Monday, October 11, 2010

A Theory of Art

After a performance of Messiah, Lord Kinnoul congratulated Handel by saying that the oratorio had been a “noble entertainment.” The great composer replied, “My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.”


I have always been inspired by these words from my favorite composer. Interpreted not in a narrow, didactic sense, but in the broadest sense, I think they are a goal towards which all creative artists—even mere self-published novelists—should strive.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Here is approximately seven-tenths of one per cent of the next novel in the MERCENARIES series.
I hope some folks will want to read the rest.

“Just more woods, Zinni?”

 “’Fraid so, major. But the cits say there’s a highway from Gorodel to Whitesands.”

 “All right. Go tell the general.”

 The young scout saluted and rode off. Loreg turned to Sgt. Chindan. “They say Vedraxa is part of the Empire now. I hope that means some new roads.”

 We reach Gorodel in three days, sir. Things should get better then.”

 “I hope it doesn’t snow. Any more supplies?”

 “We can’t get much from the farmers, sir. They got nothing to spare. That last village managed to cough up about two bushels of wheat.”

“I’ll ask her about going on half rations until Gorodel. Carry on, sergeant.”

Loreg looked back; the van of the Pelicans could be seen wending its way through the forest. “Rear guard in Sarenia and vanguard here. Wish we could be in the middle for once,” he said. Then he trotted south, through the screen of archers, and reached 1st Company.

“Still nothing but forest,” he said to Lt. Vaklar.

“We’ll reach the Zerdar soon, sir. It’s easier north of the river.”

“I hope so. When we get to Gorodel, make sure nobody wanders off. The men are hungry enough to start pillaging, and we’re in friendly territory. Any rumors about the enemy?”

“The commander is with the general. Maybe she’ll have some news, but as far as I know they’re still near Vorgast, sir. It’ll be some time before we see any Saris.”

“You ever campaigned in the winter before?”

“No sir. This will be a new experience.”

“Maybe we can winter in Vorgast, or Norl.” He rode down the line, shaking his head when troops asked if there was any relief in sight.

The march from Ferlind had been going on for eight days across a poor and wild countryside. By now a battle seemed preferable. In fact, the prospect of a battle would have cheered everyone up by offering chances for loot and fame. Marching provided neither.

Loreg rode past the other three companies of halberdiers to the bag-gage column. The first wagon was pulled by two horses that looked as though they should have been carrying fighting men (which was what they had done before Kedriss Gap). Sitting in back, protected by a bul-wark of disassembled tents, were three young women, playing cards.

“How much further to this town, major?” called one, peering out from under the hood of her woolen cloak.

“About three days, Sary. And probably half rations until then.”

“Why couldn’t we go by sea!” exclaimed another.

“Rough weather, they say. The commander wasn’t upset about that.”

“No. She’d rather go to Whitesands on her knees than get on a boat.”

“Ha. I win,” said the third girl, laying down her cards.

The other two paid her as Terl Garvis rode up. “Commander around, Lana?” he asked one of the losers. “I’ve got a bivouac picked out.”

“She’s back with the general, captain.”

“Good. I can see her and the army billeting officer together.”

He rode away. Loreg went to his usual place, between 3rd and 4th Companies, and the long column of soldiers trudged on, into the gathering twilight of central Vedraxa.


Andiriel returned just before the evening halt, telling Loreg and Tomas that nothing much had changed. “The general is still worried that the enemy might try to threaten our right, so the light cavalry will stay to the east and our scouts will be in charge of guiding the army,” she said. “It’s an honor, really, that he trusts us to do that.”

Loreg told her of the food situation and recommended cutting rations.

“I was afraid of that, but there’s no choice,” she said. “The general assured me that there’s lots of food in Gorodel. The Prince ordered it sent there two weeks ago. We’ll have a decent road, too, finally. We’ll go to Whitesands and follow it down the coast.”

“No news of an invasion yet?”

“No. But the general says it can’t be long now, unless they’ve decided to wait until spring, which he thinks isn’t likely. Hang on, everybody. Things will get better.”

The army encamped near a brook. Fuel parties went to chop firewood after the tents were up and the guards out. The temperature was near freezing—colder than it usually had been the previous year at Ironport.

Supper was stale bread, a little beef jerky, and some dried vegetables. Andiriel ate with her orderlies and the regimental mascot, who was less bouncy than usual.

“Sandi isn’t too happy,” said Lana, passing the fox a bit of bread. “This isn’t the desert.”

“It’s the cold, and there aren’t as many things she can catch,” said Andiriel. “Hunting’s not easy these days, is it, honey? All the yummy mouses have gone someplace warmer.” She stroked Sandi’s back and smiled. “Your coat’s getting really thick.”

Sandi yipped plaintively and left the tent. “If you find a nice big rat, bring it back,” called Dagget. “We could use it.” He looked at Andiriel. “Chief, can we really fight a campaign in this weather? It’s November 20, and it’ll get lots worse. Food and weather, I mean.”

“It only takes one side to make a war,” she replied. “If the Saris invade Vedraxa, we have to meet them. If they don’t cross the border, the general plans to put the bulk of the army near Whitesands and cover the frontier with pickets.”

“Maybe the Empire will send some help,” said Lana.

“I asked him about that. He doesn’t think it will happen before spring. We couldn’t feed more men, for one thing. Demantius is pretty sure we can handle the Saris and their mercs. The Prince is placing him in supreme command. The message just got here today.”

“That’s good, chief.”

“He’s going to ride ahead to Whitesands, to look things over.”

“Who’ll command this force while he’s away?”

“Cormad. He’s the senior colonel.”

Dagget’s face fell. Andiriel smiled. “You didn’t think it would be me, did you? I’m not ready for that yet, Dags. Cormad’s in his fifties. He’s very good.”

“But we captured his whole regiment at Chevelina, chief.”

“That wasn’t his fault. He never got off the ship. He respects us, you know. We treated the Gryphons honorably.”


Demantius rode north the next day; his five regiments continued their unpleasant trek through the bleak countryside of central Vedraxa. Patrols came in regularly from Tyvar Negrath’s cavalry force—which included the 150 men of the general’s own unit—to report all was quiet on the right, and the Pelican scouts likewise found nothing new. The wind picked up a bit. Chilly rain fell. The troops trudged on. “Better a long march to victory than a short one to defeat,” said some witty officer, a saying that made the rounds.

They reached Gorodel, the only place of any size in the region, on the morning of the 23rd. This city of 12,000 souls sat astride the Zerdar River. Cormad marched through it, since it contained the only bridges for miles, but the troops were not allowed to break ranks. They made camp two miles north and dispatched wagons to get the expected supplies—which proved in fact to be there, a compliment to the arrangements of the Prince of Vedraxa and his bureaucracy, and a good thing for Gorodel, too, considering what might have happened if the troops started foraging after three days on half rations.

That night Captain Voros brought word that the army would force-march to Whitesands. Enemy light troops had crossed the border; Demantius felt that a full-scale invasion would soon follow. He wanted to meet the Sarenians close to the Reldani frontier.

Andiriel asked Voros what forces were already in place. “About 3,000,” he replied. “There’s five merc regiments, maybe 1,300 levies, and about 100 Vedraxan knights plus their people. The Prince of Reldan supposedly is coming in, too, with some loyal men.”

“So we’ll have over 6,000? That’s a lot.”

“The general thinks we may be outnumbered almost two to one once the Saris add their men to the mercs. This is going to be tough.”

“We can do it. Some of my men say we’ll spend the winter in Vorgast, or even Norl.”

“We’ll need all the confidence we can muster,” said the captain with a grin.

“Morale’s good, and now we’re on full rations. How are things at Whitesands?”

“The Vedraxans have a big depot there, and wagon convoys all the way from Karlisberg. Should be enough for a month or so. North of Whitesands the country’s very wild.”

“Well, if the enemy has a lot more men, maybe they’ll have a lot less food. It can’t be any easier for them to supply themselves.”

“The general thinks the same, colonel. He said that if Rognard can’t force a decision quickly, he’ll have to wait until March. If all else fails, we can just hold Whitesands. It’s the only walled city between Vorgast and Karlisberg. By spring Prince Ednis can call out his vassals in the south. The Empire will help pay for everything, too. It’s paying our salaries right now.”

“It is?”

“Yes. We learned that in Whitesands. The Chancery decided to foot the bill for all of Vedraxa’s mercs so Prince Ednis won’t go bankrupt.”

“So we’re fighting for the Empire, at least indirectly?” said Andiriel. “I’m very glad. I always hoped to work for the Emperor.”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Here is a battle map from Resolution (click to enlarge).

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Pleasant Surprise

About two months ago I gave away five copies each of Storm Approaching and And Gladly Teach through a Library Thing program in which you offer some books and, after a couple of weeks, L. Thing randomly picks the winners from those who indicated an interest in getting a book and sends you their addresses. The recipients are asked to provide a review. In the weeks following my dispatch of the ten books, only one person even acknowledged receiving one. Oh well, I thought, so much for that. But when I checked L.T. today, I found that a recipient in Connecticut had posted the following in late June about And Gladly Teach:

"This book is extremely funny and I had fun reading it. There were times when at the doctor's waiting room, or at the laundrymat, I burst out laughing uncontrollably, prompting the startled people to ask just what I am reading that is so funny. I showed them the book and they either jotted down the title and author or asked me if they can read it after I'm done; they needed a good laugh. I highly recommend this book to whomever needs a good laugh. It is well written."

Isn't that nice? Thank you! And you, O reader, wouldn't you like a good laugh? Why not buy And Gladly Teach today? Or tomorrow. Or real soon, anyway. Soon your own gufffaws and chortles will also ring out at clinics and laundromats, and you too can recommend my books to eager readers. See "Books, Anyone? two posts down.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The New Empire

The main political unit of the west, the New Empire has a polity somewhat reminiscent of the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperor ruless the Crown Lands directly; the nine provinces are subject to their own sovereigns, who owe fealty, but not taxes, to the Emperor. Valdi, which broke away from the New Empire long ago, is entirely independent.
Andiriel was raised at the Institute for the Salvation of the Homeless in Javakis, Norland.
(Click on maps to enlarge them)

The Calamian Islands

Although culturally and linguistically close to the New Empire, the ten states of the Calamian Islands are independent monarchies. The Isles are a good place for soldiers of fortune to find work, as small wars are frequent. Most of the action of the Mercenaries trilogy takes place here. There is also a good deal of piracy, especially near the Pinnacles.

