Monday, 24 June 2013

He is Legend

Richard Matheson died today. I've only read one of his books but it was phenomenal. I read I Am Legend after seeing the Will Smith film of the same name, I remember enjoying the film but being blown away by the book. The film was a serviceable post-trauma zombie movie, the book is a classic piece of horror literature. Dark, claustrophobic and intelligent I am Legend has maybe the most interesting takes on the vampire story I've ever encountered. It's a short, powerful book with no words wasted and something very interesting to say.

At the start of I am Legend Robert Neville is the last surviving human in a world of vampires. He spends his days hunting them and his nights locked up in his house hoping the creatures outside don't find their way in. At first the book does a fantastic job of portraying Neville as a practical, capable man struggling to maintain his sanity in the face of complete loneliness. However, as the story progresses it heads into darker and darker territory towards an ending that's as bleak as it is perfect. I struggle to thing of a work of fiction with an ending as effective as I am Legend's. The storytelling is tight, focused and fearless. Neville remains an interesting and sympathetic character despite the impossible situations he finds himself in, I found myself desperately rooting for him despite the hopelessness of his situation.

I am Legend is rightfully considered to be a classic of Science Fiction Horror and has gone on to massively influence the genre. The zombie story is particularly indebted to Matheson, his story serving as a sort of pre-cursor to the genre in a way similar to George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Despite the sometimes off-putting genre pedigree I would recommend I am Legend to anyone in a way that I wouldn't with other influential writers. Don't bother with any of the adaptations just read the book. I'm going to check out some of his other works.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Eagle Problems

Have you heard of the Lord of the Rings?  It's pretty obscure, fifty thousand pages of rambling and made up languages.  Of course you've heard of the Lord of the Rings!  Everyone and their mum's heard of the Lord of the Rings.  Everybody who has ever lived has seen the extended editions of the films read the books and had a crack at the Silmarillion for a couple of pages before giving up with a headache and going to read literally anything else.  Okay I'm exaggerating, I'm sure they are some tiny children in outer Mongolia who have never seen the Lord of the Rings but the fact remains that it's one of the cultural touch stones of Epic Fantasy.  I have spent (some might say wasted) hours of my life discussing the Lord of the Rings with friends, acquaintances and colleagues and you know what always comes up, especially when we're talking about the movies, those fucking eagles.
Not these guys
You know the ones, the giant birds of prey that turn up to rescue Gandalf from Orthanc and the Hobbits from Mount Doom.  The massive feathery killing machines that emerge from the sky when the plot demands it before vanishing without a trace.  Everyone's always going on about the eagles, "Why didn't they just ride the eagles to Mordor in the first place?" asks 6 of the first 10 results returned when you Google eagles lord of the rings in as shrill and whinny voice.  Thousands of pieces of lazy nerd humour and joyless pedantry have addressed the issue and I want a piece of that action.

I didn't have a problem with the eagles in Lord of the Rings, eagles are cool, giant eagles are cooler and I was mostly just excited to see them on screen.  Huge winged predators turning up to rescue friendly wizards and fight not-quite-dragons are exactly what you want to see in a movie when you're a teenage nerd (or an adult nerd).  Even after realising the plot hole they presented I didn't care a great deal.  The rescue of Gandalf served to establish the wizard as a powerful character with all sorts of unexpected allies and after forty thousand hours of needing a wee and watching the Return of the King I was delighted not to dwell on Sam and Frodo's escape from Mount Doom (although it was a shame to miss out on the Scouring of the Shire).  LOTR's plot isn't watertight, but none of the holes are big enough to sink it.  The problems I have with the eagles are in the Hobbit.

The eagles' appearances in LOTR both serve valuable plot functions and, aside from the "why didn't they use them in the first place?" plot hole, don't raise a great deal of questions.  They're a powerful magical race, they're goodies, here's how they help, done and dusted.  The problem arises with how they're used in the Hobbit.  In that movie Gandalf summons the Eagles again and they save the heroes, again, before dropping them off on a rock and disappearing again, the dwarves stand on the rock without saying a word before watching a bird fly to the lonely mountain.  This is the moment where the eagles become problematic.  

