Wednesday, November 27, 2013

'Twas the Update Before Thanksgiving


I don't have a whole lot to report.  I've been busy for both good and bad reasons... recently bad, but I won't go into it.

First, What's New With the Blog?  Well this month and next month will likely be quiet, or at least not unusual.  However, I'm toying with the thought of expanding it to three times a week -- two posts short, less than 500 words, and one post my standard long one.

You may have noticed that I changed my tag at the top.  While mainly keeping the content unchanged, I want to skew the focus on this blog a bit more in the introvert and introverted section.

That said, an old and welcome piece of business will soon be back: Downton Abbey recaps!  I'm sure no one will know what happened and everyone will be super surprised, right?!

Second, What's New With the Novel?  I know you want to hear, right?  Well the selling part remains stalled mainly because it's the holidays.  I still have that query letter and synopsis hovering on the edge of being ready to send, but not quite (agh!) and need to research specific agents rather than just randomly sending them out.  At the same time, I have begun outlining the second novel in the series.  A lot of awesome stuff happens... just like in the first one!  I will start querying again full force in January.

Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving my American brethren and Happy Some Other Day to everyone else!      

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Unpopular Opinion: The Problem Isn't That There Aren't Enough Special People in the World -- It's That There Are Too Many!


There is a mocking term for people who have an unearned sense of their own importance: "snowflake."

"You're such a special snowflake!" the taunt goes.  "You got trophies just for showing up in kindergarten.  Your mommy and daddy told you every day how wonderful you are and no one else is like you.  You think you shit gold.  Only now do you understand that no one else gives a shit about you."

This taunt is usually aimed at today's youth, up to about the age of 30, though technically it could be aimed at anyone.  The taunter aims to knock a sense of humility into the recipient, reduce the recipient's confidence, remind him or her that the world is hard and unforgiving.  People get used and chewed up and spit out, and only a few truly get to wear the "special" mantle.

But what if this is the wrong message?

What if the problem is that this person is special?  That there are not too few special people in this world, but too many?

Too many, that is, for our society to utilize their skills properly, so that they are able to be their best selves?

Think about it: you hear a lot about the supposed abundant mediocrity that exists everywhere in our society.  Yet what else do you see?  Stories about thousands of highly skilled, overqualified people fighting for just a few jobs that may not even use their skills.  Except for certain fields, these stories seem to affect everyone, from artists to scientists.

Those of us in creative fields are probably the most familiar with this sort of crapshoot.  When I was trying to be a television writer, I looked at two roads: production assistant on a television show who would then rise through the ranks, or staffed via an agent.  Either one was absolutely stuffed with people trying to do the same thing.  While I'm sure countless hacks traveled those roads, the other occupants were talented, smart, and driven people trying to win one job.

Sometimes it makes sense for opportunities to be so limited.  You can't, for instance, have 2,000 successful electric car companies, even though there might be enough people to create and run such companies.  You can't have 1,000 ballerinas in a performance, or five people serving as one lead character in a musical.  There might have been 20 brilliant choices, but There Can Only Be One.

And yet, do options need to be so restricted in other cases?  Must any aspiring writer only go through the channels created by Hollywood, or the publishing industry, to gain success?  Why can't a television writer job be like an engineering job -- no matter where you live, there are companies that hire television writers to produce their scripted shows?  Those that are hired would go to their office five days a week, where they would brainstorm or write a script.  Why are these positions treated like a holy grail kept just out of reach?  Why do there seem to be plenty of engineering jobs, but so few television writing jobs?

For a long time, it was supposedly because people would only watch content produced by Hollywood, especially the big networks.  There were no other options, or if there were, no one would take them seriously, and they would not be profitable.  People's attention spans were only so great.

Countless dreams and productions died because of these assumptions.  Yet as Internet television becomes more popular, we are learning that, in fact, people are willing to check out content not produced by Hollywood, and that there is an audience available for just about every type of show.  Yes, not every show will succeed, but many more will succeed than would have been the case 20 years ago.