This map seems to get more views than anything else on the site. Can anyone tell me why??


Four hundred miles east of the Calamian Islands lies Sarenia, governed by the all-powerful King of Kings with the assistance of the Ruling Clerics. Less arid than foreigners imagine it to be, Sarenia, wealthy and populous, is very different from the nations to its west.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Gold and Glory -- An Excerpt

Here are the first six pages of Gold and Glory, Vol. II in my MERCENARIES series. The print-on-demand production process is going well; I hope the book is available by early June, or perhaps earlier.

(If anyone knows how to get Blogspot to indent, please let me know. Since I can't, I have had to insert blank lines between each paragraph to make things more readable.)



In the hills and valleys
Trumpets loudly blaring,
Mercenaries march, all
Bold, brave, handsome, daring.
Rat-a-tat-tat the drums are beating
Rat-a-tat-tat the drums are beating
Tantarara go the trumpets
Tantarara, one, two, three.

“What’s this one, Loreg? I haven’t heard it before.”

“Just a silly song, commander. But it keeps us marching at a good clip.”

All our officers are
Riding steeds so dashing:
Proudly step their horses,
Sun from helmets flashing.
Rat-a-tat-tat, etc.

Andiriel patted Brownie’s neck. “Do you feel dashing today, steed? Poor girl. At least you survived the winter. You’re tougher than you look.”

Though we’ve left behind us
Girls who can’t forget us,
‘Bout nine months from now they
May perhaps regret us.
Rat-a-tat-tat, etc.

“Give them a ‘tantarara,’ Artus,” Andiriel told her trumpeter. “Two days out and already I feel happier. It’s spring! It’s so nice to see grass, and trees with leaves.”

“We all feel better, commander. Morale’s high. All we need now is a job.”

What on earth is finer
Than with comrades trusty
To march forth to battle
Though the roads be dusty?
Rat-a-tat-tat, etc.

“Three days to Jeklar, right? Just hope that Emdan really is at war with Fanrix.”

It was early afternoon of April 2. Having gone around the hills and mines west of Ironport, the Pelicans were now on a dirt road, entering farm country. The cits, depending on their previous experiences with mercenaries, either stood and waved or ran away and hid.

About an hour later, as the regiment got underway after a ten-minute halt, two riders approached from the west: L/Cpl Gerlon and a stranger.

“Ah, visitors,” said Andiriel, trotting ahead to meet them. “In a hurry, too.” She gestured to Loreg, who joined her from his position further back.

Gerlon saluted. “Commander, this is Captain Kassis nar Voros, staff-officer to General Demantius. He’s been looking for us. Sir, our colonel, Anashla.”

The captain was about thirty, wearing very good mail and boots; his stallion made Brownie look feeble. He saluted, and said, a little breathlessly, “At last we found you. I can guide you to the general’s camp, colonel. It’s two days’ march to the northwest.”

“Northwest? Not at Jeklar?”

“Jeklar is under siege by the Count of Fanrix. The general is organizing a counterattack.”

Andiriel and Loreg stared at him.

“Yes. The Count moved fast and surprised us. He crossed the border a few days back and disrupted all our plans. The general left a garrison in the city and retreated north. We’re trying to raise everyone we can as quickly as possible. Jeklar can hold out for three weeks at least.”

Andiriel nodded to L/Cpl Gerlon, who returned to his scouting duties. She rode with the two men next to 1st Company, whose men had fallen silent, trying to overhear the news.

“So Emdan does want to hire us, captain?” she asked.

“We certainly do. We’re offering G1,100 for one month, supplied, with options for two more months. I have a contract with me. We heard the Red Rats were in the southeast.”

She winked at Loreg. “Captain, do you suppose the Count of Fanrix also needs troops?”

Voros frowned. “Oh, colonel, surely, after wintering in the Duke of Emdan’s lands, you would not....”

“Well, I don’t know, captain. We’re mercenaries, after all. You did say G1,200?”

He hesitated, gave a close-lipped smile, and said, “Yes, that’s right, colonel.”

“Then you’ve got us: the Pelicans, not the Red Rats. We’ll bivouac in an hour or so. Could you brief my officers then? Good.” She nodded towards the column of troops. “Please ride around and see what you’ve bought. Major Jevlis, you and Carlin inspect the contract.”

The regiment was getting better at castramentation. At 4 PM, Capt. Garvis, the Provost Marshal and Billeting Officer, came back from his reconnaissance to tell Andiriel there was a good bivouac site a mile ahead. Once there, the Mounted Scouts patrolled the perimeter while the halberdiers, archers, and civilians unloaded the wagons and put up tents. Then the wagons were chained together and placed along the “most likely threat” route; this was southwest, and seemed less theoretical than in the past. The Provost saw to the setting out of the usual security details after the Sergeant of the Guard for the week reported to Andiriel, who gave him the parole and countersign for the night. Loreg reported the contract to be satisfactory.

At Retreat Andiriel introduced Capt. Voros and announced that the regiment was now working for Duke Kesman of Emdan against Count Tilmand of Fanrix, “and for good pay, twelve hundred, supplied. Sharpen your blades. We’ll be in action soon.”

She was a little surprised by the cheering. Loreg said, “All our training and practice, commander—they want to use it.”

Captain Voros watching with a professional eye, was satisfied. He said so at supper, which he ate with Andiriel, Loreg, and Tomas. The other officers came in afterwards.

“I won’t make excuses,” he told them. “We were surprised and outmaneuvered. The Count of Fanrix is a good soldier. He forestalled Duke Kesman’s invasion by launching his own. Apparently he told his knights during the winter to assemble in early March. He hired four mercenary units and kept them up north; we knew of only one. He called out just his eastern levies, so they assembled and moved quickly. He crossed the border with over 4,000 men when we had barely half that number ready. It’s a short march to Jeklar. The count surrounded it by land while all six of his warships appeared in the harbor and sank two of the five Emdani quadriremes. So Jeklar is cut off, with Duke Kesman inside.”

“Inside!” exclaimed Lt. Galagos.

“Yes. His Majesty is a brave man. He refused to abandon his capital, so my general left the best garrison he could and marched fifteen miles northeast. We’re calling in all the levies we can. The enemy has not pursued. The general intends to relieve Jeklar as soon as you join him.”

“What mercs does Fanrix have?” asked Tomas.

“The Bears: 500 javelins; Carl’s Killers: 400 sword-and-shield men; the Red Company: 100 halberds and 300 bows; and the Sable Shields, 800 spearmen.” He paused. “I think you’re familiar with the last one, colonel? The Duke of Fanrix hired them away from Sir Bend nar Tillag after that battle.... I forget the name....”

“You’ve very polite, captain. Call it the Rats’ Run if you like.” Andiriel turned to her officers. “I’ll sign the contract now. Tell the men we’ll be facing the Sable Shields again and that we’re going to show them the difference between a rat and a pelican.”

“We sure will, commander,” said Lt. Vaklar; his colleagues voiced agreement.

She motioned Loreg and Tomas to stay and sent for Carlin. Capt. Voros changed G1,100 to 1,200 in the contract. She signed both copies and they touched palms.
“And now, captain, tell us frankly what our chances are of beating Fanrix.”

“That will depend mostly on your regiment, colonel. The Emdan levies aren’t wildly enthusiastic. You’re the only professional infantry we’ve got.”

“Don’t worry,” said Loreg. “We’re looking forward to meeting the Sable Shields again.”

Next morning the regiment turned off the road at Capt. Voros’s direction into an area where villages were sparser. A patrol of light cavalry reached them, which Voros sent back to report that he had hired the Pelicans.
That evening, as she sat reading Xenoranthus, she heard, “Not very talkative today, commander? Lots to think about?” and felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned to see Lana.

She put her hand over Lana’s. “We’ve got our first real battle coming up. I’m worried.”

“You’ll do great, Asha. The men are really ready for a fight, especially after what the Sable Shields did to us last time.”

“I know. That’s not why I’m worried. We’re just part of the army. I hope this Demantius knows his job and that the other troops are brave. We can’t win everything by ourselves.”

Lana knelt beside Andiriel’s chair and took her hands in her own. “We’ve got to win. Otherwise we won’t be able to go shopping in Jeklar, and I really need a new dress.”

Andiriel laughed. “At least if we win we’ll have something to shop with. I guess we’ll do all right. The enemy haven’t got a lucky fox, do they?” She looked out the tent flap, to see Sandi catching beetles.

Capt. Voros brought a report from the light cavalry that the Count of Fanrix was moving north. “He’s left enough troops to maintain the siege and the rest are on the march towards us. General Demantius is moving southwest. We should join him tomorrow afternoon and give battle the next day.”


The Pelicans met General Demantius sooner than expected: together with a dozen aides and guards he rode into the field while the regiment was having dinner. He urgently sought out Andiriel, who was disappointed by her new superior’s appearance. She had imagined an august, commanding figure (like Sir Branlor), but in fact Demantius was a small, sallow Islander of fifty or so riding a horse that seemed slightly too big for him. His sparse black hair was greasy, his beard untrimmed, his breastplate and cuisses needed polishing; his robust escorts diminished him still further. Andiriel felt that she was equally unprepossessing to him: his brown eyes seemed very skeptical as he studied her when she came to attention.

“Count Tilmand has halted a mile south, near Mud Brook,” Demantius said as he dismounted. “The rest of the army will be here before nightfall. Could I see you alone, colonel?” His voice was cultured, but he spoke abruptly.

They walked to a small grove. Dagget followed, to offer the general some wine, but he waved it aside and dismissed the young man.

Again Demantius fixed her with doubting eyes. “This regiment was the Red Rats?”

“Yes, general. It was.”

“Why is it any better now than at Thrale’s Disaster or Brakar’s Dike?”

“Better training, discipline, morale, and.... and leadership, general. We even won a battle last fall. A big skirmish, at least.”

“Tell me about that.”

She did (omitting her deception of the baron). He listened carefully, nodded, and said, “How long have you been a mercenary?”

“Since I was nineteen, sir.”

“And how old are you now?”

“Nineteen, sir.”

