Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Les Miserables the Movie: The Rewatch

I had no special reason for posting this, except that I decided this past weekend to rewatch the Les Miserables movie, having not watched it for a while.  I was curious to see whether my impressions of it have changed.

Overall, while I'm not as wildly over the moon about the Les Miz movie as when it premiered, I still find it to be a worthwhile production.  Several have criticized Tom Hooper for failing to go larger than life with it, like in the stage production, with a barricade the length of a football field.  However, I think his choice to make it gritty and closer to the source material is commendable.  It would have been easy to follow the blueprint of the glossy costume musical, where the peasants' clothes glow brightly, there is not a speck of mud on the ground, and the players mime along to lyrics during elaborate dance numbers.  Hooper made some notable deviations, and they mostly paid off.  If his choices aren't better valued, it may be for the reasons I criticized the movie in the first place: the pacing, handheld camera, and the editing.  

1.  First, let me say that pacing is a problem both in the movie and in the current stage production.  Les Miserables is meant to be long.  LONG.  It's a huge-ass book and it began as a huge-ass musical of 3.5 hours.  While I understand (if not support) the reasons why they trimmed the stage production to below three hours -- due to actor union contract requirements -- there is no reason the movie version could not have been three hours.

Two hours and 30 minutes is already a long time.  What is a half-hour more?  People complain that the movie already feels too long, but one reason is because so much is crammed together in such a short amount of time (especially the first hour, which spans a good decade).  Conversely, they might be less inclined to think that way if certain scenes were allowed to breathe.  Or they're just lamers who were never going to like this movie anyway.  Go watch The Hobbit instead.  Oh never mind, that's three hours for just one installment.  Certainly a slim children's book is more deserving of a nine-hour extravaganza than a 1,500-page novel.

Which is to say: the Les Miserables movie needs to be longer.

2.  The editing sucks.  I said it before and I'll say it again.  Too many transitions are needlessly jarring because Hooper did not bother to create establishing shots.  Take, for example, the transition from dead Fantine to Cosette sweeping -- just bizarre.  Or from Marius and Eponine to a close-up of Cosette's face... somewhere.  Her bedroom?  The convent?  Who knows?  The worst transition of all, though, may be the one from Eponine post-"Heart Full of Love" to Thenardier and his gang about to rob Valjean and Cosette's house.

3.  The close-up shaky cam sucks.  It leeches any majesty from a scene, such as group singing scene in the ABC Cafe.  While I don't mind Hooper's signature wide-angled close-ups, I do mind that there aren't more still wide shots establishing the location.  See No. 2.

4.  Ever since someone suggested it, I cannot stop fantasizing about a Les Miserables movie starring Patrick Wilson as Valjean and Hugh Jackman as Javert.  Wilson would probably have been a less interesting Valjean than Jackman was, but his voice would have been up to the role.  Meanwhile, Jackman could have been a fabulous Javert, rigid and angsty like the best Javerts of the stage.

5.  That said, while Russell Crowe's singing was pretty bad at certain points, as I noted before, there were times when he sounded perfectly fine, such as "Another brawl in the square..."

6.  While I like Amanda Seyfried, adult Cosette was one case where the movie could have cast a talented unknown and lost nothing, even if her "spark" was not quite as bright.

7.  Hooper really doesn't like the Eponine role.  He probably would have cut "On My Own" if he could.  As it is, where it's set disrupts the usual momentum of the musical, where we go from the botched attack on Valjean's home to "One Day More."

8.  Eponine walking around in a sudden downpour looks silly.

9.  While Eddie Redmayne does not sing as effortlessly as the stage performers around him, his voice displays some power and he hits some absolutely gorgeous notes.

10. And yes, when Marius asks Gavroche to deliver the letter to Cosette in a scene right after Eponine's death, it does look callous, no matter what Hooper thinks.

11. The students/barricade scenes still are the best part of the movie.  Not only are they dynamic and fun, but they give the musical a chance to breathe, an opportunity it didn't have as we rushed from young Valjean to Fantine to dead Fantine to Cosette to Paris to... etc., etc.    

Overall, I still hold out hope for an extended cut that could cure some, though not all, of the problems I've had with the movie.  Next year will be the Les Miserables 30th Anniversary.  Dare we hope?

