Thursday, December 29, 2016

In Praise of Exposition: "Fantastic Beasts" and Too Much Plot

As Plot has come to occupy the throne of Zeus in the Mt. Olympus of Storytelling, poor, unwanted, and abused Exposition has all but been chased down the mountain's stony steeps.

The ascendance of the film franchise, the television serial, and the multi-volume literary series, has been accompanied by the phenomenon of spoiler hysteria, itself the natural consequence of the elevation of plot. If a spoiler truly can spoil a story, then it follows that plot, and plot alone, constitutes the essence of a story, to the detriment of character, world-building, setting, literary beauty, or any other element of storytelling.

For films, the adulation of plot drives further the retreat into a reliance on popular book or comic series for the simple reason that books, far roomier than a feature film, have a greater, though shrinking, luxury: the establishment of a fantastic world and fascinating characters to populate it. The viewer's familiarity with the material allows film and television adaptations to cut back on exposition.

Exposition is crucial. Without it, a plot has no meaning, no emotional resonance. Exposition establishes the frameworks over which the story is constructed and it delimits the bounds of the imagined world, thus permitting the viewer to perceive the 'rules' of that world. Exposition is equally important for the introduction of characters. If we do not see Frodo happy and contented in Hobbiton, the scale of his sacrifice and bravery is lost; he is simply an opaque hero. His motivations for treating Smeagol with respect are dim, his desperation to destroy the ring becomes nothing more than a symbol of uninteresting good pitted against uninteresting evil. Whether Frodo succeeds or not only matters if we care about Frodo, if we care about what he cares about.

One of the commonest criticisms of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of what will eventually be a five-film series set in J. K. Rowling's Wizarding World, was that it was a largely expository film, but on the contrary, I would argue that the film's greatest weakness was its lack of exposition. Fantastic Beasts runs a bit more than two hours and it is jam-packed with happenings. Luckily, over the course of the Harry Potter series, literary and cinematographic, the vast majority of viewers will be familiar with the rules of the Wizarding World. It makes sense to us that a wizard can keep a menagerie of magical animals in a suitcase or that a witch can bake a strudel with a few waves of her wand. Though I personally would happily watch hours of such things, details of the workings of magical world, the lack of world-building in Fantastic Beasts doesn't cripple the film, as it would without the prior series. Even so, the greatest pleasures are to be found precisely in those details: the newspaper headlines, the spells and heretofore unseen magical creatures, clever inventions that Rowling so excels in creating.

What weakens Fantastic Beasts is the lack of expository character-building. Eddie Redmayne's performance as Newt Scamander has been criticized as flat and uninteresting, but frankly I don't see that as Redmayne's fault. No sooner do we meet Scamander than we see him swept into a chase after a Niffler (kudos to the design and effects departments - they are highly charismatic). We get no sense of why he is passionately enamored of magical animals, only that he is. Tina (Katherne Waterston) is in trouble with the MACUSA, seemingly for on-the-job incompetence, but the revelation of the reasons for her demotion doesn't explain who she is, or why she acted as she did. The real problem here is that the characters are reduced to easily definable qualities, qualities that fail to add up to an irreducibly complex character that resembles a relatable human being.

If Redmayne's performance lacks charisma, it may very well be because the audience never has a chance to spend time with him. Newt, Tina, Jacob (Dan Fogler), and Queenie (Alison Sudol) are the 'good guys' because they are the characters we are following, not because they are relatable or struggling to make choices that force the viewer to ponder the implications of such choices. Moral decision-making in Fantastic Beasts can be collapsed into easy alternatives: help someone or harm someone, preserve wildlife or destroy it. This is surprising, given that few fantasy novels can boast of the moral, spiritual, and psychological complexity of the Harry Potter books (the movies were able to ride on the books' coattails, enriched by the audience's reading).

On the one hand, Fantastic Beasts is enormously fun and, for those who care only to know what happens next, a true treat. There is much to admire - the CGI is absolutely splendid, all design elements, from sets and costumes to creatures and magic, are stunning, unique, and witty. But on the other, I hope, very much, that subsequent films will offer more time to get to know the characters: not just that Newt is shy and awkward, but why and how he feels about the way he is perceived; not just that Tina gets herself into scrapes, but why and how she feels about it; not just that these two characters feel a kinship, but why and what that kinship is like. I trust Rowling as one of our best storytellers to have created brilliant, complex characters. Now I'm ready to get to know them, but until I can, I'm just watching what they do, not caring why they do it.