He chuckled before he spoke. “Anashla, you are the only woman I know to command a regiment, except for Ela nal Tindal. She took over the Claws of Gartos when her husband was killed, but turned them over to her brother-in-law a few months later. Listen. I’ve got about 2,200 men: 50 Emdan knights, my 150 light cavalry, 1,400 levies, and 600 Pelicans. Fanrix will field more: 125 knights, 1,700 good mercenary infantry, and about 1,000 levies who certainly aren’t any worse than ours. We have the initiative because they have no light horse, and we’ve got a few more bows, about 400 to 300. The point is, young woman, your regiment will almost certainly either win or lose this thing. I can’t count on the levies to do more than defend, and not even that for very long. It will be all my cavalry can do to distract theirs. I certainly can’t hope to defeat all their knights. Do you honestly think your Pelicans can handle the Sable Shields?”

“Yes, general.”

He waited; she said no more; he raised his shaggy eyebrows.

“The only other thing I could say is ‘no,’ general, and that’s not a good answer, is it?”

Now he laughed, and put a hand on her arm. “Maybe we’ll win this after all, colonel. Maybe we will. Make camp here. I’ll talk to the officers once the rest of our troops arrive.”

They duly arrived. The Emdan knights looked good, accompanied by a lot of people from their estates who pitched the tents and looked after the spare horses. But the militia who wandered into the area over a period of an hour or so made the Pelicans look like the Imperial Guard: a throng of peasants in leather gambesons or no armor, some with helmets and many without, armed with a collection of random weapons and farm tools, supervised (a bit) by older men, most of whom wore mail. They had few tents, and they mobbed the supply wagons to get their bread and meat.

“Will these yokels be of any use at all?” Andiriel asked Loreg.

He studied the milling throng and replied, much to her surprise, “They’re sturdy fellows, commander. Levies aren’t always bad, but they’re unpredictable. I’ve seen militia run at the first volley of arrows, and I’ve also seen them fight like mad. Of course, sometimes that’s because they don’t know enough to retreat. But these lads should give a good account of themselves. They’re healthy, and after a dull winter they’ll welcome some excitement.”

“They’ll certainly get lots of it tomorrow.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Judge Speaks

Last October I learned that Storm Approaching had won an Honorable Mention in the 2009 Writers Digest Self-Published Book Awards. This was announced five months later, in the March/April 2010 issue of the magazine (p. 63); and yesterday I received a certificate, which I expected, and a copy of the evaluator's commentary sheet on the novel, which I did not expect. Here is what Judge 23 had to say:
What did you like best about this book?

The attention to detail here is amazing. I liked this book a great deal; it’s imaginative, well written, and thoroughly engaging. I’m surprised actually that this didn’t find an outlet at a larger house. It deserves a wider readership. The writing is clear and clean and varied without being tedious. The plot moves swiftly but attends as well to the needs of the audience. The characters are believable, as are their motivations. An intelligent, enjoyable read.

How can the author improve this book?

This is a small quibble, but I did at times feel like there were too many named characters, and though this didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book, I was at times a bit confused about where we were as Andiriel moves throughout the land. But again, my confusion was minor, and I don’t necessarily think that anything should have been changed. The book simply has a large cast.

Author’s Comment: Thank you, Judge 23. (And remember, there are maps in the back of the book.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Mercenaries Are More Fun Than Vampires"

Does anyone think this slogan would help sell books? Really, when will this vampire craze end??

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Storm Approaching Excerpt

I posted an excerpt from And Gladly Teach some days ago. Here is one from Storm Approaching--not Chapter 1, but Chapter 5 (pp. 19-26). I hope it entices some folks to risk buying the book.

After eighteen years at the Institute, Andiriel was exhilarated to be on her own. She lived in a tenement on Larch Lane, off Gold Street, a building with six respectable households and a vigilant concierge. She had two large rooms for two silvers a week, which was more than she could have afforded had she not been willing to dig into her savings.
She worked at the Wizards House each morning. She spent almost as much time reading as cataloguing. These books, all neatly printed and beautifully bound—she had never imagined such riches. As Garjon had said, they were on multifarious topics. There were even books by contemporaries who paid the Imperial Press to publish their writings, like Farewell to Alms, the autobiography of Rellas Shai, the Institute’s benefactor, who had begun life as a beggar. Some were in Old Imperial but most of the Classics were translations, for it was the intent of the Ministry of Culture, whose imprint graced the title pages, to make these treasures available to the literate population. That population was certainly a minority of the Emperor’s subjects, but she was part of it; she would sit reading until her conscience made her take up a pen and another card.
In the afternoon came lessons at Mohar’s Equestrian Academy. This establishment was not quite so grand as its name implied—the staff was Mohar and his son—but it certainly taught a lot of people to ride. Most, of course, were men; but Andiriel’s money was as good as theirs, and Mohar did not mind humoring her eccentricity, even in not riding sidesaddle. She discovered that she had no hidden talent for equitation, but on the other hand horses seemed to know she liked them, as she did all animals, and as the days went by she found herself more often in the saddle than out of it.
In the evening she practiced at the archery range near the west wall. She was glad to have her old bow back, for she could not yet draw Sir Branlor’s magnificent gift. This inspired her to work hard, and she made progress. She entered a contest for beginners and won second prize: a quiver and fifty arrows. So encouraged, she redoubled her efforts.
On Sundays, after early service, she would read, or walk in the woods near the town, thinking indecisively about her future. She often had supper at Nella’s little house, where Jon and his wife made her feel an honored guest. (Jon deeply appreciated Andiriel’s wedding present, so useful to a man starting in business.) About once a week she would stop by the Happy Tankard for a meal, and to say hello to Boggus, whom she remembered as a kindly boss. He was always glad to see her and to provide a free cup of root-tea, her favorite drink. He also retailed the latest stories and rumors, such as the troubles in the north.
“They say the Ferals have been attacking Red Tooth Pass more strongly now. The Chancery is hiring more mercs to help out. You’ll probably see some pretty strange characters marching through Javakis soon.”
In four days there appeared in the streets 200 ferocious-looking men, dressed in an assortment of leather armor, armed with javelins and swords, called “Gambog’s Maulers.” The city authorities hustled them to a camp outside the walls and hurried them on their way the next morning. Later came some cavalry, the Coursers—lithe men on small horses—who were allowed to spend the night near the Old Gate and were likewise sent off at dawn.
Then one sunny afternoon, as Andiriel returned from her riding lesson, she heard music. A column of perhaps 400 soldiers was marching in step down Gold Street to the bracing rhythm of drums and fifes, headed by a man carrying a big blue flag on which was a white bird with golden claws diving on its prey. Officers rode beside their units. The troops wore matching equipment—helmets, mail shirts, and greaves—and carried large shields and long spears. Others, including a few young women, were archers in leather jerkins.
“Who are they?” she asked another onlooker.
“The Silver Hawks. You never heard of ‘em? Very famous they are. Fought in the Isles, and Castle Garmal, and all over. They took Vorgast and won the famous fight at Gorodel. The Pass will be well-guarded if the Emperor’s willing to pay for the Hawks.”
She walked along the broad avenue, next to the soldiers, enjoying the rhythmic music and the ordered progress of the men. They halted at the big field near the West Gate. An officer with a red crest on his silvered helmet spoke to them; then they broke ranks and started to set up camp with practiced efficiency.
Andiriel watched all this with great interest, then headed home. As she passed the Happy Tankard, Boggus trundled out to ask if she would work that evening. “We’ll need experienced help tonight. I’ll pay you C6 and there’ll be lots of tips.” She agreed, pleased to be wanted.
Boggus was not wrong. At liberty that evening, the Silver Hawks swamped every inn, tavern, and shop. Andiriel and the other four girls had their hands full taking care of customers—not only mercenaries but lots of citizens eager to hear news and stories, of which there was no shortage. Andiriel listened eagerly to snatches of talk about affairs in far-away places.
One table was occupied by a trio of bearded men. Two had three white stripes encircling the left arms of their blue supervests; the other had four. As Andiriel served them their latest mugs of ale and another chicken, one of them said, “How long have you been an archer?”
She stared at him while his companions laughed at her surprise.
“No, I’m no mage,” continued the man. “But I spent five years with the Golden Bows, and now three in the Hawks, and if I can’t tell an archer by her chest and upper arms, my name’s not Arvis Gelman.” (Andiriel blushed slightly. The costume of a Happy Tankard serving-girl was not as modest as the smock she had worn at the Institute.)
“Actually he’s Ralph Ondos,” said the four-striped man, which led to more laughter. “Tell him you’ve never fired a bow in your life and I’ll give you part of the bet I’ll win.”
“I’m afraid you lose, master. I’ve been practicing the bow for over two years.”
“There, you see? I am Arvis Gelman. And a fine archer I’ll bet you are, a tall, strong lass like you. Thinking of joining up?”
“Joining up? You mean become a mercenary?”
“It’s more exciting than carrying ale mugs to old coots like us.” More laughter.
“Is it all that much fun, Sergeant Gelman?”
“Sit down here. Your name? Sit down, Andiriel. Here’s a copper to buy you a break.”
She took the coin to Boggus, left her big tray on the counter, and joined the men.
“You must meet my friends,” said Arvis Gelman. “This brawny guy is Willem Bolton, who leads a section of heavy infantry, and the fellow with four stripes is Thrale Jermis, who’s the sergeant-major of 1st Company. We have to be respectful to him because he outranks us.”
“You’re respectful because I’m older and smarter,” said Jermis with a grin
“So why are you mercenaries?” asked Andiriel, accepting a slice of meat pie and a cup of ale. “You were going to tell me, Sergeant Gelman.”
“My dear, it’s a fine life. You travel all over the civilized lands—and some not so civilized, too. The pay is very good in a crack unit. The comradeship is wonderful. You have respect and honor from everyone. Now, I’ll bet you’ve never been far from Javakis, have you?”
“You’re right, I haven’t. Barely a mile, in fact.”
“But surely you’d like to travel? You don’t want to stay here all your life.”
“Oh yes, that’s true...”
“See the world and be paid for it: the spires of the Capital, the palaces and castles of the great lords, the cities of the Isles. Friends you can always depend on, the pride of doing a manly, I mean a difficult, job well.”
“But there aren’t many girl mercenaries, are there?”
“Very few, very few, but a small number of brave and daring women serve in fine units: exceptional women, like you, Andiriel.”
She couldn’t help smiling. Sgt. Gelman raised his arm and his voice. “Bravery calls, honor demands, glory awaits, my young friend, my future comrade-in-arms. Rise above the common herd. Embrace the life most suited for a man or woman of spirit and pride. Set your feet upon the path of glory!”
Patrons were listening. A corporal at another table began to sing:

Up, heroes, to battle, seize bow or spear!
Set your feet on the true path of glory!
Let cowards hide now and tremble with fear.
We’re the Hawks! Let the foe feel our fury!
With our weapons in hand and a song on our breath
We will vanquish the foe while we laugh at death!

