måndag 8 februari 2016

Carl-Göran Ekerwald: Nietzsche – liv och tänkesätt

Well, I've started reading some books again after last year being a bit hectic at times. First out to be reviewed here is Carl-Göran Ekerwald's  Nietzsche – liv och tänkesätt ("Nietzsche – life and thinking"), which admittedly wasn't the best start possible.

IMHO, the problem isn't that Ekerwald doesn't know enough about his subject, it's that he can't adapt his style of writing to to writing a biography that's reader-friendly. Instead, he puts way too many interpretations and supposedly clever turns of phrase into his text in a manner that makes this more of a (very much) overlong article for the (somewhat snooty) culture pages of a newspaper. When you write a biography, you should (IMO) concentrate your stylistic skills on getting the facts about the person's life and work readable and understandable the reader, not pushing your own opinions or stylistic quirks onto said reader. Ekerwald doesn't really succeed in creating a compelling, coherent narrative about Nietzsche's life and thoughts that holds together because he constantly interrupts it with small excursions of his own opinions and comments.

So is this a waste of time? Well, no. You do learn quite a bit about Nietzsche, only not as smoothly told as I'd like. Me, I basically a) pity Nietzsche for the painful life he had to endure, both in terms of illnesses and personal (and interpersonal) failures and disappointments; and b) don't think he's entirely blameless for becoming the "Nazi philosopher" even though he wasn't a Nazi philosopher and was more or less co-opted into the movement by his sister skewing his work in that direction after his death.

Why not entirely blameless? Well, I think – and this is an opinion that has evolved while I've been reading and thinking about Nietzsche – that anybody putting forth an opinion, world-view or somesuch has a responsibility for what they're saying. If what they're saying is hateful, racist, anti-democratic etc, well, obviously they're responsible for their hateful opinions and writings. If they're not really writing hateful stuff, but formulating it so obscurely that it can well be interpreted that way, they're responsible for that as well – obviously far less culpable than in the former case, but still responsible for their texts. If confronted with that interpretation of their text and responding "no, that's definitely not what I meant", then that's that, and you can't smear them with that interpretation, but you can still express your wish that they'd written their text more clearly.

(Unless of course you're some abject idiot projecting his or her own fear and anger onto the text to make it out to be something hateful; heaven knows there's plenty of that going around in this polarized political environment.)

Anyway, there are many who write philosophical or political texts that are unnecessarily obscure; whether because they're just not very good at writing or because they think it makes their texts "better" probably varies. The result, however, is the same: the text is left open to interpretation, and different readers can project their own opinions onto it. (As can various critics, literary and political journalists etc, making for great debate fodder – debates that are basically a waste of time that could have been avoided had the author bothered to write more clearly to begin with.)

(Note: I'm trying to be clear with my opinions on this blog, so if I'm being unclear, it's due to bad thinking and/or bad English and writing skills. Just so's you know.)

But to get back to Nietzsche: He loses his father at an early age, grows up a serious little kid, comes to excel at school (except for math) and university, becomes an up-and-coming philologist, a very young professor, befriends Wagner and has a brilliant career ahead of him. But he becomes bored with the details-oriented academic work and becomes a more speculative philosopher instead – when he's not incapacitated by migraines and violent indigestion, of course. Eventually basically retiring from academia due to his health issues and living off a pension, his philosophy meets with limited success. I won't try to describe it here, as I don't consider myself competent enough – and because it's so unsystematic and goes off in so many directions that it would take a lot more time and space than this simple blog post can offer. Instead, I recommend this Wikipedia article as a good starting point or summary.

So, I can't really recommend this book. And I can't really recommend Nietzsche's philosophy, either – as with so many other historical philosophers, if you want to learn more about the subject(s) they're speculating about, read what modern research on the issues says instead. It won't leave you quite as erudite as studying the philosophers would, but it's a heck  of a lot more efficient if you mainly want to learn how the world actually works.

tisdag 5 januari 2016

On storytelling, movies, and trite plotlines

(Svensk version följer nedan.)

I happened upon "The Flintstones" while channel surfing. Fred was on his way to the office to start a new, management, job. I happen to know enough about the movie to know that Halle Berry would be his secretary, so I stayed on long enough to see her (yeah, I'm weak. So sue me). After Halle, I couldn't stand it anymore, because it was so obvious: Fred would become seduced by all the trappings of power and affluence and lose touch with his old friends and his working-class roots, while the guys in power would actually set him up to be the fall guy for a nefarious scheme, but in the end he would realize the error of his ways (probably with the help of a friend) and do the right thing. The (happy) end.
Now, I realize there aren't really all that many basic plots out there to use (unfortunately, I can't find Theodore Sturgeon's – IIRC – three pasic plotlines despite having a computer with internet access; fail), but when a movie plot is that transparent, you really need to put more effort into other aspects of it – like better jokes, clever dialogue, great acting etc. Halle Berry being incredibly beautiful just isn't enough. (Maybe that's what lay behind postmodernism; people got fed up with trying to do the old stories well – which is hard work – and thought it would be easier just to put in some ironic winks at the reader/viewer?)
The same sort of problems made me unable to watch the recent Planet of the Apes prequel remake – it was competently made, sure, but so incredibly predictable that I gave up on it after half an hour – and got incredibly bored by Alan Moore's venture into "serious/literary" comics with A Small Killing – I'd seen basically the same story in other media often enough to know what was coming. On the other hand, I've loved what he's done in superhero comics, because there, he's been incredibly inventive and unpredictable.
A similar problem has surfaced with superhero movies. The recent Ant-Man movie only got worth watching towards the end; the rest of it was following the "Superhero move 101" basics so closely that it was almost embarrassing. The jokes about him learning his powers weren't particularly great, and nor was the dialogue. Contrast that with the first Avengers movie, which was packed with clever and funny dialogue, keeping my interest up all through the movie. (Even the kinda dull, unoriginal scene with the Black Widow being held prisoner at the beginning of it turned out to have importance for the later part of the movie.)
(Unfortunately, the Marvel gang seemed to lose their focus on making the best movie possible for the follow-up; the action scenes at the start of it, with quick-and-dirty intros of the characters, didn't really add much to the movie, and they left the really interesting part of the story, Ultron's philosophy, which could have made the movie quite fascinating, by the wayside in their hunt for neat action scenes – thus making the movie less original and rewatchable than it could have been.)
Anyway, this is part of why I find comics to be such a brilliant medium – you can read them quickly, so you don't have to waste two hours on a movie that to 80% consists of fluff, anyway; you can to a large extent control the pace of storytelling yourself, so where the creators are too slow, you can speed up your reading, and where you need to understand or enjoy something more fully, you can slow down your reading pace and even re-read those passages, if you like. I'd rather spend ten minutes on a good 22-page Batman short story in comics format than almost two freaking hours on a Hollywood production that doesn't understand the character, and has huge logical flaws.
But that's just me. You're free to like the Nolan Batman movies if you want to; myself, I'd rather re-read some of Peter Milligan's stories… Or Neal Adams… Or Alan Grant… Or Frank Miller… Or…

