Ready Player One

If I could only keep one, I'd take the novel. But I'm a book guy at heart.  I wouldn't begrudge someone taking the movie to their own desert island.

We watched it a few months ago.  Liked it quite a bit.  Weeks later, Lynn read it.  Very good, she told me.  But "it's very different from the movie."  So I read it and had great fun.  (My favorite throwaway line was the bit about the "geezers" Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton, still getting re-elected to keep fighting the good fight).  It had been long enough since I'd seen the movie that the details had faded, so I wasn't making comparisons.  I took the book on its own terms.

It's an Easter basket of unexpected toys and games, a Hallowe'en sack of delights, all familiar but popping up new.  It's been years since I spent a lot of time playing video games, but I could almost feel my fingers flexing as I turned the pages.  I wanted to go back and play every one of those old games, watch every one of those eighties movies.

I finished it midweek and we watched the movie again just a couple of days later.  The specifics of the book's version were still sharp.  I thought the changes the moviemakers made were absolutely fine.  I didn't miss anything that was taken out.  The movie's so engaging and well paced, there wasn't time for that.  I liked the fact that the challenges were different.  Not that I liked them better than the ones in the book, just that it was fun to have more of them.  Of course they were much more visual.  The big dance scene was more vivid on film than the swirly version I'd cooked up on my own.  The book's a little darker, the movie a little sweeter.  The movie compresses the love story, but that was okay.  They only had so much time to play with.

There's something fundamentally askew in trying to judge whether any book or movie is the better version.  They're such different ways of telling stories.  Least likely to be effective is a film that hews too closely to the arc and incidents of the novel, or a novelization that does little more than recount the settings and episodes of the movie.  If comparisons must be made, it should be to compare the book to other books and the film to other films.  How effective are they at using the tools of their craft to transport the reader or the viewer?  To give them an effective experience.

The ingredients of the Ready Player One book and movie are different, but the dish is recognizably the same.  I'll grate pecorino-romano instead of parmagiano-reggiano to sprinkle on tonight's bolognese.  Last time I used bucatini pasta instead of tonight's pappardelle.  I'll bring up a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino instead of an Amarone.  And don't get me started on the meats in the sauce, which vary every time I make it.  There are good reasons for all of those variations but they all result in the same dish.  Sure, you might prefer one variation over another.  But it's silly to say that one is "better" than the other if you're suggesting anything more than personal taste.

When Josie was small, e-books and e-readers were climbing their first big wave and there were endless arguments over which was "better" and how soon e-books were going to eliminate print.  In those days, she was a big fan of The Monster at the End of This Book, in both its print and iPad versions.  Somedays she'd go for one, some days the other.  Different experiences.  She'd've been horrified if I'd told her she could only pick one.

Those debates have settled down now, although they haven't quite disappeared.  And while I may happily substitute grana padano for the pecorino in Josie's beloved cacio e pepe if that's what I've got on hand, I have to be careful who to tell that to if I want to avoid a lecture on the only right way.  (And alright, yes, I'm the guy who declares there's no such thing as a "vodka martini" -- there are just vodka drinks served in a martini glass!  But I'm joking. The grievance vein in my temple isn't pulsing.)

Where does that come from?  That seemingly irresistible impulse that so many have to declare that their preference isn't just preference, it's the only correct thing.  Is it people being so insecure about their own taste that they need to declare that all other versions of taste are inferior?  Or is shouting about it just one more way the internet helps people be thoughtless?

If I were only allowed one version of Ready Player One, I'd pick the book.  But that's me.  I wonder which version of The Monster at the End of This Book Josie would've picked if she'd had to.  So lucky to live in a world in which she doesn't.  She'd've bawled.


Sidewalks and Stories

Story is hard.  Lynn and I end up having a version of this conversation every year at the Sidewalk Film Festival.  So often, if the movies fail to satisfy, whether they be narrative features or documentaries, it's because the story doesn't cohere.  If the story is compelling, we can overlook other flaws.  But if the story isn't sharp, no amount of cinematic excellence can make up for it. This year's films made that point multiple times in multiple ways.  

The challenge for the documentarian is different from that of the filmmaker trying to compose a fiction (whatever the source material might be).  Michelangelo believed that the statue was in the stone and his job was to discover it -- "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."  Real lives are messy and complicated and there are many stories between birth and death, most of which don't have clear beginnings, middles and ends.  The documentarian has to figure out which story is most amenable to being told and then be ruthless in the carving in order to free that story in a way that's satisfying to the audience.  These stories will only ever be partial truths.

