The Entropy of Fairy Telling

Lightwing23 e-mailed me the other day, fresh from seeing the splendorous absurdity of Immortals, to inquire about my thoughts, which I provided. I’m sure my readers are shocked.

He also mentioned that he wanted to see more of Tarsem’s work, recalling the adulation I heaped on his previous film, The Fall, but that the trailer for Tarsem’s upcoming Mirror, Mirror dissuaded him. In his words: “There aren't enough bad things to say about that trailer… [It] looks like such crap that my colon actually responded, like ‘hey, speaking of that, I need to, you know, unload.’” Ouch.

He contrasted that with his reaction to the trailer for that other Snow White adaptation, the Kristen Stewart vehicle, Snow White and the Huntsman, which he also thought looked terrible but appreciated the possibility of seeing it as a crossover between Twilight and Marvel Comics’ Thor (Chris Hemsworth plays the role of the huntsman).

I think they look awful in complimentary ways, although I must admit to being far more ambivalent towards Snow White and the Huntsman and its awful following of a truly awful fad. The attempt to take old stories and rework them for contemporary cinema has taken a particular tack which can be summed up as such:

1) Insert large-scale battle scenes.
2) Incorporate sub-Tim Burton surreal imagery.
3) Make it grim/dark/grimdark.
4) ????
5) Profit!

This method can be seen in a number of recent films, but not so clearly as in Tim Burton’s own imagining of Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. Burton’s inventiveness has declined over the years, to the point that his films now resemble bland computer driven theme-park rides. His Alice in Wonderland is a pastiche, yanking elements from both its literary namesake as well as Carol’s Through the Looking Glass and "Jabberwocky," with a dash of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia to embitter the pot.

We have the cowed Victorian stereotype Alice learning about herself and picking up a sword and armor to do battle with the Jabberwocky in a toothless cartoon world presented to the audience as a dangerous jungle of phantasms. It plays on current trends (action-gurl being the most obvious), as though the original source could benefit from a twenty-first century sensibility and still maintain its integrity. The film could not any more miss the point.

Snow White and the Huntsman looks to follow in its footsteps, albeit without the whimsy that made Burton’s film bearable. The trailer opens with ominous music and narration, the voice of the evil queen. The trailer treats us to images of such startling originality as creepy forests, milk baths, and clashing armies. And, most impressively of all, we see Kristen Stewart, the eponymous character, in a suit of armor wielding sword and shield, sans helm or helmet.

Wondering what possible service a tiny young woman like Kristen Stewart could serve in a massive melee is deafened by the consideration of what purpose massive battle set-pieces could serve in a film based on a fairy-tale like Snow White. It seems almost inspired by Catherine Hardwicke’s recent bomb, Red Riding Hood, another supposedly gritty reimagining of a fairy-tale in which everyone’s skin and hair looks nothing less than perfect, even when chased through the woods by a marauding were-creature.

Films like these are vapid entertainment, which fairy-tales, the most humble folk literature, were most certainly not. I recall a passage from Gene Wolfe’s Castleview:

"They kissed, and it was not (as Mercedes has always heard it was supposed to be) before she knew what was happening. She knew perfectly well what was happening -- that a whole world, new and strange, terrible yet wonderful, was unfolding for her. She understood, when their lips touched, exactly why Snow White and Sleeping Beauty has been awakened by a kiss, knew what those old grandmothers of eight hundred years ago had been trying to tell her, and knew that they had told her, their coded message coming clearly across the years, and that those dear old grandmothers--the bent crones at the firesides--had triumphed, their word not lost with the crackling of the sticks in their fires. That she and Seth or some other like Seth would someday ride on one white horse, laughing in the sunshine."

I’m also reminded that when Seth and Mercedes uncover a book and sword in the illusory castle of Morgana le Fey, Mercedes forgets the book, preferring the sword.

The ultimate purpose of fairy-tales is to transmit those truths about life which the young cannot know because they are young, to assure them of a magic that is not that of occultists or (as it must now be said) generic fantasy novels and video games. They tell children – and remind the teller – of true magic; they tell us that the entropic world in which we live, a world of the arbitrary cruelties of circumstance or fate, is not the whole of things.