Yet even so, people chosen to work in these competitive fields are treated as though they have something special, an "it" factor that others lacked.  Often that "it" factor is a relative in the industry, but I digress.  In all likelihood, these people are not more special than their competitors for the role -- it's just that the producer may have had a biased toward a particular type, and he or she fit that type on that particular day.  Treating "winners" in the creative field like they have uniquely endowed gifts only serves to justify the stifling, cut-throat nature of the industry.  The system MUST work because the best people were chosen, right?

It used to be that these situations were largely restricted to creative fields.  But now they seem to be everywhere -- teaching, bio chemistry, nursing.  Each person who gets a highly competitive job in this bleak economy is the "best," a "winner."

In reality, what this shows is that our society -- and I am referring specifically to the United States, though other countries could apply as well -- does a lousy job developing and rewarding talent.

Make no mistake -- there are a lot of people with great skills and talent out there.  Ignore the laments of employers who claim that Americans don't do X or don't know Y -- half of the time, it is just an excuse to bring in cheaper replacements.  While our society encourages the development of skills in certain occupations -- such as the tech industry -- other valuable skills are pushed to the wayside.

Never mind those "English major" skills of writing and analyzing -- who needs those? -- what about science?  What about biotechnology, which paves the way for so many promising treatments?  Hiring prospects are bleak, and have not improved much since this paper was written.  Fairly recently, many of those with biotech degrees were encouraged to switch from their "riskier, more exploratory fields" to the more nuts-and-bolts computer science, which is in demand.

Some skills and talent being more in demand than others is nothing new.  And some would defend the cut-throat competition that currently pervades everything as a way of sharpening skills and thickening skins.  That would be a good point as long as those who were the "losers" still had a place to use their talents.  So Big Company A didn't hire you?  At least you can work for Medium-Sized Company B.

Instead, what is often the case is that Big Company A is the only ticket in town.  If you can't work for Big Company A, it's time to put your dream, talents, and skill aside and choose something safe and money making.  To do anything else means that you are a perpetual loser, since if you were a winner, you would be making money from your dreams.

Yet who is the loser -- the thousands of smart, talented, motivated people who can't find employment suitable for their talents, or a society that is not flexible enough to develop areas where these people could thrive?

I realize that full employment -- much less full employment in the job of one's choice -- is pretty much a dream.  But how about thinking outside the box a little bit more?  How about deciding that not every job opening has to be like an audition for American Idol?  How about not forcing people to waste so much energy looking for work instead of being at work?

Yeah, yeah, bad economy, I know.  But this was a problem even when the economy was technically "good" -- from 2001 to 2009, slightly over one million jobs were created.  And half of them seemed to be in finance.

The solution likely won't be easy, but surely there has to be something better than letting so much talent rot?  So how about it, folks?  How about we put our heads together and try to think of a world that's better for all of us?  

The above photo comes from Stock Xchng and is free to use.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Hunger Games: In Defense of the Third Novel, Mockingjay

With novels like The Chocolate Wars, A Separate Peace, and Lord of the Flies under its banner, Young Adult literature was never a bastion of sweetness and optimism.  Rather, Young Adult literature (or "YA," as it is fashionably called) is used frequently to explore dark themes about ourselves and our society.  In fact, one could even argue that YA novels are often darker than adult novels, not only because the events are happening to kids, but also because authors can take advantage of the "kids' novels are safe" misconception to push the envelope.

Certainly The Hunger Games trilogy does not shy from darkness.  It's a post-Apocalyptic world where North America has been separated into 13 districts, each with its own specialty, while an oppressive Capitol rules over all of them.  If you have not read The Hunger Games, or you have only seen the first movie, stop reading now because I will be discussing the first and second novel along with the third installment.

SPOILERS AHOY!!!!!!!

Although The Hunger Games was about kids killing each other in a ritual series of games, the author was clear about its true intention: to expose the ugliness of a society that would turn children on one another.  Even though Katniss successfully killed kids from other districts, she knew that the true enemy was the Capitol, headed by the cruel President Snow.  While she was technically the "winner" of the 74th Hunger Game, she knew that there were no true winners while the Capitol kept the districts and its citizens oppressed.