Kom in på "Flintstones" på Trean. Fred var på väg till kontoret för sin nya tjänst, så jag stannade kvar tillräckligt länge för att få se Halle Berry. Sedan härdade jag inte ut längre, eftersom intrigen var så uppenbar: Fred lockas av maktens alla perks, tappar kontakten med sin klass och sina gamla vänner, luras av maktens män, skärper sig i slutet, happy end.
Det är i och för sig sant att det inte finns så många olika intriger att använda, men när de är så där oerhört genomskinliga får man faktiskt lägga _lite_ mera krut på att göra själva berättandet mer njutbart, med lustigheter, fint skådespeleri och samspel, med mera. (Kanske är det det som ligger bakom postmodernismen, att man inte längre klarade av att berätta sina gamla historier med elegans och finess utan blev tvungen att lägga till en extra dimension, den ironiska blinkningen till läsaren/åskådaren, för att undvika tristessen?)
Det är samma problematik som gjorde att jag inte iddes se klart Planet of the Apes-remaken – kompetent men fullkomligt outhärdligt förutsägbart – och leddes vid Alan Moores stereotypa A Small Killing samtidigt som jag älskat hans originella perspektiv på vad många betraktar som en närmast "död" genre, superhjältar.
Vi kan se något liknande vad gäller superhjältar på bio. Första halvan av Ant-Man-filmen var t ex rätt ointressant, eftersom man numera har sett så många superhjältar kämpa med sin nya roll. Skämten om krafterna var tämligen förutsägbara, och den förutsägbarheten kompenserades inte av någon större snärt i vare sig replikerna eller skådespeleriet. Den första Avengers-filmen, däremot, var full av smarta och roliga replikskiften, som gjorde att mitt intresse hölls uppe filmen igenom. (Även den i mitt tycke litet småtradiga Black Widow-scenen i början visade sig ha en djupare betydelse för filmen som helhet.) 
Den andra Avengers-filmen kändes betydligt segare – actionscenen som inledde den gav inte så mycket mer än just action och en snabb-och-ytlig presentation av hjältarna, och alla filosofiska spörsmål som väcktes av den tänkande roboten Ultron och hans världsåskådning kändes som att de huvudsakligen fuskades bort. Senare uppgifter i media (på internet) tyder på att det kan ha haft samband med att Marvel velat pressa in för mycket innehåll som pushar/lägger grund för deras andra filmfranchiser, vilket bara understryker vikten av att i första hand koncentrera sig på att berätta en bra historia, och först i andra eller tredje hand ägna sig åt sådant som inte har med själva berättelsen att göra.
Serier är därför ett smått idealiskt medium att konsumera historier genom – det går snabbt att läsa, man kan själv kontrollera berättartempot och snabbläsa sådant som inte är så intressant och sakta in och koncentrera sig på sådant som känns viktigare, det är lätt att gå tillbaka och läsa om sådant som man inte riktigt förstod, och det är snabbt gjort att läsa om hela serien om den var så bra att den förtjänar det eller så komplicerad/djup att man känner att det skulle ge mera. Jag lägger hellre tio minuter på en juste Batman-novell i serieform än nära två timmar på en Hollywood-produktion med elefantiasis och dubiös logisk stringens.

måndag 10 augusti 2015

Scott Mills: Trenches

Well, I was a bit skeptical when I opened Trenches. The art was a bit sketchier than I like, and I've read enough about WWI, and seen enough war movies and stories to be a bit blasé on the subject. Most war movies and comics leave me underwhelmed these days; sometimes perhaps undeservedly so. (But not in the case of, for example, Fury or Inglorious Basterds. Man, those movies sucked.)

Trenches by Scott Mills is about two brothers going to war. One, Davey, is a tough, hard-drinking womanizer. The other, Lloyd, more of a meek pencil-neck kind of guy – who was always put down by his brute of a father and his brother when he was a kid. Their commanding officer, Hemmingway starts the war with a firmer belief in discipline than the lads – especially Davey – but as each man evolves and learns more about himself and the others, a mutual respect and camaraderie evolves between the men – even, gradually, between the two, previously estranged brothers.

The story is told both in vignettes from the life in the trenches, with occasional bouts of war-fighting violence, and in flashbacks to the brothers' history together, mostly with not all that much harmony and brotherly love between them.

I had a problem with the art style for a while, but then I got used to it – and the important part of the story is really the evolving relationships between the three main characters, anyway, so realistic and detailed depictions of what the war really looked like isn't all that important, anyway. The art works, if you'll let it – but you might not be able to; I've read one review where the reviewer thought the art was too whimsical for the brutality of war. Now, I disagree, but I can see where the reviewer is coming from.