What films like Snow White and the Huntsman do is ignore the book for the sword (I hope Mr. Wolfe would forgive me for appropriating his words). The finality of the tale might be similar, or even the same, but its audience leaves with quickly forgotten images of pandering simplicity: girls in armor, clashing armies, and eroticized evil.

If Snow White and the Huntsman looks likely to fail as a cinematic fairy-tale, Mirror, Mirror looks likely to fail as anything but an unwitting parody of Snow White and the Huntsman. While the former follows the trends of Burton and Hardwicke, the latter marches down the trail blazed by Shreck.

Shreck’s message – that you are fine no matter how grotesque, smelly, annoying, disgusting or objectionable you or your actions are – is an ugly reversal of the fairy-tale that compliments the grating insouciance to which most mid-tier children’s films of recent vintage aspire. Mirror, Mirror is similar in that respect. “Snow White?” one of the dwarves exclaims in the trailer, “Snow Way!”

The best I can say for Mirror, Mirror is that it might provide a little amusement, much as Shreck did, with knowing performances and pop culture references. Tarsem’s expert visual sense certainly could not hurt it. But for all of the minor amusements of the movie itself, probably the best thing about Mirror, Mirror is that it seems almost to have been an unwitting parody of Snow White and the Huntsman. At least it seems to realize that it is itself ridiculous, even if its writers mistakenly took their source material for being ridiculous too.


David Gaider is a Virgin: a review of Dragon Age: The Calling

I do not usually make predictions as I read – I have no inclination to do so and hardly believe that anybody who reads for pleasure does – but I knew immediately what I expected to happen at some point in Dragon Age: The Calling when Fiona, the elf mage, gets into an argument with King Maric of Ferelden. She accuses him of being a poor father. He gets angry and tells her that she doesn’t know the first thing about him.

And all I could think was: “Oh no. He’s going to fuck her.”

Dragon Age: The Calling is the sequel to David Gaider’s debut novel, Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, which was awful. The Calling opens with King Maric, who successfully expelled the Orlaisian occupation and regained his kingdom in the first novel, holding court with the Grey Wardens, an order of warriors dedicated to fighting the darkspawn, considered irrelevant by the major political bodies as the darkspawn are quarantined in the underground ruins of the Dwarven civilization.

Maric agrees, with the flimsiest of reasoning, to accompany the Grey Wardens on an aimless quest into the Deep Roads based on the questionable visions of their new leader. And off they set, meeting with mages, fighting with darkspawn, slaying dragons, and making stilted conversation. If The Stolen Throne used fantasy plot #5, The Calling is written according to fantasy plot #1: the dungeon crawl. This plot is the bread-and-butter of licensed fantasy fiction, a travelogue through a particular location often interrupted by interminable battles and sex scenes written by people who do not seem to have ever been in a fight or a woman.

As readers of The Stolen Throne will recall, the Deep Roads were already the location for the most boring portion of David Gaider’s first novel. They are the setting for the majority of this novel. It is safe to say that plot is not Gaider’s strong suit, and he attempts to make up for it here by narrating incidents. The plot itself is just substantial enough to fill a two-hundred page paperback. The Calling is just a bit shorter than my hardback copy of Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardour.

At 440 pages, the narrative structure of The Calling shakes under the weight of all the incidents Gaider packs onto it, especially when so much of the narration is on the order of “he thrust his sword into the darkspawn.” I could easily forgive the contrivance of Maric accompanying the Grey Wardens on their quest in the Deep Roads if those incidents were not so similarly contrived, described in such beige prose.

I previously praised Gaider for having moved on from his reliance on adverbs. It seems I spoke too soon, as we get such descriptions as: “The water was littered with bits of flotsam that pooled at the edges, lapping wetly against the stone…” How else would water lap? Particularly grating is the statement that “Fiona was glad to be getting out of there finally.” Say that out loud; every time I do, it comes out as “thud.” And it follows – somewhat less gracefully and grammatically – the same formula as nearly every sentence from The Stolen Throne. X does Y, Zly.

