Going home again (or not)

Catching up on my James Bond gossip today, as I am wont, I came across a snippet of an article about how Pierce Brosnan doesn’t like to watch his Bond movies.  This is not an uncommon stance among actors.  In fact I can’t think of a single actor I’ve ever heard of claiming that he or she enjoys checking out their old stuff.  Maybe it’s a stock reply because they think that otherwise they’ll come off as immodest.  But it’s probably genuine.  I can recall attending sci-fi conventions and being surprised, at least at the early ones, that the actors knew far less about the work they’d appeared in than the fans in the audience.  How could they not know?  They were in it, for Pete’s sake, they must have watched it a thousand times too!  Of course they should be aware that you can’t fire the phasers by pushing the seventh button on the display panel, it’s the eighth button.  Sheesh.  (Cue the Simpsons nerd saying “I hope someone got fired for that blunder.”)  So I read this article about Brosnan and I’m reminded of the post I wrote defending George Lucas’ right to tinker with his creation.  It’s an interesting contrast between the artist who abandons his work without a second thought and the one who obsesses over getting it right for years on end.  The spectrum of writers must be of the same diverse breadth.  Look back, or move ever forward without the mirror?

George Harrison wrote in the liner notes of the 2000 CD reissue of his 1971 triple album All Things Must Pass that he had to resist the temptation to remix every song.  As I’ve admitted previously, I’m a tinkerer when it comes to my words.  I edit and re-edit, deleting and shifting words around in pursuit of the perfect sentence.  It’s probably not the best way to flex one’s writing muscles – not nearly as productive as simply letting go and watching the words pour out.  That is the notion behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, what those of us who can’t grow mustaches well do in lieu of Movember), in that you are not permitted to go back and edit until you have completed the month’s worth of writing (and finished a first draft to boot).  But frankly, there are days where I just don’t have it in me to create much new stuff, and editing is a stopgap way to keep the juices trickling, if not flowing.  I’m aware of the school of thought that says that on days like that you should force yourself to write anyway.  Perhaps that’s true.  That is one of the reasons I find blogging refreshing.  Something can be written spontaneously about the events of the day, completed and sent off into the void with little thought to looking back and changing things around.  It is another step towards pure creation.

But is there value in going back?  I’m of the opinion that there is, despite some seeing it as narcissistic navel-gazing.  For one thing, given that all writers are tremendously insecure and at our core, believe that we suck and no one will ever read us (admit it!), it’s healthy to revisit something that you wrote that really shone.  Somewhere amidst the hundreds and thousands of words of triteness and crap that will never voyage beyond your hard drive, the gems are lurking.  You can probably imagine such a passage off the top of your head.  A few dozen words scribbled or typed late one night in the midst of a short story or unfinished, Proustian behemoth of a postmodernist novel that just for one moment, scraped against the door of greatness.  And then you remind yourself, on your worst, most doubting day, that yeah, you can do this.  You’ve done it before, you’ll do it again.  Or, you look back to remind yourself of how much better you’ve become.  How you’ve abandoned your overreliance on adverbs and polysyllabic words and found your clarion voice.  It’s the evolution of you, the honing of the mark you are going to make on the literary canon, a blade sharpened and polished one paragraph at a time.

Pierce Brosnan may not want to watch his old movies anymore.  But I’m happy to take a stroll through the memories of old works whenever it suits me.  Because at the risk of hauling out one of those trite expressions that as a maturing writer I should never, ever use, you can’t know where you’re going until you understand where you’ve been.  And every so often, you have to glance at the map again.

Zen and the art of snowman construction

After an unseasonably warm and extended fall, the first snow of the season tumbled to earth yesterday.  It didn’t last long, but for half an hour at least November looked like it’s supposed to.  With the mercury plunging below freezing last night I’ll go out on a limb and say we even stand a better than average chance of a white Christmas – call me old-fashioned, but it doesn’t seem right exchanging gifts and eating turkey when outside is a sea of dead leaves and asphalt.  If global warming reaches its zenith that’s one Bing Crosby song future generations will find inexplicable.  “What are you talking about, there’s never been snow on Christmas.”  (The duet with David Bowie on “Little Drummer Boy” is the other – still don’t know what was up with that pairing.)

Something else we’ll miss too is building snowmen.  Even when it does snow nowadays it’s difficult to find that perfect, temperature-teetering balance that proves ideal for snowman construction.  Too warm and your raw materials are slippery slush; too cold and the snow won’t pack together.  Ironic too, that the temperature best suited to build a snowman is also least suited to keep it around for long.  In a few short hours your masterpiece becomes a lump on the lawn with only the corncob pipe and button nose to remind anyone of the gentleman who once stood there greeting the passersby.  As illustrated in the lyrics to Frosty, the snowman by his nature is a transitory creature.  He is emblematic of the need to seize the moment, and to appreciate that moment to the fullest while it lasts.