Anyway, by concentrating on the relationships, Mills avoids the trap so many war movies fall into: patching some sentimentality onto an action movie with lots of explosions. Mills doesn't have to do that, because he has a strong if not entirely original story using the war as a background and catalyst to push his characters together and forcing them to get to know each other better and learn to relate to each other. He does it well, which makes Trenches a recommended read.

söndag 15 mars 2015

Nancy Peña: Tea Party

In Victorian London, novaeu riche upstart Clifford Barnes is looking for recognition. Though he's drinking the finest whiskey at the finest clubs, he's still looked down upon old money/nobility types. In a rage, he challenges Lord Mac Dale to a tea party competition – the man who serves the finest tea wins, with Travellers Club doing the judging.

Lord Mac Dale enlists cookery counsellor (apparently an existing profession at the time) Victor Neville to get him the finest tea of the British Empire for the competition. Victor is undoubtedly skilled at his job, but unfortunately he suffers from narcolepsy and concomitant hallucinations about weird birds making unpleasant statements about his health.

Victor befriends Mr. Barnes' daughter, Alice, to learn which tea the upstart is planning to serve at the tea party, but it seems her helpfulness conceals some ulterior motives. Also, a kimono she loves to wear turns out to conceal some magical properties – more precisely, magical cats which serve as their mistress's spies and, when the need arises, thieves.

Anyway, miss Barnes gives Victor the name of the tea her father is planning to serve, as well as the place where he aims to get it – but that place doesn't exist. Victor embarks on a detective quest to find out where the tea is supposed to come from, but further complications ensue – like the police grabbing him for apparently trying to burglarize Mr. Barnes' house, having to fulfill the wishes of a rich and powerful Chinese "godfather", dealing with his capricious employer, having Miss Barnes double-crossing him to steal his tea, enlisting the help of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and his narcoleptic attacks and hallucinations …

This is a rich story with several subplots – or rather, fragments of subplots, adding color and depth to the story without slowing it down – involving not just Victor but also young Alice, who has her own agenda mainly involving her magical kimono and its origins. The story is told with an ever-present hint of irony, which makes it amusing, but never becomes too much so that it becomes mocking towards the story's protagonists. Not being used to Peña's style, I wasn't sure what to expect, and she kept me wondering what would happen all the way to the end of the story – which is a good thing.

This is good, charming stuff, well worth your time. It's not the first story Nancy Peña's told about the Barnes family and the magical kimono. There are apparently four graphic novels about them, and this is the second, but you can read it without having read the first one and still enjoy it – after all, I did.

Well recommended.

söndag 1 mars 2015

Det lästes lite böcker i januari

Sara Gunnerud: Ordens makt i politiken
I hög grad en anklagelseskrift mot (i huvudsak) moderaterna för att trixa med språket för att vinna väljare. Tyvärr trixar Gunnerud själv så mycket med språket -- felöversättningar, selektiv citatteknik -- att boken inte blir mödan värd för den som vill ha en politisk debatt som är mer än upprörda anklagelser.
Rekommenderas inte.
Andrew Palmer: The New Pirates
Piratverksamheten vid i huvudsak Afrikas Horn analyseras.
Problem 1: Befolkningen tyr sig hellre till sina klaner än en kleptokratisk regering; härav följer att Somalia för merparten av dem inte är en failed state i nuläget.
Problem 2: Världssamfundet vill _så_ gärna ha en stat på plats att det är berett att överse med dess många och stora brister.
Problem 3: Det är väldigt svårt att skydda sjöfarten med militära fartyg eftersom det är så stort område som måste täckas och piraterna anpassar sig efter den nya situationen.
Ger vissa grundläggande förslag om hur fartyg ska kunna skydda sig, främst genom spaning och ett skyddat utrymme från vilket man kan kontrollera fartyget och som kan hålla piraterna ute till hjälp hinner anlända.
Rekommenderas; dock litet seg i vissa delar av den grundliga framställningen.
Axel Odelberg: Äventyr på riktigt. Berättelsen om upptäckaren Sven Hedin
Hedin var äventyrare på den tiden när hjälp _inte_ var bara ett telefonsamtal och en helikopterresa bort, och förtjänar respekt för det. Tyvärr brände han bort den respekten genom sitt enögda försvar för tyskarna under första världskriget. Sedan lämnade han lyckligtvis politiken därhän och genomförde en fantastisk vetenskaplig expedition i (någorlunda) samarbete med Kina.
Därefter brände han bort det förtroendet också genom sin idiotiska Hitler- och Tysklandsbeundran under WWII. Klantskalle.
Henrik Malm Lindberg: Drömmen om jämlikhet. Socialdemokratins radikalisering och den svenska modellens fall
Socialdemokraterna och LO märkte att den tillväxtvänliga politik de slog in på efter WWII inte gav den utdelning de hoppats på i jämlikhet, och att de kom att angripas från vänster för detta. Lösningen blev att a) satsa på minskade löneskillnader, b) ökade transfereringar, och ett därtill hörande starkt ökat skattetryck.
Rekommenderas; en rejäl genomgång av hur samhällsdebatten på vänstra planhalvan såg ut under efterkrigstiden oavsett vad man drar för slutsatser av den.
Per Svensson: Därför hatar alla liberaler. Och därför har alla fel
Utmärkt genomgång av varför den utopiska vänstern har så otroligt fel i sin kritik av liberalismen och liberalismen så rätt om vad som ger ett fritt, välmående samhälle. Tappar farten rejält när Svensson försöker hitta ett liberalt sätt att möta det problem som terrorism och stater som förtrycker och mördar det egna folket utgör för världssamfundet.
Rekommenderas, speciellt första halvan.
Bo Sandelin: Adam Smith. Pocketbiblioteken nr 46
Kortfattad biografi och skildring av Smiths viktigaste tankar (av vilka den s k osynliga handen bara är en del). Att kalla honom "laissez-faire" känns inte som att göra hans tankar rättvisa, oavsett om man gör det för att angripa eller kooptera honom. Matnyttigt i det lilla formatet.

torsdag 22 januari 2015

Mikael Wiehe står upp till försvar för antidemokrater. So what else is new?

