Language and literary writers

One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012)

Behind the Curve – One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012)

Language is one of those things that gets weird once you step back and see it from a different angle. We tend to link our words directly to the thoughts we think. If you’re a fluent English speaker, and that’s the only language you know, its easy to believe you are thinking in English. That English is just a natural human brain function. Why shouldn’t it be? It comes as easily as breathing.

But every language is actually human invention. Each is descendant from the series of noises that our caveman ancestors made up to crudely indicate where a tiger might be lurking. Granted it’s gotten more complex, but language is still nowhere near a perfect transcription of our thoughts. You may occasionally be forming complete sentences in your head, but more often our thoughts are abstract and free-flowing things. Unbound by the rules of grammar and syntax.

Scrubs: NBC
J.D. Thinking – Scrubs: NBC

My point is that language is not the language of our brains. It’s more like an encryption tool. It translates our nebulous brainwaves into something that can travel across the air. Then it decrypts whatever was said back into the language of the mind so it can be truly understood.

Usually this good enough for our day-to-day communications. But there are some feelings and ideas that are simply too complex for our language. That is where literary writers come in. We try and trigger these fuzzier, nameless feelings in our reader using language as our medium. It’s more difficult than it sounds. Typically individual words are not strong enough to evoke strong feelings. You have to understand the flavor and connotation of different words and mix them together. Like a chef mixing different ingredients to create something entirely unique.

Photo from The Guardian, 2011
Photo from The Guardian, 2011

Am I making any sense? Let me give you an example from the first chapter of One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir. Wainaina’s poetic prose can tap more directly into these kind of emotional veins than any writer I’ve ever read. The narrator is outside playing soccer with his siblings.

A few moments ago the sun was a single white beam. Now it has fallen into the trees. All over the garden there are a thousand tine suns, poking through gaps, all of them spherical, all of them shooting thousands of beams. The beams fall onto branches and leaves and splinter into thousands of smaller perfect suns.

To me this perfectly conveys the kind of wild, day dreamy thoughts I had constantly as a child. I hope it does that for you as well, but it might not. The tragedy of literary fiction is that all our minds work in different ways. Sometimes the encryption process is imperfect.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: The Warriors (1979) – Monday, April 4
  • Game: Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) – Monday, April 11
  • Documentary: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) – Monday, April 18
  • Book: The Thin Man (Dashiell Hammett, 1934) – Monday, April 25
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30

The lure of the fantasy

An Honest Liar: Left Turn Films, 2014

Behind the Curve – An Honest Liar (2014)

Admit it. You’ve tried moving an object with your mind. Maybe you grunted at a pen on the other side of a room. Maybe you gave yourself a headache straining. We’ve all done this at least once.

An Honest Liar: Left Turn Films, 2014
An Honest Liar: Left Turn Films, 2014

Everybody has fantasized about having superpowers. It’s completely natural. Even so, I suspect my daydreams were more elaborate than most. I’d imagine how it would feel to use my powers to the minutest detail. I’d map out entire epic adventures in my head. Perhaps these things are the inevitable dreams of a young storyteller, but a strange thing happened. I began to believe my own fantasies. Not only that they could happen, but that they must happen. That they were inevitable and would happen to me one day, soon.

Understand that I was not stupid.The logical part of my brain knew that these things were impossible. Idle fantasies. But that simple fact never stuck in my deeper subconscious. It was a strong presence in my brain that secretly regarded the logical side as a dull spoilsport. It was a stubborn sap that couldn’t let go of the fantasy.

I remember that period in my life fondly for its hope and innocence, but it’s also a testament to the human capacity for self-deception. I couldn’t help thinking of it while watching An Honest Liar. This documentary explores the wide variety and depth of human deception through the lens of retired magician James Randi, better known by his stage name “The Amazing Randi.”

Like Houdini before him, Randi is disgusted by people who use the arts of magic and deception to con people and distort their world view. Over the past 40 years he’s been using his knowledge to expose those who claim genuine supernatural powers. From telekinetics to faith healers to psychic surgeons, Randi demonstrates how these seemingly impossible feats can be repeated through simple trickery and slight of hand.