The best snowman I have ever built, bar none, was an ambitious creation assembled on a snowy December day in 2007.  A healthy blanket had fallen during the night and the temperature was hovering around zero – prime conditions to start rolling.  It started out with the usual approach – roll a big ball for the body and a smaller one for the head.  Luckily there was plenty of snow in the driveway to use without having to spoil too much of the area around where the snowman was to stand.  We had the basic structure in place and were pondering how to finish it off when my better half suggested a twist – why not make a snow bunny?

That set the imagination afire.  We remolded his head, adding a snout and carefully shaping it to ensure it didn’t look too much like a pig.  Ears were next, followed by shoes, some stubby arms and a puffball of a tail.  A bow from an old Christmas decoration was repurposed as a necktie.  Unfolded paper clips became whiskers.  The master stroke, however, was cutting up pieces of a charcoal air pre-filter to use as buttons, nose, mouth and the all-important eyes, taking a little design inspiration from Looney Tunes along the way.  Now all he needed was a name.  The proximity of the holidays provided le mot juste, and Hoppy the Snow Rabbit was born.

Not the kind of snow bunny you'd see on the slopes...

Much like his famous brethren, Hoppy was not long for this world.  The air got progressively warmer and snow became rain.  The first to go was an ear, and by the time the sun fell, after providing smiles to pedestrians and the drivers of many passing cars, Hoppy was no more, living on only in scores of photographs taken of our accomplishment.  Perhaps we knew we wouldn’t top ourselves, because we haven’t tried to build a single snowman since.  Life – or, more to the point, the desire to stay warm on snowy days – has gotten in the way.  But that December day we brought Hoppy to life is one we remember with clarion detail, unlike so many others that have ebbed away into the stream of lost thoughts.  Was it the sheer joy of working together to build something special, or the surprise at the wonderful creation that resulted?  I suppose it’s a bit like the day I wrote about a few posts ago; the one thing they share is the act of creation itself.  Making something, even if it isn’t lasting.  Building becomes building memories.  Good ones.

If you have the chance, if the temperature is just right, get off your computer, bundle up, step outside and build a snowman.  It doesn’t have to be a work of art.  It just has to be.  Then step back and let yourself smile.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

Two more reasons why MLP:FIM is awesome

Presented for your enjoyment.  All content of course the property of The Hub and the creators of the show.  In my previous post on My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic (and don’t worry, this blog is not going to degenerate into a weekly update on all things pony) I pointed out the show’s embrace of remix culture and its extended “brony” fanbase.  Below are a couple of screengrabs from the most recent episode, taking place in a bowling alley.  Ask yourself how many tween girls would notice this – and understand the reference:
It's "The Jesus" himself! With a hairnet covering his mane and tail. But who else is lurking in the background off to the right... look a little closer now...
 
It is! The Dude, Donny and Walter! Man, that really ties the episode together!

Yes indeed – The Big Lebowski has invaded My Little Pony.  A cult movie that sits in the top ten list of the most uses of the F-word has snuck into a kid’s cartoon.  Young girls won’t get it.  Bronies will love it.  And much rejoicing and many celebratory White Russians will ensue.

It’s just like, my opinion, man, but I really dig this show.

Ex astris, somnia

The centre of our galaxy, as imaged by NASA.

They are pinpricks in the dark mantle of heaven, tiny oases of light in the desert of the night.  We stare at them when the clouds have parted and the artificial lights of the cityscape have gone, looking out into the universe, into the past.  Their shape has found its way into the iconography of every culture on earth.  They are a deep well of mystery to be unraveled, a trove of endless knowledge waiting to be decoded by scientific observation and analysis.  We entrust them with our wishes, and they are the vault of our dreams.

It is impossible to look up at the “heaventree of stars,” as James Joyce called it in Ulysses, and not experience a moment of transcendence.  Even astronomers, whose lives are spent cataloguing the universe and translating it into numbers, are still humbled by the beauty of stars.  Historical stargazers like Galileo, facing the wrath of the Church for casting doubt upon God’s divine order, could not stop peering up into the night sky.  Some, like Giordano Bruno, went to their deaths transfixed by the possibilities of worlds beyond the confines of Earth.  Stars may be, scientifically speaking, massive balls of burning hydrogen, but more than that, they are the very fires of imagination, reaching out to us from so far away.