Mikael Wiehe försvarar nu Hitlerpriset – förlåt, Leninpriset – mot den kritik det fått i dagarna. Tyvärr slår hans hyckleri igenom så tydligt i den grumliga argumentationen att det rimligen inte bör höja vare sig prisets eller hans egen status.

Han jämför till exempel Charlie Hebdo-tecknarna med den svenske satirtecknaren Lars Hillersberg och kritiken mot dennes antisemitiska teckningar till försvar för en antisemitisk propagandist:
Och i Sverige, där vi nu alla är Charlie och lyfter våra pennor till försvar för yttrandefriheten, var det inte länge sedan man förföljde, hånade och antisemitstämplade Lars Hillersberg, en konstnär som verkade i exakt samma tradition som Charlie Hebdo, som vi nu hyllar.
Wiehe glider här på ett svekfullt sätt över viktiga skillnader. Till exempel var det ingen som mejade ner Hillersberg med automatkarbin; i stället riktades kritik mot att han gjorde antisemitiska teckningar till försvar för en antisemitisk propagandist -- något som rimligen borde falla inom ramen för yttrandefriheten i minst lika hög grad som Hillersbergs antisemitiska teckningar.

Lika svekfullt och manipulativt är Wiehes försvar för att uppkalla priset efter massmördaren och antidemokraten Lenin:
Att Lars Diding, som står för fiolerna har gett det stora priset namn efter Lenin och det mindre namn efter Robespierre är naturligtvis en provokation! Och just provokationen är ju, som vi lärt oss av den senaste tidens fruktansvärda händelser i Frankrike, en omistlig del av demokratin och det öppna samhället.
Man gör bristen på egna argument väldigt tydlig när man inte har mer att komma med än falska analogier. Liberala -- och andra demokratiska -- debattörer har stått upp för Charlie Hebdos rätt att provocera utan att bli mördade för det. De har inte därmed försökt förbjuda någon att kritisera tidningen. Charlie-redaktionens satir är inte heller på den nivå som Didings pris befinner sig; att en antidemokrat provocerar genom att hylla en annan antidemokrat (och massmördare) genom att instifta ett pris uppkallat efter denne är faktiskt inte riktigt samma sak som att provocera genom satir. En antidemokrat som hyllar en antidemokrat ligger liksom på en annan nivå än när satiriker kritiserar sin samtid.

Däremot är det naturligtvis inte ett dugg konstigt att en antidemokrats antidemokrat-hyllande pris går till en tredje antidemokrat; det ligger litegrann i sakens natur, liksom att den sålunda belönade antidemokraten står upp till försvar för detta. Kaka söker som bekant maka.

lördag 17 januari 2015

On writing "action", part 1

So I've got some opinions on how to, and how not to, write action – both in movies and TV, and comics. Since I'm a fan of good characterization, a lot of this series will deal with that; but I want to emphasize that I'm not claiming that I'm particularly good at writing this stuff myself; I'll mainly point to good and bad examples and discuss how one could go about it to do it better.

You may think that characterization isn't particularly important in action movies or comics; that the important thing is to have lots and lots of action – fist fights, shootouts and explosions. You'd be wrong. Characterization is what makes an audience care about the characters in the story, and willing to spend up to two hours in their company, rooting for them to succeed. There is a genre of films that mainly tries to appeal to fans of violence, of course. Sometimes, such a movie will be made by a regular Hollywood studio, in which case it'll have excellent production values, at least a couple of big-name actors (though a couple of them will likely have a career that hasn't exactly been booming lately), and well-crafted violence ballets. It will still suck, though, because it's still just a bad excuse for the viewer to enjoy people seeing being maimed and killed. Yes, I'm talking about crap like John Wick – and basically every Jason Statham movie ever made.

(Now, you can enjoy this kind of movie without being a psychopath. For example, if you're into martial arts, there's a lot of enjoyment to be had from watching the techniques used in say, an old Jackie Chan movie. But there has to be some pretty darn good martial arts techniques to justify the simplistic stories and rudimentary characterization levels of these movies.)

If you see one of these movies, it's usually written according to a very simple model:
1. The hero is introduced. He (it's usually a he) does something nice, to show that he's a good guy, and possibly something not-so-nice, just to show that he's a tough or cool guy.
2. The villain is introduced. He does something horrible, to show that he's a horrible person – or, frequently, there's a bunch of villains introduced and shown to be horrible persons, even though one of them is the leader and the rest are his henchmen. The reason for this is that it the more villains there are, the more the hero can kill and/or maim on his way to the top villain. Of course the villains are shown to be such horrible people to justify the hero's levels of violence against them. Generally, unless you have a pretty messed-up personality or view of society, you don't appreciate people being beaten to a pulp for pilfering an apple, for example. And with the levels of violence in modern action movies, the villains have to do some pretty disgusting things to justify them – sadistic torture, rape, mass murder etc.
3. Somehow, the villain(s) and hero cross paths, and the hero gets a reason to fight the villain(s).
4. Fight fight fight fight.
5. The hero wins, and everything is well in the world. End.

There are a lot of crappy movies made according to this model, and some of the blame for this falls on people like Blake Snyder and John Truby.

"Who are they", you ask? Well, Snyder wrote Save the Cat, a scriptwriting manual outlining a simple (or, rather, simplistic) scriptwriting model that gave the reader detailed instruction on how to structure a story. Truby's The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller does the same thing. Both of them could have named their books Scriptwriting for Dummies instead – while they make a lot of good points for the novice writer, the resulting monoculture of mechanical movie writing can only be viewed as bad.

Basically, their approach to movie writing is that you tell most of your story through its structure. To shorten their structure-driven movie writing recipe somewhat: start with points 1-3 above, move to the hero having a huge setback and becoming depressed, hitting rock bottom and feeling that he's failed. Then have one of his friends set him straight, have him realize what his big moral weakness is and correct it, and through that change become capable of defeating the villain(s). Huge win, happy ending, blah blah blah.

