Thursday, January 28, 2010

Stephenie Meyer Sucks. And How?

We all have our guilty pleasures. I loved Hudson Hawk, the 1991 musical comedy starring Bruce Willis. That's right, loved it. This is the same movie Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers called "unspeakably awful." Not to stop there he says, "You want to throw things, yell at the actors, beg them to stop. But the film drags on, digging horrible memories into the brain." And yet, to me, that movie rules. It has characters inexplicably survive tremendous falls from buildings and cliffs. It has Sandra Bernhard in it (shudder). It makes cartoon slapstick sounds like those in Batman & Robin. The villains are named after candy bars. And, as if that wasn't enough, David Caruso as a mime!


I get it. I understand liking something fun and familiar and just a little bit awful. Stephenie Meyer books appeal to adolescent girls, and the occasional misdirected boy, because they are high-school-age fantasies in which new readers don't know the outcome. I can even get behind the idea of people liking them for the same reason chicks like romantic comedies and guys like watching stuff get blown the hell up. Unfortunately, people are defending this woman's writing, and that, my friends, is horseshit. When Stephen King trashed her, some fans shouted "sour grapes!" claiming he was jealous of her popularity. I've even heard from her fans who think J.K Rowling is a bad writer compared to her. That statement did not come from the mentally handicapped or insane (maybe a little insane). It came from her common, normal fans. I don't believe all of her fans are stupid enough to say something like that, but I've met plenty who are.

Most readers who have a basic knowledge of English will know something is not quite right with her writing, but won't be able to point at what it is and say, "here's why." I can.

Let's start with punctuation, the simplest fundamental in language. It signals when thoughts change topics, when those topics are related, and when they are not. Glancing at the first chapter of Twilight tells me that she has no idea how punctuation works. She uses dashes instead of using the various punctuation marks that differentiate meanings. In my years at college, my hatred for dashes softened. At times I even employ them. They can be useful. They set apart extra details that would alter the narrative course. They are not supposed to relate to any other sentence or paragraph outside of the sentence that contains them. Some people use parentheses to the same effect. Meyer, on the other hand, throws dashes into anything and everything, for any reason, on almost every single page. Do you want to see examples of Meyer's use of dashes? I thought so.

Page 4 (which is actually the second page of the story): "Bella," my mom said to me--the last of a thousand times--before I got on the plane. "You don't have to do this."

This sentence sucks for several reasons. I know we're trying to focus on dashes, but that's not the only problem. First of all, she split the sentence in two. The mother's line of dialogue is one sentence ("Bella, you don't have to do this"); therefore the writer should not break apart the dialogue with a period. By writing it the way she did, she is effectively saying that "Bella" is a sentence in itself. It is not. Back to the main point: dashes. Instead of dashes, you may be asking yourself, what is she supposed to put? Nothing. Those dashes aren't in place of anything, they're just stuck in for no reason. The sentence would read fine as: "Bella," my mom said to me the last of a thousand times before I got on the plane, "you don't have to do this." You could argue those dashes replace commas, but to place commas in the sentence disrupts the flow with wasted excess, neither adding nor detracting meaning. You know, the same thing her dashes do.

Page 5: I didn't see it as an omen--just unavoidable. It should be a comma. I didn't see it as an omen, just unavoidable.

Page 7: The thing, I thought to had possibilities--as a nickname, at the very least. I nominate this for the worst published sentence ever. For whatever reason, some of Bella's thoughts are in italics and others are not. Unless, of course, emphasis is supposed to be placed on "the thing." If that is the case, Meyer shouldn't be putting emphasis on "the" as well as "thing." Ellipses (...) are normally used to show an omission of words. Recently, in dialogue, they've been used to show hesitation or the trailing off at the end of a sentence, leaving the line unfinished. It does none of those here (I suppose Meyer could have used "that" originally then omitted it and put ellipses in its place, but doing that would imply her blunder is due to overthought. I have serious doubts about that). She is using it to replace a comma. The dash, again, serves no purpose. It is just shoved into a sentence that doesn't need punctuation there. The comma after "nickname" is also pointless. I know why she added all this punctuation, though. The sentence has two qualifying statements at the end. By adding the qualifiers, Meyer's sentence developed a roller-coaster effect. Just when you think you've reached a logical stopping point, there's another hill. This is what the sentence would look like with correct punctuation: The thing, I thought to myself, it had possibilities as a nickname at the very least. The real problem is that the sentence sucks and instead of changing it, she punctuated it. Here's a good way to write that sentence: The thing, I thought to myself, at least had possibilities as a nickname.