So, hooray for exposition and may we get substantially more of it in the films to come!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Poetry for Dark Times: Szymborska's "In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself"

Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) was one of the pithiest of twentieth (and twenty-first!) century poets, as well as winner of the Nobel Prize. Her work is characterized by an ethereal beauty, a cross between the exquisite and the earthy, and easily travels, like the most magnificent of celestial zoom lenses, from the microscopic to the universal. Though many of her poems engage with the weightiest of subjects, from death to true love to the meaning of life, they are always leavened with an elegant, light-touched, and ironic sense of humor. Szymborska succeeds in striking a tone that is equal parts deadly serious and wittily unpretentious. Indeed, the lack of pretension elevates her poetry above that of many of her contemporaries. She may address Death, but then, she accuses it of a lack of humor ("It can't take a joke") and incompetence ("Preoccupied with killing,/it does the job awkwardly,/without system or skill./As though each of us were its first kill"). Her stars are celestial orbs, but she's as likely to reference Einstein or Plato as she is one of the Romantic poets. Time is bent and twisted about, examined up close and from a distant perspective. Dreams and reality collide; Szymborska reaps a spark of something beautiful or truthful in their collision. A poem entitled "Metaphysics" lands neatly on the decidedly contemporary image of a plate of fries, while "Tarsier" ascends to an ironic apex, vaunting the very essence of being the wide-eyed animal. Her world is a modern one, cognizant of its smallness in the cosmos, populated by machinery and wracked by the throes of misery in death camps and terrorist attacks, but Szymborska's frame of reference is enormously wide, easily encompassing ancient Greek philosophy, astrophysics, Dutch painting, medieval tapestry, archaeology, slapstick silent film, and even every-day life.

Many of us, as 2016 comes to a close, can look back at a difficult, if not brutal year. Those events that effect all of us have been frightening and threaten to have dire consequences. And, I would claim, the time is ripe for poetry. Perhaps no poet can serve us better, then, than Szymborska. Here is one of her beautiful poems, translated from the Polish by Claire Cavanaugh and Stanislaw Baranczak, "In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself."

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weight a ton,
in every other way they're light.

On this third planet from the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is number one.

This poem was published in the collection, A Large Number, released in 1976, mid-way through Szymborska's career. Here we have an example of the brilliance of her final ironic turns, an elegant deflection that suddenly shines a blinding light on the human condition. Animals in her poems are never anthropomorphized, though they sometimes speak for themselves, as in the aforementioned "Tarsier" and "Monologue of a Dog Ensnared in History," which builds to a devastating last stanza. However, animals coexist with human beings not as lesser, but as different, beings, beings that abide by different moral codes, different rules. By drawing comparisons between the pitilessness of animals, of the hard and often brutal demands of their continued survival, with the behavior of human beings, Szymborska - who lived through World War II in Poland, one of the worst ravaged countries in Europe - steadfastly, almost obstinately, insists that we face ourselves, who we really are, and pass sentence on ourselves. If you shrink from the sight of a lion mauling its prey or an insect burrowing into the skin, she tells us, look around and take a look at yourself.

Even so, this doesn't mean that her point of view is pitiless. In her refusal to name the creatures who comfort themselves with clear consciences and count themselves as estranged from the bestial, she is clear-eyed, but not cruel. The admonishment is clean, cool, keen, but it is really the reader, not the poet, who admonishes. The reader jumps from that final line to the state of her own conscience and must either recognize the stains upon it - or be marked as bestial. The only other option is to slam the book shut and determine to forget one ever read such words.

Szymborska wrote many poems that both obliquely and explicitly address specific violent conflicts and events, including the Vietnam War and September 11th, but the war that occupies her most deeply, unsurprisingly, is World War II. In desolating poems such as "Starvation Camp Near Jaslo" and "Still," Szymborska insists on the facts, and if they are brutal, upsetting, or ugly (and, goodness knows, they are), she refuses to turn away from them. She remembers the neighbors that disappeared, she notices the verdancy of the fields that cover mass graves, she recognizes that there are stories, people, lurking beneath every gravestone. This is why I believe her to be a poet to cherish at this moment. She provides us beauty and bracing, unadulterated truth, a look at our naked selves in a mirror, in equal measure. The mixture of these two qualities offers a certain degree of pleasure and relief without permitting escapism. So, let us read poetry; perhaps it will prove a better guide than any other. Through poetry, if we're more sagacious than human beings usually prove to be, maybe we'll remember to think and to have compassion for others. It's no guarantee, but then, as Szymborska has written, "there's no stop/along our escape route/where reality isn't expecting us."