When I was in my thirties, I had seen so many such movies, built on pretty much exactly the same structure, that I was rather sick and tired of Hollywood movies. I could count the beats of the story off as they occurred, and knew what to expect at pretty much every point of the story. "Well, things seem to be working pretty well. I guess it's time for some disaster to struck, so that… Aaand there it was. OK, how long will we have to wait while the hero's wallowing in his own misery until something happens that makes him pull himself together and finish this?" Basically, the only movies I could be bothered to go to see in a cinema were Disney movies (after the studio pulled itself together with The Great Mouse Detective, they started churning out some quite beautiful animation, and while the stories were pretty predictable as well, the sheer storytelling skill, beautiful artwork, and humor compensated enough to make them worth watching) and the occasional comedy. See, when you use structure to tell the story in a manner to maximize impact on your audience, and that structure has to follow a certain template, your audience is going to learn the template eventually – and then your stories basically won't have any impact, because the audience already knows what is coming.

That's why I've been more fond of "revisionist" superhero writers since the 80s – or rather, the seventies, because Steve Gerber qualifies as a revisionist superhero writer even though he did his most seminal work in the seventies (and I read them in the eighties, anyway) – because these guys worked from a different structure, so I couldn't predict what would happen. Or, maybe I should rephrase that: I could be surprised by what happened. The standard structure always opens for a couple of different outcomes; for example, at the end of a drama, you can have the protagonist succeeding in his (or her) effort, or he could fail, and then kill himself for good measure to try to make a cheap emotional impact on the audience, but once you've seen a bunch of these movies you know what the possible outcomes are. With the revisionist writers, or with independent filmmakers, you'll get something far less predictable. And since a huge part of the reason I like to watch and read fiction is avoidance of boredom, less predictability is usually a good thing.

As long as there's a happy ending, of course. I read enough history and current affairs to have had my fill of unhappy endings. They depress me, and I don't need any more of that in today's world. (That's part of why I like Grant Morrison's writing so much. He'll take you on a wild, unpredictable roller coaster ride and somehow manage to end it all on a positive note anyway, no matter how disastrous and hopeless everything has seemed midway through. Unpredictable and predictably non-tragic. The best combination there is.)

There are other things that can make me un-bored with a story, of course, and I hinted at some of them with that Disney reference earlier on. If the ride is enjoyable, it's not really a big problem that that you know where it's going. Other storytelling elements can also be used. With comics, you can have beautiful images. You can also have beautiful language, or clever wordplay, which is also very enjoyable. There is also the characters; strong characters that I care about can do a lot to keep me interested in a comic even if it doesn't quite deliver in other areas. For example, Charles Schulz's Peanuts had a bit of a slow period for a number of years when it wasn't as funny as it had used to be (though in fairness, it's very hard to be as funny as Peanuts was at its peak), but because I still cared for the characters, I still enjoyed reading about their lives and experiences.

So there's an example of something you can use as a writer to make your work more interesting: characterization. What passes for characterization in modern blockbuster movies and TV series is often rather pathetic, unfortunately. Too often, what we get is just stock characters with a couple of quirks thrown in. I'll give you an example: Criminal Minds, where the team has a computer specialist, the characterization of whom boils down to dressing in a flamboyant girly manner, talking flirtatiously to another member on the team when he's out trying to save lives and needs relevant information fast, and saying self-assured stuff like "Do I know where the killer lives? Does the pope wear a funny hat?" a lot – another case of chattering instead of giving out critically important information as fast as humanly possible.

This shallow kind of characterization goes hand in hand with another of my pet peeves, banter, but I hope to get into the problem with mind-bogglingly vapid banter in a later installment of this series, so I'll leave it for now. Just remember: quirks don't equal characterization.

To be fair, there is not a lot of space in an action story for introspection or long soliloquies – which, considering the writing skills of the average action movie writer, and the acting skills of the average action hero, probably isn't a bad thing. However, there are other methods of characterization than weird fashion statements and recurring phraseology. One method, especially appropriate in action stories, is action. That is, the way a person behaves shows us something about what kind of person he or she is. Take a look at the following clip from Lethal Weapon, and pay special attention to how Mel Gibson's character, Riggs, acts at the start of the clip and after the murder. (I suggest you watch the first 20 seconds or so, and then skip to the three minute point.)

First, notice how Riggs doesn't mix at the beginning of the clip. He doesn't approach the other people there; he doesn't want to mingle. He's a man apart, a loner. That's a pretty import part of his emotional makeup, and one that is well echoed in this scene.

Next, after Hunsaker is shot, what does Riggs do? He acts. Immediately. He starts running towards a position from where he can fire on the helicopter, and then starts blasting. So, obviously, he's a man of action (and violence, when necessary). And what does he do as the helicopter leaves? He runs after it – shooting. Now, that's pretty meaningless, because he's not likely to hit anything while running, but obviously he's too angry, to eager to get the bastards, to care. We see this also when he reloads and continues firing after the helicopter is well out of range. So not only is he a man of action, he is also a pretty emotional kind of guy. Also a nice piece of characterization, although a bit overvalued, especially in heroes. Me, I prefer heroes a bit more able to temper their emotions with more practicality – or perhaps "professionalism" is a better word. There are ways to emphasize professionalism more than emotionalism in this scene, but this is already a pretty long, wordy post, so perhaps I will get to that in a later post on this subject. The art of writing action stories will be revisited in the future.

To be continued...

tisdag 13 januari 2015

Sara Gunnerud: Ordens makt i politiken

I sitt förord till Ordens makt i politiken menar Sara Gunnerud att det "används en hel del ful och manipulerande teknik i den svenska samhällsdebatten", och att det är en del av förklaringen till "varför högern har kunnat flytta fram sina positioner så mycket de senaste decennierna". I bokens första kapitel slår hon fast att "[a]tt manipulera med språk är ohederligt" och att det är "omoraliskt att manipulera människor i samhällsdebatten". Hon slår också fast följande sympatiska tes, som jag tycker att alla bör skriva under på:
Den som värnar demokratin måste försvara den, och inte själv bidra till att korrumpera den. Alltså har var och en ett ansvar för kvaliteten i det demokratiska samtalet.
Väl talat. Vi ska återkomma till de orden efter en kort sammanfattning av Gunneruds bok, dess budskap och syfte.

