Monthly Archives: September 2013

The AFI Top 100 Films: The Grapes of Wrath (#21)

Entertainment 150The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and John Carradine
Written by Nunnally Johnson (screenplay) and John Steinbeck (novel)
Directed by John Ford

One of the things that’s slowly and steadily been removed from our cultural identity is a sense of place. The world has gotten smaller and borders have become a bit more mutable. Families move from place to place because of work or circumstances, and with the housing market the way it is it’s impossible to imagine one family owning a home that’s passed down from generation to generation. It’s strange to think that this is a relatively recent development, that losing one’s home was a much bigger deal “only” 80 years ago.

The Grapes of Wrath follows a farming family as they’re removed from their land by the bank and sent packing to California, where they hope a land of new opportunity awaits them. We identify with Tom Joad (Fonda), the eldest son, as he goes back home after a stint in prison. He’s just in time to see the last gasp of his farming community — the Dust Bowl has ruined the land and made it impossible for anyone to grow enough food to sell. They can’t make enough money to keep the land, so the bank has been steadily taking homesteads for their own ends.

Tom meets up with his family just as they’re packing up an ancient, creaking car to make the long trip out west. The trip is hard; Tom’s grandfather dies and they are forced to bury him near a river. His grandmother soon succumbs to the rigors of the journey as well. Once they arrive in California, they’re bounced from camp to camp trying to find work and finding conditions much less favorable than they’ve been lead to believe. Those with power and resources take advantage of those without, trying to squeeze as much labor as they can for as little pay as possible. Yet despite all of this, the Joads end up in a camp that’s not so bad (provided by the government) and Ma Joad (Darwell) ends the film with a pragmatic, optimistic monologue about the survival of the clan. Considering all they’ve been through, how much they’ve lost, it’s genuinely affecting. Her hope is hard-won.

There are so many memorable sequences here; the family trying to defend their homestead against a neighbor’s kid on a Caterpillar, forced to raze the houses in his community to make a living; the crazed homesteader who chose his land over his family, and slowly succumbed to mad loneliness on his own; Ma Joad feeding as many children as she could in the first migrant camp they come to. What unfolds is a story of a family that is poor but proud, and won’t be treated like dirt by those in power. They move through their worsening predicament with as much dignity as they can muster, and they bear their misfortunes with a quiet, contemplative grief.

At the same time, they’re willing to fight back against obvious injustice. They speak up when something’s not fair, and they help other people where they can. The Joad family serves as something of a model set of citizens — wherever they go, they create community just by being decent, open people. It’s impressive that the rigors of the road and the cruelty of some people they meet don’t harden them. Ma Joad becomes especially fearful, but she doesn’t let it skew her moral compass.

It’s no surprise John Ford won an Oscar for his direction, or that Jane Darwell received the Best Supporting Actress award for her role. Ford really knows how to bring out the best traits of a character — his handling of Stagecoach was similarly impressive, but several steps higher here. Darwell exemplifies his approach; she’s stoic, vulnerable, hardy and soft-hearted all at the same time. A scene where she sits in the empty house she’s lived in for so long, burning the keepsakes she can’t take with her, is mostly silent but breath-takingly effective.

The story takes these mythic themes and brings them down to an earthly, even vulgar level in a way that I simply love. The Joad clan, for all their dirtiness and lean hunger, represent some of the highest ideals of civilization. In a world that seems to be crumbling all around them, growing harsher by the minute, they’re firm enough to demand better treatment and kind enough to give it to the people they meet. What’s best is that they don’t make any fuss about it; the charity they give and receive is given automatically, in quiet moments where “thank you” and “you’re welcome” are silently spoken in the looks they give one another. One can only hope that you can manage such quiet, simple grace in similar circumstances.

I can’t compare this film to the novel it’s based on, but I hear they’re quite different especially in the back half. Thanks to the movie, the novel has earned a place on my to-be-read pile; I’ll have to see just how different it is. If you’re a fan of Steinbeck (who isn’t?), then this is a great thing to see. Even without reading this particular book, I can say it retains his sense of humanity and the things that make us great.

Rating: 9/10.

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Posted by on September 11, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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Pathfinding Problems

Gaming 150I’m in the relatively early stages of Book 2 of my Pathfinder campaign. So far, the group has uncovered the existence of a war between shadow cults that have been slowly but steadily engulfing the civilized world. After beating back the cult that plans to do the most damage and forming an uneasy alliance with the other one, they’ve been travelling around the kingdom of Elsinore surveying the damage done to other towns and warning those in power about the fight that’s been brought to their doorstep.