Dreamers often trip over the sidewalk because they’re busy looking up.  I remember visiting my grandfather’s cottage as a boy and sitting on the dock long past sunset, armed with a pair of binoculars, and feeling overwhelmed by the sight above my head – where metropolitan light pollution back home kept the players restricted to familiar constellations like the two Dippers, out here in the north was an entire galaxy revealed; the Milky Way in all its splendor and sublimity.  The plethora of mosquito bites that revealed themselves the following morning was testament to how long I spent out there that night, lost in the possibilities of the grand everything.  Not appreciating it at the time, but understanding now that on that evening I was connected to the entirety of human history, to everyone who had ever stopped in the night, cast their eyes to the sky and if even for a moment, wondered.

From a purely scientific viewpoint, stars are fascinating.  The cosmic cornucopia of star types, from blue supergiant to brown dwarf.  The cycle of their birth and death, the clever universe recycling the debris left by a supernova into new stars and planets, and in our case, new life.  Black holes, pulsars, quasars, nebulae.  Beyond every turn in the cosmos lies a perplexing new construct to enthrall the curious and the seekers of truth.  Yet stars have an indelible spiritual quality also, something that cannot be reduced to an equation, a chemical reaction.

When we feel smallest, when we are walled in by the borders of our lives, the stars remind us that there is so much more – more than anyone can conceive in the longest lifetime, more than our species will ever be able to experience in its entire existence.  It is no surprise then, that many wonderful narratives have been written that take place out there, and that the ongoing narrative of humankind’s fledgling exploration of the stars continues to compel.  I’ve been a fan of both science fiction and science fact my entire life:  books about the U.S.S. Enterprise and the Apollo missions have rested side by side on my nighttable.  A most treasured possession was a plastic model of the space shuttle Discovery, acquired on a visit to Cape Canaveral and painstakingly assembled and painted by me and my father, with a place of honor among my collection of classic Lego Space.  The stars call to our very souls, inviting us to follow like beacons of inspiration.  Lighthouses of friendship and warmth amidst endless, oppressive darkness.  And we are more than willing to answer.

As we craft our tales of imagined far-off worlds, or calculate the gravitational pull of a red giant, the question remains:  what exactly are we looking for when we look at the stars?  The simplest answer may be that in kindling our dreams, the stars are ultimately like distant, tantalizing mirrors.  We look into them, squinting, peering long and hard, hoping to discover the missing elements of our own equation staring back at us.  Out in the farthest reaches of the universe, we are looking for ourselves.  That connection to the purest spiritual truth that has eluded us since our dawn and remains for now at least, like the stars, just out of reach – what it means to be human.

Mr. Bond, Dr. Freud will see you now

“Oh please, James, spare me your Freud.  One might as well ask if all the vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed.  Or if you’ve found forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women… for all the dead ones you failed to protect.” – Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) to James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in GoldenEye

After four years of speculation, rumor, tabloid nonsense and the customary story about the Bollywood flavor-of-the-month who is “perfect” for the female lead and the “desperate” choice of the producers, the truth is out.  The 23rd James Bond movie, SkyFall, started shooting on November 3rd.  Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes reteams with Daniel Craig after their collaboration on Road to Perdition, and brings along for the ride the most incredible cast ever assembled for a James Bond movie:  Javier Bardem (Oscar winner for No Country For Old Men), Ralph Fiennes (Oscar nominee for Schindler’s List among other things), Albert Finney (four-time Oscar nominee and star of the Best Picture winner Tom Jones) along with Judi Dench and the two new ladies – French actress Berenice Marlohe and Pirates of the Caribbean star Naomie Harris.  Longtime Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins is the cinematographer and Stuart Baird handles editing.  The script is by Bond veterans Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Gladiator writer John Logan, based on a premise by The Queen screenwriter Peter Morgan.  With all that talent it would take an act of Satan himself to forge an A View to a Kill-style misfire.  Then again we haven’t heard who’s doing the theme song yet.  Is Shirley Bassey still available?

About the plot, little is known beyond the postage stamp synopsis released by the production team – basically, that Bond finds himself fighting to save MI6 after a dark chapter of M’s past comes back to haunt them both.  When Judi Dench was first cast as M for Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut GoldenEye, much was made in the entertainment press of the idea that a woman was taking over as the boss of the most chauvinistic of all cinema spies (sorry, Austin Powers.)  However, throughout the four-film Brosnan era, apart from a few sparse touches the relationship between Bond and M was not played that different than it had been with Bernard Lee (or to a lesser extent, Robert Brown) in the past.  Beginning with Daniel Craig’s tenure, the producers have opted to treat the relationship differently.  Obviously with an actress of Judi Dench’s caliber you don’t want to limit her to sitting behind the office desk and disappearing after the first act.  In expanding the character of M, the producers have created a more maternal bond (pardon the pun) between her and her star agent.  Indeed, their relationship is unique in the 007 universe, as M is the only woman who does not see Bond sexually (the reverse being true as well.)  When Bond was broken in Casino Royale by his betrayal by Vesper Lynd, and set out to bury his demons in Quantum of Solace, his loyalty to M remained.  Indeed, when one thinks of Bond as doing his duty for queen and country, it is not necessarily Her Majesty Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor he is thinking of first.