Other Hawks joined in.

The world is balanced on a long sharp sword,
So hail! to the mightiest bladesmen.
The strong, brave, and skillful will gain the reward,
Not peasants or fat, greedy tradesmen.
No prize on the earth is so great or high
That heroes can’t seize it, if only they try!

And finally every mercenary in the Happy Tankard united, more or less in harmony:

A soldier of fortune alone can feel
Full life in its vigor and spirit.
We carve our future with guts and steel,
And as for Fate, we don’t fear it.
All men die but some die without being alive.
Long live courage and pride! May the Hawks always thrive!

The song ended with cheers and applause and shouts of “Hail the Hawks!” Sgt. Gelman, quite flushed after accompanying his lusty singing by pounding his tankard on the table, said, “Our hymn, Andiriel. We sang it while we broke Prince Ednis’s line at Gorodel and won the battle all had thought was lost. Ah, that was a day of glory.”
Sgt.-Maj. Jermis, who had sung out as lustily as any, spoke up: “Yes, and a day when we lost over thirty per cent. Arvis didn’t mention that he’s our senior recruiting sergeant.”
Andiriel, on the point of asking how to sign up, said, “Do you like being a mercenary, Sergeant Jermis?”
“It’s been a fine life for me. I escaped being a farmer, I met my wife—she’s one of our sutlers—and I’ve been places and seen things that were wonderful. And you can’t do better than the Hawks, if you’re infantry. But it isn’t all fun, and women have a harder time than men.”
“But what career is all fun?” asked Sgt. Gelman. “However,” he went on, calming down a bit, “you don’t have to run off with us tomorrow. But I’d like to see you shoot. We’ll be leaving Javakis about noon, won’t we, Will?”
“Yes. The commissary wants time to lay in some vegetables and wine.”
“Could I see you tomorrow at nine, at those butts near the wall?”
“Certainly, sergeant. I’ll be there.”
The sound of fifes and drums, soft but moving closer, filled the room. “That’s our song,” said the sergeant-major. “Tattoo. Twenty minutes to get back to camp.” He drained his mug, smacked his lips, got up, and bowed to Andiriel. “A pleasure to meet you, young mistress. If you want some advice from an old campaigner, keep practicing the bow and learn to ride. You may have a real future as a soldier.”
The other mercenaries were also leaving. Before Sgt. Gelman reached the door several young men came up to him. At least he recruited somebody with his eloquence, she thought. Maybe I really should... No, not yet. I wonder if Sir Branlor will come back?
Most of the townsmen also left. Andiriel and the other girls began cleaning up.
“How did we do, Master Boggus?” asked Chandra.
“Ha! Four days’ profits in one good night. A windfall. You’ll all get an extra C2.”
“And nice decent fellows, too,” said young Terini. “Hardly a broken bottle.”
“Mercs are like anyone else: there’s good and bad. Those Maulers a while back—they might’ve burned Javakis down if they’d been allowed to run loose. The Hawks are crack troops.”
Next morning Andiriel found both Arvis Gelman and Willem Bolton waiting for her. Arvis examined her old bow and said it was a decent beginner’s weapon. “But you certainly have a grand case for it,” he went on. “Must have cost much more than the bow.”
“Oh, this is for my other one.” She took out Sir Branlor’s gift.
Arvis gingerly took the bow, exchanged glances with his comrade, and exclaimed, “Dragonsteeth! You didn’t get this in Javakis.”
“No. It was a present from... from a friend in the Capital.”
“A friend? Are you a countess in disguise, my lady? Do you know what this is? It’s an Imperial Battle Bow. They only make ‘em at the main armory.” He pointed to the little green eagle below the grip. “That’s the hallmark. They cost near G30, and cits can’t buy ‘em without a warrant from the Marshal’s office. The Imperial Guard uses ‘em. There are no better bows.”
“Can you actually shoot this?” asked Sgt. Bolton.
“Not too well yet. But I practice every day, and I’m getting stronger.”
“May I try a few shots?” asked Arvis.
“Of course.”
He fired thrice at the thirty-yard target: two in the second ring and one in the bull.
“Ah,” he sighed happily. “Like a dream. Beautiful weapon.”
“Didn’t we come to see Andiriel shoot?” asked Sgt. Bolton with a grin.
“Uh, oh yes, of course. Please, show us your skill.”
Using her old bow, she put all five arrows into the forty-yard target, two quite near the bull. The men watched her closely. “Yes, she has the talent,” said Arvis. He moved her right arm a bit and her sixth arrow grazed the bull.
“You keep it up, young archer. Keep at it until you can use your Battle Bow as well as you do this one. Then you’ll really be ready for the Hawks.”
“Yes, and be nice to that friend who gave it to you,” said Willem Bolton. “Maybe you’ll get a set of Vlaster’s Plate next.” Both men laughed.
She walked with them back to camp, filled with curiosity about where the Silver Hawks were going and what they were going to do when they got there.
Arvis laughed. “You should ask our colonel,” he said. “We underofficers don’t worry much about stuff like that. Our job is to see that our men are in good shape wherever we go, and we know that wherever it is we’ll be fighting someone. Unless it’s what we call a ‘soft mission,’ like guarding a palace or escorting a caravan. But I guess that the Ferals are getting noisier than usual so they need some really good men to quiet ‘em down.”
“There was trouble in April,” said Willem. “Lots more Ferals than usual, and some of the provincial levies didn’t hold up. The Chancery must have decided to send better troops.” He smiled. “And they’re sending the best.”
“Have you ever been to the Pass?” she asked.
“Not me,” said Arvis. “Will has.”
“Twelve years ago. I was with the Savage Spears then. The Duke of Corm hired us instead of sending his levy—wanted to give his people time to get in their harvest. The Pass is quite a place. Huge fortress, of course, but so desolate—dusty plains next to an endless forest. You can stand on the battlements and see trees as far as the horizon. We were there three months and saw action on at least ten days. Got a nice scar on my leg to remember it by.”
“And did you see much of the Sovereign Order?”
“The Sovereign... You mean the Glory Knights?” asked Willem. “Sure. They command the fortress and the army. A privilege to fight alongside ‘em. But the garrison is about 3,000 men, and there’s only 300 Glory Knights. The rest are mercs or levies.”
They were near the camp; the two sergeants took their leave. “Think about what I told you,” said Arvis Gelman. “We can always use eager young archers, especially when they’re as smart as you, and anyone will tell you that the Silver Hawks are the best regiment in the Empire or the Isles. Practice. You’ll be damned lethal if you can master that grand bow of yours. And keep the Hawks in mind. We’ll be up at Red Tooth Pass for a good while, just fifty miles away.” He grinned. “I think you might become our first female officer.”
“We’ll meet again,” said Willem. “The Hawks fly all over.”
She went home, wondering why Sir Branlor thought she was worthy of so splendid a gift as her Battle Bow. Over thirty gold!
The next day, instead of riding, Andiriel shopped. She came home with a helmet, a hauberk, a sword with a scabbard and silvered belt, a dagger in a sturdy sheath, three hunting shirts, two pairs of riding breeches, a pair of knee-boots, twenty days’ supply of cured beef, spurs, a haversack, a tinderbox, a riding crop, and a small tent. After paying the porters who carried all this to her rooms she found she had spent G31/S9/C6.
She sat sipping root tea in her stuffed chair near the open window, contemplating her impedimenta and wondering what had possessed her. I spent over a third of my money and I don’t even know what I’m going to do with this stuff. I’ve got spurs and no horse. I’ve never even held a sword. What’s come over me? I’m a little orphan girl—well, maybe not so little, considering all the trouble they had finding a hauberk that fit—and I’ve never traveled anywhere in my life. I’ve got a ton of work yet to do at the Wizards’ House.
She put on her gear and posed before the mirror. At least I look like a fighter, she thought, smiling. She adjusted her helmet, thinking that she had made a good choice of the four available. It covered the skull, the cheeks, and the neck to the shoulders, and had a flat visor that left the face open. Master Ordel, the proprietor of Javakis Arms and Armor, had called it a “burgonet.” (He also said there was a ‘falling buffe’ that could be attached to the cheek plates and raised to shield her lower face, but he didn’t have one in stock.)
She took off the equipment, ate supper, and set out for an archery lesson with her Battle Bow, determined that today she’d get her thumb somewhere near her nose. And she resolved to wear her hauberk for a couple of hours each day, to get used to its weight and to moving in it.
Two weeks passed.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Culture Corner: The LOTR Film Trilogy

In posting this evaluation I risk the wrath of many, I suppose, since Mr. Jackson's trilogy is, I believe, fairly popular with several people. But Tolkien's masterpiece has been an inspiration to me since I read it many decades ago, and is responsible for the whole revival of the Fantasy genre in modern times. Therefore I must publish a few words about the cinematic rendition of the Master's story, and say, like Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms (though perhaps about a slightly less important issue), "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise."



Peter Jackson’s rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books has won so many awards that belaboring it might seem pointless, but belabor it I will, for I believe that Mr. Jackson’s three movies (Special Extended Edition) are a betrayal of Tolkien’s plot and characters, and that it would have been better if the films had never been made because their success will make it difficult or impossible for anyone to get the chance to do a good job.
That the films are visually impressive no one can deny. We must commend the artisans who did so masterful a job with photography, costumes, and sets. The Weta Workshop is superb. The stunt team is magnificent. The attention to detail, the thought, the hard work that went into re-creating Middle Earth, are wonderful. The opening of Fellowship is a fine interpretation of the Shire; I was enthralled to see what I had so often read about. Mr. Jackson deserves much praise for bringing together the experts he worked with, and no one can but admire the energy and organizing ability he demonstrated in making three huge films at once over a period of several years.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson evidently thinks he is not only a great director but an equally-great writer, so all this technical ability produced a deformed variant of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel. One might say it is as though a skilled craftsman, given the score of a Beethoven sonata, carefully built a fine piano, and then, fancying himself a composer as well as a builder, tinkered with the sonata and turned it into “Chopsticks.”
Let us catalog a few of the cinematic crimes of PJ.