Page 8: It was too green--an alien planet. By the way, this sentence is also a paragraph. Besides rewording and fleshing out, this "paragraph" needs a comma, not a dash. It was too green, an alien planet.

Page 9: All of the kids here had grown up together--their grandparents had been toddlers together. There it is! The cardinal sin of dash use. Meyer combined two complete sentences with a dash. It's the same as a comma splice. The only way to combine two sentences is with a semi-colon. In that regard, you may want to follow Kurt Vonnegut's advice, "Never use semi-colons."

I left out any criticism of dashes in dialogue because dialogue always breaks rules, in real life as well as in fiction. That and there are so many dashes and ellipses in her dialogue that it looks like Morse code. I could probably show examples of poor punctuation on every page for the rest of the chapter but I would likely kill myself before the end. Let's move on to another part of language.

Word choice is my favorite aspect of linguistics and communication. It is difficult and rewarding to make every word in an article or story the most correct, accurate and functional. Every word in every language carries its own stigma, nuance and connotation. Every word has history and social value. Constructing a most perfect sentence out of the most perfect words is the job of every novelist. Meyer constantly fails to get the correct meaning or feeling across to the reader because of her inability to recognize nuance. Most readers blow over these errors in judgment quickly because her writing is comprised almost entirely of common words and clichéd phrases. The words just wash past the reader in a blur. Using common, accurate words can be wonderful. As shown by: Ernest Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, W. Somerset Maugham, J. M. Coatzee, and Cormac McCarthy. Using slightly inaccurate words and clichés is not. Shown by Dan Brown, many unpublished authors and most bloggers. Meyer is in the latter group.

In my college writing classes, I met several students who tried too hard to use poetic descriptors (like 'beautification,' 'gargantuan,' or 'sanguine' when 'improvement,' 'big' or 'happy' would work better) . The words were usually long and sounded good when sitting by themselves, outside contact with any other words. These students would add these words to otherwise normal and simple sentences. It was beyond their ability to write anything more complex. Instead of improving their skills by rigorously studying sentence structure or even accepting their weaknesses and playing to their strengths, they would cram these flowery, overly-descriptive, slightly inaccurate words into their sentences. Not surprisingly, most of these students would write about vampires. These writing students gave me a lifelong aversion to the word "crimson." In their stories, crimson liquid was always running down someone's chin, down walls, down windowpanes, splashing across the floor, flowing from fresh gashes and cuts and puncture wounds. I would write on their papers, "it's fucking red!" Stephenie Meyer is the same way they were. She is the same type of writer I took care to help out of the thesaurus-stage of writing. Either no one helped Meyer in workshops or she ignored the help. For proof, I'll copy a section from the early pages of Twilight. As I think of better words, I will put them in parentheses after the words that suck.

It was to Forks that I now exiled myself (traveled)--an action that I took with great horror (nervousness, trepidation, regret). I detested Forks.
I loved Phoenix. I loved the sun and the blistering (enveloping, dry, extreme) heat. I loved the vigorous (vibrant), sprawling (omit) city.

(Before I get to vocabulary, I wanted to point out that the first sentence is in passive voice, a high school sophomore no-no) Here are the reasons for my edits. By using the already awkward phrase "exiled myself," she adds more description to the action than needed. How she "exiled" herself is explained throughout the chapter. She doesn't need to burden the sentence with this extraneous idea. "Horror" is an awfully strong word to describe something she's gone through before, traveling to a town she knows. How will her feelings be described when she's truly terrified? Perturbed? Miffed? "Blistering" is the idiotic word choice that first drew my attention to this section. "Blistering" is an inflated description of the discomfort heat causes. It is a complaint about heat, not to be misused as a compliment. Unless Bella is a sadist, she doesn't "love" anything that is uncomfortable. She can love heat; that's fine. It has to be for positive reasons, though. Some people like saunas for their extreme heat, but they don't describe the comforting envelopment of warmth as "blistering." "Vigorous" implies a massive effort showing someone to be full of life. A city is full of life or it is not. There is no attempt. Finally, what city isn't "sprawling?" This adds nothing but flowery nonsense. Cut it.