The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Through an Introvert's Lens: Roseanne

For about its first five seasons, Roseanne (1988-1997) was a revelation.  Those put off by Roseanne Barr's abrasive personality missed one of the few television shows (let alone sitcoms) to portray family and the working class in a realistic manner.

You just didn't see shows like this on the air.  Its fellow sitcoms included The Cosby Show and Growing Pains, both shows involving well-to-do families with large, impossibly neat houses.  Whereas Roseanne and Dan Conner's house looked like the house you might have: an old, faded afghan covering a worn-out couch; magazines strewn over the coffee table; odds and ends crowding a desk in the background.

And their family seemed like one you (or *cough* at least I) might have as well.  Not one where the kids were endlessly subservient to, and stupider than, the parents, like on The Cosby Show.  Becky and Darlene fought with their parents, sometimes viciously.  They fought with each other the same way.  They frequently derided and ignored their younger brother, DJ.  Yet the family also had wonderful bonding moments, individually and as a family, that somehow seemed sweeter because you knew that they were also capable of being cruel.   

And the show was funny, so funny.  Roseanne's war with her neighbor Kathy.  The Halloween episodes.  The diner episodes.  Jackie doing... anything (at least until she became a caricature of herself in later seasons).  Roseanne and Dan's reaction to Becky's boyfriend, Mark.  And so on.

I'm not doing the show justice with my description, but just wanted to give you an idea.  Anyone who bases their view of Roseanne on its last dreadful seasons, or on Roseanne Barr's off-screen antics or *shudder* Tom Arnold, is missing out on something truly special.  Roseanne was at least watchable midway through its sixth season, when its big shark-jumping moment happened with the casting of "new" Becky, Sarah Chalke, in place of Lecy Goranson.  It's not that Chalke was so bad in the role, but her persona was markedly different from Goranson's Becky.  Also gone was the believable sibling chemistry between Goranson's Becky and Sara Gilbert's Darlene, or Goranson's chemistry with the rest of the cast.  The Conners ceased to feel quite as much like a family, and that problem would only grow worse as the show continued.

Um, Isn't This Article Supposed to Be About Introverts?

I just was getting to that.  When one thinks of introverts on Roseanne, Darlene Conner almost immediately springs to mind.  She was Daria before Daria existed.  To reiterate the generalities about introversion, introverts tend to be:

  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • needs to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • thinks before he/she speaks
  • prefers to observe rather than be the center of attention

As applied to Darlene: check, partial check, check, not sure, check.  Which is to say that Darlene carries a lot of introverted traits.  She wears all black and likes to sit alone in her room, reading or writing.  With other people, she stands there in a dry, detached manner, before launching a sardonic quip, like so:

She doesn't care about impressing people.  She doesn't even seem to like people most of the time.  If she could live in her room forever, she would probably be happy.

The interesting thing is, that description only applies to Darlene from midway through Season Four onward.  From Season Five especially, she is the sarcastic Goth writer.  But before then?

She was a joker and a jock.  While not super-popular, you never got the impression that she was unpopular.  Pre-Season Four Darlene seemed pretty happy-go-lucky, at least compared to the moodier Becky.  From time to time you got a sense that there was something deeper and more contemplative there, such as the Season Two episode where Darlene had to deliver the poem.  But otherwise, Darlene the introverted writer was treated as a personality change, specifically in the Season Four episode "Darlene Fades to Black."  In that episode, Darlene's loss of interest in sports, and sudden interest in book shops, was treated like the onset of depression.

Would a person who is naturally introverted just change like that?  Forget the obvious explanation, that the writers just started to write Darlene differently.  Could a naturally introverted person act chirpy and perky and then change to moody and contemplative?  Maybe, if you accept that the more social personality was a mask for the more introverted one.  Many introverts become skilled at faking extroversion, acting as though they could be social forever when, in fact, it wipes them out.

Then again, even joker jock Darlene was never super extroverted.  We never saw her be the life of the party, just making quips at her family's expense much of the time.  And it's a bit of a stereotype that introverted people are always unhappy and moody.  It's possible for an introverted person to be generally happy, and to express that happiness, just in an introverted way.  Therefore, it's possible that Darlene Conner was always an introvert, even while her pre-Season Four jokey persona seemed to suggest she was not.              

