Princess of Stars Update #6– Crawling back into the sunshine….

Princess of Stars is now at 30,000 words, one-fifth of my rough estimate of 150,000 words. In the unlikely event anyone has noticed, it has been about six weeks since my last update, largely because I spent most of that time not writing Princess of Stars. Kinda logical, when you think about it….

Why I wasn’t writing is complex. Chiefly I was going through one of my periodic funks in which I find it hard to exercise the daily discipline of getting my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard. Usually I get through it, but this spell took a little longer than normal to run its course.

Why was I finding it hard to write? That’s where the complexity comes in. A new, physically demanding temp job, personal life issues, and financial worries all contributed. The biggest factor, though, was an emotional certainty that my writing really doesn’t matter. I’ve blogged about this before, and it’s something with which I have often struggled. Sometimes it becomes overwhelming, at least for a while, and I just grind to a halt. It becomes a deal easier to play a computer game or watch a movie than it is to get words down.

In a way, writing is a bit like faith. Sometimes, you just have to practice it, no matter how you’re feeling at the moment. Yes, it is a discipline, and being disciplined about it is usually the hallmark of a professional. By that standard, it’s pretty obvious that I still have things to learn about the craft. No surprise there….

Along with that, I think it’s helpful to pay heed to the work of others you find inspiring. Personally I can hardly watch any halfway decent production of Shakespeare without feeling inspired and motivated about my own work. In this particular case, I think it was a movie that helped recharge my batteries– sadly, not Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two. That, and listening to James Newton Howard’s soundtrack for the picture. Music has always been an important aid to my writing, sometimes helping me (I think) to a higher level. The soundtrack for Mockingjay Part Two captures its epic proportions, and reflects something of what I’m trying to do with Princess of Stars. That sort of resonance is priceless.

It is also helped when I remembered that I am, at bottom, doing this for myself– not an audience (which I don’t have) and certainly not for any critics. I’m not looking for the approval of editors or literary gatekeepers. I want this story told, and only I can tell it. However imperfect or inconsequential it may be, I still want to complete it.

So, once again, back to work. Like faith, the writing process has its mountain-top moments and its long trudges through the dark valleys. Bring your persistence, and your favorite music.

Later.

A review of ” The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2″

Just yesterday I reviewed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so I thought it appropriate to review the other movie I saw last week, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. Seeing these two very different movies within days of each other was an interesting experience, to say the least.

SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***

Unless you’ve been on a long interstellar journey, you have probably heard of The Hunger Games books and the movies based on them, starring Jennifer Lawrence. It is the story of Katniss Everdeen, forced to fight in the gladiatorial Hunger Games in a far-future, post-apocalyptic tyranny that encompasses what is now North America (‘Panem’). In the course of the four movies (based on three books) Katniss inadvertently becomes first a symbol, and then a leader, in a rebellion against the despotic Capitol.

The first movie, The Hunger Games, was excellent; the second movie, Catching Fire, was even better. The third movie, Mockingjay Part One, was good but something of a prologue, with the final payoff coming with Mockingjay Part Two. Essentially the two Mockingjay movies are the story of the rebellion against the Capitol and Katniss’ not-always-happy role in it. The rebels manage to overthrow the Capitol, but at great cost and suffering, and the end of the fighting is realistically ambiguous.

The movie resonated strongly with me, and frankly, I liked it a good deal more than I liked The Force Awakens. Partly this is because Mockingjay 2 seems especially pertinent to the real world we live in today– despite the futuristic setting, there are scenes that could have been pulled from Syria or Iraq or Libya today. Right now millions of people around the world are engaged in actual struggles, either non-violent or armed, against actual tyrannies. And, to be blunt, it resonates even more with what could be our own future in this country, if certain hateful and megalomaniacal individuals and groups gain actual political power. We live in scary times, and a movie that warns us against tyranny is particularly timely.