But even after these demonstrations, some people will stubbornly believe in the supposed psychic. They’ll say, “Sure, Randi can do that with trickery. But that doesn’t mean Uri Geller wasn’t doing it for real!” Or worse, some people accuse Randi of having psychic powers himself. And this is the man who openly states, “I’m a trickster, I’m a cheat, I’m a charlatan, that’s what I do for a living.”

An Honest Liar: Left Turn Films, 2014
An Honest Liar: Left Turn Films, 2014

To me, this is less about the effectiveness of certain con men and more about mankind’s need to belief in something greater than himself. We want the fantastical to exist, because it would make this world a lot more interesting. It would also reassure us that things happen for a reason. Perhaps as a kid I felt the universe owed me superpowers to balance out my social awkwardness. That’s how the story is supposed to go. You take your lumps as a powerless nerd, and eventually the universe rewards you for your suffering. Perhaps it was inevitable that the escapism and power fantasy on display in storytelling would eventually drip into our worldview.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012) – Monday, March 28
  • Movie: The Warriors (1979) – Monday, April 4
  • Game: Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) – Monday, April 11
  • Documentary: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) – Monday, April 18
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30

Family friendly

Lego Lord of the Rings: Traveller's Tales, 2012

Behind the Curve – Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013)

I’ve always found it amusing how adaptations aimed at kids will employ weird creative tricks to dance around the more mature aspects of a property. For example,  Marvel cartoons weren’t allowed to say words like “kill” or depict anything that would vaguely suggest mortality. It leads to weird situations. Like Wolverine only remembering he has claws when fighting robots enemies. Spider-Man: The Animated Series was fairly obnoxious with its use of “destroy” as a replacement word for “kill.” And there was one amusing episode where he teams up with Blade to fight Morbius, a literal vampire, but nobody ever says the word “blood.” They all call it “plasma.” I assume that idea came when a Red Cross van parked outside the animation studio.

Spider-Man The Animated Series: Marvel, 1996
Spider-Man The Animated Series: Marvel, 1996

Obviously Lord of the Rings needed to be more family friendly for it’s Lego treatment. The source material gets a tad dark with its severed head catapults and addiction metaphors. Plus there was all that talk of orcs eating “man flesh,” which is incidentally still sounds like the worst euphemism for “penis” of all time.

But some of the alterations are just absurd. Like, really absurd. For example, they had to keep Boromir’s death in the story. It was an important plot point. So apparently they tried to marry that moment with Lego’s wacky, slapstick sense of humor. Rather than getting shot repeatedly with arrows, Boromir dies of a banana to the chest. I wish I was making that up.

Usually in posts like this I try and break down what the storyteller was going for and try to figure out how it could have been done more successfully. But in this case I’m not sure what I could say. I don’t know that there is a effective technique of de-fang violent stories and make them family friendly. And it probably doesn’t matter too much. Most kids won’t notice the weird parts because they’re not exactly experts on tone and story structure. Only losers like me will think it’s weird, but the game isn’t aimed at me so I don’t know what I’m complaining about.

So I’m just going to use the rest of this blog to describe other weird moments in Lego Lord of the Rings. Because they’re really frickin’ funny.

Lego Lord of the Rings is one of the first Lego games to feature voices, and they actually managed to keep “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys” line. An orc says it when Frodo and Sam show up at the Black Gates of Mordor disguised as pizza delivery guys.

Lego Lord of the Rings: Traveller's Tales, 2012
Lego Lord of the Rings: Traveller’s Tales, 2012

Other moments weirdly come across as more messed up than the original. You know when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli investigate the aftermath of a battle between a company of Rohirrim and the Uruk-hai who took Merry and Pippen? In the movie there was a head on a spike next to a pile of burning bodies. Well there’s no head on a spike now. Instead, there’s a large stack of still living Lego Uruk-hai heads. They teeter back and forth and make comical balancing noises. How is that better???