That being said, is she the only introvert in the Conner household?

Probably not.  Becky could be an introvert as well, depending upon which actress plays her.  As played by Lecy Goranson, even though she is popular, she is also serious, a good student, and cares about big issues, like the environment.  As played by Sarah Chalke, she loves Mark and likes being happy... and stuff.  There is such a depth gap between the two actresses' portrayals that the show even made a joking number about it (starts at 1:04):

Based on the first five seasons (since I refuse to admit the last three, at least, even exist), it's definitely possible that Becky is an introvert.  While we don't see that she prefers to spend time in her room recovering from social situations, she has gone to her room to contemplate the deep issues.

But one Conner I think could definitely be an introvert is DJ.  He is frequently by himself, doesn't talk a whole lot, and enjoys activities that often defy his family's understanding.  As he gets older, he takes an interest in film making.  DJ tends to be deemphasized as a character, which accounts for part of his absence.  But you could just as easily argue that he doesn't appear often on screen because hey, he'd rather be off doing his own thing.

Roseanne and Dan, though?  Nah.  Despite the occasional claims that she should have been a writer, Roseanne rarely goes off by herself to write and seems to gain energy from interacting with other characters.  Dan, too, seems to like to hang out with other men, bonding over men stuff... and stuff.  It's tough to tell with Jackie, since we mainly see her only when she comes over to interact with Roseanne or the family.

How Does Roseanne Treat Introverts?

Going by the way Darlene is treated, pretty well.  While Roseanne initially expresses concern about Darlene's growing introversion, she realizes that the best thing she can do is respect Darlene's wishes to be left alone.  She also respects Darlene's goals, going so far as convincing her to go to art school (after initially opposing it) when Darlene is reluctant due to fear.  The show itself never treats Darlene's wishes like they are trivial or beyond a "normal" person's understanding.

Likewise, Becky's point of view is usually treated with respect, even when she is being absolutely horrible (no one could throw a good, realistic teenage temper tantrum like Lecy's Becky).  Compare this with the Huxtable kids on The Cosby Show, who are too-frequently treated like props for Bill Cosby's standup routine.

DJ, on the other hand, does not come across as well.  Much of this may have been due to the fact that Roseanne Barr understood girls better and wanted to emphasize the older girl characters more (not to mention Michael Fishman's more limited acting skills), but DJ is frequently treated as the "weird" kid.  Not just weird, but so quiet, he is forgotten on more than one occasion.  (In one episode, he points out that he hadn't spoken for two days, but no one noticed.)  

Then there is David, Darlene's boyfriend.  David is quiet and sensitive, possibly more introverted than Darlene.  While in the atrocious later seasons, these qualities would lead to David being treated like a wimpy girly putz, in Seasons Four and Five, his point of view tends to be treated with respect (by the show, at least, if not by Darlene).

On the whole, Roseanne (the good seasons, anyway) seems to respect characters' desire to be alone to think and create.  Pretty impressive for a show that gets such charge from character interactions.


To sum up, how does Roseanne treat introverts?

Number of Introverts: As many as three.  Four if you count David.

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Yes.

Is the Introvert Active?: Yes.

How Do the Other Characters Treat the Introvert: Mostly with respect, though sometimes (in the case of male characters, especially DJ) with derision.  That might say more about Roseanne's view of men than it does about its view of introverts.

I would encourage anyone who hasn't to check out Roseanne.  Just accept that the show ends after the eighth episode of Season Six.

Now to end with the best moments of Darlene and Becky.  Just because.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

How to Reduce Your Novel By 50,000 Words in 50 Easy Steps

Okay, so it's not quite 50,000 yet, just about 48,000.  My neo-Victorian novel stood at 174,000 words at its longest.  Now it's just under 126,000 and falling.  The goal is to get it as close to 120,000 as possible, or even lower, without killing it.

So far, with just under 6,000 to go, the novel still lives.  So how did I do it?  It's easy!

1.  Read through your entire book, snipping extraneous "even"s, "that"s, "only"s and other filler words that don't alter the meaning of the sentence if removed.  That's good for 1,500 or so.