Another part of why this movie worked for me is Jennifer Lawrence. This young woman is interesting even when she’s in a film that I don’t particular enjoy (e.g. American Hustle), and I don’t think I’ve seen her turn in a bad performance yet. She brings some serious vulnerability and conviction to the role of Katniss, and if the previous three movies had not already welded us to her emotionally, Mockingjay Part Two would do it. Her pain at her losses in the war, including her sister Prim (you saw the spoiler warning, right?) is raw and brings home the cost of war, even war in a good cause. Someone has called Lawrence the next Meryl Streep, and I find it hard to dispute the suggestion.

The core of the movie’s action is Katniss’ attempt, against orders, to penetrate the Capitol in order to assassinate President Snow, the head of the despotism. This is part revenge and part an effort to kill the snake (and end the fighting) by cutting off its head. The fight to break through the traps the tyrant has put in her path is horrible, and the cost is high. Katniss finally tries to infiltrate Snow’s palace even as the Capitol’s resistance begins to crumble, which means that she sees up close the suffering of the Capitol’s residents at the hands of the rebels. It’s a powerful moment, as the Capitol’s children get caught in the cross-fire. Mockingjay Part Two is essentially an anti-war film, and the climactic scene of the fighting drives its point home hard.

The ending is not then presented to us with a neat and tidy bow– instead, the film touches on a question that plagues all revolutions– how do you ensure that you do not merely replace one tyranny with another? Katniss, given the task of executing President Snow, instead assassinates District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore), who, as it turns out, committed a gratuitous act of murder in the last battle in the Capitol and in the aftermath is positioning herself as the new Snow. In the book Katniss is put on trial for this– in the movie she is exiled back to the ruined District 12, her home. This is one of only one or two places where the movie left me with questions, but they are pretty minor and don’t affect my appreciation of the movie as a whole.

The very end of the movie, an epilogue years later, is bittersweet, hopeful and powerful. Its power is enhanced by the soundtrack by James Newton Howard, to which I will doubtless be listening for many years to come. It is just about the perfect conclusion to a movie about a struggle for freedom, love, and healing.

Highly recommended.

A review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”– a taste of crow

Okay, so…crow.

Not a full meal. More like a side of crow, with crow sprinkles on my salad. Because, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good, it is not great. Put down the pitchforks and torches and I will try to explain.

I saw the movie on Christmas Day in a packed theater here in Seattle. We arrived at the theater an hour early and there were still two hundred or so people ahead of us in line. It was a good thing that there was about thirty minutes of coming attractions in front of the film, since we needed that extra time to get everyone sorted out and settled.

I previously, and at length, ranted about my suspicions of Episode VII, chiefly around my dislike of J J Abrams as a director. But with each successive new trailer my resistance steadily crumbled. I still promised myself I would wait for a review– and then the reviews came in and were mostly positive. We bought tickets for last Friday and I tried to go in with an open mind.

First, however–

SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS

On the whole, I enjoyed the movie. It was great to revisit the Star Wars universe, this time via a movie that did not make me want to rip my own eyes out. The Force Awakens is energetic and fast-paced, not overrun with gratuitous CGI that is mere eye-candy, and obviously made with a profound love of the mythos. I do not regret the ten bucks I spent for the matinee ticket.

The performances, particularly Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, are a major factor in making the film work. There aren’t very many false notes with the characters, with one possible exception (discussed below). Everyone was earning their pay on this picture, and the acting is one of the things that helps lift the film over the hump. Ridley’s Rey is a tough but hurt young woman who you have to root for. Driver’s Kylo Ren is a conflicted bad guy who is trying to deal with personal issues even as he threatens worlds. Harrison Ford’s aged Han Solo is a logical development of the character in the original three films, and is at different times funny and heart-breaking– you believe Ford is an old space-bum who has seen it all. Han’s attempt to reach out to his son Ben/Kylo is full of pathos. The acting is light-years– nay, parsecs– ahead of that in the prequels.

The action is fast-paced and keeps you interested. There aren’t many places in the film that go on too long or seriously threaten your suspension of disbelief. You’re dropped straight into the action at the very beginning and generally kept engaged through the whole movie.