In other sections of the book, it seems as if Meyer lost her thesaurus and had to rely only on her ingrained vocabulary. Which, apparently, doesn't exist. Check out how she describes Edward when Bella first gets a chance to examine him up close.

I couldn't help myself from peeking occasionally through the screen of my hair at the strange boy next to me. During the whole class, he never relaxed his stiff position on the edge of this chair, sitting as far from me as possible. I could see his hand on his left leg was clenched into a fist, tendons standing out under the pale skin. This too he never relaxed. He had the long sleeves of his white shirt pushed up to his elbows, and his forearm was surprisingly hard and muscular beneath his light skin. He wasn't nearly as slight as he'd looked next to his burly brother.

"Through the screen of my hair" is terrible. Hair doesn't have or resemble a screen. Why not use the most obvious choice 'veil?' Less good, but still not as bad, would be "through the woven threads of my hair." "Stiff position" makes sense and is difficult to mistake her meaning, but it's boring. I would have chosen 'imperial posture.' "Hard" is a textural description. Unless Bella reached out and stroked Edward's forearm, she would have no idea if it was hard or not. It can look hard. It can seem hard. Unless she touches it, it cannot be hard. "Hard" is a boring word choice anyway. Solid, taut, toned or sinewy would all be better. Just to put my money where my mouth is, I'll rewrite the paragraph so you may compare the two.

I couldn't help peering through my veil of hair at the strange boy next to me. During class, he never relaxed his imperial posture. He sat rigid on the edge of his chair, as far from me as possible, his left hand clenched into a fist, tendons straining under the pale skin. He had the long sleeves of his white shirt pushed up to his elbows. His forearm was surprisingly taught and muscular. He wasn't nearly as slight as he'd looked beside his burly brother.

I don't have much to say about the overall story because someone, somewhere, can make just about any story entertaining, no matter how vapid. The only problem with the story I have is that Stephenie Meyer seems to be so devoid of ideas that she can't even form a basic plot structure without stealing from famous literary works. It's kind of like rappers sampling famous seventies funk songs and overlaying them with new lyrics. It's lazy and defiling. For Twilight, Meyer raped Pride and Prejudice’s plot; for New Moon, she rips off the most overused story in all history, Romeo & Juliet; and Eclipse steals the plot from Wuthering Heights. I'm guessing the only reason people like her books is because they were originally someone else's.

One more thing. I riddled this blog entry with exceptions to rules just to show that if you know what you're doing, exceptions are acceptable. There are so many rules that if you followed every bit of writing advice about what pitfalls to avoid, you'd have a stack of blank pages. However, if you don't know what you're doing and you still try to write a novel, you will probably write like Stephenie Meyer.

P.S. Most people don't become millionaires by writing trash. She's lucky and I hope she knows it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Death Sentence?

I've struggled to reconcile my conflicting views on the death penalty. I wish for people to die. I would lie if I said otherwise. Some people are so wretched and warped that I know the world would be a better place without them. I'm speaking of serial killers and rapist/murderers not Greg, the guy who stole $90 from me in high school, or the guy who stole my stereo last year (these guys deserve to be kneecapped with a sledgehammer, not lethally injected).

I want serial killers dead. I don't just want them off the street, sucking at our tax money; I want them euthanized. I want to give Louisville Sluggers to the victims' families and let them beat murderers until their arms are too weak to inflict any more damage. They deserve it. I believe in vengeance. Those goodie two-shoes in movies that chastise a father that wants to kill his child's killer by saying, "Don't do it! You'll be no better than them!" don't know what the hell they're talking about (plus they're fake people in fake situations). Of course the father is better than the murderer. The father didn't indiscriminately murder some person he's never met for reasons he doesn't fully understand. He wants a person dead for a very specific reason: the murderer deserves it. I say, go get 'em, dad! I hope the police don't catch you.