Gunnerud är språkvetare och socialdemokrat. Med sin bok vill hon ge vänstermänniskor (främst, så vitt jag kan förstå, socialdemokrater och fackligt verksamma) språkliga redskap för att dels föra fram sina budskap på ett så effektivt sätt som möjligt, dels analysera borgerliga budskap för att kunna vederlägga dem. Den som klarar av att styra debattens språkbruk kan med hjälp av de associationer orden skapar få övertaget redan från början, och Gunnerud ger en hel del exempel på vad man skulle kunna kalla "tjuvknep" som används i dylika syften.

Samtliga sådana dåliga exempel kommer från borgerliga eller näringslivsanknutna debattörer.

Boken är alltså rejält vinklad. Jag tycker inte att man kan klaga på det i sig; det rör sig trots allt om en socialdemokrat som har ett uttalat, öppet politiskt syfte med vad hon skriver. Problematiskt, rent av rejält problematiskt, blir det dock när Gunnerud själv använder sig av metoder som helt klart skulle platsa i den katalog av fula knep som hon räknar upp. Låt mig ge ett par exempel.

I kapitlet "Maktens undanglidande språk" kritiserar Gunnerud makthavares försök att glida undan ansvar genom ett vagt, otydligt och vilseledande språkbruk. Hon exemplifierar vagt språkbruk med Moderaternas landsbygdsprogram:
Vad gäller EU:s roll i svensk rovdjurspolitik har vi även här sett en utveckling som inte gynnar arbetet med att uppnå acceptans för den förda svenska rovdjurspolitiken
Gunnerud menar att formuleringen "är så vag och öppen att den kan tolkas på helt olika sätt", att det är omöjligt att förstå om det är "EU som ska förmås låta regeringen besluta om vargjakt, eller (…) att svenska medborgare som har starka åsikter om varg ska förmås acceptera vargens närvaro i skog och mark". Letar man litet högre upp i Moderaternas dokument "40 förslag för en levande landsbygd" – som ju formuleringen "även här" antyder att man kan göra – hittar man följande:
Vi kan nu se allt mer frustration över vargstammens kraftiga ökning. Känslan av otrygghet bland boende måste tas på allvar. När rovdjuren angriper tamdjur måste åtgärder vidtas.
För att få tillbaka människors förtroende för rovdjurspolitiken anser vi att "en" länsstyrelse bör få ansvar för skyddsjaktfrågor.
Den otydlighet som kan återfinnas i det av Gunnerud återgivna citatet beror alltså inte på att Moderaterna försöker vara vaga för att "inte stöta sig med någon", som Gunnerud påstår, utan helt enkelt på att hon själv skurit bort delar av vad som sagts. Om hon har gjort det avsiktligt för att kunna angripa Moderaterna eller om hon läst dokumentet med så ideologiskt färgade glasögon att hon helt enkelt oavsiktligt filtrerat bort informationen kan jag naturligtvis inte avgöra. En dålig grund för hennes angrepp är det likafullt, och underminerar hennes position. (Reservation för det fall att hon syftat på något annat, för mig okänt dokument – notapparaten nämner bara "Moderaternas landsbygdsprogram 2013", inget mera – men det verkar rätt osannolikt med tanke på att det var det enda dokument med den citerade formuleringen som dök upp vid en Google-sökning.)

Slarv eller misstag kan dock hända. Värre är det när man förvränger forskares resultat för att understödja den egna agendan. Den amerikanske lingvisten George Lakoff har forskat om åsiktsskillnader mellan, med Wikipedias formulering, "liberals and conservatives", och kommit fram till att dessa följer "from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different central metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens". I sin bok Thinking Points pratar han i stället om "progressives" och "conservatives".

I Gunneruds tappning blir detta "progressiva" och "borgerliga".

Fundera på det en stund. Lakoff jämförde amerikanska högerrepublikaner med progressiva/liberaler. Gunnerud översätter rakt av amerikanska högerrepublikaner till svenska borgerliga, dvs spektrat FP-C-KD-M, och drar sedan slutsatser om dessa utifrån Lakoffs undersökningar. Den felöversättningen är djupt ohederlig. Mitt eget parti FP ligger klart närmare Demokraterna politiskt, och det djupt reaktionära och främlingsfientliga i dagens republikanska parti saknar i huvudsak klangbotten i svenska borgerliga partier (dock inte i det främlingsfientliga populistpartiet SD, men det är en något annan sak). Men eftersom det passar hennes syften tvekar Gunnerud inte att beskriva den "borgerliga" tankemodellen som att den menar att det är "omoraliskt och destruktivt att göra livet drägligare för den som är fattig, sjuk eller arbetslös" – vilket säkert skulle förvåna till exempel ett stort antal borgerliga socialliberala politiker som genom svensk historia arbetat hårt och i stora stycken framgångsrikt för att göra livet drägligare för just de grupperna.

Gunneruds ohederlighet när hon använder amerikanska högern som förklaringsmodell för svenska mittenpartiers politiska ställningstaganden – och ignorerar de skäl de själva anför för dessa – blir desto mer slående som den sker i en kontext där hon anklagar sina meningsmotståndare för att manipulera människor genom sitt språkbruk.