Sometimes the story that the director thinks they're going to tell turns out to be very different from the one that emerges during filming.  Real life events aren't beholden to whatever script the director has in mind.  Some of the best documentaries we've seen have been the result of those shifts and a filmmaker canny enough to follow the story they didn't realize was going to be there.  (This was the case with Gip, which won Sidewalk's audience choice for documentary in 2016).  Sometimes the story that the director pursues turns out to be even richer than he or she might have imagined. 

Near the beginning of White Tide: The Legend of Culebra one of the participants explains the difference between a northern and a southern fairy tale.  "The northern fairy tale starts out, Once upon a time..., the Southern fairy tale begins, You're not going to believe this shit!"  The story told in this very Southern tale is mostly true.  But since the director, Theo Love, came on the scene after all of the events had concluded, he didn't have much as-it-unfolds film to work with.  He solves the problem by recreating the crucial scenes using the real life protagonist, Rodney Hyden, and a crew of accomplished actors.  Hyden is a very effective collaborator, willing to show himself at his most foolish.  Love radically pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking to tell a story that's true and satisfyingly unbelievable.  Rodney Hyden may not be an angel, but he emerges at the end with at least a bit of a wobbly halo.

There are no angels in the fictional Hot Summer Nights.  There are some good performances, a love of movies, a technically accomplished crew, but in the end, no story worth telling.  Elijah Bynum mines a few decades worth of teen coming of age movies and noir films about drug deals gone bad to string together a series of clichés that form something much less than their sources.  Lynn was ready to leave two-thirds of the way through, but by then I was in trainwreck fascination mode -- I needed to see how Bynum was going to get out of the mess he'd made.  Not well, as it unsurprisingly turns out.  One of the three main characters is killed, the other two hit the road, never to be seen or heard from again, but living on in the trite myths of the useless narrator.  We've seen this kind of thing at Sidewalk many times before -- movies that bring together a lot of talent, that are visually rich, have good acting, are put together by people who've immersed themselves in the lore of cinema, but are lacking the key element. 

The creator of Union on the other hand, has way too much story to deal with and, despite years of trying, hasn't yet managed to create a satisfying movie out of it.  Spurred by the legend of Joan of Arc, Whitney Hamilton discovered that over 400 women, disguised as men, fought on either side of the Civil War.  She wrote a play, then a novel, and then a series of films, the latest of which is Union, all trying to tell their story through the tale of one such woman -- how she came to make those choices and how it affected her and the people who connect with her life.  It's a marvelous concept and there's much that's marvelous in the movie.  But we were baffled by it.  All through the first quarter I was uncertain if I was just missing connections among the characters, or if those connections weren't being made clear.  To my relief, when we talked about it afterwards, Lynn said she'd experienced the same thing.  The next day, in line for another film, we talked to some people who'd also been at Union and, not only had they felt the same way, they said that was the main topic of conversation on the shuttle bus they'd been on afterwards.  It wasn't just us.

Lynn did some investigating and discovered the multiplicity of works Hamilton has created so far.  After we got home, we watched an earlier film, My Brother's War, hoping that it would provide some answers, some continuity.  It did some, but there are still huge gaps.  Where did the young boy, Harrison, come from, for example?  Perhaps it's all clear in Hamilton's mind, since she's been living with these characters for so long, but she hasn't made it clear to her audience.  It's the danger of being writer, producer, director, editor and star.  There's nobody to push back in the service of the material.  It might help her to enlist the aid of one of those ruthless sharp-eyed documentarians.

"Story" doesn't have to imply linear chronological plot.  I loved Cloud Atlas (book and movie), thought Arrival and Shutter Island were brilliant.  I like stories that are complex and twisty and multi-layered and surprising.  Take Damselwhich also played at Sidewalk this year.  I loved it when I saw it and in retrospect I find myself loving it even more.  Call it a fable.  The opening shot, of two men sitting in what looks like a 19th century version of a bus shelter in the middle of a Monument Valley-esque wilderness waiting for a stagecoach, establishes firmly that this will not be a conventional narrative.  Don't waste time wondering how they got there or how long they've been waiting.  If you do, you're missing the point.

By the time Penelope and Butterscotch (the miniature horse) disappear in their rowboat into the fog of the mysterious sea, a wonderful story has been told, of a damsel whose only distress is caused by the men who are trying to rescue her or, in the end, be rescued by her.  It's puzzling and quirky and a little confusing and completely satisfying.