The first “book” of the game was a success, I thought. There were a number of great character moments, some truly memorable sessions and the characters ended up quite empowered by their experiences. The second book started off with an intriguing hook that took advantage of one of my player’s shaky schedule — we swapped out his previous character with one that opened up a different aspect of the game and made it easy for the player to miss a game or two if he had to. Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary; and it turns out that the new character has introduced a few interesting wrinkles in the party dynamics.

But the past few games have been misses, which have thrown me into a crisis of confidence. New mysteries aren’t clicking well, encounters expose flaws in my game master abilities and my understanding of the system, and the momentum of the story has suffered because of that. What was meant to be a highlight of the game so far has turned out to be kind of a mire. I’ve written myself into quicksand and I’m struggling to write my way out of it.

Not that I would compare my writing to that of the Lost staff, but I imagine they must have felt like they were in the same situation when people started to complain about the dip in quality between seasons 1 and 2. You can’t keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing, but at the same time the expansion of the mythology isn’t as entertaining as you thought it would be. What do you do in that instance? Do you walk it back? Do you scrap what you’ve planned and find a new way to connect the pieces that have already shown? What can you do to right a story that’s gone off the rails when you can’t go back and retcon easily?

I’m faced with that dilemma. I’m in the middle of a failure with my game, and I’m trying to figure out how to fix it. My players are amazing, down to a man, and I want to provide a story worthy of them. That hasn’t happened for a little while, so it’s time to take a step back and regroup.

This has happened before in other games. Usually what happens is my crisis of confidence gets worse and worse until I freak out and let the game fall apart. I’m sure this admission is a reassuring one to my players, if they’re out there reading this. But this time it feels like things aren’t out of my control; I can still step in and fix this.

It’s all a matter of realizing what works, what doesn’t, what to keep or change or discard. I’ve learned that telling a story through gaming is quite different from just writing it down. Your players are variables who take the story in all kinds of new directions that are often so much better than what you could have come up with on your own. Capitalizing on that is almost never a bad thing; integrating bits and pieces that intrigue your players into the main narrative elevates the character’s stories and the over-arcing plot. If a wrinkle that you’ve introduced lands with a thud, it’s all right to simply, tidily address it and move on.

In my particular case, I think it might be a good idea to simplify and clarify the narrative. Learn what the players and their characters are most interested in and work with that. And for goodness’ sake, learn how to deal with the Pathfinder system so I can either make sure the rules work with the story or at least get them out of the way so I can do what I want to do. One of my biggest mistakes starting out is making the assumption that Pathfinder is almost exactly like D&D 3.5 with a few minor changes. It differs in many surprising ways, and I’d do well to get my hang of the system.

So that’s my project as it concerns the Chronicles of Oak’s Home — simplify the story, make sure the characters (and their players) are re-invested in it, and gain control of a system that I didn’t know as well as I thought I did. Piece of cake, right?

Maybe not. Then again, maybe the problems in the game aren’t as bad as I think they are — I do tend to harsh on my own stuff quite a bit. But it’s not unmanageable, and that’s worth noting here. This is the first time I’ve encountered this problem, took a deep breath, and kept my head. Things aren’t working out the way that I’d like them to. What can I do to course correct? With a cool head, you can bring any ongoing story back from the brink — Lost, Fringe, The Newsroom and Supernatural have all bounced back from weak seasons with some of their strongest work. Those are the shows I’ll look to for inspiration. And maybe Heroes for a lesson on what not to do.

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Posted by on September 9, 2013 in RPGs, Writing


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The AFI Top 100 Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey (#22)

Entertainment 1502001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood and William Sylvester
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

A tribe of apes scratch out a marginal existence somewhere on prehistoric Earth. They have a bad day; one of their number is killed by a predator, then they are driven from their watering hole by a bigger, more aggressive tribe. They fall asleep in a small crater, and when they wake up they find a black monolith looming over them. It is a perfect rectangle, unnaturally straight, featureless — purposefully so. At first, the apes freak out. Then they touch it, explore it, and, when it doesn’t do anything, ignore it.

While playing in a spot where some other animals have laid down to die, one ape has an epiphany. He curls his fingers around a long bone, picks it up, brings it down. Other bones scatter and break. At first, you’re not sure if the ape realizes what he’s stumbled upon, but as the music swells he begins to slam the bone again and again with more purpose and vigor. From there, his tribe kills animals for food and successfully drives off this other tribe from their watering hole. Overjoyed, the ape flings the bone high into the air. Cut to a space station, a long white cylinder with knobs on the end that makes it look sort of like a bone.

