Too Much Pipeweed?: Trippy Tolkein

This is a triptych of three Lord of the Rings covers that Barbara Remington painted for the first authorized US edition (Click the image for a larger version).  Tolkein apparently hated the covers both for taste reasons (he was probably a little too old to grok psychedelia) and because he didn’t see how they related to the books.  Remington was never given an advance copy of the books and copies weren’t widely available in the US, so she had to work based on what little information she could get from diehard fantasy fans (which in the 1960’s probably meant stoners):  “and then there’s like this giant spider, and stuff.”

Now, I’m not the biggest Tolkein fan, but I think these aren’t bad covers.  I can see the Shire, Shelob, Minis Tirith(?), and Mount Doom.  Of course, I can’t explain the emus in the Shire, or the dragons in Mordor, or the Mudskipper up front and center (is that what Remmington thought Gollum looked like?), but I almost think I would have preferred the far trippier vision of the books presented here.

Published in: on August 30, 2011 at 1:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Thing’s the Play

I watched John Carpenter’s The Thing over this past weekend, and thought it was a great creepy horror movie.  Then I saw, by chance, a video analysis of the film’s ending on i09, and now I think it’s brilliant (despite what people tend to think about criticism ruining art, I tend to enjoy things more after I’ve looked at them from more angles).

The analysis  tries to solve some of the mysteries left lingering at the movie’s end: how the thing(s) got into the blood samples, when Blair became assimilated (or “got thinged,” as I somewhat puerilely like to say), and whether or not Childs is a thing at the end.  In watching the movie I always thought these things were deliberately hidden from the viewer since they were unknown to the viewpoint character, MacReady.  Keeping information from the audience keeps them scared of the unknown, and since it followed a particular viewpoint and therefore made narrative sense, I can’t fault Carpenter for doing it, especially in a monster movie — the kind of movie that thrives on audience uncertainty.

As it turns out, Carpenter gives us all the information we need to figure this out.  He gives us the sound effect of Windows dropping the keys, but where other movies would give a zoom in for obvious foreshadowing, Carpenter doesn’t even show us the keys.  We have to hear it in the middle of an action scene.  But its still there. Carpenter is playing fair.  He just expects a lot more work out of the audience than most directors would.

Most movies want to tell you everything; this one wants you to figure it out.  You don’t passively watch The Thing, you solve it — you play it.  And the movie is concerned with games.  The antarctic base workers are shown playing poker, and in one of the first couple scenes, MacReady plays chess against a computer.  He ruins the game rather than lose which (as the video points out) is what he does by blowing up the base.

Now, The Thing isn’t quite as interactive as computer chess.  The audience can’t affect the outcome, but many narrative video games have a predetermined outcome.  The Thing seems to think that consumers wanted entertainments with which they could engage in some way.  One could rewatch The Thing and try and solve the mysteries they didn’t get on the first go round.  This is, in gaming parlance, replay value.

As an aside, I wish I could point to the characters named Mac and Windows as a sign of a preoccupation with interactivity, but strangely the film predates those operating systems by two and three years respectively.

Published in: on August 24, 2011 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Grant Morrison, Magic and Creativity

Grant Morrison recently performed a song that he says he received while channeling the spirit of John Lennon.  Now, if you read Grant’s thoughts on magic, its hard to know quite how to take that.  Morrison certainly seems to think this stuff works, but seems to be a bit coy about how he thinks it works, so whether or not he thinks he actually talked with the ghost of John Lennon is kind of up for debate.  But I’ll be damned if this doesn’t sound like early solo Lennon.

“Keep walking the dog,” is exactly the kind of mundane thing a John Lennon song would make a big deal out of, and following up on it with “keep taking the drug” plays into a couple of John’s preoccupations: silly wordplay, demystifying his Beatle past (also in “one and one and one make two”), and, oh yeah, drug use.