The childish humor also makes a return. When talking about dreams and visions, Maric, King of Ferelden, confides in the Grey Wardens: “I once dreamed Loghain brought me a barrel of cheese. I opened it up, and there were mice inside. Made of Cheese.” When faced with an insurmountable horde of opponents, one of the Grey Wardens mentions that he has very few arrows, to which another replies “I’m running out of clean smallclothes.” I cannot roll my eyes enough.

Probably the worst of the extraneous bits is the encounter with the demon, which traps Maric and the Grey Wardens in dreams tailored to their deepest wants. Maric realizes first that he is trapped in an illusion, breaks free, and travels across the Fade (Gaider’s term for the world of dreams to which the consciousness travels when asleep) to help the others. Only Fiona, the elf-mage Maric will so obviously boff at some point, has a bad dream. Maric and company find her tied up, her back whipped raw by the demon’s avatar, a handsome gentlemen from Fiona’s memory. The sexual tone of this scene is patently obvious, and it sets up what I can only refer to as the fantasy maiden’s mating call.

The fantasy maiden’s mating call is when the fantasy novel's masturbatory object signals to the protagonist that she is ready for him to fuck her by telling him about some sort of horrific abuse she survived as a child. It could be sexual, physical, or supernatural, but the telling of it always ends on the tip of the protagonist’s erection. Fantasy authors (and writers in other genres, to be fair) mistake this as good characterization; the characters share important details about their pasts which lead to mutual affection. Unfortunately, its not only a cliché, but somewhat creepy.

Fiona, who has just physically and mentally relived the sexual torture she tells Maric that she experienced from the time she was seven until she was fourteen years old, informs Maric of her past. He tells her about his – he saw his mother killed in front of him. Granted, he eventually avenged her, regained his kingdom, and now rightfully presides over it, but both he and the narrative seem to think that this is a rough equivalent to the torture that Fiona underwent. And it puts her in the mood. They do it only a few feet from where their fellow spelunkers sleep.

Now, as a straight male, I am not one to speak about women’s issues. It is not my place. But even then, I find this scene offensive; not even so much for its subtext, but for its utter contrivance. It rings spectacularly false, from the moment it starts until the actual sex ends in (thankfully) abbreviated fashion.

The fetishization of the elf mage becomes even more blatant when Maric, knocked unconscious during a battle, looks up at Fiona, who is cradling him in her arms. “He looked up at Fiona’s face and thought only how beautiful she was. Those dark eyes had seen so much suffering.” So she’s covered in “black ichor” as Gaider redundantly puts it, bruised all over, and has confided in Maric a past fraught with horrific abuse, and Maric, thinking he will soon die, leaving his very young son in charge of a kingdom, can only think of how hawt Fiona looks, that he wants to comfort her, and tell her that things will be okay.

I cannot continue to read or write this review; I cannot see. My eyes are so permanently rolled.

My review of The Stolen Throne received numerous comments to the effect that I set my standards too high for a fantasy novel, particularly a licensed one. Putting aside the ability of supposed fans of the genre to denigrate it as a whole with their low expectations, I have to point out that I am only judging Gaider’s writing according to his own metric. In a recent interview at the New York Comic Con, Gaider said about Dragon Age as a whole: “It's also character-driven, and thus concerned more about the human condition than it is about being epic.”

That statement is utterly gob-smacking when juxtaposed to The Calling, which is the very definition of plot-driven and ham-fistedly characterized. It is the apotheosis of tie-in literature, the quintessence of all those malignant aspects I previously enumerated. The Calling, and its author, have nothing to say about the human condition. They trade in only the worst kind of fantasy; neither entertaining nor escapist, but dull and imprisoning in its rote plot and tortured prose. It is the sort of fantasy writing that does not evoke the imagination; it does not challenge the reader. It is not fantastic in any sense. The Calling panders.