Bond movies can be a curious entity.  In many of the more forgettable entries there was little attention paid to character development or emotional engagement.  It was just a fun ride.  And that’s fine if that’s all you’re looking for.  Clearly it worked or we wouldn’t still be talking about it 50 years on and 23 films later.  As the second generation of Bond producers has gotten older and responded to the changing audience, and in particular seen Bond struggling to stay afloat in a field swarming with imitators of the genre it essentially spawned, they have come to realize that the character of James Bond has considerable depth worth exploring.  Who is he?  What drives the core of this man whom men want to be and women want to be with?  Consequently the producers have tried to craft plots that are emotional journeys inasmuch as they are excuses for implausible action scenes.  Sometimes with mixed results.  The World is Not Enough was the first real attempt in the modern era to make a character-driven Bond movie and the elements did not blend together well – rather like a martini where the proportions of vodka and vermouth were just slightly off.

Some Bond fans balk at the character-driven approach, suggesting, and not unreasonably, that not every mission needs to be personal.  But I’ve maintained that that resonance is the crucial meat and potatoes alongside the chocolate and the whipped cream.  We need to begin to care about the people on screen, about Bond, as opposed to just watching him do cool stuff.  That cool stuff will always be essential to Bond – one would not necessarily care to see him simply talking about his problems on a psychiatrist’s couch for two hours – but probing into his soul takes it from the realm of popcorn movie into that of real cinema and makes it a truly memorable experience.  I suspect that with the above-the-line talent who have been brought on to shape SkyFall, the producers are aiming for just that.  Of course they want to make a great entertainment, but let’s have a little something for the grownups too.  I think Ian Fleming would be ok with that (actually, he would have flipped out at the suggestion of a female M, but I won’t tell him if you don’t).

Fun with words: What’s missing?

A dollop of fun today, a touch dissimilar to rants past.  Your mission, and I think you’ll find it amusing, is to scan my paragraphs and unmask what’s missing from my words that you would normally find abundant.  It is my task also, to suss out if I can do it whilst maintaining a gripping account for visitors to my blog.  Why do I do this?  Curiosity, mainly; to find if it is at all within my writing skills.  Do I fancy my output as wordplay on par with that of a craftsman such as, say, Nabokov?  Hardly.  Most vigorously not, in point of fact.  Triumph in this pursuit, or falling short, will signify nothing important, or lasting.  It is, truly, just for kicks.

Pray, what to talk about today?  Our world is a cornucopia, rampant with judicious topics:  a sampling might contain a follow-up to All Hallows’, political turmoil abroad and on our own soil, institutional ramifications of Kim Kardashian’s imploding nuptials, or sonic vistas from Coldplay’s album Mylo Xyloto.  Or my familiar go-to if nothing can catch my imagination on that day, Aaron Sorkin’s vast portfolio of writings.  Anyway, I’ll go for a story I find particularly irritating.

Much was said about Ms. Kardashian’s 72-day sham, mainly and rightly, that it is folly to proclaim in this day of our ongoing commoditization of stardom that any should look upon gay unions as a singular hazard to that most holy (said with sarcasm) institution of matrimony.  Is it not individuals such as Kim who turn such important rituals into ridiculous “shows” for cash who should catch our communal scorn?  Why do loyalists to a particular political inclination go on fighting to bar gay unions if straight Kim and company can flaunt what is so important to so many loving pairs with such disdain?  A high point of hypocrisy, I would think.  Not that it’s a shock coming from such sorts.  It’s always about “saving our morality,” a worn-out justification to attack things out of favour with a diminishing group of old right-wing layabouts.

A propos of our villain in this saga, you cannot totally fault Kim.  Truly, all of us must swallow our own wrongdoing in popularizing Kim’s antics and crafting a mass craving for additional clowning around; purchasing stacks of flimsy publications thanks simply to Kim’s mug only adds to this “famous-for-nothing” lady’s kingdom of public domination.  It will not stop until common man opts to turn his focus away and to topics of vital import.  Until that day, Kim Kardashian and ilk will maintain an unnatural hold on our discussion and grow rich, with a continuing sum contribution of nothing to civilization’s gradual growth (or stagnation).

I shall stop my rant at this point and ask you again to look back at this post and say what is missing.  For my part, it was good fun to craft.  You may submit your thoughts in our usual way.  Alas, naught but bragging rights to our victor.  Good luck though, and happy hunting!