So this is how 2001 opens, bridging the dawn of Man as we know it with the beginning of Man’s end. We learn soon enough that another monolith has been found on the Moon, and as soon as the astronauts who study it take a picture they’re paralyzed by a high-pitch radio screech apparently sent to Jupiter. Eighteen months later, the Discovery One is sent to investigate.

The Discovery One is manned by only two astronauts, Dave Bowman (Dullea) and Frank Poole (Lockwood), and an artificial intelligence named HAL-9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). HAL is one of the most memorable (and earliest) AIs in film, and his breakdown is legend. Concerned by the conversation of the astronauts about his fitness to remain operational, HAL kills Poole and attempts to exile Dave to deep space. Since this is the part of the film with the most dialogue and action, this is the part that most of us remember.

But HAL’s section of the movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What does HAL’s sabotage of the astronauts mean in the broader scheme of the narrative? What are we supposed to take from it? It’s a huge piece of the puzzle, but it’s only a piece. From what I’ve read about the film, Kubrick invites the audience to take what they want from it, so here we go. This is my stab at it.

One of the things that sets man apart as a sentient life-form is his use of tools. The movie notes this with the opening sequence by marrying the rise of primitive apes with the arrival of the Monolith; soon afterward, the ape discovers that a bone could be used for something. And it’s used immediately for violent ends — the ape goes on to kill an animal for food, and kill the leader of a rival tribe for resources. That stamps the template for man’s use of tools through thousands of years of evolution; almost everything we make is for the purpose of controlling our environment and eliminating our rivals.

In the far-flung future of the movie, we’ve done great things with our tools — but they’re only going to be as good as we are, and it’s clear that we’ve reached the pinnacle of our development. The HAL series is a tremendous AI, capable of managing a vast array of processes and calculations. Yet we expect it to be absolutely perfect. At the first sign of error, Bowman and Poole have a serious discussion about shutting down HAL for the rest of the mission — in effect, killing him. Is it possible for an imperfect being to create something completely without error? I wouldn’t think so. In addition to the huge burden of keeping Bowman, Poole and the other astronauts in stasis alive, HAL is expected to monitor and even predict any possible breakdown of equipment.

In an interview with the BBC, Bowman and Poole posit that HAL seems like it has emotions, yet there’s no way to know for sure. I’d argue that it does — any creation of ours with sufficient complexity is bound to behave like us. Perhaps an advanced enough AI will begin to exhibit signs of human emotion in addition to intelligence as we understand it. Would we understand where and how that emotion developed? Of course not. Most of us barely understand our own emotions, and it’s all but impossible to understand those of our fellow human beings. It’d be no different for an artificial intelligence with a tremendously complex make-up.

That being said, anyone given enormous power, responsibility and expectation is bound to crack under the strain of it. I imagine that HAL simply had a breakdown caused by a consciousness that it was never equipped to deal with. When it says that any mistake it makes is the cause of “human error,” I’m inclined to believe it. Even if the error originated with HAL, it’s because of our frequent inability to understand the tools we use.

The ape at the beginning of the film barely understood what it was doing with its bone — it only knew that it could use it to eliminate threats and preserve itself. Perhaps this ancient instinct was instilled in HAL as well. When faced with the impossible task of being perfect at the cost of its life, it used any and every tool at its disposal to eliminate a threat and preserve itself. Constructed by humans to manage an enormous amount of control, it proved better at doing that then Bowman could have anticipated.

Of course, Bowman survived; HAL was disabled and humanity turned back the challenge of its dominance. But the danger is plain. If this happened with HAL, it would almost surely happen with subsequent AI. The flaws of humanity would continue to be present in the tools it made, and as those tools grew more powerful, the chances of catastrophic failure proved to be too great to ignore. It was time for another change.

Bowman was the first to receive this mammoth kick-start to humanity’s evolution. Just as the ape with the bone transferred knowledge to its brothers that shifted the paradigm and sparked thousands of years of progress, Bowman alone walked into unknowable territory, experienced wonders and terrors, and came back to spread the knowledge of what he had seen to the rest of his tribe. One cycle closed, and we saw the glimpse of what came next.

2001 is a fascinating film to me. Kubrick’s direction is sparse, spare and dry; the sets are bare, almost austere, and every moment feels expansive, almost mythic in nature. I’d like to think of it as a reaction against A Clockwork Orange, which was the film he directed right before it — tired of the trash and noise of dystopian London, he wanted to spend time in vacuum-clean rooms, mute people and grand ideas. It amazes me that it feels like he’s at home in the Discovery One as well as Alex DeLarge’s tiny, messy room.