Frodo, instead of being a character who grows in wisdom and courage, remains a scared, clumsy, rather negligible pygmy who succeeds in spite of himself. The worst betrayal of Tolkien in the films comes in Fellowship, when Arwen shows up to rescue the wounded Frodo. Setting aside the idiocy of Arwen as an Amazonian elf-maiden, this means that Frodo is carried across the river like a sack of potatoes. His splendid defiance of the Black Riders (“By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!”) is replaced by some words written for Arwen; instead of growing and rising in our esteem, Frodo remains literally inert. This is very dumb; it is the epitome of stupidity; it suggests that Mr. Jackson was unable to understand the books when he read them. (Insofar as he did: on ROTK Disc 2 (Scene 62) he says, “... because I haven’t obviously picked up the book and actually read the book for years. I’ve read little bits and pieces of it.... You lose the experience of the books as a whole and... I now... my mind is so muddled as to which is what” [i.e., he does not know how his movie differs from the book]).
As we go on, we see Frodo falling down a lot and opening his eyes very wide. Those are his main talents: falling down and staring. He falls down on every possible occasion, including an especially splendid belly-flop into the Dead Marshes.
Aragorn’s character is betrayed by completely changing his moti-vation. In the book, he is a hero who, after decades of preparation, is ready to claim his rightful throne. In the film, he is a moral coward, a wimp who has abandoned his family’s heritage, who has to be shamed and argued into accepting his destiny as Isildur’s heir.
Saruman, no longer the too-clever conniver who hopes to outwit Sauron, seize the ring, and become master of Middle Earth, is simply Sauron’s willing tool.
Théoden, a kindly, venerable old man who regains his courage, is too young, and portrayed as a touchy grouch who usually looks as though his ulcer was bothering him.
Elrond makes Théoden seem cheery. His expression--a permanent scowl--suggests his diet must consist mainly of lemons. And did he have to look like an aging hippie?
(I was happy to find, after I wrote these lines on Elrond, the following comments by Mike Hopkins, the Supervising Sound Editor, on the commentary track (Scene 30, where Elrond gives the re-forged sword to Aragorn--a scene not in Tolkien, of course). Mr. Hopkins says wryly that Elrond has not yet gone over the sea because the other elves told him, “‘You’re not coming to the (expletive) Undying Lands with us, you (expletive) moaning bastard. You’d just bring us all down.’ Look at him. He’s so (expletive) depressing, isn’t he? I mean all he talks about is doom; we’re all gonna die. Give that man a valium, some Prozac.” Mr. Hopkins’s pungent insights suggest that I am not the only one to sense that the Elrond depicted in the films is not exactly what a great Elf-lord ought to be.)
Gimli. Oh lord. Someone should have told Mr. Jackson—since he evidently could not grasp it by himself--that dwarves are not noted humorists, but are dignified and serious almost to a fault. Turning Gimli into a buffoon, a zany, a figure of fun, ruins the character and gives us a series of embarrassingly stupid jokes and events that make us wince again and again. (Dwarf-tossing? A drinking contest with Legolas?) Every time the camera focuses on Gimli, we dread what will come out of his mouth.
Almost everywhere you touch these films, after the first half hour of Fellowship, they ring false, they fail. Hardly anything has not been marred. Pippin has to trick Treebeard into fighting; Denethor, with no reference to the palantir that has maddened him, is a lunatic set up for a preposterous end that deprives him of all dignity (the “flying fireball”); Boromir’s noble death is ruined by having him get up and fight again and again; Aragorn falls over a cliff to extract a few cheap emotions from his friends... There is no end. These things did not save time or simplify the plot. They were deliberate decisions by Mr. Jackson, a man whose childish mind fits him only for the making of penny-dreadful horror movies.
A last example: the siege of Minas Tirith. In the books, an epic of bravery and resolution, courage and victory; in the film, the siege is resolved by the arrival of an army of bluish ghosts (what someone called the “scrubbing-bubbles of death”) that surges over all opposition after Gandalf’s staff has been broken (!), Gondor’s ineffective soldiers are cowering, and Theoden’s cavalry largely trampled by elephants. Tolkien dismissed the dead army after it seized the corsair fleet; Jackson brings it to Minas Tirith and ruins the whole scene.
One could go on for many more pages, but that would be too sad a task. These movies are a cream pie thrown in Tolkien’s face by a yahoo incapable of appreciating the work of a great author. The usefulness of the films is to show how superior literature is to cinema (a sentiment that the screenplay writers share: see below). What the humble scholar did alone, with a pen, in his spare time, towers far above what was done by the Great Director with thousands of assistants and a budget of many millions.

Tolkien’s work is immortal. Jackson’s films are meretricious.
Long live the Master! Down with the Falsifier!
The commentary tracks, especially that of the three writers, are often amusing and instructive. Mr. Jackson, Ms. Walsh, and Ms. Boyens sometimes engage in recriminations as to who was responsible for this or that atrocity, or make desperate attempts to furnish reasons why they corrupted this or that part of Tolkien’s book. Sometimes they admit that a scene “attracted a certain amount of criticism” from “purists.” (I suppose they mean people who expected that the greatest scenes in the book might appear in the movies.) Listen, e.g., to their writhings at Scene 48 of Two Towers (when elves arrive at Helm’s Deep). Also of great interest are Ms. Walsh’s comments at the very end of Two Towers (at 1:53:50, buried in the end-credits, with the names of the prosthetics supervisors on the screen)--interesting because she maintains that films are inferior to books and that it is impossible for a movie to do justice to Tolkien. (“You can’t really have anything that comes close to the depth of the books.... You can’t really hope to satisfy people who adore this book with the movie.... Films are entertainments, they’re just not going to give you the pleasure that a book can give you.”) These are telling admissions. (Mr. Jackson says nothing; silence implies consent.) I would raise the question: then why did you folks make the films at all? Perhaps the task should have fallen to someone who believes that a good film can do justice to a novel? Or at least someone who would make the effort?
It is also quite funny--although not so intended--to hear a writer, or an actor, happily point out some scene where the film does correspond to the book, often accompanied by an inane comment about how “this should please the fans”--as though these “fans” were some group of exigent eccentrics who had from time to time to be propitiated before the writers could get on with their real job of mangling Tolkien. Take, for example, Sam grasping Frodo’s hand when he first sees him at Rivendell: What fidelity to the text! How ecstatic are the fans! As though such trivia matters, coming as it does right after Xena, I mean Arwen, has carried the moribund Frodo over the river and ruined his whole character develop-ment. They seem to think that “the fans” will overlook such betrayals because, for example, the director gave the hobbits huge hairy feet. I firmly believe “the fans” would have happily seen the hobbits wearing rubber boots had they been spared such things as Legolas skateboarding down stairs or Gimli saying, “Nobody tosses the dwarf”!
Matthew 23:24. (Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.)
Mr. Jackson’s co-writers may not deserve to be tarred with the same brush that must be so heavily applied to him. Some of the comments suggest that the two women feel embarrassed by at least some of Mr. Jackson’s depredations. Here is an excerpt from the commentary as Eomer arrives at Helm’s Deep: (PB = Ms. Boyens; FW = Ms. Walsh; PJ = the Great Director):

PB: Another slight departure from the book, but one, which I note with great interest, nobody ever worries about.
PJ: ‘Cause this is really Erkenbrand...
PB: ...and Éomer is always in Helm’s Deep and fighting side by side....
FW: It’s because we committed much bigger sins.
PB: I know... well...
PJ: That’s the whole plan. You commit a few big crimes and it takes everyone’s eye away from the small ones, like a clever little detour...
PB: We could do courses in criminal screenwriting.
FW: Crimes Against the Books
PB: Crimes Against the Books 101.
And here is a transcription of the commentary near the start of Disc 2 of ROTK, when the Corsairs of Umbar appear.

PJ: Don’t really need the scene at all. [!]
PB: (enthusiastically) No, not at all.
FW: I think ‘painful’ is a good and apt description.

PJ comments on his pirate cameo; a woman laughs as the ghost army attacks the fleet.

PJ: What? (Laughter continues)

FW: Now that’s the moment at which the film passed from being, you know, a fantasy movie into a Monty Python moment. (PB Laughs harder.) What the hell? Was that the most motley crew...

PJ: Nothing wrong with Monty Python, though.

FW: And the cheapest... (dissolves in laughter)

PB: I just want to say that while this was going on... what were we doing, Fran?

FW: We were trying to / FW & PB: save the film... / FW: from the …. clutches of the pirate.

Ladies, I am very sorry you failed.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Culture Corner: Star Wars III

Here is the last installment of my serenely calm examination of the first three Star Wars films.



