crazy when people call that kind of stuff passive voice.

I think I need this shirt.
If we are going to be the iron that sharpens iron we should be to one another, we owe it to the writing community to know our definitions. Passive voice, where the subject noun receives the action ("The hero was smitten by the evil-doer's mighty sword stroke") is clearly something we should avoid any time anything short of  verbal contortions makes it possible.

Progressive and perfect tenses are sometimes absolutely necessary in order to convey accurate chronology. The presence of a being verb has next to nothing to do with passive voice. Granted, whenever you can replace one of the twenty-three being verbs with an active verb, by all means, do so! And sometimes, passive voice works for effect or clarity. I would argue that instance comes once in a very great while, but it does arise.

My challenge to the new writers out there: if you didn't get a thorough grammar education in school (and if you are under about sixty years of age, chances are you didn't, because grammar became very unfashionable in the 1960's) do yourself the favor of studying up on your own. I know I'm still learning each day--filling in gaps that I've forgotten or never heard. In a day and age where actual literacy and deftness with language is on a rapid decline, we as writers must hold the line. Knowing what is good, solid construction, why, and when to depart from it, is just the beginning--the raw lumber from which excellent stories are built.

(And yes, I fully note the irony that the last fragmental portion of this post indeed utilizes passive voice!)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Reviews for Friends

We writers, especially Christian writers, are a small, tight-knit group.  That group gets even smaller and tighter when you narrow it to Christian Speculative Fiction writers. I am deeply grateful for the good friends I have made, if only virtually, in this writing journey I am on.

It was a lot easier, though, when we were all pre-published. At that phase of the game, we were exchanging critiques, delivering the hard truth to one another on our manuscripts, because we all wanted to see these embryonic books grow to maturity and find homes in the publishing world. We could say what needed to be said back then, because we could all see the goal--we all needed iron to sharpen iron so our work would be as honed as we could possibly get it before it went out a-courtin'.

I'm finding myself in a new, much more difficult spot, now that I'm reading published books, written by friends, whose manuscripts I never saw during the iron-sharpening-iron phase. For those of you who have known me for a while, you probably recall that I have gone on the occasional rant about things like the quality of cover art and of editing, and how we as artists should react when we see something less-than-glorious out there for sale.  Within the Christian bubble, I think we do too much back patting and cheering when we really should be speaking constructive truth. (Now, to be fair, know that I am stingy when it comes to accolades. I was a nightmarish grader when I taught, that teacher who some students railed at: “What do I have to do to get an A?” I reserve the fifth star for work I feel I could find nothing significant to change and lost myself within during the reading.)

A problem arises for me when it comes to reviews of my contemporaries' books. I want honest reviews of my work. I want to give honest reviews. But at the same time, I don't want to make public statements about my friends' work that will hurt them, either personally or from a marketing standpoint.

So what's an author to do when she reads a book she feels has significant weaknesses that it is too late to address because the book is out there on the virtual bookshelves, in a print-on-demand company's files, and being read across the continent (or even globe?) Is this a time to put up that candid review that might deter another reader from trying the book? Would I, as an author, want to stand at a table at a convention and have a friend of mine standing in front of me, shaking her head and telling customers who come to peruse my work, "This book has problems. I'm just being honest?"

The question of honest reviews becomes much murkier because of this marketing aspect of things. I'm beginning to re-evaluate my hard line stance of saying we all need to post exactly how we feel about current books on the market. Yes, if an author friend asks for my opinion of his work and my opinion is negative, it seems to me I need to be big enough to write that author or give him a call and be truthful. However, it also occurs to me that the "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all (on Amazon)" rule might need to apply to reviews between friends. 

One thing I would never endorse is writing a review that rates the book higher than I think it really deserves. I patently refuse to post lies.

If our books get widely-read enough, there will be plenty of objective sources to blast us. So for the time being, here's my stance: If you are my friend and you want me to read and react to your book, I'm happy to do so. However, if I don't love it, and if the star rating in my mind dips below a four, I have a feeling I won't be posting any reviews--for the reason of not wanting to be that ball-and-chain on your marketing efforts. I will happily give you an explanation (likely a multi-page explanation at that) of why the book slipped below the level where I am comfortable publicly expressing my opinion. If you want it.

But as for me, I want to be in the business of contributing to my friends' success while still having integrity. Publicly tearing my friends down doesn't seem to fit that model.