Det finns fler exempel, men jag tycker de här räcker för att illustrera vad boken egentligen handlar om: politisk ammunition. Saklig analys är vad inte Sara Gunnerud är ute efter, och det är inte heller vad hon levererar. I stället är det en partsinlaga med rejäl ideologisk slagsida och klent med intellektuell hederlighet. Jag var beredd att ta en del kängor mot borgerlig politik i allmänhet och Alliansens regeringspolitik i synnerhet för att få mig till livs en läsvärd analys, men Ordens makt i politiken är så mycket partsinlaga att den är ganska värdelös för den som inte avser att läsa den för att i första hand få sina redan existerande politiska åsikter och fördomar validerade. Rekommenderas inte – utom för vänstermänniskor som redan är övertygade om att de som befinner sig det minsta till höger om Socialdemokraterna är ondskefulla, förstås.

(Föga förvånande kan man finna en mer uppskattande recension på Aftonbladets kultursida.)

fredag 2 januari 2015

Movie review: Man of Steel

"Zod off!!"

Look, this isn't an awful film. But it isn't a particularly good one, either. Spoilers ahead.

On Krypton, scientist Jor-El stands before the ruling council demanding that they allow him to rescue the Kryptonians' collective genetic code from the cataclysm about to destroy their planet. They don't listen. Suddenly, general Zod enters the chamber, accompanied by soldiers, announcing that he's taking over government to save Krypton from these ineffective talkers. Jor-El escapes, stealing the code and bringing it to his home in order to send it, with his newborn son Kal-El, into space, to Earth.

Then the film starts going downhill, unfortunately.

Jor-El's wife Lara doesn't want to send her son away, because what if he dies out there in space? That he's about to die on Krypton when it explodes doesn't seem to matter to her. Then, when she finally agrees to let Jor-El send the boy off – and keep in mind that Zod and his soldiers are on their way to take the Kryptonian genetic codes back, so time's a-wasting – she refuses to let him go, holding on to him as long as possible. Zod then arrives with his soldiers, who seem happy to let their leader walk into an enemy's lair in front of them, apparently unarmed. In fact, most of them stay outside and just two of them walk 5-10 meters behind him, carrying guns that they apparently don't know how to use because Jor-El can grab a gun and shoot them both before they can pull the triggers of their weapons.

Jor-El, the scientist, proceeds to beat the crap out of the soldier Zod, send his son and the Kryptonians' genetic code away into space, and get killed by Zod because nobody in this movie seems to care one bit about actually disarming and tying up violent enemies. Zod walks out to his waiting soldiers, who haven't done anything useful like shooting down the ship leaving their enemy's lair. Kryptonian armed forces thus arrive to capture them before they can stop the ship, and they get sentenced to the Phantom Zone for their crimes. After that, Krypton eventually explodes, killing Lara and everybody else on the planet.

So, what do we have so far? Standard Hollywood writing, where everything is about striding about and making pompous declarations and watching some marvelous imagery from the CGI people. There is nothing much to suggest imminent threat in the scenes, no need for anybody to rush anything because they'll always have time to do whatever is necessary to reach the various plot points outlined in John Truby's The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller or Blake Snyder's Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, two books that have done their fair share to ruin Hollywood films in general by insisting on stereotypical structuring of movie scripts. Instead, we get sentimental moments with Lara, put in there for no other reason than to hit the audience over the head with "it's tough for a mother to be separated from her child forever", as if the actress couldn't have shown that through actual acting. We also get Zod showing himself as evil, through his treasonous behavior and cowardly back-stabbing – again, entirely in line with the recipe from Truby, Snyder et al – and we don't confuse the audience with something that might take their attention away from this stuff, like people actually behaving and speaking somewhat realistically, or the top military man of Krypton acting like he knows anything about war and fighting at all.

Anyway, over to Kal-El's – or Clark Kent, the name given to him by his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent – life on Earth. He does good without revealing himself and his powers to humanity, moving from job to job as something happens that makes him have to show his powers. You know, just like David Banner. Turns out, a) the US military has found a spaceship in the Canadian Arctic, b) the US military absolutely sucks at background checks, so Clark can sneak in and work as a handyman on the site. There, he discovers his Kryptonian heritage, Lois Lane discovers him, and his actions lead to Zod and his gang also discovering him, and coming over to join the party, take the Kryptonian genetic code and basically destroy the Earth and mankind to recreate Krypton and the Kryptonian race. Fierce fighting of various kinds ensues.

Henry Cavill actually isn't bad in the role as Superman, but the scripting doesn't give him the backing he should have. For example, Clark and Jonathan Kent fear that if humanity learns about Clark's powers, they'll fear and shun him, a theme that doesn't really work with the Superman mythos, which is really true-blue, mom and apple pie, honest Midwest, etc. The "humans will fear and hate him" theme really belongs with the X-Men, not a Superman movie – unless you do it a whole lot better, like for example not having Clark let his father die a meaningless death in a tornado, because obviously an old man is better equipped to run back in a storm to the family's car to save the dog trapped in it than the young, athletic son who also happens to have superpowers. You sit there watching, saying to yourself, or your friend next to you, "what are they, stupid?".

No, they're just victims of lazy scriptwriting. You want to kill off Jonathan Kent, fine – but do it in a manner that doesn't insult the characters' intelligences (or the audience's).

Final insult: gratuitously inserting Jor-El back into the story as a computer-stored consciousness, just because it's easier to have him drone on with exposition and repeating the basic conflict between him and Zod just in case the audience is too stupid to remember it, even after it was hammered into them at the start of the movie. What is it with moviemakers wanting to put Jor-El back into Clark's life? Come up with a way show the audience what they need to learn without using this exposition crutch, instead.

From there on, the movie is basically lots of super-powered fights between super-strong and nigh-invulnerable people punching each other with little other effect than making the other guy fly some 50-100 meters away and smashing through a lot of housing on the way, plus a standard (see, for example, Batman Begins) "a huuuuge disaster is looming, will the hero be able to stop it (yes of course he will, and everybody knows it)" finale.