That being said, if this father character gets caught, I may feel bad for him and relate to his situation with heartfelt empathy, but I believe he should be tried for murder. We can't let our citizens run around undermining the justice system. We can't let them take the law into their own hands. That's anarchy. This world has no place for that.

I want the justice system to handle the punishment of criminals, even if the system has serious flaws. I trust the government to a point. For a successful civilization, we have to believe in our leaders and elected representatives to do the right thing. I'm not stupid, though. Our government isn't perfect, nor impartial. It has its share of corruption and any government can be warped to fit the needs of corrupt leaders. Despotisms form. Aristocracies bloom. The masses are silenced. I doubt this will happen in my lifetime, if it ever does, but I want a few assurances against it. This is one of the reasons I'm against Capitol Punishment. I don't believe a government should have the power to extinguish the lives of its citizens. It is a power too great to be wielded against subjects.

Also, juries make mistakes. Innocent people go to jail from time to time. This could happen in a case in which the death penalty is handed down. There are no take-backs. I'm against the government killing any citizen, but to kill an innocent person is beyond my tolerance. We try to safeguard against this by allowing several appeals and governorial pardons. Still, that's no guarantee. By striking capitol punishment from the table, we do not have to worry about the government accidentally killing innocents.

I'm not sure if our taxes would go down or up because of the abolition of the death penalty. On the one hand, we would have to feed, clothe and detain those people for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, we wouldn't have so many tooth-and-nail appeal battles. This is an odd circumstance for me. Even if our taxes are raised, I'm willing to take a financial hit to save the lives of people I want dead.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Best Films of the Decade

I was looking over the hundreds of comments on Roger Ebert's blog about his picks for the best films of the decade. Most people offered their own opinions about the best films, many of which disagreed with Ebert's. I found that my top picks were mostly different, as well. I was most surprised by some of the people's...disappointment? anger? about his choice for the best film of the decade, Synecdoche, NY. I do not consider it a masterpiece, but it didn't cross my mind to attack Roger for it. This inspired a great explanation from him about the purpose of his "best films" lists. To paraphrase: they are not intended to be predictions of widespread appeal, they are movies that "got to him" personally. Those films evoked an emotional response that elevated him from the audience and into a state of quasi-euphoria. I will work from this template when constructing my list. The following movies "got to me." They reached in me and tugged on all the right cords at all the right times.

On another point, Ebert and I differ. Mr. Ebert insists that ranking movies--one better than another--is silly. Movies are vastly different from one another and it's impossible to appreciate one miraculous film over another. In a sense, I understand what he's saying, and even agree with it. I don't think enumerating the films helps readers decide what is better. On the other hand, I believe it forces me to choose which emotions, messages, ideas and philosophies displayed in films are the most important to me. If two films are equally well-made, competently constructed, enjoyable and meaningful, which one did I like better? This usually doesn't speak to the film's quality, because I couldn't tell you which film Casablanca or Godfather was better made. I decided somewhere along the line that I liked Casablanca better. The decision speaks of me, my values and my tastes. I assign the rankings for me and no one else. Well, perhaps to squabble with my friends over which films are better. I once read an article about Shakespeare that says something like: we know so little about Shakespeare that biographies about him tell more about the biographer than they do of him. Lists of movies are the same. They tell more of the author than of the movies. So if you're looking for great movies, ignore the numbers. If you want to know more about me, take the rankings into account.

20. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

19. Thirteen Days (2000)

18. Mystic River (2003)

17. Kate & Leopold (2001)

16. Syriana (2005)

15. Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)

14. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

13. Blood Diamond (2006)

12. Finding Nemo (2003)

11. Musa (2001)

10. The Departed (2006) On occasion, remakes are better than their formidable foreign inspirations. Such is the case with the Departed. Based on a series of Hong Kong flicks, the story is transported to Boston and given a gritty down to earth realism that trumps the original's stylistic melodrama. The story involves two moles. One who infiltrates the Massachusetts state police and the other who infiltrates the Irish Boston mob. The Departed has rigid Shakespearian symmetry rarely seen off the stage. The story is constantly balancing itself out with each new development.