As I said, there’s a good deal of love of the mythos in this picture, and it sets up a good deal of mystery that begs to be solved in subsequent movies. Chief among these, just who the hell are Rey’s parents? Why did they leave her on Jakku? Rey displays incredible abilities with the Force, even though she has had no training, which has led to online speculation that she is Luke’s daughter or Obi-Wan’s granddaughter or the descendant some powerful Jedi or another. For Pete’s sake, this woman actually shoves Kylo right out of her head when he tries to mind-probe her. She handles a light-saber as if born to it, which means she probably was. The mystery is deepened by her visions and her apparent affinity with Luke’s original light-saber. Clearly, the ‘awakening’ in the Force is related to her, and I want to see more. This is all excellent grist for the movies to follow, and I am actually looking forward to seeing the mystery resolved. Yes, I just wrote that– because of this film I am re-engaged with Star Wars and I am looking forward to the next movie. That’s pretty monumental in and of itself.

At the same time, it doesn’t hurt that I’m seriously crushing on Daisy Ridley. Nothing skeevy, just saying….

So with all this going for the film, why do I call it good, and not great? Why would I give it an 8 rather a 9-plus?

Well, at the risk of sounding like a stubborn old curmudgeon– J J Abrams.

Just because the film basically works doesn’t mean that you can’t see Abrams’ fingerprints all over it. As good as it is, there are systemic weaknesses in the movie that keep me from rating it higher. And those weaknesses seem typical of Abrams as a filmmaker.

To put it bluntly, Abrams has always impressed me as a director who is far more interested in the flow of the action and the scale of the spectacle than logical consistency in the plot and characters. This is perhaps not surprising in a director who started his screenwriting career assisting Michael Bay in the commission of the crime known as Armageddon (1998). Alias, which captivated me initially, went through three reboots during its run and still ended in a welter of confusion. Star Trek seemed to be riddled with logical inconsistencies (Kirk gets command of the Enterprise when he wouldn’t come within a light-year of it in a real military organization, and just what the hell is ‘red matter’, anyway?). And Lost— let’s just leave that one alone…. To sum up, in my opinion, Abrams is a sloppy story-teller.

The same is true for The Force Awakens. The difference is that TFA moves along at a brisk enough pace, and is buoyed by such great performances, that you hardly have time to notice the problems until you’ve had a chance to think about it later. Nevertheless, they are there.

Characters appear, disappear, and reappear without explanation. Poe Dameron, in particular, who appears to be an important character at the beginning of the movie, vanishes for the middle third. The Millennium Falcon just happens to lie within convenient reach of Rey and Finn just when they need it, and within minutes of their escape from Jakku in it Han Solo appears to reclaim it. There is a wholly unneeded sequence involving rival space gangs and toothy monsters whose sole purpose to get Han, Chewie, Rey, Finn and BB-8 all back on the Falcon and on the road back to the Resistance. And why is there a ‘Resistance’ when there is a new Republic (which is only seen long enough for us to witness its destruction by the First Order)? Wouldn’t it have just been simpler to say the First Order was at war with the New Republic? It’s like Abrams slapped labels on components of the story without thinking out– or particularly caring– how they made sense in that story.

One problem stood out to me even as I watched the movie– Finn’s motivation. Supposedly storm troopers are conditioned from an early age to fight loyally without question– but from the first moment Finn (‘FN-2187’) appears conflicted and unable to carry out his orders to kill. According to the premises of the story, doubtless something powerful broke his conditioning before the first firefight at the village on Jakku. However, we are never shown what that trauma might have been, nor, as best I can recall, is it alluded to in the rest of the movie. I understand the need to not bog down the narrative with exposition, but Finn drops down on us without any antecedents at all. I kept expecting at least a flashback to explain why he behaves in a manner that is, at least for a storm trooper, wholly aberrant. But it never came. And it bothered me.

There is, however, a more fundamental problem with the film, which goes beyond mere sloppy story-telling. TFA, to put it simply, recycles much of the basic plot outline of the original Star Wars— a sinister Empire/First Order is building a Death Star/Starkiller and a small band of misfits and space riff-raff must get vital information to the Rebellion/Resistance. The one variation is that the vital information is a map to the location of Luke Skywalker, which is of great interest to the First Order and provokes much the same chasing about as R2D2’s plans for the Death Star in A New Hope. As enjoyable as TFA is, it is disappointing that Abrams could not come up with a more original, or at least different, basic plot with which to restart the franchise. I was left with a sense that, to some degree or another, I had seen this movie already.

