Thursday, June 19, 2008

Book Review: "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Alan Moore once made a very insightful comment about nostalgia in fiction: as a dramatic device, it only works if the past that's being yearned for is truly lost. He was talking about comics specifically, about how nostalgia frequently fails in the mainstream because the past is always being regurgitated and nothing is ever really gone for good. Unsurprisingly, Moore's point is valid - if Jean Grey had never come back, every remembrance of her would be much more poignant, both for the characters and the readers.

It's that type of nostalgia which lies at the core of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude". Marquez's novel treats time as a spiral, where you're slowly spinning further and further away from the center, yet it's the same line throughout.

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" is a truly phenomenal text, invoking a kind of soft magical realism that never intrudes on the human drama unfolding in each generation - weird things happen in Macondo, these things are acknowledged to be unusual, but the business of everyday life keeps people from losing their grip on reality (until, of course, everyday life ends in the last part of the novel, at which point reality just packs its bags and leaves Macondo behind). Conversely, some of the best scenes in the novel are dramatically effective not because they aren't realistic, but because they are - the train station massacre is chilling precisely because it's so easy to imagine that it could actually happen.

I should note that while I only read the English translation, said translation was fluid, almost lyrical in its sadness and beauty. Language is a part of how the story works as well, because there are points where sentences just go on and on, inexhaustible, very much like the characters themselves.

On the most basic level, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is about the House of Buendia, both literally and figuratively. We follow six generations of the Buendia family, each a faded echo of the previous one, with the house itself as an additional character of sorts: it too changes and evolves and degrades over time. It's a massive, sprawling narrative that goes backwards and forwards in diegetic time, representing entropy on the smallest, most personal scale, every system breaking down in its turn.

It actually reminded me of Matt Wagner's "Grendel": both stories present a multi-generational tale that depicts the nature of identity as being partly hereditary - just as Hunter begets Christine who begets Brian, all of whom are Grendel, the recurring names in the Buendia family (Jose Arcadio and Aureliano, and various permutations of these two) seem to carry with them a fraction of the namesake's identity. Both stories are fundamentally about erosion, about how time wears down even the invincible, and Orion may rule the world but Jupiter III will lose it, just as Ursula's death leaves the Buendias to a much less worthy matriarch, and it all goes downhill from there.

The difference has to do with time, and the way each author depicts time. For Wagner, time is decidedly linear: Grendel changes as the centuries pass, but it's not a cyclical process, nothing of the past Grendels carries over to the next "host". In Marquez's novel, time is both linear and circular: the years have a clear degrading effect on the house and the people living there, but so many characters are stuck repeating the lives of their ancestors: Aureliano Babilonia and Amaranta Ursula may not know that they're following the exact same path as Aureliano Jose and Amaranta, but we know it, and more importantly, other characters in the novel know it too. This becomes clearest when Aureliano goes to visit Pilar Ternera, the only character who survives from the start of the novel almost to the end of it: "There was no mystery in the heart of a Buendia that was impenetrable for her because a century of cards and experience had taught her that the history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spilling into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle." Things keep coming full circle over and over again, and it's tragic because the story never ends well, not for a single member of the Buendia bloodline, and those characters who escape the loop just disappear (Sofia, Remedios the Beauty, Petra).

It's a beautiful, heartbreaking novel, one that blew my mind repeatedly. A must-read!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

First Impressions: The Middleman

What an odd show.

Discovering "The Middleman" was something of an accident; the pilot aired a few hours before the fourth-season premiere of "Weeds", which I'd been anticipating for months. Since I'm trying to keep an open mind during the new TV season, and with most of my favorites on hiatus until September, I figured I might as well kill some time waiting for the Botwin family comeback. No expectations, no prior knowledge of either the comics or the works of Javier Grillo-Marxuach in general.

My initial reaction to "The Middleman" was pretty similar to my reaction to "Pushing Daisies" - it's so eccentric, so off-the-wall that at first glance I just don't know what to do with it. The pilot was certainly well-constructed: the dialogue was fast-paced and clever without dissolving into gibberish, the plot managed to cover exposition and a typical "case file" adventure (intelligent apes taking over the mob in the name of world domination), the acting was decent (though... Matt Keeslar? Really? The guy who couldn't muster a variant facial expression during the most heartbreaking scene in "Urbania"?), and it manages to avoid being too on-the-nose with its self-awareness.