This was made quite clear in the second novel, Catching Fire.  Katniss and Peeta's fleeting displays of solidarity with the other districts were met with a harsh crackdown -- they and all of the previous Hunger Games winners were forced to compete in the 75th Hunger Game.  At first Katniss's chances of survival looked grim, until it became clear that the other players were protecting her because she was the Mockingjay, a symbol of hope for the growing resistance.  Yet even though Katniss was spared, her district, District 12, experienced a much grimmer fate: it was bombed into rubble, killing most of its people (including some significant minor characters).      

That is where the third novel, Mockingjay, comes in.  Katniss is taken from the 75th Hunger Game to District 13, the mining and science district that was thought to be destroyed.  Instead, its people have gone underground -- literally.  The citizens of District 13 live in a network of underground caverns, designed like bunkers to withstand enemy bombing.  Led by President Alma Coin, they have been plotting to enlist the other districts in a great rebellion and bring down the Capitol.  For that, they need Katniss to present herself as the Mockingjay, around whom the masses can rally.

Criticisms and Defense of Mockingjay

Mockingjay, in many ways, seems like the inevitable final chapter of such a saga.  Where else can a story about citizenry abused by their powerful overlords lead except violence and death?  Yet many people object to Mockingjay as being too dark.  Katniss suffers grim tragedy upon grim tragedy -- first her home is obliterated, and then her sister Prim, the good-hearted person for whom she volunteered to be in the 74th Hunger Game, is killed during a bombing that seems to occur as an afterthought.

Prim's death is the sickening conclusion of what looks like the most satisfying portion of the novel: Katniss leading a band of rebels through the Capitol in order to take out President Snow.  The entire sequence feels like yet another Hunger Game, as it turns out the entire Capitol is boobie-trapped, much to the surprise and horror of Capitol citizens.  Katniss overcomes great obstacles, as one after another of her team succumbs, and then just as she reaches President Snow's mansion... nothing.  Defeat.  Even when Katniss gets another chance to kill President Snow, she instead redirects her fire and kills President Coin.  Katniss does get a happy ending of sorts, but it doesn't seem to even remotely make up for what she lost.  Maybe it would have been naive to expect a truly cathartic ending, but damn.

I can understand the frustration of readers who went into Mockingjay thinking that Katniss would finally settle scores with the Capitol.  If anything, Katniss is more helpless in Mockingjay than she ever was -- a pawn of President Coin, used in propaganda films and kept out of actual combat until she is forced to go it alone.  Even the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale is unsatisfying, with Peeta brainwashed by the Capitol and Gale becoming a hardened combat soldier.

At seventeen, she's seen enough for a lifetime.
At the same time, I like that the author, Suzanne Collins, chose that direction.  Mockingjay is an inversion of the usual trope that has the hero in a final battle with the Big Bad, after which everyone lives happily ever after.  Real life isn't like that, and young adults will get a taste.  Mockingjay shows us that the line between "good guys" and "bad guys" is not always clear; that even after the Big Bad is finally killed, society can still be in ruins with little hope of an easy fix.  The Capitol ruled with an iron fist for generations; that can't just be undone overnight.  Victories are small scale, such as Katniss and Peeta's cautious efforts to build a new life and raise their children without fear.  Their entire world could fall to pieces again at any moment, but for now, it is holding up.  What is wrong with exposing young adult readers to that different sort of ending?

The Flaws of Mockingjay

I find Mockingjay to be a fairly courageous book, as Collins had to know that she would receive some criticism.  At the same time, it is not perfect.  Prim's death happens "off screen," as it were, and is too sudden and random to have the desired impact.  Also, Prim herself is not a well-defined character, so I didn't feel anything from her death except sadness for Katniss, knowing what Prim meant to her.

Likewise, Katniss's murder of President Coin does not resonate as much as it could have because Coin is not that distinct a character.  She is cold, no-nonsense, and calculating, but otherwise decent enough until Katniss learns that she was behind the attack that resulted in Prim's death.  I felt like Katniss was too quick to side with President Snow against her based on his claim that he would never lie.  Of course he would never lie, the murderous sociopath who had no qualms about pitting children against one another in combat.  Even if President Snow is telling the truth about Coin, what makes him less horrible, less deserving of death?  "Sure I'm evil, but at least I'm upfront about it"?  Coin might be ruthless, and her idea of putting Capitol children in their own Hunger Games pretty horrible, but I just don't feel her enough as an evil person.  Her revealed evil just feels too plot driven, like "we're in the final third and there needs to be a twist, so here you go."  It would have worked better if Coin had a more fleshed-out personality.  Where we had come to trust her, only to realize, with a chill, that her evil was there all along.

