djonn: (bird)

Counter-intuitive thought for the day: reading a bad book can be good for you.

Yes, really.  Let me explain:

From a craft standpoint, sometimes one way to figure out how good prose works can be to look at clunky prose. Looking at someone's clunky Cinderella retelling side by side with someone else's lyrical one may -- if you take apart corresponding passages word by word -- offer insights into why word choice matters and what makes certain dialogue or narration come alive rather than lying (and sounding) flat on the page.

Alternately, if you run into a page or two of text that annoys you sufficiently, it may be useful as a writing exercise to take that specific passage and recast it into stronger, more effective prose -- and then look at the two versions to see where one goes right and the other wrong.  (That said, I do not advise using this approach as a means of creating a story you intend to market as your own.  Entirely apart from the potential legal issues, dealing with that much bad prose is likely to drive you insane long before you finish.)

But that's only one dimension of the premise. Sometimes a book can be severely flawed but highly provocative in terms of the issues or ideas it develops.  There are works that one may not consider "good" in and of themselves, but which are important for the place they hold in the literary or genre canon. There are books that one might classify purely as "popcorn" -- to be read for sheer escape or entertainment value, irrespective of any quality stamp.  I've recommended titles in all these categories for the SF book discussion group I co-moderate, and I'm happy to defend any of those choices.  This coming Tuesday we're looking at David Weber's first Honor Harrington novel, On Basilisk Station -- which I'm sure some of our members will decry as a bad book. They may (or may not) be right...but I think it's worthwhile for the group to read and discuss it regardless.

Personally, though, one reason I read -- and even occasionally seek out -- bad books is that it helps me maintain perspective.  If I only read stories I like, or stories that I expect to be "good", I'm limiting my sample and narrowing my range.  I need a sampling of the negative outliers as counterpoint, so that I can better recognize and better appreciate the really good stuff on the upper end of the spectrum.

So feel free to read a bad book this week. And let me know what it was; I might just check it out myself.

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)
I saw The Avengers Friday -- amazingly, there was not a line round the block for the early show at the Cinemagic -- and have been perusing reactions to the film online thereafter.  Myself, I quite liked the movie; I think it does about as well as one can at the "epic superhero teamup" genre, and there are lots of nifty character moments.  But I came across an interesting thread in other people's reviews that made me think about the way Big Action Movies are filmed nowadays, and so what I want to do here is explain why I think Joss Whedon's work in this film outdoes two of the other milestones in recent Big Action Movie history.

What sparked this thought were two different reactions to Whedon's directing of the epic action sequences: one writer thought they were too fast and not focused enough, and the other thought they were just a touch too slow and too narrowly targeted.  I think they're both wrong; to my mind, Whedon's action sequences -- and most especially the long battle in Manhattan that takes up most of the last third of the movie -- do exactly what they should, and that Whedon knew exactly what he was doing as he designed them.

To illustrate my point, let me cite an exchange near the end of the battle (I promise, this isn't any sort of serious spoiler).  Captain America and Thor have just finished off a wave of the invading forces, and while they've acquitted themselves well, they're clearly both a bit worse for wear at this point.  And then another wave of invaders swoops into view, Thor looks at Cap, and says "Ready for another round?" or words to that effect.  And Cap nods -- but they're both obviously tired, and not really ready for yet another wave, and they know that barring a miracle, this may just be the end of the line.  And then, of course, they wade into that next wave....

And the moment works, and works brilliantly.  Why?  Because we viewers have just been through the same epic battle the heroes have, and even though we're eager to get back into action, we too are emotionally (and just a little physically) tired after all we've seen, and there's only so much we can take before battle fatigue sets in.  Whedon, in a ten or fifteen second exchange between these two characters, has demonstrated that he's exactly synchronized his characters' capacity for heroic action with his viewers' ability to assimilate that action.  We know how drained Cap and Thor are because we're drained too; we've had the same experience in the theater that they've had in Marvelverse Manhattan.

Which is why, for me, The Avengers works better as a Big Action Movie than either of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight or Guy Ritchie's 2009 Sherlock Holmes.  Both of these are, in their way, well-made movies with much good in them -- but I dislike the way their action sequences unfold; where Whedon's action serves his storytelling, both Nolan and Ritchie seem to me to superimpose Big Action Scenes on their movies in ways that get in the way of the story rather than reinforcing it.  The action in Dark Knight seems largely gratuitous to me, basically designed to put roadblocks in the way of the character conflict between Batman and the Joker -- in particular, the movie needs those gratuitous action sequences so that one doesn't look too closely at the plot logic leading up to the climax.  Sherlock Holmes has a somewhat different problem; the "rewind" effect Ritchie uses to illustrate Holmes' thought processes is intriguing, but the combination of that technique and the extremely fast cuts and scene shifts of that film's action scenes (both inside and outside the "rewinds") make the viewer work too hard to process them.  So rather than actually getting inside Holmes' head, we more or less get to see that Holmes has Amazing Intellectual Superpowers but not much else.

By contrast, the action sequences in The Avengers work because they give viewers a viable entry point into the action, both on the macro level (as noted above) and on the individual level (see especially two of the Black Widow's scenes and two of the Hulk's).  The scenes work because they're paced in a way that lets viewers experience the story side-by-side with the characters.  Here, the spectacle serves the story rather than simply being flashy and, well, spectacular.  Not that it isn't spectacular when it needs to be, mind, but for once in the Big Action niche we've got a movie in which the craftsmanship is well matched with the material.  One can disagree with some of the film's creative choices, but for pure technical craft, I give Joss Whedon the highest possible marks.

Have You Heard This?

"Changing from bad to good's as easy as...taking your first step!"

-- Kris Kringle (to the Winter Warlock)
Santa Claus is Coming to Town

August 2017

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