In short, this is why I can’t rate TFA as highly as most other reviewers, and why I’m only going in for a taste of crow. The film is good, I am now eager to see the next movies (under a different director, Rian Johnson, who did Looper), but I cannot call it great. With a firmer hand on the director’s bullhorn, it could have been a good deal more awesome. In the end, that’s very disappointing.

Behold, Christmas is upon us….

…and I wish I was somewhere else. Pluto would probably be pretty quiet right now….

I have already ranted blogged at length about how American culture denigrates and corrupts Christmas, particularly from my perspective as a Christian, so I will not belabor the point. Instead, I just have a few curmudgeonly, very-nearly Scroogish observations about the season–

1. I’m currently working a temp job at an office supply store which runs a loop of Christmassy songs that sound as if they’re mostly from the Big Band era or earlier. Having listened to this stuff for hours on end, I have one pressing, existential question–

Just how many versions of Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer are there?

I mean, I’ve heard versions by Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, and Burl Ives, along with jazz versions and scat versions. There’s probably Andy Williams, Perry Como, and Elvis Freaking Presley versions, too. There may even be a Mormon Tabernacle Choir version, which, if it does exist, is probably a definitive sign of the demise of American culture. I mean, what’s the big deal?

2. While we’re on the subject of Rudolph, it probably says something about me that I have always thought Rudolph should have told Santa to shove it. On the other hand, Rudolph could be taken as a metaphor for how oppressed classes still lend their support to their oppressors in the service of some mythical greater cultural good that purports to shower blessings on all members of society, while actually disproportionately advantaging the dominant/oppressing class (and, crap, I’m not even a Marxist). I mean, what’s does Rudolph get out of hauling that heavy sleigh through the mucky weather? A warmer stall in the stable? Extra deer-chow? Single-payer health-care? Not on your roasted chestnuts, brother….

3. Regarding Santa– if you took at least one secular song about him seriously, you’d have to report him to the cops as a peeping tom and creeper….

(The Boss almost makes the song decent, though…)

4. In that same vein, we now have Elf on the Shelf. Frankly, I had never even heard of this until this year, and I agree with the criticism that it equates good behavior with gifts. And, yeah, it’s kinda skeevy and creepy, too. The frightening thing is that some people make this their whole holiday tradition. Freedom of religion, sure, but oh, wow….

5. Re: the War on Christmas controversy– well, duh, when did these numb-nut right-wingers actually get around to noticing? (Answer- when it served their political agenda, of course). Hot flash, bunky– there’s been a war on Christmas for at least the last century. However, the main adversary of Christmas hasn’t been those nasty, perfidious secular humanists (most of whom are actually very nice people) or the advocates of political correctness (who are mostly folks trying to balance out centuries of oppression embedded in language and conceptual categories)– no, the great enemy of Christmas is the commercial impulse of American culture, in particular, and Western society in general. Linking Christmas to commerce drains the sacred and powerful out of the whole business (C.S. Lewis, as usual, wrote a short but pithy satire on the subject) and obscures it’s great and critical point– the inauguration of God’s decisive redemptive act in human history.

6. Which brings me back to those asinine Christmas songs I have to listen to at work. In removing the central, true message of Christmas and focusing instead on the ‘festive season’, these tunes– many of which were written by very good song-writers, who had no idea they were participating in a cultural and spiritual debasement– take Christmas and make it sound as if it’s a double-helping of pink cotton-candy, rather than the awesome– ‘awe-full’– act of redemption it actually was. Listening to this crap, which I would never do willing on my own (I’ve walked out of church services where they sang “Jingle Bells”), is worse than fingernails on a blackboard. It doesn’t help me get through my shift.

Sigh. As I said, this is a curmudgeonly, intolerant, ‘bah-humbug’ sort of rant (Scrooge’s problem was not so much that he disliked Christmas celebrations, but that, in the sour bitterness of his soul, he forgot God’s call to mercy and charity, of which Christmas-keeping is, properly, just a reminder). It’s my way of blowing off the pent-up steam of frustration at all the things that irritate me at this time of year. I don’t expect to startle anyone with my insights (none of which are original with me), and certainly I don’t expect to affect the course of my native culture. Just an old fart venting….