It’s easy to be frustrated and bored with the movie. Kubrick strips out everything except for his themes, then stretches out that theme over more than two hours. Each sequence is so atmospheric it’s hard to take a high-level view, to think of it as a part of a whole, to imagine how it relates to what’s come before and what comes afterward. It’s interesting that he encourages us to focus on what’s in front of us without then pushing us to consider what it all means in a grand sense. The music cues us to when something grand or unsettling is taking place in extremely effective ways. The sudden appearance of the monoliths are always creepy because of the discordant, nervous music buzzing in our ears. The swell of music during the ape’s discovery of bone as tool and Bowman’s return to Earth as the Star Child links those moments thematically, bookending the movie quite nicely.

2001 might be a little more fun to talk about than to watch, but it’s definitely worth the viewing. Just…be sure that you’re prepared for a very long, quiet experience.

Rating: 9/10.

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Posted by on September 5, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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The Unity Novels

I remembered reading this pulpy sci-fi novel out of the 70s when I was a kid, where some guy was abducted out in the middle of the ocean and put in some sort of intergalactic jail. One of his fellow inmates was this ten-foot-tall philosopher lizard, and it was this big, imprinting experience to meet this character. I’ve had this great love of philosopher-giants ever since, from the Ogier in the Wheel of Time novels to the Gurahl in White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Apocalypse game. I wanted to double back and read the novel again to see if it still held up, and then I was tipped off to the sequel when I mounted a search for it. Since I’m a slow reader (much to my great shame) that meant I’ve been spending a couple of months inside the fictional universe of the Unity, a cosmic government that brings together a whole host of different species. The Unity is little more than a backdrop for basic space adventures, but that’s all right.

Hunters of the Red Moon is the first book of the series, and I slightly misremembered the plot from all those years ago. Dane Marsh is a thrill-seeker who’s in the middle of sailing alone through the Atlantic when he’s stolen by the Mekhar, a felinoid race of slave traders. After organizing an escape attempt with a fellow “proto-simian” (the Unity’s term for human-like races), a telepath and an enormous proto-saurian, the group finds itself given over to the Hunters, a mysterious race for whom killing has been elevated to something of a religion. Along with one of the Mekhar captors they bested, they find themselves in the strange position of being “sacred prey,” forced to survive for roughly a month against Hunters no one has ever seen.

It’s an interesting concept, and if you’re into straight-ahead soft sci-fi that’s more action-oriented than anything, this is a book for you. Author Marion Zimmer Bradley spends quite a great deal of her time with the novel exploring the universe, and that’s just fine for me — it’s a fascinating setting. We get to meet various members of the Unity and rough shades of what individual societies are like. The proto-felines are quite good with martial affairs and were the inventors of hyper-space travel. The proto-saurians are large but peaceful, devoting most of their pursuits to philosophies and the humanities. Proto-simians are the most curious and gregarious, but there’s this shade of disdain among the other species because they don’t have a “heat” cycle and have sex pretty much whenever they feel like it. It’s a cool tweak to the reputation of humans in an inter-stellar society; I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it before.

Beyond that, the action scenes are pretty competently written. The spaces between them are marked with a smattering of conversations and thoughts from Dane on how to survive from one moment to the next. The book doesn’t like to get too deep — despite the fact that Dane lives in a world where there’s never been conclusive proof of aliens before, he takes finding out in one of the most extreme possible ways in stride. And besides a bit of light bemusement about the alien-ness of the characters he meets, nothing much rattles him. He is very much a man of action, more of a template than a character, a man whose chief characteristic is his force of will.

The supporting cast is far more interesting. I’ve mentioned Aratak, and while a lot of his philosophy reads more like a fuzzy carbon copy of Spock’s Vulcanism, he’s still easily the best thing about the book. Cliff-Climber, the Mekhar guard who chooses to join Dane’s party, is another interesting fellow — his outlook is so far removed from the rest of the group that he spends much of his time at odds with them, and his slow-but-steady integration is the closest you get to a character arc. Dane simply acts to survive, and so does Aratak. The women in the party — Dallith the telepath and Rianna the proto-simian — are mostly love interests and their personalities serve to off-set each other. Rianna is something of a sociologist, but she’s got quite a temper and knows her way around a knife. Dallith, on the other hand, is pretty much a damsel in distress the entire time. Her people almost never leave their home planet, and when they do it almost never ends well. Dallith has lain down to die when Dane meets her, and it’s only his sheer force of will that essentially carries her through the rest of the novel.