Going in, I was pretty confident it was going to be a good movie based on the talent it drew. The cast is full of star superpower: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga (likely Oscar nominee this year for Up in the Air) and Ray Winstone (you know...Beowulf. That guy). And it's directed by king of crime movies, Martin Scorsese. It's better than I thought it would be.

09. Spider-Man 2 (2004) Because Spider-Man 2 was bookended by two barely passable action movies, this gem may be lost to movie obscurity--a flash in the pan franchise that petered out. Peter Parker is probably the most beloved comic character in history. The nice-guy geek that just wants to do the right thing and sacrifices his wants (and sometimes his needs) for the good of others. It took inspired casting to get the correct Peter Parker. Here, inspired casting strikes the perfect chord again with Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius. I always thought Doc Ock was a lame villain. Not his movie counterpart. He's brilliant and powerful, likable and menacing in the same breath.

Peter is out of high school now, broke, lovelorn, and exhausted from his nights as Spider-Man, two jobs and college. The love of his life, Mary Jane, is dating someone new. She's now famous and her face is on billboards and posters in Peter's path wherever he goes. When he drops his books, they are stepped upon. His powers are lapsing due to stress. His. Life. Sucks. But, no matter what, he has the compulsive need to do the right thing.

The first film's fight scenes were unimpressive and lacked the freedom of movement they needed. Too often, it was easy to tell that the characters were on wires. Spider-Man 2 makes the most of CGI. This time, we get fights on the sides of buildings and trains and much more webslinging--something sorely lacking in the first film. It really captures the feel of a Spider-Man comic. The world is exaggerated. It's a world where Melodrama is status quo. Buildings are taller. Action is bigger. Misery is worse. Color is brighter. Responsibility is heavier. Sacrifice cuts deeper. It's the perfect realization of Marvel Comics morals on the silver screen.

08. The Dark Knight (2009) Intense. Director Christopher Nolan doesn't half-ass anything when it comes to the most popular comic book characters in the world. This is one of those pure adrenaline pumping action movies the advertisements make every other movie out to be. This one's the real thing. It achieves what comic books no longer seem to be able to do: it creates concern for the safety of the main characters. Anymore in comics, characters can be dismembered and burned to ashes, but writers will find some way to pull the character back to life. In this Gotham City, there are no guarantees.

I'm not a fan of the original Batman movies starting with Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster. They were corny and played loose with characters. Jack Nicholson's Joker was a goofy, pathetic caricature of the one I knew from comics. By the time Jim Carrey joined the ranks of villains, the series lost all sense of suspense.

With the godsend relaunch of the Batman franchise, we are introduced to a Batman that has presence for the first time, a Bruce Wayne with the charm he needs, and villains with presence and threat. Heath Leger's Joker (instead of the stupid, floppy-hatted Jack Nicholson) is brutal, intriguing, sadistic and, most importantly, pitch-black funny. Aaron Eckhart joins the cast in this installment as the incorruptible District Attorney Harvey Dent. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordan has a bigger role to play. Michael Caine is back as Alfred, the sage advisor and moral center of both films. Rachel Dawes, Batman's one time squeeze, is no longer played by Katie Holmes--whose flat performance in Batman Begins revealed weaknesses in the script. She's replaced by the more reliable Maggie Gyllenhall. The cast is a who's who of awesome.

Dark Knight works as a crime thriller and a faithful comic book adaptation. It's not faithful in the sense that it follows a comic book script, but remains faithful to the characters. In Harvey Dent's and the Joker's case, seeing them played seriously adds new dimensions to their characters. I didn't think I wanted them changed, but all the changes were improvements. It was the decade that comic book fans have been waiting for and Dark Knight provided the perfect capstone.

07. Lost in Translation (2003) I can only get completely lost within a few movies, letting the experience take me where it wants. This is one. I've seen my share of action films from Tokyo. I've seen the occasional drama from Tokyo. Never have I loved Tokyo until I watched this movie, made by an American. As I understand it, making the viewer fall in love with Tokyo was director Sophia Coppola's secondary objective. She visited Tokyo and fell in love with it, so she wanted to share the experience. I am glad she did because Tokyo is beautiful and I'm not sure if I'll ever see it in person.