Otherwise, I can't fault Mockingjay for the twist.  Sometimes the good guys can be bad -- for understandable reasons -- in different ways.  Interestingly, Gale appears to be on his way to becoming one of the "bad guys," but in his case, we understand his journey, why he would choose that path.  Maybe the final twist should have been Katniss realizing that Gale purposely orchestrated the attack that killed Prim, and then killing him instead of Coin.  Katniss killing her childhood friend?  Heartbreaking.

Conclusion

So there you have it -- my defense of Mockingjay.  Not the perfect book, but a challenging one, and better for having chosen a bleak ending over the happy shiny one.  So many adult novels, let alone young adult, fail to do this, so thank heaven for the ones that do.

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Sweeney Todd (Revisited)

I don't normally do this, but I figured it was appropriate for the musical that many regard as Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece.  Prior to my review, I had listened to some of the songs and watched part of the stage musical, but I wanted to post the review while the movie was still fresh in my mind.

Since then, I have watched the entire stage production on YouTube with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, purchased the 2005 Broadway version with Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris, and watched the 2001 Sweeney Todd concert in front of the San Francisco Symphony, starring LuPone, Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris as Toby.  While I feel as certain as before that Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd was a very good musical adaptation, I am able to approach the transition with a more nuanced perspective.

And durn it, if I can go on and on about the changes to Les Miserables over the years, I can at least give some attention to the American Mozart's masterwork, can't I?

After watching/listening to the various versions of Sweeney Todd, I had a greater appreciation for the various performers in the role (including Len Cariou, the original Sweeney), and for several of the songs in this dense production.  Without further ado... another list!

1.  Songs That the Movie Should Have Left Intact.  The one that comes to mind first and foremost is "God, That's Good!"  Though the movie leaves in a lot of good parts ("Bless my eyes... fresh supplies!"), it really does not begin to convey the complexity of that song.  Never has such a song (or most of the musical, for that matter) left me in such awe of the singers' (1) abilities to memorize and (2) elocution.  How many times did the singers need to practice before they perfected their delivery?  How often did they lie awake at night, terrified that they would forget a line?  

The other song I would have liked to see a little of, at least, is the title song.  It's just so deliciously menacing, the movie does not seem quite the same without it.  Burton could have just had the singing over the beginning credits -- there didn't need to be an actual chorus standing and singing.  For such an artistic man, it seems like a failure of creativity.

2.  Songs That the Movie Was Right to Cut.  "Kiss Me" is as complex and layered as any of the Sweeney Todd songs, and boy was Burton right to cut it.  First, the scenario -- Anthony and Johanna sneaking around behind Judge Turpin's back -- seems like something out of a sitcom, directly at odds with the musical's dark tone.  Second, it makes Johanna seem like a ninny, which undercuts the bittersweetness of moments where Anthony or Sweeney pine for her.  Then again, maybe that was the point.

I am also glad that Burton substantially reduced the Beggar Woman's role, because I think if it were larger, it would be much easier to spot the twist.  At the same time, the movie loses the darkly comic situation where his wife is the very first person to greet Sweeney Todd in London, yet he doesn't recognize her because he is so wrapped up in the Victorian purity image of her.  

Another song I wouldn't have minded axing is "By the Sea," which sounds like it belongs in a '60s B-movie starring Frankie Avalon.  But at least it doesn't turn Mrs. Lovett into an unlikeable ninny.

3.  Songs That Sound Better in the Stage Version.  It would be tempting to say "all of them," but that's not necessarily the case.  I actually think that Johnny Depp sounds just as good singing "No Place Like London" as George Hearn (in his own way, of course), and that Ed Sanders doesn't sound much worse singing "Not While I'm Around" than his older counterparts.  However, it is only through listening to the stage versions that I noticed the particular beauty of certain songs.

Take, for example, "Pretty Women."  What seemed like a silly, passable duet between Alan Rickman and Johnny Depp becomes a delicate layering of voices in the stage version, the aural equivalent of watching a flower bloom (I'm especially partial to the 2005 version).