2.  Read through your entire book again.  This time, on top of snipping extraneous words, snip certain extraneous sentences as well.  Now you've cut almost 6,000 words from your novel.  Wow!

3.  Cut a short chapter that, though it provides character moments, disrupts the flow and doesn't really add anything to the story overall.  So out it goes, all 2,000 words of it.  Goodbye fun little chapter.  Maybe years from now, you'll be included in a "cut scenes" release.

4.  Read through your entire book again.  Cut more extraneous sentences.  Realize that the other sentences in the paragraph don't make as much sense without them.  Then realize that you don't really need that paragraph.  Adios!  Keep performing this exercise throughout the novel.

5.  Take stock of your situation.  Worry about whether your novel sentences will read choppier due to so much cutting.  Realize that even though you have trimmed and trimmed and trimmed, you have still cut just 15,000 or so.

6.  Put your novel aside.  Work on something else.

7.  Realize that novel isn't going to cut itself, and no agent will read a novel as fat as yours.  Drag yourself back to the novel and read through from the beginning once more.  Repeat Steps 1, 2, and 4.

8.  In addition to the above, start reordering sentences, in some cases combining them.  Cut unnecessary "she said"s or "he exclaimed"s from the work.  The words will melt away.

9.  Grow tired of reading the same passages time after time.  Question whether a certain plot point makes sense.

10. See Step 6.

11. Take stock of your situation.  The novel is now just above 140,000 words, only 20,000 to go!

12. Hire an editor to read through the book and do a through trimming, as opposed to a butchering.

13.  Give your book to others to read for feedback.

14.  See Step 6.

15.  Look at the other readers' feedback.

16.  Review the editor's suggestions.  She has delivered a version of the book that cuts it down to 125,000 words.  You accept 70 percent of them, rejecting edits that oddly, cut out a major plot reveal.

17.  Based on the readers' and editor's suggestion, cut another chapter.  As in Step 3, this chapter is not super-necessary to the novel and may even disrupt the flow.  However, unlike the other chapter, this one delivers a satisfying conclusion to a secondary character's story arc.  This chapter is harder to cut, but all 3,000 words of it must go.

18.  Add a couple of paragraphs to the next chapter to give a sense of what happened in the cut chapter.  It's not as good, but still better than nothing.

19.  Tinker with a plot point that's been bothering you.  It has nothing to do with cutting your novel down, but you've been staring at it so much, how can you not?

20.  Realize that the beginning starts too slow, and that you can cut 3,000 to 4,000 words by making events start faster.

21.  Cut out your second chapter.  (It is recommended that you save the first four chapters as a separate file before you do this.)  Reorganize events in your remaining opening chapters.

22.  Read what you wrote.  Hate it.

23.  Take notes on what needs to be more effective in the new beginning.

24.  Despair that you will ever complete your trimming project.

25.  Question what made you turn to writing in the first place.

26.  Rewrite the remaining opening chapters.

27.  Read what you wrote.  Hate it slightly less, but still think that it is far from adequate.

28.  See Step 23.

29.  Go through the remainder of the novel and repeat Steps 1, 2, and 4 because it's easier than rewriting something that wasn't bad to begin with.  Now you're down to 126,000 words.

30.  See Step 23.

31.  See Step 26.


50.  Yay, 120,000 words achieved!

Okay, obviously I'm not there yet, but I'm getting closer.  That said, my experience has led me to observe a few things:

1.  While the novel is better in some respects for being trimmed down and sharper, I don't know if it's an objectively better book than when it was 174,000 words.  Some things have been cut that I wish could remain.  Maybe in some "master edition," they will.

2.  Cutting down on my novel word length is harder work than writing the novel itself.  In fact, I would say writing the first draft is the easiest part of novel writing.

It's easy to get impatient, but it's coming along.  That said, once the book hits around 120,000, I don't think it can go any lower.  Yeah, yeah, I've said that before.

I'll continue to give more progress reports as I push toward that arbitrary word threshold.  Stay tuned.

Somehow this feels necessary...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Unpopular Opinion: Take Your Fad Diet and Shove It

Two unpopular opinions in a row?  Can the universe hold?