The story involves two characters trapped in their lonely minds, surrounded by people who don't understand them, verbally or philosophically. They find each other in an unfamiliar city and enjoy each other's company. It is an event for both of them. A lovely, wonderful, once in a lifetime experience and they both know it. Even though they only know each other for a few days in their long lives, it's easy to tell they form a lifelong bond and friendship.

Lost in Translation gave me the opportunity to hang out with two fantastic, funny, interesting people in a beautiful city. This is one of those rare movies that gave me the warm fuzzies.

06. Hotel Rwanda (2004) It's a movie so well made, with such a miraculous story, that it's pretty tough not to love. What makes it better than other true stories is that the film walks us through each step of the event so we understand what is happening and how. Other films are more exploitative, relying on the emotion that genocide evokes, showing brutal images, knowing we will react with compassion. The film brings light to: the impotence of UN soldiers, Rwandan background, American News presence, Red Cross involvement and how all those threads weave into Paul Rusesabagina's life and actions. Not often do I find "inspirational true stories" great , but this one had a story worth more respect than ten sports films combined.

05. No Country for Old Men (2007) The Coen brothers usually add comedy or phantasm to otherwise cold and unforgiving worlds. They don't bother this time. It's all unforgiving. The only funny moments are when characters deliver lines that sound surreal in our comfy environments.

The movie ratchets up intensity by placing characters in situations where they must race against time in a series of events no longer than a few seconds each. The characters have such short term goals, a scene's payoff may just be a character living from one end of a hallway to the other. Then, without warning, the movie stands still. No music, not much sound to speak of. Maybe the wind or the rustle of cloth. The characters wait and so do we. The camera subtly inches forward to reveal the importance of a moment. Of course, the waiting wouldn't be intense without the lurking presence of Javier Bardem's  villain, Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh is not a man. He is a force of nature, unstoppable, undiscerning, always moving, circling in on his prey. The capable protagonists recognise him as an incredible force. The difference in how they approach him reveals the movie's purpose. It is an altogether different movie experience from anything in recent memory.

I loved how the movie didn't add any bright red to the blood and didn't add heart-pounding music or a contemporary soundtrack. I loved that characters figure things out without being told what's going on. It's not the most satisfying movie, but it is so expertly made, intriguing and unpredictable that I had one of the most enthralling experiences of my life at the movies.

04. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) Some movies just aim to be fun. They have no other purpose than to entertain. On occasion, these types of movies achieve near-perfection, such as The Princess Bride and Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. The crime genre has some worthy submissions: Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrells, Zero Effect, and Kill Bill: Vol 1. None have come close to the non-stop riotous fun in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Most of the credit must go to the performers Robert Downy, Jr., Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan. They form believable characters I cared about in a zany crime-ridden cinematic world. Don't let me mislead you; the creators are in top form. Screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boyscout, The Long Kiss Goodnight), who usually keeps his tongue firmly in cheek, takes his first stab at directing. The film combines aspects from hard-boiled fifties detective movies, modern Charlie Kauffman-esque narration, out-and-out comedy, and pop-culture references. A few moments in the film were completely unexpected. It deviated from so many norms that I found myself not even trying to figure out the next twist. It's a rarity to catch me off-guard. It's even rarer to get me to stop guessing.

03. Memento (2000) Before The Prestige and the Batman movies, Christopher Nolan took a story I believed impossible to film and made it a masterpiece. It's about a man who lost his short term memory who is trying to solve his wife's murder. Someone who loses his short term memory can only remember what's going on for a few minutes at a time. Things that are happening around them are never committed to permanent memory. They just dissolve in the past. When first hearing about Memento, I couldn't figure out how the audience wouldn't become aggravated with a character who didn't know what was happening. I thought I would dislike him and get sick of repetitive behavior. I was surprised when the story unfolded in a way in which we didn't know any more than the hero, Leonard (Guy Pearce). Equally surprising, I quite liked Leonard. His way of dealing with his "condition" is at times painful and other times funny--Memento makes great use of comedic reprieves.