So whatever Grant did, it worked.  And I think there’s something to be learned from that even if you don’t do magic.  Communicating with spirits is called “channeling.”  And we use that phrase all the time.  A singer might be “channeling Freddy Mercury” if they’ve got great stage presence, say.  Most of the time, this kind of channeling is unconscious, I think.  I once wrote an essay on Beowulf and found that my prose was starting to fall into a fair imitation of Anglo-Saxon meter.  The book that made me fall in love with books and made me want to write was Good Omens and it’s still very hard for me to write prose fiction without aping Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett just a little bit.  Those are some unintentional works of channeling, but I think what Morrison wants to tell us is that we can open our minds up to these things, and get a little bit of the great ones in us.  If we can’t avoid influence we may as well try to be conscious about it and make the most of it.

Should we be worried, though, about sounding too much like our predecessors?  Well, Kurt Cobain listened to the Beatles nonstop for a day and wrote this:
which is still definitely a Kurt Cobain song.  (although there are some definite Beatles-esque touches).

So, I think that’s what the creative process is all about is getting a handle on your influences.  We summon up these spirits whether we like it or not, and then its our job to try and make them do our will.  How do you get better at that?  Crowley’s advice to new magician’s was “invoke often.”  If you read last Friday’s post, the analogy should be clear.

Published in: on August 16, 2011 at 2:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why Read?

In school, I often got the sense that people in other fields didn’t think very highly of us English majors.  The sciences dealt with physical realities, and although the realities of the social sciences are not always strictly tangible, their results often are.  Literature, simply, “isn’t real.”  After all, isn’t the point of fiction that it’s all made up?

So, here I sit, jobless, with no real skills to offer.  I learned recently, though, that I still would not trade all the books rolling around in my head for any real skill.

I lost my grandmother two weeks ago.  In the way that perhaps some people would turn to the Bible for comfort, I turned to my books.  I reread Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and I flipped through Slaughterhouse Five until I found Billy Pilgrim’s headstone (“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”).

One book in particular was in my thoughts.  I lost my other grandmother about two years ago.  I was abroad when it happened and wasn’t able to attend the wake or funeral.  For nearly a year, I wasn’t quite sure when it was ok to stop mourning.  The summer afterwards, I was at her favorite campground reading The Sandmanand came across Dream’s advice to Orpheus upon the loss of his wife: “You are mortal: it is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell.  You grieve. Then you continue with your life.  And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on.  She is dead.  You are alive.  So live.”  I think that was the moment I gave myself permission to move on.

Gaiman also wrote (this time in the mouth of John Dee):  “People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”  These intangibles are the things stories are made of, and the things that life is made of.  You can’t measure love or loss or friendship and you may never understand them, but they are the real elements of which life is composed.

In a truly pragmatic sense, our world is made up of our experiences; we can live on no other basis.  And no, literature can never replace experience, but what it can do is reflect it and allow us to reflect upon it.  And then, like the martial artist who has meditated upon a koan or the football player who’s studied the tape, when our moment comes, we might be just a little better prepared to act — to live.

So, my English degree absolutely did not prepare me for the job market.  But maybe it prepared me to live.  And for that, I’m grateful.

Published in: on August 15, 2011 at 12:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Where I’ve Been

So we’ve had a little bit of a false start here.  Since I was pleasantly surprised to see that some old friends are actually reading this thing, I figure I owe you an explanation.

I had a bit of a crisis of faith about my writing here.  Am I being too academic, too impersonal?  I’m really trying to hit that mark I’ve set for myself of “alternatingly silly and erudite,” and until I get it you’ll all just have to suffer with me.  I’m kind of like that teenage neighbor who can almost play one song on guitar, but keeps almost-playing it really loud.

So, once I got over that, I was out of state for a week.  So that was that.

Then I lost a loved one.  So I’ve been down since then.

And then I had a moment that made me suddenly feel better about this whole writing thing.  And when did it come to me?  While I was cleaning out the kitchen cabinet.  There I am, deciding whether to keep or throw out 15 boxes of Jell-O from the late 1990’s and I just feel the urge to pick back up the book I put down (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel), and to try to write a couple pages of “that novel” (I wrote a couple lines).  Which actually makes perfect sense.  This spring, someone asked me for advice on how to improve as a writer (I was flattered and surprised).  The best advice I could think of was advice I wasn’t following.  And haven’t been following these past couple of weeks.  You have to do it like work.  You have to sit down every day and write.  So that’s what I’m here for today.

Or in short: I’m back, bitches.

Published in: on August 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm  Leave a Comment