Unlike I and II, III has at least a clear story line: Mr. Lucas had to accomplish definite things to link with IV. But with advances in CGI and SFX, this one is even more dependent on mere visual glitter than the first: the incomprehensible opening battle is a good example. Alas, Mr. Lucas and his coterie of animators and computerists have been seduced by the dark... I mean, have reached the point where in their minds flashy things on the screen are a desirable substitute for story and acting. The com-mentary is taken up by the usual technicians putting on airs, telling us how ingenious they are, preening themselves on their mastery of the “cutting edge” techniques of making movies without sets (or actors).
Look, you rude mechanicals, what you are doing is making cartoons. People have been making cartoons since the 1930s. Your cartoons are, indeed, more elaborate than, say, Steamboat Willie, but not inherently more moving or entertaining. Get over yourselves, computer boys. We do not stand in awe of your creations because making them uses some shiny new thingamajig. Illogic, nonsense, plot holes a mile wide, glitz for the sake of glitz, do not become great because they are confected on blue screens. You would be doing more service to movies by reminding Mr. Lucas of this fact than by praising to the skies his every idea and enabling his increasing dependence on whiz-bangs cover up his lack of substance.
My chief objections concern the end of the film.
Anakin joins the Sith primarily to save Padmé from death. But Palpatine finally tells him that this can be done only with additional research. (“If we work together, I know we can discover the secret.”) Since Padmé is to die in childbirth, however, and is nine months pregnant, it does not seem that there is much time to do this research, does it? Anakin should at this point have realized that Palpatine can do nothing to save his wife, and has been lying to him.
Padmé’s death is entirely unconvincing. She is in good physical health. She is conscious and rational: she names her children. Then she dies. Why? Of a broken heart? Would not her maternal desire to raise two healthy babies keep her alive? Would she die and abandon them? The real cause of Padmé’s death is the plot: Mr. Lucas has to get rid of her because she never appears in IV - VI (except for Leia’s now-obsolete comment that she remembers her mother, which is impossible). Surely our great auteur could have come up with a more convincing way to dispose of her.
“Hidden, safe, the children must be kept,” says guess who. Yes, fine. How shall we do this? Let’s give the girl to Bail Organa, one of the most conspicuous figures in the senate. No one will notice her then. As for the boy: “to Tatooine and his family send him.” (That will fool the Emperor and Darth Vader--they’d never think to look there, would they?)
Mr. Lucas should have hired a writer--several writers. He no longer has the imagination and skill to write good scripts. He is interested mainly in spectacle (and marketing. Several times I almost wrote Lucre instead of Lucas.) He has been seduced by... oops, there I go again.
One last, finicky note: I wish that Obi-Wan Kenobi did not look like Tsar Nicholas II. It is disturbing for any historians who happen to watch the film.
It would be churlish, after this philippic, not to commend Mr. Lucas for Star Wars IV. A New Hope is a masterpiece. Mr. Lucas was inspired in his plotting and characters, and tireless in making the film in spite of all difficulties. He created a world we all love to see and heroes we love to root for. Bravo!

Perhaps Mr. Lucas started so very well that there was no way to go but down. Maybe, like Harper Lee in literature or Leoncavallo and Mascagni in music, he had only one great work in him. Maybe the crude state of Special Effects helped him: he could not use his glitzmeisters to cloud the screen with mere spectacle and he was thus forced to depend more on his talent and wits, which atrophied as it became easier to cover up poor plot and characters with bigger explosions.

How are the mighty fallen!

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Test of the Future

A major trend in secondary (and, for all I know, primary and college) education is to downplay the acquisition of factual knowledge in favor of such things as "critical thinking," "relevance," and catering to supposed "learning styles." In a short time--perhaps already--we may expect to see certain modifications in traditional tests--insofar as "tests" are given at all, there also being some feeling among those advocating "alternative assesment techniques" that expecting students to know things is really quite an obsolete notion. Here is my contribution to more "user-friendly" examinations, a presage of what forms of traditional evaluation may survive into the next decade.


EUROPE 1870-1945 (Senior Elective) / Dr. Libby
Final Exam, Winter Term / 20 Points

ESSAY. (4 points)

Write at least three sentences (or fragments) showing that Adolf Hitler was not a nice man.
(If you prefer, you may write about Joseph Stalin).

CHRONOLOGY. Arrange these important battles of World War I in the order they occurred by numbering them from 1 to 5 (1 being the earliest event, 2 the second, 3 the third, and so on all the way to 5, which is the last.) ( 5 pts.)

____ The 9th Battle of the Isonzo

____ The 3rd Battle of the Isonzo

____ The 7th Battle of the Isonzo

____ The 11th Battle of the Isonzo

____ The 5th Battle of the Isonzo

TRUE/FALSE. (1 point each.)

____ Russia is bigger than Belgium.

____ Benito Mussolini was Italian.

____ Germany and Japan lost World War II.

____ Many people died in World War I

____ Belgium is not bigger than Russia

IDENTIFICATIONS. Do any one. Skip any four. ( 4 points.)

1. The Battle of Caporetto

2. The Blomberg-Fritsch Crisis

3. The Beer Hall Putsch

4. The Reichstag Fire

5. Your mother

GEOGRAPHY. (2 pts.) Put these items on the accompanying map of Europe, using the numbers.

1. Land

2. Water

Note: If this test is too "high stakes"--if it gives you a headache, causes convulsions, or induces a negative self-image--you may instead write 500 words on the topic "What hockey means to me." Note that for "hockey" you may substitute "soccer," "figure skating," or "Ritalin."

Kinesthetic students may, instead of taking the test, perform an interpretative dance on the Battle of Verdun or the Stock Market Crash.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Culture Corner: Star Wars II

A look at the second film in the series:


This weak film features several very large plot holes. The most obvious is the inability of the Jedi Order to see Anakin Skywalker’s unfitness for his job.
Anakin is a precocious boy with little discipline. He is a hothead, a loose cannon, and emotionally involved with Padmé. He is not yet a good Jedi. But the Jedi Council--that collection of oh-so-sapient magi presided over by the Green Guru--ignores Obi-Wan’s explicit warning and sends Anakin to guard Padmé. (“The Council is confident in its decision.”)
A major source of Anakin’s anxiety is his mother. This problem could of course have been solved if it had occurred to anyone to buy her freedom and bring her to Coruscant, but nobody cares about poor Shmi. Even her loving son, with all his powers, is unable to come up with such a brainstorm as setting her free. And how limited communications seem to be in the galaxy: there have been no messages between Anakin and his mother for years. One thinks she would drop him a line occasionally--at least a postcard, if she can’t afford a hologram--to mention little things like her marriage. Anakin might even try to write to her.
Obi-Wan and Anakin go to tremendous lengths to run down Zam, the assassin. When Zam is killed, however, and the two Jedi see the killer take off via rocket-pack, they just sit there looking at the dart. Why not chase him?
The diner scene is what Mr. Lucas calls a “homage to American Graffiti,” but it is still idiotic. The resources of the Galactic Republic cannot discover where a dart comes from, but a short-order cook can (a cook who of course prospected “on Subterrel beyond the Rim”, but apparently without much success considering the job he now has). And how humble of Mr. Lucas to pay homage to himself.
Among all the bizarre fairy-tale creatures with which Mr. Lucas populates his universe, the Kaminians are the silliest. These effeminate giraffes hardly seem tough enough to run a war college, and they are so dumb they cannot see that Obi-Wan has not been sent to collect the clone army but is an intruder. (Jango Fett deduces this instantly.) Given such stupidity, one wonders how the Kaminians have managed to figure out how to clone humans. But they are very generous in granting credit to customers: they have never written anyone about the 1,200,000 clones they think the Jedi ordered; instead, they wait years for someone to show up and ask how things are going. (And who is paying for all this? Who’s writing checks to Kamino? Why don’t the Jedi try to find out?)
The comment track reinforces what I said before. The mechanics again bloviate on how clever they are. See how Sebulba’s tentacles move! Behold him walking on his hands! Lo! Lama Su brushes his knee! (“An extra level of acting and realism” says the commentator. Really.)
The weirdest scene in any of the films is Scene 23 in this one. Senator Amidala—who, we recall, is five years Anakin’s senior—tells her young admirer they cannot fall in love. [As Mr. Lucas mellifluously puts it in the commentary, “She’s obviously older and, and, you know, in a professional thing that a queen, a senator, a leader so that she’s much more reality-based in all of this…”] When giving Anakin this message, Ms. Amidala chooses to wear a strapless black leather bustier and shoulder-high gloves, and to meet her ardent bodyguard on a comfy sofa in a richly-furnished darkened room with a cozy fire burning on the hearth.
If this film had any depth, one would assume that the senator is actually trying to seduce Anakin, saying no with words but yes in every other way, or that she is setting him up for an assault charge when the overheated teenage Jedi quite understandably jumps on her.
But because the film has no depth, we may infer that this scene is a tiny serving of cheesecake made to the long-suffering daddies accompany-ing their tots to this kiddie flick—a motif that is repeated at the end of the film, when Ms. Portman, wearing a form-fitting body stocking, has her costume lacerated by a big ugly monster, exposing her cute midriff, after which her bosom unaccountably gets bosomier in subsequent scenes until she is very bouncy indeed at 2:10:26. The commentary track, usually so loquacious, does not specify if this involves CGI, although the effect is certainly more enticing than Lama Su brushing his knee. (The reader will understand my attention to such details is evidence only of rigorous scholarship.)

So farewell to Star Wars II, another testimony to Mr. Lucas’s inability to write any more decent or logical scripts, to the poverty of his mind, to the victory of appearance over substance. But let us close with a game. I was hoping to see, among all the wondrous machines shown on the bonus disk, the Alphabet Soup Generator that picks character names. From the list below, select the memorable names of real characters from among the silly names I made up.

1 - Fangor Pondictat

2 - Cronash Tal-Avarin

3 - Figraz Kloongarth

4 - Oppo Racisis

5 - Depa Billaba

6 - Pooja Naberrie

7 - Sio Bibble

8 - Plo Koo

9 - Ash Aak

10 - Elan Sleazebaggano

11 - Gilranos Libkath

12 - Triz Estonna

Answer: Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 12 are mine. The others are Mr. Lucas’s.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Here is a chapter from And Gladly Teach, my satirical look at life at a prep school. This is Chapter 5.
And Gladly Teach was published in 2001. It's set at St. Lawrence Academy (SLA), an entirely fictional location.

As part of the opening week’s meetings, the faculty was introduced to Dr. Rodney L. Glennis, the founder and president of the firm of Broad Horizons, Inc., educational consultants. SLA had hired Broad Horizons to study all aspects of school life and to recommend ways to attract more students, reduce expenses, and, in general, make more money. (As a non-profit organization SLA was naturally very concerned with making as much money as possible.)

What is a “consultant”? The dictionary says, “an expert who is called on for professional or technical advice,” but a far more comprehensive definition might be “someone who is paid a lot of money to figure out things you ought to be able to figure out for yourself.” Another definition, apt for the sort of consultant the educational world produces, is “someone who, not liking to be a teacher or an an administrator, now makes more money than either by telling them how to teach and administrate.”