Basically, the pilot won me over, at least for the time being. In my opinion, it could go either way here - I certainly believe Grillo-Marxuach and his team can come up with enough entertaining scenarios to keep the weirdness going, and they're sticking to the shorter seasonal format (around 13 episodes or so), but I think a lot will depend on whether a larger storyline will emerge; if I have one criticism of "Pushing Daisies", it's that the episodic format probably would've bored me had the series gone on after nine episodes. But that's something we'll have to re-examine mid-season.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Quick-Shot Movie Reviews

Madea Goes To Jail: Tyler Perry's plays always feel like two very different stories fighting for control of the screen/stage. On the one hand, Madea is a very amusing character, and her antics provide plenty of comedic moments; on the other hand, there's this whole layer of obnoxious Christian proselytizing and saccharine melodrama that you're apparently meant to take quite seriously. It's a schism that's impossible to reconcile, because the tone of the Madea scenes is very light and entertaining and then you're brought down to baby-mama-drama and accepting Jesus' love. The end result, for me, was much like "Diary of a Mad Black Woman": fast-forwarding through most of the movie looking for the funny parts (read: Madea's scenes).

Corrina, Corrina: One of the less interesting Whoopi Saves The Day films, part of a whole sub-genre where Whoopi Goldberg plays a wise-cracking outsider who enters a hopeless situation and turns it around for everyone, like a '90s version of Mary Poppins. I'll admit I have a soft spot for "Sister Act" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash", but "Corrina, Corrina" doesn't quite do it for me: Goldberg's performance is too sedate, the other characters are dull, the story takes a last-minute leap into romantic territory that would've been better left unexplored. And you wouldn't know it from "Veronica Mars", but Tina Majorino was one scary-looking moppet. Brr.

Pump Up The Volume: This would've fit in nicely when I did that "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"/"Dangerous Minds" comparative review, because it's an interesting middle point in the continuum. Thematically, the conflict is still between teenagers and an actively oppressive authority, as it was in "Ferris Bueller", but that movie was about individual rebellion. "Pump Up The Volume" prefigures "Dangerous Minds" by making that rebellion a collective experience, and we're still years away from bringing any ethnic context into the mix - it's still very much the white suburban middle-class kids who declare war. On that level, though, on the brink of the shift where unity becomes fragmentation and The Enemy becomes other teens, this film does the job well.

The Conrad Boys/Shelter: Broadly speaking, these movies both tell the same story, which is why I'm reviewing them together: a teenager has been saddled with heavy responsibility and has to choose between obligation and love. Of the two, I think "The Conrad Boys" did a better job with the story because it's more complex - appearances can (and do) deceive, Charlie's options aren't quite what he thinks they are, and most importantly, the choice is precisely that: a choice. By picking one, Charlie forfeits the other, and that's good drama. "Shelter" falters in this sense because not only is Zach's dilemma external (someone else is forcing him to choose), he ultimately walks away with everything he wanted. For obvious reasons, that's a less-compelling take on the story.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Diana's Adventures In TV Land: Battlestar Galactica S3

It took me a bit longer than expected, but I've finally completed the third season of BSG.

The New Caprica storyline was an excellent exercise in dismantling the cast, taking them apart to see what makes them tick. Jammer's weakness, Starbuck's flirtation with insanity, Adama's guilt, the horror of Fat Apollo, Tigh's determination... we'd seen these things before, in smaller quantities, but New Caprica really strips the characters down to their most basic attributes. Our heroes are humiliated, beaten down, and contrary to expectations, some of them never really recover. In fact, it splits the people very decisively, between the resistance of New Caprica and people who were either seen as sitting on the sidelines or actively helping the Cylons, and this division goes all the way to the end of the season and Baltar's trial.