Memento introduced a new way of telling a story that was appropriate to the material. Most films follow a template so ingrained into our psyche that we can scarcely see a way to avoid it. We have great stories told within the confines of formulas and pre-conceived structure, but it is refreshing to view things in a different way.

02. Solaris (2002) The original Solyaris (1972) focused on ideas and philosophy within its epic running time. This Solaris carries the same themes and story, but could be considered the original's poetic equivalent. Solaris (2002) focuses on mood, emotion, and acting rather than dialogue and meditation. Director Steven Soderbergh doesn't pause long enough to let ideas sink in like Tarkovsky did in the orginal. Soderbergh relentlessly moves the story along, forcing us to let the movie wash over us instead of interpreting scenes' meanings. To fight the mood is to destroy the experience. Several viewings are recommended.

Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney in his best performance) is transported to a space station that orbits the mysterious planet Solaris to investigate the odd behavior of the crew. Once there, he finds his long dead wife has been resurrected (Natasha McElhone). Events leading up to Kelvin's space Odyssey are shown in masterful flashbacks with sparse dialogue. They convey emotion better than any exchange of words. We see Kelvin's deceased wife in most of them. It's interesting to compare Kelvin's real wife in the flashbacks with the doppelganger on the space station. There are several differences. Kelvin accepts some differences and rejects others, ultimately choosing to view the resurrection of his wife as a gift.

Even though it doesn't delve deeply into philosophy, the movie is inundated with questions about existence, creation, God and life. Repeat viewings prompted me to question things I accepted as truth. Solaris is more (or less) than a series of poorly explored ideas. It's a story about two characters, in love, who are given a supernatural second chance. This is my favorite love story of the decade, full of heartache, failure and redemption.

01. Closer (2004) Consider this the ultimate anti-romantic comedy. None of the whimsical feel-good BS that accompanies comedic love triangles will be found here. You will see the visceral human instinct that makes us petty, vengeful, deceitful, desperate and manipulative. While showing us all those things, the film manages not to undermine Love. Some of the characters truly feel for each other. The film does not dwell on the shiny, happy side of love. It shows us what love, most often represented as a pure and virtuous emotion, can turn us into.

The film centers on four 30-40 something individuals and the romances of their lives that briefly entangle. All four main characters are basically normal. They're liars or cheaters absorbed so deeply by their own importance they don't notice the feelings and needs of others. The film displays but doesn't doesn't explore the psychological effects sex and cheating have on people. Instead, it shows how sex and cheating, mixed with the right words and timing, can be wielded as powerful weapons.

Two out of the four lead performances were nominated for Oscars--Clive Owen and Natalie Portman, both deserved. And even though Jude Law wasn't nominated, he should have been. The audience identifies with Clive Owen's and Natalie Portman's characters as the "wronged" individuals (though, no one in this film is pure), but we all probably have more in common with Jude Law's character than we'd like to admit. He's a wimp. He's wishy-washy. He's a cheat. He's a jerk with calculated manners. He does not notice his flaws. In every situation, he believes himself wronged. It's a realistic portrayal of common self-deception.

This film, more than any other from the 2000s, resonated with me. I know these people. I was these people. This movie is more intense than any crime thriller or horror movie. The things in this movie can and have happen to me. And it's scary.

Honorable Mentions: All of these films barely missed being in the top 20. That may sound strange, but it's true. The above movies were very difficult to sift out of these. Everyone owes it to themselves to watch these too. Avatar, Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker, Wall-E, Frost/Nixon, Eastern Promises, There Will Be Blood, Juno, The Queen, The Fountain, Flags of Our Fathers, Letter from Iwo Jima, Pan's Labyrinth, Children of Men, Casino Royale, Tsotsi, Good Night and Good Luck, The Bourne Supremacy, Shaun of the Dead, The Incredibles, Spartan, Millions, Master & Commander, Secondhand Lions, City of God, Ripley's Game, Hero, The Pianist, Minority Report, About a Boy, 25th Hour, Shrek, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring, The Way of the Gun, Requiem for a Dream, Amores Perros, Almost Famous, Traffic.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Gender Neutrality in English

If you're not an English nerd, you may not have noticed that English does not have a gender neutral third person singular. In other words, we have "he" and "she," but no hermaphroditic third option. This makes it difficult to explain hypothetical situations. For instance: When the owner of this car gets here, I'm going to give him or her a piece of my mind. See what I mean?