The world of education teems with consultants, it seethes with them, it is lousy with them. There is probably no school in the country whose substance has not been drained by at least one of these academic lampreys. It is not easy to say why communities consisting of well-educated adults, with decades of experience in every aspect of their profession, shell out thousands of dollars to these self-proclaimed experts. But they do. In the private school world there are even consultants to whom parents can go for the purpose of finding the “right” school for their child. This is a particularly lucrative field, since parents driven to use such services are so desperate to get their kid(s) out of the house that they will pay any amount to find a school which will take them. Such consultants, with just a computer, a phone, a copy of the Bunting & Lyon guide, and a knowledge of which schools are in financial trouble, could place Jack the Ripper in a private school, for a suitable fee.

Dr. Glennis (exactly what he was a doctor of was not clear, but the title engendered confidence in his clients) was a tall, gaunt, balding man in his late fifties, with bushy brows and bright brown eyes. He had arrived with a staff of three and several suitcases full of charts, tables, graphs, and overheads. He spoke for two solid hours. He painted an unnerving picture of the future. He explained how American teenagers were with each passing minute becoming stupider, lazier, and more undisciplined, how their parents were becoming less and less competent at raising them, how independent schools would soon be inundated with these creatures, and how any school which hoped to survive would have to develop “new and innovative programs,” “a clearer vision of viable objectives,” and “a distinctive cachet to proclaim itself unique among the profusion of similar institutions.”
All the while he spoke, his aides were busy flashing transparencies on the screen and whisking them away before the squinting audience could deduce their meaning, if indeed they had any. One chart was displayed upside-down, but that really made no difference.
“Broad Horizons has been conducting an in-depth study of SLA, which will be concluded shortly. We will then be in a position to make further recommendations as to how you can improve recruitment and retention. You have already taken a great step forward by energizing your hockey program, as I recommended to the Board two years ago.”

“So it’s his fault,” whispered several of the teachers.

“SLA cannot rest on its academics. Remember, parents take for granted that every independent school has an excellent teaching staff, superb courses, unlimited individual attention, and fine college preparatory opportunities. That’s a given.”

Now many teachers were glancing at each other. Was this true? Were parents really that dumb?
“What you must have is a further extra-curricular, I mean co-curricular, ...” Dr. Glennis’s volubility momentarily stopped. The word he had almost used, “gimmick,” didn’t seem elevated enough. Then he went on, “... dimension. which will individualize your identity. You must not be thought of as a ‘plain vanilla’ school, but rather as a Neapolitan one, a sort of tutti-frutti, which offers things unique, distinctive, sui generis!”

The teachers didn’t clap, partly because they were mostly appalled, and partly because they did not know he was done. But he was done, for the moment.

In the back row Mr. Vetter turned to Mr. del Rey. “But I like vanilla,” he whispered plaintively.
Mr. Jones, the European History teacher, a crabbed and reactionary man who had a particularly low tolerance for consultants, and indeed for innovations in general, looked at his schedule and noted with regret that tomorrow another speaker would appear. Mr. Jones often wondered who did this scheduling. He thought it was done by the Senior Staff, or SS, at its weekly meeting. The term SS did not mean--as one might think--those members of the faculty who had been at SLA for the longest time. No, the SS was an ex officio group which did not include any full-time teachers. Exactly who it did include was hard to say. Mr. Jones had never seen any list which specified the members of the Senior Staff. The SS exercised power anonymously, like the Venetian Council of Ten, the Neapolitan Camarilla, and the Illuminati. Perhaps the members had a secret handshake or a special tie clip. At any rate, these ghostly councillors seemed to be responsible for bringing to the campus the succession of quacks, mountebanks, and assorted humbugs who periodically bedevilled the busy teachers with their crackpot theories and impractical advice.

On the morrow, the latest speaker turned out to be some sort of child psychologist, an adolescent development “expert.” His presentation was so bizarre that many of the teachers wondered if it was an elaborate practical joke, similar to the one at a convention some years before where the keynote speaker, billed as Margaret Thatcher’s educational advisor and the youngest pilot to have flown with the RAF in the Battle of Britain, turned out to be a comedian. Certainly the clouds of jargon which befogged the room had about them an aura of comic implausibility.

First came something called the “Optimal Environmental Conditions” (which made Mr. Jones think of seventy degrees and low humidity,) which were engendered by a teacher having “Congruent Anticipatory Sets” with his students. This led, somehow, to “Cognitive Behavioral Change.” Intervention in student discipline would succeed, said the speaker, only if “environmental conditions” were “appropriate.” One had to “assess the lethality” of a situation so that one could provide “value-added opportunities” which students would “buy into.”
With everyone reeling from this barrage, the speaker--Dr. somebody, they were always “doctors”--physician, heal thyself--went on to the topic of “Gaining a Meta-Perspective.” A “teacher-student interaction” was something which happened on the “subjective level.” When the teacher then discussed this “interaction” with one or more colleagues, he gained a “meta-perspective.” A discussion of this discussion furnished one with a “meta-meta-perspective.” And ...
Mr. Jones quietly got up and went away. He knew that he might be reprimanded for this desertion, but he thought that a reprimand would be preferable to being jailed for murdering the speaker, which, given his state of mind, was his only alternative to departure. On his way home he marvelled, not for the first time, at his colleagues’ patience in tolerating these verbal assaults. He knew that SLA was not unique. All over the country, probably all over the world, these “experts” were going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it, chanting their incomprehensible mantras to captive audiences at conventions, school openings, and faculty meetings, and being well-paid for doing so.

At least, thought Mr. Jones as he entered his apartment and sank into his easy chair, this guy hadn’t had us “break up into little groups.” That was a favorite technique of those people. The faculty would be divided into squads of five or six and sent hither and yon to discuss some problem concocted by the speaker. Often each group would be instructed to write its collective thoughts with a magic marker on large, poster-sized sheets of paper. When the faculty reconvened, the speaker would pin up the sheets of paper all around the room, so it resembled a kindergarten, and then everyone would compare the various ideas and try to find “congruence.” After it was found--and it always was--the now-congruent teachers could go home, the speaker would gather up the posters and throw them away, and no one would ever hear or speak of the matter again. This was called a “very productive meeting.”

Looking at the school calendar, Mr. Jones saw that in two weeks the faculty would hear from a firm of architects. He smiled wryly. This would be the third or fourth architectural presentation in about as many years. The Headmaster and the Board were always coming up with wonderful plans for renovating the dorms and classrooms, erecting new buildings, and generally modernizing the campus. This led (of course) to hiring a consultant, who, in return for a few tens of thousands of dollars, would produce plans of striking beauty and marvellous utility. These beautiful plans would be displayed at a faculty meeting and explained by a voluble expert who would make it seem as if paradise would come as soon as the school built the magnificent structures so carefully delineated on his expensive charts.

Mr. Jones recalled the plan for the huge field house connected to Laud Hall by an aerial walkway; the completely-renovated boys’ dorm, with its suites and lounges; the new main entrance to the school, which would have made coming to SLA an experience similar to that of arriving at Versailles. Ah, yes, they were all so wonderful...

The only problem was that none of them was ever built. SLA had barely enough money to perform the routine maintenance required to keep its existing buildings from falling to the ground. Starting work on the architects’ plans depended on a successful Capital Campaign, and this campaign, for which (of course) consultants had been repeatedly hired and paid more tens of thousands of dollars, never started. It never started because the consultants said that one does not start a capital campaign until after half the money has already been raised quietly and behind the scenes, so as to convince prospective donors that the whole amount would indeed be collected, and so far the SLA Board and alumni who were solicited had not promised enough.
And so the architectural plans remained, insubstantial and fairylike: pleasure-domes decreed but never built, until replaced by other, newer, ephemeral drawings and evanescent figments of imagination.

Mr. Jones reflected that if the Headmaster and the Board could remove the opium pipes from their teeth and come down to planet Earth, they might take all the money spent on these consultants and just do something useful with it, like repairing the scandalously decrepit boys’ showers. In thinking this, however, Mr. Jones was merely demonstrating that he would never be a Headmaster, because he lacked “Strategic Vision.” Strategic Vision is the ability to ignore mundane realities completely and to immerse oneself in a world of dreams. All great educational leaders have it.

As for Mr. Jones, well, he really felt, after being exposed to all these consultants, advisors, and experts, that a school in need of guidance would be better off if it hired an astrologer. The fees would be less, and the advice every bit as reliable.
From the back cover:

And Gladly Teach is funny, sarcastic, poignant, outrageous, light-hearted, serious, and more realistic than you would wish to believe. It is also short and has a happy ending. It is highly recommended for reading on long plane rides, at the beach, and at dull faculty meetings (as long as you sit way in back so the Headmaster can't see you.)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Newest Members of the U.N.

Planning a vacation? Do not overlook these charming spots.



Nestled between the Strumnitz and Flessgau Rivers, Gross Kleinreich, which seceded from Burgundy in 1422, is ruled by His Serene Highness Grand Duke Ottokar XXIX. The happy populace—by law, depressed and sulky people are hanged—lives in the only remaining Divine Right Absolute Monarchy in Europe. The duchy’s primary products are overpriced sweatshirts sold to tourists and elaborate postage stamps bought only by philatelists. (Gross Kleinreich welcomes visitors, but, since it is not very large, please park in Luxembourg.)


The Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Tougoubougou was established in 1966 as a union of the Tougous and the Oubougous, two tribes on the lower Upper Volta River. Government is by coup d’état, and preserves the old Oubougou tradition that the new president cook and eat his predecessor. The national income is based on loans from the United Nations deposited directly into the president’s Swiss bank account.


Formerly a strip mall in Tijuana, the Republic of Caramba declared its independence from Mexico in 1998, a move that was successful because nobody noticed. The chief industry is digging tunnels to the U.S.A. and charging 50,000 pesos apiece to people who use them. The population—Señor Martinez, his wife, and their thirteen children—hopes to join NATO this year.


The Grand Republic of Guanonia consists of two archipelagos in the South Pacific, the Teeniweeni Isles and the Itsibitsi Group. The population is approximately 3,000,000, ninety-eight percent of whom are birds who provide the islanders’ cash “crop” and main export, from which the nation takes its name. This proud land—known in colonial times as the Gulldung Islands—is trying desperately to get some Western country to take it back.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Culture Corner: Star Wars I

How about some film criticism? Would you like my learned insights anent The Maltese Falcon, or Battleship Potemkin, or even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Perhaps an analysis of the use of shadow symbolism in Ivan the Terrible, Part II? Well... maybe we should start at a more modest level, and with a film that is more my speed. Here's a few opinionated words concerning that much-anticipated classic from a few years back, Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace.