A little bit of humility would behoove a writer who is fairly new to prose fiction, but it occurs to me that David Gaider is not, and likely never will be a writer a prose fiction, nor humble about his position. He is a pretentious writer of game books. The Calling is a Fighting Fantasy book or a D&D campaign in which the player makes no choices, builds no characters, and participates in no adventure. We only read Gaider’s fantasies as told to himself, relevant only to those who share them.


Immortals (Tarsem, 2011)

I left Tarsem’s newest film, Immortals, thinking that it was the best bad movie of the year (Ebert called it “the best looking bad film you will ever see). Its advertising campaign proudly referred to it as coming “from the producers of 300,” as sure a sign of its quality as any. Supposedly based on Greek mythology, it tells the story of Thesus, a bastard peasant, as he helps to save Greece from the schemes of King Hyperion, who searches for the Epirus Bow in order to free the Titans.

Theseus, for those who do not know, was not a bastard or a peasant in Greek Mythology; he was jointly sired by Aegeus, king of Athens, and Poseidon, each of whom slept with Aegeus’ wife, Aethra, on the same night. The Minotaur was not a giant man wearing a bull mask, nor was the labyrinth a temple gravesite. Hyperion was a titan, not a warlord who tried to free the titans. The titans, generally speaking, were not depicted as blue skinned monsters with animalistic tendencies, nor did the gods follow a “Star Trek” style prime directive in their relationship to mortals. Zeus frequently states that mortals must rely on themselves, that men have limitless potentials and etc.

Immortals makes use of the “digital backlot” technique popularized by Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City, its heavily stylized visuals reminiscent of 300. The aesthetic here is that of a comic book adaptation, with everything that entails. The cast was chosen, as best anyone can tell, based on their looks. And not necessarily whether or not they look right for their parts as ancient Hellenic warriors and priestesses and Olympians. It seems a distinct possibility that casting was done according to how good each member looked in a costume.

But Eiko Ishioka designed those costumes, so, yeah. And if Immortals rests entirely on visuals (and it does; the plot and dialog are either formalities or excuses) those visuals, for once, carry the movie. If a town etched in a cliff side, whose distance from a deadly drop could be well measured in feet seems like a geographical and technological improbability, and obviously a computer generated façade, it is also an image of extraordinary romance. If the action sequences which make use of Hong Kong style fight choreography, with spinning fighters and whipping chains, seem like anachronisms, they are at least visually pleasing and compellingly so. If Micky Rourke, Frieda Pinto, and Henry Cavill’s acting leave something to be desired, their faces and bodies leave nothing outside of visual satisfaction.

Immortals is the work of Tarsem, director of The Fall, The Cell, and the upcoming Mirror Mirror. Ecstatic visuals are his modus operandi, and Immortals, he admits, was a willing departure from the tableaux visuals of his previous films, in which he used photographic tricks to create his vision. It is true that Immortals bears his trademark sensibility – from the early depiction of the Titans hanging from bars by their teeth, to visions of an Olympus free of clouds and sunlight, the audience knows that this film is not a retread of previous cinematic versions of Greek myth – but it is also true that reliance on computer generated images diminishes this vision. For all that the images appear unique; it is abundantly clear how those images were created.

Some would place Immortals as a descendent of 300, or of Clash of the Titans, or of the Ray Harryhausen films of a bygone era, as a special effects showcase and a shallow, if not outright misuse of mythic sources. I think the real antecedent would actually be Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, another work of a true auteur and dynamic cinematographic virtuoso. Like that film, Immortals is well worth viewing for its style alone, but is similarly forgettable for every moment that its characters speak rather than act.

Immortals is obviously less personal than Tarsem's other films. It watches very much like a summer blockbuster, in fact. But it would be a wonderful turn if summer blockbusters could actually attain this level of visual splendor regardless of their hackneyed scripts.