Eh, I was having a bit of a dry spell for a while, unable to think of anything I truly liked or disliked that most other people felt the opposite way about.  Then I remembered one of the most personal aspects of life, the one thing most likely to spur strong opinions.

No, not motherhood.

I'm talking about diets.  "But it's not unpopular to hate fad diets," you say.  Unless they're the ones you swear by.

I should back up and explain.  Now and then, I have digestive ailments, and I am sensitive to a variety of foods.  Tired of dealing with the issue, I went to a nutritionist at my glorified McDonalds of a hospital network, who determined that I was gluten sensitive.  (As to why I was not simply referred to a gastroenterologist?  My hospital network demands that you jump through hoops first, including attending a special class and then seeing a nutritionist.  Because going to a GI doc right away would make too much sense.)

I've heard a lot about gluten-free diets over the past few years.  One woman diagnosed with Celiac disease swore by it.  She did not eat any wheat products and bought special gluten-free everything.  I've heard people plagued by digestive issues claim that the gluten-free diet has changed their life, that they feel better, healthier, whatever.

Now I understand how someone with Celiac disease would find their lives improved.  What I don't understand is how it would instantly help someone who does not have Celiac disease, like me.  The nutritionist explained that there was a spectrum of gluten tolerance, that just because I didn't test positive didn't mean I wasn't sensitive.  Okay, true.

She also said that gluten had fallen under suspicion over the past several years because of the way wheat is grown and processed these days, making it less pure and healthy than in generations past.  Also sounds reasonable.

What I don't understand is why she would so quickly assume gluten intolerance when so many of my problems don't involve wheat-based products at all.

Why do I have issues, then, when I eat certain acidic foods, like apples, peaches, or certain tomato-based products?

Why do I get headaches when I eat fried foods or foods containing hydrogenated oil?

And why don't I have problems when I eat wheat-based products like pasta or certain breads?

It's highly possible that I am sensitive to certain foods containing gluten... but that I also have a variety of other food intolerances, making any diagnosis complicated and often a frustrating game of addition and subtraction.

It struck me that the nutritionist was rather quick to tag me with the gluten-sensitive label after asking me some very targeted questions over 10 minutes, the answers to which could have applied to several other ills.  Oddly missing were any detailed questions about my life, my stress load, my diet history, and my overall health.  What medications did I take that could impact my gut health?  These are questions that my physician should have asked, but neither she nor the nutritionist ever did.

Instead, the nutritionist gave me a detailed lecture on all of the gluten products I would need to flush out of my system to be truly healthy, including certain pastas, sweets and even certain toothpastes.  "Try it for a month," she said nonchalantly of this major life transition, even after I explained to her that I was about to start a new job.      

Even if I flushed all gluten products out of my system for a month and felt much better, that would not be proof that I should be gluten-free.  That's because my system has this frustrating tendency to do really well for one, two, even several months at a time, then freeze up and refuse to digest foods without protest for a week to a month.  I tend to believe it is based more on hormones rather than any specific thing I'm eating or stresses I'm feeling.  Therefore, I don't think one catch-all diet is going to solve everything.

Yet every time I turn around, I hear the gluten-free diet being touted as some kind of savior.  Are there no other food groups as suspect as gluten?  No other foods were grown with Roundup chemicals pumped into them, then refined to the point of zero nutritional value?

Applying the logic used for gluten, you could conceivably ban several fruits, vegetables, and corn products from your diet.  But then what would you be left with?

Which is not to say that gluten-free isn't a God-send for some people.  It's just that it isn't the cure for everyone.  People being weird and complicated and reacting differently to different things and all.

The gluten-free diet reminds me of a similar trend taking place, the insistence that no one is getting enough Vitamin D.  Because even if we walk around under the sun all the time, we must wear sunblock to protect against cancer-causing rays.  But that also prevents Vitamin D from getting absorbed into our skin, so we should also take the pill form, or else the Vitamin D deficiency... could give us cancer.  And a host of other ills.

While it's possible gluten intolerance really is a problem, I'm not anxious to limit myself to a very set number of foods.  So for now, I'm just going to try and keep a mixed diet and maybe avoid things I know my body really dislikes, such as junk food or anything with hydrogenated oil.    

Meanwhile, here is a drumroll of other diets that came highly touted, but never made sense...