What's good about the movie, then? Well, there is some decent acting in it, with Kevin Costner doing the best job as Jonathan Kent; Costner's so good in the role that it's just a damn shame that they kill him off so early, and in such a flimsy manner. Laurence Fishburne is his usual competent self as Perry White even though he doesn't have much of a script to work with, and Russel Crowe is similarly albeit more stereotypically competent as Jor-El. The women in the movie, Lois Lane included, are to a too-great extent sideline-watchers or in need of rescuing. How I miss Margot Kidder, who almost managed to carry the first two Superman movies of the seventies into "good movie" instead of "watchable" territory. (Oh, Reeves was good in the title role, but Kidder put whatever spark there was in those movies – much like Teri Hatcher did with Lois & Clark.) And like I said, I think Cavill does a decent job, but like the others, he doesn't have much of a script to work with; I wonder if Crowe doesn't, in fact, get to do the most acting in the movie.

Also, the movie looks great; art direction, design and CGI is top-notch. But the actual superheroics are too sparse (and too angst-laden) at first, and are a bit too stacked on top of each other with too little cleverness about it in the second half.

So this is a watchable film, but not a necessary one – unless, of course, you love superheroes. If you do, you're pretty much obliged to see it, and to wish that the producers and writers had done a better job with it.

(Post scriptum: I checked to see who'd actually written it, and to not my surprise, it turned out to be David S. Goyer, who also helped write Christopher Nolan's not-very-well-done Batman trilogy. I'll save my gripes about that for a later post, though.)

torsdag 24 juli 2014

Yves Sente & André Juillard: Blake & Mortimer – The Oath of the Five Lords

Are you familiar with those classic British detective series on TV – Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Inspector Lynley etc? Of course you are. (And if you aren't, that doesn't really matter; it was more of a rhetorical question.)

The standard plot for one of these whodunits starts out with introducing the main protagonists or the problem the detective has to solve – or a very old event that sets the stage for what is to follow. If the latter case, it is usually not entirely clear exactly how this will affect the present-day crime riddle, but solving that riddle is often dependent on the detective realizing how those old events are connected to it.

We then have a crime, usually a murder, which gets the detective(s) involved in the case. While trying to  understand that case, and perhaps feeling that he/she/they is/are getting a grip on it, another murder is committed, which makes it obvious that that is not the case at all. Digging deeper, the detective(s) a) encounter some red herring(s), b) find a crucial bit of evidence that is frequently not understood properly. Suddenly, perhaps from a comment by his/her partner, the detective realizes exactly what has happened and why, and who the guilty party is, and rushes to – in the very nick of time – stop the murderer from killing another victim.

The end.

This is a rather stereotypical way of structuring your plot, and the reason it is so stereotypical is of course that it works. People – readers and viewers of criminal fiction – love it, and faithfully follow well constructed series in the genre. It offers tension, the challenge of oneself making sense of the various bits of information revealed during the investigation, some "aha!" moments, and the satisfaction of seeing justice enacted. Who could complain? As long as it's well done, of course. Stereotypical plots enacted badly are just terrible, whether in book or film/TV format.

(As you may already have guessed, the plot of Blake & Mortimer – The Oath of the Five Lords conforms to this basic structure.)

Blake & Mortimer is a comics series created by writer-artist (and Hergé collaborator/assistant) Edgar P. Jacobs, combining elements from detective stories and science fiction. Several albums were published in Swedish when I was a kid – and I would dearly like to know where the hell the albums I bought then have gotten to, because I can't bloody well find them today. 

From what I recall, though, the panels were usually a bit too text-heavy and the storytelling a bit too cumbersome for me to really appreciate it. Much later, however, something happened. First, in the nineties French publishing giant Dargaud decided to revive the series, with some top contemporary comics creators doing the honors as Jacobs passed away in 1987. Second, British Cinebook started translating all B&M albums, publishing them in English.

(Now, I can read French, but I do need to have a dictionary on hand, so it's easier for me to read the stories in English. Also, I can buy them cheaper and easier via my comics dealer. Thus, I'm thankful to Cinebook for making these and many other French/Belgian comics easily available as there are very little French-language comics published in Swedish these days. The notable exception, small-press publisher Albumförlaget, can only publish so much.)

Anyway, this particular story starts out in 1919, depicting how some MI5 spook with a grudge against Lawrence of Arabia has a manuscript stolen from the war hero. We are then transferred to the fifties, when a masked figure burglarizes a museum to steal a violin. Coincidentally, scientist Philip Mortimer – half of Blake & Mortimer – has been invited to that very museum to hold a seminar on science and archaeology. Meanwhile, his old friend Francis Blake, head of the MI5, hurries off to the funeral of an old Oxford chum. Turns out the old friend was murdered… And some other old friends from that Oxford circle are then murdered, one by one…

From there on, it's basic traditional British whodunit; following leads, some of them red herrings, and gradually discovering how the two cases are connected – and how they are connected to the scene depicted in the prologue. Both Sente and Juillard are old hands, so they know their craft, and they do it well. I'm a bit annoyed at the way Captions are handled, as they sometimes give redundant information and are lettered in all caps while the speech balloons are in lower case, giving the impression of a narrator speaking in a RATHER LOUD VOICE. But the overall work is solid, with a complicated plot that is gradually revealed to the reader, skillfully weaving in some real-life connections and an interesting episode from Francis Blake's past, adding some dimension to the character and a reason for him to take a special interest in the case. 

There are also some nice bits of characterization showing the reader what incredibly Britishly polite people Messieurs Blake and Mortimer are. As an example of that, please listen to the head of the MI5 asking the person at the front desk of a hospital to make a life-or-death phone call: "I don't want to impose on you, miss, but could you place another call for me?" 

Overall, the positive aspects of the story compensates for the actual solution to the case being not all that special and somewhat predictable. (Only "somewhat", though, because if you're familiar with the genre, you're not particularly surprised by it, but Sente does keep his options for tying the whole thing together open for most of the album.)

Also, occasionally it becomes almost a bit too "let's do a really, really British whodunit", but overall, it's enjoyable like a good Midsomer Murders or Lewis episode. Worth your time.

Here's an enthusiastic review with some art samples.