I think of Lynn and I as naive movie-goers.  We're not cinema buffs by any means.  But we're old, so just by default we've seen a lot of movies.  The ones we come back to, the ones we hope to find every year at Sidewalk, have great acting and cinematography and editing and music and all those things, but mostly they have great stories.  Well told tales with beginnings and middles and ends -- not necessarily in that order.




Sidewalk Films: Tell Me What's Real

For two people whose first marriages imploded rather messily, hitting the fifteen year mark felt like a real milestone.  It made us happy.

We generally celebrate our anniversary at least twice -- once at the Welcome Reception of the annual MCMLA conference, whenever that happens to be, and once on the actual date.  (In the fifteen years since we got married at that reception, I don't recall that the two dates have ever exactly coincided.)  Given our typical fall travel schedule, as often as not we'll be out of town on the calendar date.  But Lynn always has our wedding champagne flutes in their travel case and we always have a fine time.

This year, the calendar angels were working in our favor.    We were in town, and the annual Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival was scheduled for the same weekend.  One other year we managed to get down for a day of the festival, but this was the first time we'd be able to go to the whole thing.  So I booked us into the Tutwiler Hotel and we made a celebration of it.

The venues for the films are all within easy walking distance of each other, so with a little ingenuity and careful scheduling, you can get to quite a few.  And we did.  We only saw one that we thought was pretty awful -- I won't mention it by name (bless it's heart).   We saw a couple that were stunning -- Marwencol was clearly a highpoint for me.  Lynn saw Mars without me and told me that I'd love it.  We were both touched and delighted by The Happy Poet.  There were others that were quite fine.

But for pure fun and silliness, the favorite was Americatown.  It's fast, it's funny, it's shot on location all across the country, and it's got just enough of a touch of seriousness to leaven all of that silliness.   It was joy to watch.

As someone who actually knows very little about film, one of my favorite things about the festival is that there is almost always someone associated with the film attending, and they'll do a bit of Q&A with the audience after the screening.  I learned quite a bit from those.  My very favorite Q&A moment, though, came after Americatown.   Cory Howard, who plays Roosevelt Microsoft, took a question from a very young movie fan.  The exchange went like this:


Very young kid (6?7?):  All those places that you went – was that all real or was it fake?

CH: Yeah, it was all real, man.  Yeah, we went to all of those places…

VYK:  But that… when you fell through that trap door in the sand….?

CH: (looks stricken)  Oh, man!    You’re so young….  I hate to do this…  (covers eyes briefly with forearm)  But that…  Well – look – you’re going to see a lot of movies from here on out, and I’ve got to be honest…  It’s ALL fake.  But there’s lots of real stuff out there, too!  You gotta get into that – there’s the trees & hills…  and, um, there’s Santa Claus…  and there’s, oh yeah, there’s insects, man!  Get into insects, they are so amazing!

VYK: (inaudible)

CH:  What’s that?  (puts hand to ear)

VYK:  There’s SpongeBob!

CH:  Yeah!  There’s SpongeBob!  He’s real.  He’s hard to find, down there on the bottom of the ocean, though.  But yeah….


Reality is where you find it.  We found quite a bit of it in downtown Birmingham that weekend.


How Do I Get Myself Into Things Like This?

I've been one of the faculty advisors to the UAB Lecture Series Committee for seven or eight years and I have never seen as excited a  response from the students on the committee to any suggestion for a speaker as we got when someone mentioned that Jon Heder and Aaron Ruell might be available.  I was the only one of the advisors who had actually seen the film or had any idea how much of an underground hit it had become.  I spoke in favor of it, and between that and the obvious excitement of the students, we were able to make it happen.  I presume this is why Lura (staff person for the committee)  asked me to be the MC for the event.

I picked up the DVD on Friday, and we watched it again last night.  I enjoyed it more than I did the first time, because I knew what I was getting into.   The first time, the emotional resonance brought back enough of what I so often felt in my early high school days as to make watching some of the scenes positively painful.  I assume that's why it's become so successful with people for whom those years are not far in the past -- or not in the past at all.  In my own case, there are many days and many circumstances when I feel that they're not in the past at all.   This one, for example.

We're expecting somewhere between three and five thousand people to the arena tomorrow night.  Heder & Ruell will talk for ten or fifteen minutes and the rest of it will be question & answer, and my job will be to introduce them and then to keep the flow going for the next hour or so.  I'm petrified.   Just before we start, I will be feeling exactly like Pedro did before he went out to give his speech.  The difference between Pedro and me is that I know that as soon as I start, the nerves will vanish and I'll do just fine.  There's a lot to be said for getting older.