But the highlight for me was Théoden’s death. It was handled tastefully in the movie. He fell in battle, trapped under his horse. The animal neatly hid his mangled lower half, while he says his goodbyes to Éowyn. Well, the Lego version is kind of like that. Except the line “My body is broken,” was way more literal. Because while Théoden and Éowyn have their tender moment, Merry picks up the king’s legs! And they twitch!!!

Lego Lord of the Rings: Traveller's Tales, 2012
Lego Lord of the Rings: Traveller’s Tales, 2012

I know all the characters are made of plastic, but that still seems demented enough to cause nightmares.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: An Honest Liar (2014) – Monday, March 21
  • Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012) – Monday, March 28
  • Movie: The Warriors (1979) – Monday, April 4
  • Game: Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) – Monday, April 11
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30

Deadpool and the death of Superhero movies

Deadpool: 20th Century Fox, 2016

Behind the Curve – Deadpool (2016)

I want to begin by saying that I love the new Deadpool movie. It’s the best comic book film I’ve seen since Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s the film Deadpool fans have been clamoring for since X-Men Origins: Wolverine butchered the character. It’s funny, violent, irreverent and it breaks the fourth wall in a way that’s not so obtrusive that it distracts from the story. And predictably, Ryan Reynolds as the titular Merc with a Mouth is an inspired casting choice. It’s the most perfect pairing of actor and role since Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark.

Deadpool: 20th Century Fox, 2016
Deadpool: 20th Century Fox, 2016

And despite all that, I still left the theater with some small twinge of regret. Not for the movie itself, but because of what I feel it signifies. You see, Deadpool it a satirical movie that pokes fun at other superhero movies, both in what’s on the screen and what happens behind the scenes during movie production. A major theme surrounds whether or not Deadpool will become a “hero,” and his decision seems directly tied to the business of superhero movies. I sense this turmoil happening under the film’s surface, but there are moments when Deadpool directly weighs the benefits of superhero movies. In doing so, the film comments on how bloated, convoluted and absurd the whole business has become. The studio battles, the fan outrage, the reboots and cast changes.

This all fits with the character from the comics, but in my opinion the satire works a little better than I was prepared for. Now I can’t help but roll my eyes at the many DC and Marvel films on the horizon, wholeheartedly embracing the more ridiculous aspects of the genre. It all seems so silly in this post-Deadpool world.

Still not making sense? Let’s take a deeper look at Deadpool and see if I can explain. He was originally conceived as a villain in The New Mutants, and was a shameless ripoff of DC’s Deathstroke. The creators even named him Wade Wilson (a spoof off of Slade Wilson, Deathstroke’s name) and had an inside joke that the two were related. So even before he got funny Deadpool was a joke, the incestuous spawn of the comic book industry’s muddled continuity and lack of original ideas.

Eventually Deadpool grew into the insane, satirical character we know and love. His irreverence and habit of breaking the fourth wall often served to take the piss out of more serious Marvel characters. In a way he was the embodiment of comics’ self-awareness. He’d hold up a mirror to everyone around him, turn to camera and giggle as if to say, “You have to admit, this is a little dumb.”

Deadpool: 20th Century Fox, 2016
Deadpool: 20th Century Fox, 2016

At least that’s my opinion. And Deadpool the movie is doing the same things. There are self-aware references to the X-Men movies and their convoluted timeline, the concept of teamup movies like Avengers, cast changes. It references Ryan Reynolds’ portrayal of Green Lantern and the other version of Deadpool. This is all well-timed and funny at the time. Deadpool takes the industry down a peg, but my concern is that the superhero movie is no longer fresh and fun enough to survive some good-natured ribbing.

You’ll note that the character of Deadpool was created in the 90s, while the comic book industry was in a post-Bronze Age nosedive into irrelevance. I’m not saying Deadpool caused or even contributed to the decline, but his existence may have cheekily pointed out why it happened. I hope that superhero films don’t suffer the same fate, but let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14
  • Documentary: An Honest Liar (2014) – Monday, March 21
  • Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012) – Monday, March 28
  • Movie: The Warriors (1979) – Monday, April 4
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30