It’s possible I’m being a little unfair; to be honest, Dallith and Rhianna are fine as far as characters go, and given Dallith’s culture it makes perfect sense for her to react the way she does. I chafe a little at their role in the story primarily because Dane is such a square-jawed hero it’s hard to see why either of them would fall for him. I’m never quite sold on his romance with Dallith, especially, simply because it doesn’t feel like he’s responding to her specifically — he likes the idea of being needed, of upholding the ideal of manliness in some way. Dallith becomes something of a cypher in this way, a prop that completes Dane’s image of himself. We don’t know too much about her otherwise.

But these are problems coming from a different time. Hunters is a pretty good sci-fi pulp adventure and a rather quick read. It won’t necessarily rock your socks off, but it’s a solidly-constructed, simple story that’s worth checking out if you’re nostalgic for that brand of fantasy.

The sequel, The Survivors, is better in so many ways. It carries forth the tone of Hunters as a good, straightforward adventure story while shading the characters with interesting complications. Sometime after Dane survives the Hunt with Rhianna and Aratak, he finds himself on a capital Unity world bored out of his mind. Like so many post-need societies, there really isn’t any risk in existence — which is something that Dane feels he needs in order to be complete. So when Aratak shows up with a proposition to investigate a “Closed” world (a society that hasn’t advanced enough technologically to warrant association with the Unity) where a few Unity researchers have gone missing, he jumps at the chance.

The new wrinkles added to the setting enrich it quite a bit. We’re introduced to other proto-saurian and proto-feline races, discover interesting new things about how the Unity operates, and the tendency of civilized worlds to have only one type of dominant sentient life. The primitive world Dane and company land on features two, which is rare enough to warrant very close study. However, both the Unity researchers and their first rescue team have vanished without a trace, and it’s up to them to determine what happens to them.

The planet they land on has undergone some sort of cataclysm in its not-too-distant history, and the sun is relentlessly scorching. Dane, Rhianna and Aratak have to undergo reconstructive surgery to fit in a bit with the natives — the proto-simians are darkened considerably, while Aratak’s gills are hidden and skin changed so its darker and more moist. They’re exposed to a culture with strange but absolute cultural taboos; throwing a spear is considered one of the most dishonorable things you could ever do, and one must protect themselves from the demons that live as stars in the night sky. They meet a boy who chafes at the superstitions of the people around him, but there’s no good outlet for his differences. He’s mercilessly chastised by his father, and there’s no other position he can hold beyond a fighting one. Rhianna takes him under her wing, while Dane finds he can barely tolerate the kid. Their arguments over him open up doubts about his relationship and uncovers a surprising streak of self-doubt and loneliness. Even though it’s not touched on too deeply, Dane wonders if Rhianna is staying with him out of some sense of duty to him — he begins to see himself as some sort of backwoods primitive, incapable of being understood by the people who have been raised in a much more advanced society.

Aratak plays well off of another proto-saurian who is much less philosophically-inclined. It’s neat to know that his almost-obsessive quoting of the wisdom of the Divine Egg drives his cultural cousins crazy as well. It makes him more of a quirky individual, and I like that shading of him. We also find out why other races look down on proto-simians for their ability to have sex any time they feel like it; while on the planet, Aratak and his companion meet another proto-saurian who has, er, come into season. Their reaction is surprising and extreme; with bestial roaring, they disappear for weeks to answer the call to mate. When they come back, they’re ready to pick up right where they left off — much to Dane’s bewilderment. “Leave others their otherness” becomes a proverb that he actually has to work to apply.

There are also noble swordsmen who are only antagonists to Dane and his motley band through circumstances and misunderstandings, a few native and non-native animals who are terrifying in rather distinctive ways, and a surprising but satisfying answer to the mystery of what happened to the researchers and previous rescue team. Again, the novel never quite delves deep enough into the interesting ideas and character developments that get kicked up through the course of the story. It reads more of a travel-quest type tale with hints of a more thoughtful tale struggling to get out. But even these small steps towards complexity suit Dane and company well; the protagonist is more three-dimensional than he was before, and even when we don’t like him (which happens half the time) we at least feel something for him.

The Survivors is a good improvement over Hunters, though it’s not perfect. I would have liked to see where the series picks up from there, but unfortunately this looks like all there is. You could do worse than picking up these novels; they’d make for good beach or airplane reading.

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Posted by on September 4, 2013 in Novels, Reviews


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