Why do none of the dwarves discuss the eagles?  Why doesn't Fili of Kili or whoever ask them to take them the rest of the way?  These aren't just plot problems like in the use of the eagles in LOTR, these are character problems.  The fact that the dwarves silently watch the eagles go before discussing how much further they have to travel breaks investment in the characters.  The dwarves are ignoring this incredible thing that's just happened to them to avoid raising a plot hole, so they feel like actors rather than genuine characters and the audience finds it hard to care.

This is all so frustrating because the same events happen in the books and it never feels like a problem.  The difference comes because in the books the eagles talk, they have names and dialogue.  They are characters rather than plot devices.  Tolkien presents Gwahir and pals as a group of individuals and as such it becomes easier to accept their actions.  They presumably have their own thought and interests so it's less difficult to accept that they don't save the day every time Gandalf needs them to.  By using the eagles repeatedly  without developing their character the films reduce the Eagles to a feathery Deus Ex Machina and gives the viewer no reason not to ask "Why didn't they just ride the eagles to Mordor in the first place?" in as shrill and whinny voice.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Watership Down

I had an adventure.  A body like this doesn't just happen, it takes the perfect combination of shameless neglect and a few coincidentally healthy hobbies.  One of these is walking home from work.  I walk about 3-4 miles a day from the office to my house along the canal bank.  I really enjoy walking home from work; it gives me time to think, to listen to podcasts and see the wildlife.  The canal's been good for wildlife recently, the hot weather's brought out hundreds of fish, ducklings and herons.  Tonight I walked through a massive hatch of what I think were mayfly, thousands of tiny insects that chased each other and fucked in the air.  It was a little weird to be surrounded by so much sex, like being in the first year of university again.  Today there was a rabbit.
It was swimming down the middle of the canal, bobbing its head above the water, all least it was at first.  As I drew closer I saw that the thing was struggling, each time its head slipped under the water it took longer and longer to return to the surface until I saw it start to sink through the cloudy brown murk  Before I really knew what I was doing I was kicking off my shoes, and preparing to rescue the thing.
I unbuttoned my trousers and jumped into the water not realising my smart office wear was still entangled with my ankles and my phone was in the pocket.  I barley noticed, the rabbit had been underwater for an long time now, I thrashed around under the surface, trying to find it but it was no use, the rabbit was gone, lost in the brown murk.
That was when I noticed my trousers floating behind me.  I hurriedly threw them out out the canal, mercifully everything I'd had in my pockets had stayed that way.  That was when the old woman walked past.  I was standing in the canal not knowing what to do next and she quite reasonably asked what I was doing.  I mumbled something about trying to save a rabbit.  She scolded me for not looking after myself and carried on walking, not realising that I have my silver cross open water life saving badge and as such I was obviously in no, danger the well meaning fool.
Finally I got out of the canal.  I stood on the towpath in my waterlogged socks, boxers and shirt holding a soaked through pair of black work trousers.  It was a 2.5 mile walk home.  Fortunately today was maybe the nicest day of the year so I dried off pretty quickly and temperature wasn't an issue.  Embarrassment was.  I hobbled my way home past a bemused collection of joggers, cyclists and narrow boat captains looking like Walter White at the start of Breaking Bad. 
So I showered, put my clothes in the wash and slathered myself in antiseptic.  My phone's in a bowl of rice on the windowsill, hopefully the rice will soak up any of the filthy water that got into the machine and I can turn it on successfully in the next few days.  I can't find my glasses so I'm using a spare pair.
I told my dad about all this and he said I was an idiot.  He's more practical than I am, he was raised on a farm and has a much more straight forward attitude to the food animals.  Not that I'm a great animal rights campaigner; I eat meat unapologetically and like to think that I would kill my own food should the need arise, though I never have. 
I am a massive hypocrite, I tried to save the rabbit today when the weather was brilliant and I wasn't in a hurry.  I'd probably have left the bunny if trying to rescue it would have required more effort.  I feel genuinely upset that I failed the rabbit but I know I'll eat cheap meat again without any guilt.  I guess I feel bad for the rabbit because its death seemed so pointless, I can't overlook it's unpleasant final moments for some tasty sausages.  I was being an idiot, I lost a pair of glasses and I've probably written off my phone for a rabbit I didn't save, but at the time, I didn't think about that, all I thought was that I didn't want to watch a rabbit die, and I'm proud of that.