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Tolkien's Gollum and Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism"

Given its erudition, immensity, dense prose, and close-packed print face, Hannah Arendt's still controversial The Origins of Totalitarianism is anything but a fast, easy read.The same could be said of the masterwork of another brilliant academic, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, though the fantasy epic can certainly lay claim to providing substantially more in the way of entertainment. In the past few weeks, Arendt's opus has catapulted to best-seller lists, though it was originally published in 1951. We are in dark times and the choices we face are weightier and have more potentially far-reaching consequences than perhaps ever before in my lifetime. In such times, it is not uncommon to turn to the comforting world of the fantasy novel, with its Manichean struggles, exquisite and unpolluted landscapes, magic, and triumph of the forces of goodness.

But Tolkien too lived through dark times. The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954-55, but the writing of it occupied Tolkien from 1937 - a momentous year in terms of the history of fascism, given that in that year Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, the gifted intellectual Antonio Gramsci died after eleven years in a fascist prison, and Hitler held a secret meeting to plan the expansion of Germany across Eastern Europe - until 1949, when wartime rationing was finally coming to an end in Great Britain. Perhaps the greatest of many great achievements encompassed within the creation of Middle-earth, the character of Gollum is one of the most complex and fascinating in all of literature. The brilliance of the creation of Gollum is burnished further when thinking of The Lord of the Rings as a saga against totalitarianism.

Though Tolkien resisted facile interpretations of his work, it seems clear that the immense struggle undertaken by Great Britain and her allies against the Nazi war machine had a deep impact on his writing. Between the scars of the past traumas of World War I, which left Tolkien, like his good friend C.S. Lewis, in perpetual mourning for their dead companions, and the shadow cast by Nazism, the darkness in The Lord of the Rings has a palpable, searing quality. The evil of Sauron, entrenched in his stronghold of Mordor, in the east (the geography seems significant: not only is Germany to the east of the United Kingdom, but Hitler aimed first at eastern expansion, hoping to postpone the invasions of western countries until he'd secured more territory, a goal thwarted by the stubborn intervention of the British), is portrayed as intent on a totality of power. This totality is expansionist and military in nature and Sauron determines to destroy all potential threats to his power, including all those who might think for themselves, who might feel love or compassion or a sense of honor, and all forms of culture and merriment. Warfare is conducted species against species; civilians are not spared, nor children, nor the elderly. Even a wise man like Saruman, once Gandalf's mentor, converts to Sauron's vision of a conquered Middle-earth; in this, he recalls Heidegger, Arendt's teacher, mentor, and lover, who was a devoted Nazi and anti-Semite.

But in these dark times, I believe that we should cast our eyes on Gollum. Gollum, enslaved to the ring, locked in an unending struggle to obtain and possess the ring and an equally soul-breaking struggle to extract himself from the cruel demands of the ring, strikes me as the terrifying prototype for the ordinary man brought under the extreme pressures of totalitarian ideology. Unlike the orcs, born and bred in the sweltering volcanic rock of Mordor, knowing nothing and wishing to know nothing but brute strength and obedience to their master Sauron, Gollum was once a hobbit, of all the creatures of Middle-earth the most innocent.

Before continuing, I must point out that it is essential to note that Arendt's analysis of totalitarianism is almost purely secular, while Tolkien, a devout Catholic, intentionally revised his magnum opus to reflect his religious beliefs. This is important to understand because there is a divergence in terms of the conclusions of the two works. While Arendt pleads with her readers to think, to reject monolithic ideologies and be cognizant always of the signs of incipient totalitarianism, and thus sees totalitarianism as a threat that has not been laid to rest by any means, Tolkien's Catholic beliefs lead him in a different direction: defeat evil, and a new world will be born, one that will have its flaws and its struggles, but one in which the like of Sauron will never be seen again. This is a vision founded in Christian conceptions of good and evil. If Tolkien's vision were applicable to our workaday world, it would seem that we have not yet even met Sauron on the field of battle; a glance at what is currently happening in Syria alone ought to quickly dispel any ideas of a progression towards a peaceful world. If Tolkien's understanding of moral progression points us rightly, then neither Hitler nor Stalin nor any other historical dictator has been our Sauron, for total warfare is still with us. However, one must realize and remember throughout reading and comparing these books that Arendt rejects absolutely simplistic notions of historical cause and effect. Only in a fantasy world, springing from the imagination of a man, a mere man and no god, can such historical argumentation ring true. With these caveats in place, let us turn to Gollum.