Another stage version that is markedly better than the movie version is "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir."  While I think that Burton made a wise decision casting a kid as Toby, and that Ed Sanders was strong in the role, his singing can't match those of the adult Tobys when it comes to the more complex numbers.  With the adult performers, you get a much better sense of the songs' humor, and the many great lines pop out more, such as:

See that chap with
Hair like Shelley's?
You can tell he
Used Pirelli's!          

Likewise, without Helena Bonham Carter's soft, monotone singing, "Poor Thing" becomes a buoyant, tragic tale:

Of course when she goes there
Poor thing, poor thing
They're having this ball all in masks.
There's no one she knows there
Poor dear, poor thing.
She wanders tormented and drinks, poor thing!
The judge has repented, she thinks, poor thing!
"Oh where is Judge Turpin?" she asks.
He was there all right
Only not so contrite!

Finally, one song that really shines on stage is "A Little Priest."  Though I'm just as glad that Burton shortened it -- like Todd and Mrs. Lovett as they exchange puns, Sondheim seemed a little too pleased with his cleverness in this song, and just let it go on and on.

4.  The Best Actors in the Roles?  I think it's accurate to say that everyone brings a little something different to the Sweeney Todd role.  Johnny Depp is soft-spoken and morose.  Michael Cerveris is probably his closest stage equivalent, his voice cracking with fatigue and sadness.  Whereas George Hearn is more of an energetic, maniacal Sweeney Todd.  I haven't seen enough of Len Cariou or Michael Ball in the role, but from what I gather, Cariou is more of a straight belter, with less menace in his tone than some of the later Todds.  Ball seems to fall in between the "sad Sweeney" and "maniacal Sweeney" in his portrayal.

I don't know if there is a "best" Sweeney Todd, but rather each one seems to have strengths and weaknesses.  As I mentioned, I love Cerveris's version of "Pretty Women," but his voice lacks power in songs like "Johanna Quartet" or "Epiphany."  Whereas I really like George Hearn's "Epiphany," bristling with rage and madness, and I am also quite partial to Michael Ball's version.  Meanwhile, I think that Len Cariou's voice may be best suited for "Johanna Quartet."  Johnny Depp sounds moving in "The Barber and His Wife," as does Cerveris, and perhaps surprisingly, Hearn.  Hearn's portrayal can be too over-the-top at times, but in "The Barber and His Wife," his voice sounds delicate and real feeling cracks through.    


As for Mrs. Lovett, between Bonham Carter, Angela Lansbury, and Patti LuPone, I prefer Angela Lansbury.  However, you can't really say that the other two are bad.  Bonham Carter offers an interesting portrayal of a woman too burnt-out by life to care about the consequences of her actions.  LuPone is similarly cynical, but zestier, while Angela Lansbury plays the role as zany, yet sympathetic.  With only Beauty and the Beast to inform me, I was amazed to learn that Lansbury could really sing.  Even more amazing, while normally I criticize LuPone for her monotone singing and slurry diction, I could actually understand her much better than I could Lansbury.  The two strikes against LuPone are her accent (she's Cockney like I'm Cockney) and the slightly obnoxious edge she gives to the role.  That makes her probably my least favorite of the three.

Regarding Toby, the only one I dislike is the actor from 1982, who displays a great number of annoying ticks.  The other Tobys seem to tone it down a bit more, and of the adults, I am most partial to Neil Patrick Harris's portrayal.



5.  Stage Version I Most Wish to Have Seen.  I would love to see the Michael Ball version if it ever comes to this side of the pond.  Otherwise, the 2005 version sounded fantastic -- all involved not only did the singing, but played all of the instruments!   

Conclusion

Like any great musical, Sweeney Todd grows on you after a viewing.  The mind itches to master the complex lyrics, and songs that did not register the first time become stuck in your head after another listen.  Overall, I still think that Burton's movie does the musical justice, and let us hope that the same can be said of the upcoming Into the Woods.

On that note, I think I may have run out of actual good musicals to review within the past 10 to 20 years.  There remains, however, a highly well-known musical series out there that, try as I might, I cannot ignore.  At some point, I will need to do a review.  Oh the horror...

The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.