Since the beginning of the English Language, the rule was thus: If you don't know, use the masculine (he). Feminists weren't fans of automatically deferring to the masculine for reasons I will let you figure out. Some people (mostly men) wondered why the womenists got their plain comfortable white panties in a twist over this and decided it was easier to say he. This usage was eventually labeled sexist by women and marketers.

The politically correct pundits fired back with their gender-neutral usage: they or them. When the owner of this car gets here, I'm going to give them a piece of my mind. Well there's only one owner so some of you might be yelling at the top of your English nerd lungs, "Hey! That's plural, not singular!" Right you are, grammar Nazi. They is an incorrect substitution for he or she. Somewhere along the line, grammar watchdogs tried to rid the world of the incorrect use of they by using the clunky and awkward he/she, (s)he, or the more common word-count-inflating he or she. This seemed to solve the logistic problems but destroyed any sense of flow or poetry.

This would not do. Some sensitive soul wearing a beret and sporting a goatee couldn't have his words polluted by slashes and parentheses. And that extra 'or' really screws up his rhythm. He decided to use one. As in, One walked to the store. This chin-haired hipcat almost solved the problem, but didn't notice how confusing it could become. For example: If one were to walk over to the store and speak to the gender-neutral clerk, one would find that one dollar was not enough for more than one soda. There are much worse sentences out there, but you get the idea.

Enter me. Because I am a ridiculous English Nerd, Grammar Nazi, a Feminist, and an occasional creative writer complete with goatee, I believe that I, in my comprehensive awesomeness, should designate the ultimate third person singular. We should use 'e. Example: The anonymous complainer wrote that 'e will soon file charges. It may look like I'm writing he with a Cockney dialect, but I can overlook it if you can. By using an apostrophe-e, we follow all proper rules of English while remaining gender neutral. The apostrophe replaces the "sh" or the "h" from she and he, or both. It doesn't have the jarring effect that slashes or parentheses within a word have on a reader. It's not grammatically incorrect or stupid like using "they." (For the record, if you use 'they' for third person singular, follow this link).

Some of you may be asking yourselves, what about the third person singular possessive? Well, actually, you're probably not (for non-English nerds, I'm talking about him and her). Why don't we just do what we always do with possessives? Put an apostrophe-s at the end. 'e's. Granted, it's not as pretty, but it's better than what we have, which is nothing.

Another problem, another problem solved. Go me.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


I've long been impassioned about politics, law, and belief. It's normal, I suppose. I have read countless blogs and seen countless videos from people talking about what they believe is right, just, correct, virtuous, and of course, what is wrong with the world. Some people are confident enough to offer up their versions of solutions. Most of these people speak or write with certainty--a notion I have always found somewhat disconcerting. I believe people model themselves after leaders, and leaders can't let their subordinates see uncertainty. Leaders, and bloggers, and "news commentators" such as Bill O'Reilly must speak with such force to allay any doubt that what they are saying isn't pure, incorruptible righteous truth, even though their ideas could be untried and counter-intuitive. Most of the time, political ideas are based on logic and idealism, neither of which infallibly produce solutions to problems.

One of my favorite issues being tugged about by multi-sided logical arguments is gun control. Proponents of gun control state with all certainty that less guns means less shootings. It is a logical argument, but one with no evidence to support the claim. Opponents of gun control say that taking away guns will make it so that law abiding citizens can no longer defend themselves against the criminals who will still acquire guns. In reality, no one knows what would happen if the government took away the right to own weaponry. I suspect it would result in vast American terrorism against the government, but I don't say that with any certainty.

I prefer suggestions and ideas over certainty and ideals. I have an ideal world in my mind, as I'm sure many others do, but I will never live in it because my ideal world differs from everyone else's, just as everyone else's differs from one another. People should probably not demand their version of justice, because it may not work or it may disagree with everyone else's version.

I suggest that everyone question their certainty a bit and be tolerant and patient with others' ideas. If they have no supporting evidence, we don't have to accept them.