The Eight Immortals (Chan Hung-Man, 1971)

I probably should feel somewhat remiss that before I watched this movie (and subsequently perused a Wikipedia entry) my only knowledge of the eight Taoist immortals came from Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master, where he plays a young Wong Fei-Hung who learns “eight immortals drunken boxing” from Beggar So.
The Eight Immortals is an anthology film, telling traditional tales of the immortals before bringing them together for an action-packed finale. The film uses a framing device to tie them together – a pair of itinerant story tellers in contemporary (for 1971) Taiwan entertaining their listeners with music and banter. They begin with the tale of Lu Tung-Pin, who helps a woman to reunite with the man she loves. Then there is the tale of Iron-Crutch Li, whose crutch turns into a peach tree, which bears fruit with curative properties. And it goes on from there.
The film’s raison d’être begins about half-way through, after introducing the eight immortals and the incidental characters who will be reunited for the finale – an assault on the manor of the evil “red demon from the Chinese mainland.” The red demon kidnaps women, extorts enormous amounts of capital from the peasantry, and is actually a pig-demon in disguise, whose queen is a rat-demon. It is not difficult to guess that this is intended as a thinly disguised dig at the PRC.

This portion of the movie is also relentlessly grim, and contrasts starkly with the introductory scenes in which the immortals sing and crack jokes while helping ordinary people with their ordinary problems. The first part of the film resembles the sort of whimsical fairy-tale films of Alexander Ptushko, while the second part is like a Harryhausen effects show-case by way of Chang Cheh. The Red Demon not only rapes the kidnapped servant girls, he eats them, and the film graphically shows the latter. One servant girl – the now married young woman helped by Lu Tung-Pin in the film’s first segment – is tortured and branded on camera. When the eight immortals succeed in killing the red demon’s queen, her true form is revealed with a cross-fade from the actress to a dead rat. A real dead rat – with its head crushed in a pool of blood.
The cognitive dissonance caused by the whiplash between the lackadaisically paced introductions of the immortals and the brutal finale is the result of the film’s production origins and era. 1971 was the year of Chang Cheh’s The New One-Armed Swordsman, easily the most violent and bloody Chinese language film of its time, and a considerable financial success. Hong Kong and Taiwanese genre films had grown increasingly violent since the beginning of Shaw Brothers’ “New Wuxia Century,” which brought the sensibilities of Chang Cheh to the forefront of a genre normally reserved for child-stars and cute teenage starlets like Fung Bo-Bo and Connie Chan, respectively. The violence and sadism in The Eight Immortals is clearly intended to keep the movie relevant, as far as violence and sadism can be characterized as such.
While the general zeitgeist of early seventies genre film explains the finale, it is the involvement of Taiwan’s CMPC production company that explains the earlier sequences of the immortals and their interactions with the mortal townsfolk. The Central Motion Picture Corporation was the Kuomintang’s subsidized film unit which introduced ideologically tinged films and film movements, such as the wave of “healthy realism” melodramas from the 1960’s. The introductory sequences usually serve the purpose of “promoting morals,” like respect for elders, rendering fair service, reciprocity, etc. Even the story-teller framing device can be read as the promotion of humble means of entertainment during a time of modernization.

But it’s fairly obvious that the major selling point of The Eight Immortals was not the inculcation of national values, but a wacky, violent, special-effects driven fantasy. And the effects can get very, very weird. Miss Ho, the lone female immortal, at one point attacks the red demon with a giant peach, which opens up to reveal a huge pig’s head, which spits a dart out of its mouth. Iron-Crutch Li uses his crutch as a flamethrower. The demon-queen, fearing an immanent loss to the immortals and their army of angry peasants, lifts up her shirt and shoots poison gas from her belly-button.
The long and violent action sequence will probably be of most interest to the audience to whom Fusian tried to sell The Eight Immortals, and that audience will probably yawn for the first half of the movie, if not balk at all of the singing (and there is a lot of singing). But I actually quite liked the first half for all of its quaint whimsy and old-fashioned moralizing. The barely concealed political posturing is funny too, and if the action is sparse for the first half, the assault on the Demon King’s manor is a masterpiece of absurdity. The Eight Immortals is a fun movie in the same vein as the stupendously silly Monkey Goes West series from Shaw Brothers director Ho Meng-Hua.