1.  Atkins Diet.  Eat lots of red meat, butter, eggs, and very little anything else?  What could possibly go wrong?  Turns out any weight you lose is fleeting, while your health risks increase substantially.

2.  The water diet.  Drinking substantial amounts of water and eating little food will help you lose weight, sure, but it will also increase your health risks.  Once you start to eat normally again -- and you will have to eventually -- the weight will come back in a hurry.

3.  The detox diet.  These diets could involve suspect herbs or "treatments" to help our system do what it's already capable of doing, and likely cause more harm than good.

4.  The fasting diet.  See the water diet.  I knew one couple that did the fasting diet once or twice a week, which involved eating maybe 600 calories for the entire day.  They claimed it would shock their system into losing weight and detoxing, but what I saw were two older professionals in a high-stress occupation trying to survive on too few calories.  Not recommended... unless you are trying out for the role of Fantine in a Les Miserables movie.

5.  The no white flour or sugar diet.  Similar to, and may even be an ancestor of, the gluten-free diet.  This is supposed to help you lose weight, and it's easy to see why, but unless you are committed to eating this way forever, the weight will eventually return.

And whoever invented the rice cake?  For shame.

The above image is royalty free from freeimages.com.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Unpopular Opinion: I Hate Driving

"Well sure, lots of people dislike driving," you think.

No, I hate driving.

"Sure, lots of people hate traffic jams and speedsters and --"

No, I hate driving.  Not just hate it, but fear it.

Let me back up a little.  I don't hate all driving.  I actually enjoy driving to some extent, like on curving country back roads.  Driving across town?  No problem.

It's when I need to drive long distances on the freeway that the hate and fear come in waves.  By long distances, I mean more than 20 miles.

I can't fully explain where the hate/fear came from.  It arose not long after I first started driving, when I realized that 65 mph on the freeway was kind of fast!  It is probably mainly centered around issues of control: driving is one of the more dangerous activities in this country, and I really prefer keeping my risk of death or bodily injury low, thanks.

Then there is the claustrophobia element: stuck in one car, one position, for possibly hours at a time.  Your back hurting, neck and arms aching, attention flagging.  Who wants that?  It's a ringing endorsement for driverless cars.

Yet despite these problems, the general attitude is that you should just be able to get into your car and drive anywhere without reservation.  Even if you can get to the same place via public transportation.  Public transit is typically treated like the red-headed stepchild, often with good reason -- there just isn't enough of it, ranging widely enough, for it to be a reliable alternative.  Yet even when it is just as good, it is frequently overlooked.

At best, I get frustrated and tired when I drive long distances.  At worst, I work my way into a panic.  My heart beats faster.  My breathing quickens.  My hands get clammy.  Exits less than one mile away suddenly seem like outposts at the other end of vast terrains, which I will never, ever reach.  Driving in the middle lane feels like balancing on a high wire.  And overpasses?  Bridges?  *sounds of hyperventilating*

I've read stories about people stuck on overpasses or bridges because they are just so overwhelmed by fear.  That has never been me, but in the back of my mind, I always worry that it could be me... someday.  Yet because I understand I can't turn my back on driving altogether, I try to find coping mechanisms.

What I wish was that the world could be just a bit more accommodating of other options.

How about trains that run more than three times a day in a certain direction?

How about routes without 10 transfers, that make it three times as long to get to a destination as a car?

How about an alternative to buses that make 20 stops along a five-mile stretch?

How about public transit that leaves earlier and returns later?

How about public transit that goes faster and covers more routes?

How about public transit that doesn't make you feel like a squashed bug on most trips?

Or, if you must get there by car, but don't want to take your car, how about cabs that don't charge $$$ per hour?

How about a break from relentless car culture?  More and more people prefer public transportation, and the demand is high.  Yet too many bosses, city planners, and developers fail to account for this, sending people to far-flung areas with no alternative but their car.

My work has me doing more driving than ever, to places at least an hour away.  Public transportation to one location would have involved two transfers, and even if I took one of the earliest buses, I still would have arrived a half hour late.

In some ways, it is gratifying to face my fears and know that I can succeed despite them.

At the same time, I would rather be taking the train.

"Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?"
The above images are royalty free from freeimages.com.