Gollum is incapable of rejecting the advance of power, even when it is relatively benign, except through violence. This is the cruelest mark the ring has left upon him, crueler even than the mangling of his body. While Frodo insists on referring to him by the name he held as a free hobbit, Smeagol, Gollum himself appropriates the word 'sneak' to refer to himself after Sam hurls it at him in a moment of anger. In response to Frodo's pained expression of pity, "'Smeagol has to take what's given to him,' answered Gollum. 'He was given that name by kind Master Samwise, the hobbit that knows so much.'" Without a higher power to obey, Gollum wallows in confusion and so he takes up whatever crumbs of instruction he finds, even as he rebels, even as he despises those who exert power over him. When he breaks away, it is to resort to brutality, violence that he always subsequently regrets and revisits upon himself in hopeless retaliation.

Gollum loses his ability to rule himself, and yet the ring, once taken from him, exerts an ungovernable attraction. Prevented from bowing completely to its influence, Gollum desperately seeks another power to rule over him and thus with Frodo he is "pitifully anxious to please," prone to overpowering tears whether he pleases or displeases the hobbit who, possessed of the ring, becomes his master by proxy. Gollum's self has been annihilated, so much so that he refers to himself in the third person; Gollum is a nobody because he can no longer fit together the shattered shards of Smeagol. "What totalitarian ideologies therefore aim at is... the transformation of human nature itself," writes Arendt. In the case of poor Smeagol, the transformation is horrifying. Every feeling, any sensation beyond the merest urges of biological necessity, crush him, for they drag him away from the ring, the ring he worships even as it terrifies and tortures him.

For Gollum to feel the slightest compassion, the slightest emotional tug towards another creature, he must experience pain.  "A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee--but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing." In these brief moments, Gollum almost recovers his hobbit-ness, his integrity as an individual, but inevitably the ring exerts its impossibly seductive force.

The pain he feels never suffices to destroy the chains of Gollum's enslavement. “Nothing is more difficult and rarer than people who, out of the desperate need of loneliness, find the strength to escape into solitude, into company with themselves, thereby mending the broken ties which link them to other men," writes Arendt. Gollum, so desperately lonely that he fears his own threats, never quite manages to mend those ties, though he tries with Frodo's help. Alone with himself, what remains of Smeagol is always cowed by the wraith-like fierceness of the slave Gollum. True converse with himself is impossible.

Gollum dies still in thrall to the ring, still lashed to its sinister chains. His final moment of ecstasy as he repossesses the ring is equally a moment of the profoundest agony. "And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail precious, and he was gone." Gollum quite literally can no longer exist without the ring; if the ring is destroyed, so must be Gollum. They meet the same fate: dissolution in hellish waves of lava in the deep chambers of Mount Doom.

Even so, the ring's effects were not universally obviously bad. Possession of the ring promises a sort of immortality and Smeagol lives for an astonishingly long time, well over five hundred years, due to the influence of his precious. The price paid for a long life, something much coveted for instance by Bilbo and essentially every hobbit and human character, is the total loss of what one could charitably term 'humanity.' This immortality mirrors the twisted immortality promised by totalitarian death cults: die for it, one is promised, and you will live forever. And yet that life is a perversion of life: for Gollum, an existence of torture, loneliness, and terror; for the men and women under a totalitarian regime, an equally barren existence in which all thought and feeling is crushed, squeezed, and destroyed until all that remains is a robotic shell.

Gollum's corruption, far more than Frodo's determination and Christ-like sense of mission, prevents Sauron from recapturing the ring and attaining total domination. This is the terrifying truth of totalitarianism: a human once under the thrall of totalitarian rule can only be redeemed through the destruction of the very thing that sustains his life, that narrates and delimits the scope of his being. Gollum is the man who comes under totalitarian power; he is not born into it; he is seduced by it. That is why he came "to love and hate the Ring, just as he loved and hated himself." Let us remember Gollum, now and in the months to come, for if we teeter on the brink, espy the glimmer of a shining object and seek to possess it, we risk not merely our lives but our reasons for living, not merely our freedoms but our very souls. "Even a single individual can be absolutely and reliably dominated only under global totalitarian conditions,”Arendt writes, but it is up to us to make sure that such conditions never come to be.