The immortal main theme begins. The orange words appear:“Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.... this alarming chain of events...”
Do we sit in wonder, our popcorn halfway to our mouths, as chills run down our spines? Good lord! A trade dispute. A blockade of a small planet. A chain of events (apparently a small chain, with only two links).
This is the stuff of which epics are made?
What is the purpose of the blockade? Shouldn’t the Trade Federation want to trade with Naboo? Perhaps the T.F. wants to charge higher prices? We never learn anything about the dispute, other than that it is legal and trivial. (“Something as trivial as this trade dispute,” says Qui-Gon; “Our blockade is perfectly legal” says Viscount Gunray.) Since the plot opening is a legal, trivial trade dispute, we might expect the first exciting scene to be a committee hearing by economists.
How could Mr. Lucas give us so lackluster a start to so eagerly anticipated a movie?
Queen Amidala... yes. Now, his films show that Mr. Lucas’s general knowledge of government and diplomacy could be engraved on the head of a pin, but in the polity of Naboo he has confected something particularly fascinating: a democratic monarchy, a queen who is elected and subject to term limits. This “queen” is required to wear preposterous costumes that change hourly and coiffures not seen since the court of Louis XVI. Surely she would have scant time to to do much governing, being too busy with her clothes and hair. But that might be a good idea, since the office of monarch apparently has no age qualification. In this crisis Naboo is governed by a girl of fourteen. That’s the best the voters of Naboo could do? (And she, we are told in Film II, is not the youngest ever chosen. One would like to see the youngest, who perhaps governed from a cradle rather than a throne.)
We arrive on Tatooine, where a serious difficulty arises: the hyperdrive is kaput. It is a matter of galactic importance that the ship get going ASAP. Only one dealer, Watto, an overgrown housefly, has the needed part, and he will not accept Republic currency.
What is a resourceful, masterful, intelligent Jedi to do? Here are some possibilities:
(A) Go to a bank and convert your money to the local stuff.
(B) Inform Watto that the Jedi Order is commandeering his hyperdrive and will wire him the money. If he refuses, take it by force.
(C) Wait and do nothing until you accidentally discover that a small child might get you the money by winning a race, although this child has never finished, let alone won, a race.
Guess what Qui-Gon does. We can only shake our heads.
A side note: Qui-Gon asks Obi-Wan if they have anything to trade with. He replies that they have little but “the queen’s wardrobe.” Folks, if that queen brought her wardrobe, it could be traded for most of the star-ships on the planet.
Anakin’s poor mother: here is the biggest, most glaring plot hole in the whole series. Why in heaven is she left as a slave? The Jedi are willing to take a nine-year-old boy away from his only parent and forget about her. There is never any effort to free her, not even after her son shows her a pile of cash and says, “Look how much we won.” Then he keeps it and leaves mom to the mercy of the giant fly.
“Gungans go to sacred place.” The Trade Federation has occupied the planet; they know about the underwater city. Yet thousands of not terribly inconspicuous or diminutive Gungans manage to move to a spot on the surface that the T.F. never notices. How did they do that? But of course we must reckon with “Lucas logic” as well as “Star Wars physics.” This also means that dei ex machinae can be produced as needed. Must you get into the city? Voilà, “the secret passage on the waterfall side.” Thank heaven for secret passages. And how we rejoice when Padmé produces necessary pistols from the arm of a chair in which Newt Gunray has sat for weeks without ever discovering the concealed weapons.
When the big metal door goes up and Darth Maul appears, the two Jedi say “we’ll handle this” and the others--over a dozen armed men--just leave (to “take the long way,” even though they are in a great hurry). Why? Why doesn’t everyone open fire and kill the Sith right there?
One could go on listing absurdities and inconsistencies in this silly movie, but enough. It is more important to ask why. Why is this film so badly written? Why are thoughtful viewers left feeling cheated?
I think that answer can be found on the commentary track, where Mr. Lucas and several mechanics talk to us.
My impression is of men so mesmerized by technology that they have lost sight of what really matters. These animators and CGI people--these hod-carriers of the movie world--are insufferable. On and on they go with details of how this or that shot was done, repeatedly telling us of their cleverness, their expertise, their great deeds. One feels a bit “wude” in saying this, but, folks, we don’t care how it’s done. You are but hewers of imaginary wood and drawers of digital water. Do your jobs, cash your paychecks, and be quiet. We, the audience, care only about the finished product. Save your war stories for other artisans. You deserve well of your master, undoubtedly other computerists will want to know the details of your craft, but don’t monopolize the commentary with one more description of how you created realistic-looking dust or inserted a suitable wobble into a puppet. Sheesh!
Mr. Lucas’s comments suggest he is an overgrown adolescent. One hopes in vain for insight on the government system of Naboo or what reaction he expected from the startling announcement of Anakin’s virgin birth (made before we hear of the “midi-chlorians.”) What he most often says--over and over, in all three films--is how much more he can do with CGI today that a few years ago. Incessantly he rejoices that he can now, at last, bring his ideas to life. But what ideas? Not moving or dramatic ones--just glitz. He often compares his work to that of a composer, referring again and again to “tone poems” and such things. I can only suggest that, if he thinks his films are like music, he should have let John Williams do the directing as well as the score. The result would have been superior. As it is, The Phantom Menace is useful mainly as proof that Mr. Lucas can no longer invent a coherent plot, or make a film that can be taken seriously. He is now merely a master of eye-candy, of the colorful cinematic façade with emptiness behind it.
Finally, a tribute to Jar-Jar Binks. I am not being perverse. I like him. He brings to the film some much-needed humor. He does not take himself too seriously. He is genuine. He is humble. He is grateful. He helps his friends as best he can. I bet he wouldn’t leave his mother in slavery. As for his language, I find it more refreshing and alive than that of a certain character who for no apparent reason always backwards speaks, whose verbs at the end of his sentences puts, and who so insufferably smug is that I almost wish Count Dooku his little green head had off cut.

My apolgies for any inconsistencies in format, spacing, etc. I'm still learning how to use this blog.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Just What the Doctor Ordered

One goes to the emergency room for succor in adversity: a nascent kidney stone, perhaps; pain in one’s extremities or bowels. One is treated kindly, examined, tested, reassured, and dispatched to a pharmacy with appropriate prescriptions for the alleviation of anguish and infection.

Like the people one sees on those signs in the post office, medicines go about under many names, and one wonders if pharmaceutical companies are staffed by people who write Heroic Fantasy in their spare time. (“When the tyrant Ketorolac sent his armies, under his ferocious vizier Meloxicam, to plunder the peaceful kingdom of Ativan, only the hero Celebrex, wielding the enchanted sword Lorazepam, stood between his people and subjection to the evil Flurbiprofen Empire…”)

Pharmacists now need printers as well as pestles, for, along with the cute little orange storage jars in which pills and powders are customarily dispensed, one receives also a page--two pages--several pages--of information on each medicament.

If one takes time to read these screeds--not always an easy matter, as some are printed in 6- or 8-point type--one may well decide to live with one’s pain and misery rather than risk the utter destruction that may follow if you dare to swallow one of those pills.

Here is a capsule to “relieve pain and swelling… treat headaches, backaches, tendonitis…, gout.” A worthy goal. But… but… “NSAID medicines may increase the chance of a heart attack or stroke that can lead to death”. “Serious side effects include: heart failure from body swelling; life-threatening skin reactions; liver problems including liver failure;” and six other things. Some are less serious: “Possible Side Effects… include upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, gas, headache, diarrhea, constipation, drowsiness, or dizziness.” “Contact Your Doctor Immediately,” it says, “if they continue or are bothersome.” (If!? Evidently it is thought that nausea, vomiting, etc. are not “bothersome” to some people (Spartans, Stoics, masochists?))

You read these pages, nervously moisten your lips, and inspect the medicine jar. No, it doesn’t say Dr. Lucrezia Borgia. But look here… “Possible Side Effects” for another medication you were given to take along with the first one: “blue or purple skin color, yellowing of the skin or eyes…” “Check with your doctor as soon as possible” it adds helpfully: valuable advice indeed, as many might otherwise not think to do that for a trifle like turning purple.

Perhaps there is something to be said for illiteracy, or for just not reading these information sheets. After all, the basic instructions are on the label, e.g. Aqua Tofana: take one every four hours. Ignorance is bliss. Che sarà, sarà. Trust the doctor, be a man, take the pills and go about your business. Yes. Indeed. But… if you take Phenozopyrid (alias Pyridum, a.k.a. Phenazopyridine) without reading about it, and then go to the privy, you will suddenly discover that the water in the bowl becomes orange: vivid, almost neon, orange. Then you will wish, after you recover from your faint, that you had read “This medicine may cause the urine to turn orange or red. This is harmless but it may stain fabric.” And you will have similar feelings if your soft contact lenses turn orange because you wore them while taking Pyridium.

There is much other helpful advice. “Check with your doctor as soon as possible if you experience memory loss.” Hmmm, yes… now what was it I was going to do after I took that pill?

“If overdose is suspected, contact your local poison control center or emergency room immediately. Symptoms of overdose may include confusion, slow reflexes, clumsiness, deep sleep, and loss of consciousness.” Perhaps your unconscious self can make the call.

“Check with your doctor”--this mantra is incessant. Pharmaceutical companies seem to use it as a safety valve to excuse their inability to abolish potentially catastrophic side effects. Do they expect doctors to set aside a couple of hours a day to deal with patients who are swelling up, turning purple, or dissolving?

People who live alone, at least, might well decide to take their nostrums only where help is at hand: at parties or the theater, in church, or… why not right in the lobby of the emergency room? Just pop in two or three times a day with a glass of water, gulp down your pills, and sit there shuddering quietly, waiting to see if the Sword of Damocles will descend this time.

And now one can see why, along with Phenazopyridine and Naproxen, one was given Lorazepam (“a benzodiazepine used to relieve anxiety...”): If you had no anxiety before you went to the e.r., you will most certainly have it once you have read about your medicine.

“DO NOT EXCEED THE RECOMMENDED DOSE” it says emphatically on all the sheets. No fear. The challenge is nerving oneself to take the minimum dose.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go fill prescriptions for Mortufax and Thanatophilin. I hope they have no bothersome side effects.