Jacob at Television Without Pity made an interesting comment about New Caprica: the characters get what they want, in the worst possible way. I think he's absolutely right - Kara's desire for a family is perverted by Leoben; President Baltar is rendered utterly powerless; Six gets her boytoy back and he's not quite what she remembered; the refugees have their new world and it's a living hell. This extends to "Unfinished Business" too, because Lee also gets what he wants, and he would've been better off without it.

After all that human drama, you'd think we'd finally left the mumbo-jumbo behind. Then we get to the Algae Planet and the Temple of Five.

It's the same thorn in my side each time: the religious aspect comes off as an attempt to push the plot forward in the absence of more realistic or complex mechanisms. Someone gets a vision or hums a song or follows a bouncing ball, and boom, we've reached the next part of the story. Or some never-before-seen quasi-Biblical text just happens to metaphorize exactly what's going to happen. It's bad enough on New Caprica when an "oracle" basically tells Three all about baby Hera, or the whole Eye of Jupiter thing where the Final Five Cylons are introduced in some huge and mythic way that gets deflated in a major way at the end of the season, but they finally crossed the line for me in "Maelstrom".

You see, until that episode, the metaphysics were a distraction on the level of plot, but somehow the characters managed to work around it: Roslin is no less compelling as a "prophet", Six's proselytizing doesn't keep her from playing mind games with Baltar. But "Maelstrom" is a huge emotional moment for the cast, the violent climax of a major character arc, and any real resonance is smothered beneath a layer of vague ramblings about "destiny", which is shorthand for "yeah, we don't know either, but give us some time and we'll think of something." That was just not cool.

I confess that by season's end I was sick and tired of Baltar: the bug-eyed neurotic routine had played itself out, and I think he lost the charisma that made him such an effective counterpart to Roslin. But the trial was interesting, because the writers managed to steer me into agreeing with Lee. Baltar is many things - a coward, a pompous jerk, a moron despite his intelligence - and he made decisions that cost thousands of lives. But legally, technically, in the ways that matter when you're thinking about shooting him in the head? He wasn't a traitor. He didn't order the colonization of New Caprica knowing that Gina had summoned the Cylons. He didn't give Caprica-Six access to the Colonies' defenses knowing what she was, and what she'd do with the information. Is he to blame for the tremendous loss of life? Yes, but indirectly so, and that doesn't justify killing him.

Anyway, much like last season, we also have a Worst Episode Ever in "The Woman King", which - if possible - was even lower on the scale than "Black Market". Over-the-top, superficial shlock that somehow turns Helo into a saint despite oversympathizing with the Cylons to the point where Roslin writes out a check addressed to him in the amount of Reality. I think there's been some deviation from the general direction with Helo, because it's one thing to love Sharon despite her being a Cylon, it's quite another to see all Cylons in the same light, especially after New Caprica (which, as Roslin rightly points out, Helo never experienced).

And finally: the Final Five. Spoilers ahoy, but... okay. Let's take them one at a time. Tory? Sure. Works for me. Sam? A bit harder to swallow after "Downloaded", but I can still suspend disbelief enough to buy it. Tyrol? Now we're having problems. Sure, there were those two minutes where he suddenly starts thinking he's a Cylon, but the whole point of that was to illustrate the very human fear that It Could Be Inside Us. Making him a Cylon after all not only messes with that, it detracts from Hera being the Special Little Hybrid That Could (because Cally's pregnant within a year of them getting together), it also screws up the whole dynamic that he had with Boomer.

And finally, Tigh. This is where it all falls apart for me. Setting aside the fact that no machine could handle that much alcohol, Tigh was one of the most flawed, conflicted, human characters on the show. He was also one of the few with a shared history reaching back into the pre-history of the show (ie: he and Adama were friends for thirty years). Retconning him as a Cylon is just too implausible.

It just doesn't work, not really, despite assurances from the writers that the Final Five are "different". It's certainly convenient that they don't seem to follow the same rules as the rest of their kindred, for reasons that aren't even remotely apparent, but... "meh" is pretty much all I get out of that.

It was still a good season overall, because the aspects I regularly enjoy - the politics, the action, the drama - still overpower the juju, but I'm starting to worry that the metaphysical storyline is becoming more and more prominent; it'd be pretty disappointing for the last season to get totally lost in pseudo-spiritual nonsense.