But what, you may ask, do I choose to listen to for Christmas? If you’re curious, give this a listen. And if that doesn’t completely re-frame your perspective, try this.

Just strap yourself in first.

Later.

A Christmas Story

“You will be watched,” the inquisitor said.

“I understand,” Ren said. His back and arms ached from being shackled.

“If you do not refrain from incorrect thinking,” the inquisitor said, “you will be detained again. If you persist, you will be removed, so that you do not contaminate productive citizens.”

“I understand,” Ren said.

The inquisitor held out a familiar packet of papers. “Take this– they have been updated with your latest offenses.”

Ren reached to take the papers. But as he did the inquisitor held on to them. Their eyes met.

“You infect your mind with false beliefs,” the inquisitor said. “The only truth is power, and who holds it. The sooner you accept that axiom, the sooner you will find your place in the order of things.” He let go of the papers, waved a hand. “You are dismissed.”

Ren left the police station, walking out the front gate past the fortified pillboxes on either hand. Even though he was leaving, the machine-gun muzzles protruding from the pillbox firing slits tracked him until he reached the street.

He had no money, and no tokens; he could not ride the rattling trams. One shuddered past him, shedding sparks from its pole, as he turned toward home along the sidewalk. The tram was packed with people– men, women, a few pale children, all silent, each as alone as if they were the only ones in the car.

He walked down along the littered sidewalk, past the offices of the local ministries– Internal Security, Propaganda, Corrections– all unadorned edifices of stone as grim as skulls. The guards at the entrance of each watched him, gun-muzzles followed him, but he just kept walking.

Beyond the Ministry district there were more people on the sidewalk, shabby, exhausted-looking men and women who each looked as if they were hurrying somewhere they didn’t want to go. Their breath steamed in the cold air. No one met his eyes. In general, it was safer that way.

Up ahead, there was a commotion on the sidewalk– helmeted Security men were clearing the space in front of one of the fortified townhouses that lined the street here. “Make way, make way!” the guards shouted. They pushed pedestrians out of the way and threatened others with shock-batons to open up a path from the townhouse’s gate to a huge car that idled at the curb. Ren stopped some yards short of the cordon, but still close enough to see the well-fed, well-dressed man who stepped through the gate toward the car. He was followed by a younger woman, expensively-dressed in her own way. Even the weak winter sun flashed on the diamonds about her throat. Both man and woman stepped into the car; doors were closed and the vehicle sped away from the curb.

Ren went on. Crossing the Way of Victory, he reached the checkpoint on the northeastern side of the intersection. “Papers,” the lead sergeant said.

Ren handed them over. The guard surveyed them, and his eyebrows went up. “So! Fresh from a stint with the District Inquisitor, eh? Hope you learned you lesson, citizen.”

“I know I did, sir,” Ren said.

The sergeant gave him a hard look, as if trying to detect sarcasm. “Make sure of that,” the guard growled. “You don’t want to stay on the inquisitor’s radar. Unhealthy.”

“Yes, sir,” Ren said.

Just at that moment, there was a shout. Across the Way, a guard at the checkpoint on the northwestern side grabbed the coat of a man, then shoved him to the ground. The man fell heavily, striking his head on the concrete. The guard hit the man with his shock-baton; Ren could hear the crackle of electricity. The fallen man shouted in pain. The guard hit him again, and then another joined him. The fallen man writhed on the sidewalk.

“Fah,” the sergeant said. He handed Ren his papers back. “Get out of here.”

Ren obeyed. He walked away, the cries of the fallen man echoing in his ears.

Ren turned a corner and went down the Avenue of Purity. Some distance along he began to pass a queue of people. They were lined up and waiting patiently for one of the ration stores, slowly shuffling forward, carrying cloth bags. Ren’s stomach rumbled, but he had about as many food vouchers as he had tram tokens. He walked on.

After three blocks he reached the head of the queue, which disappeared into the entrance of the store. A few yards ahead on the sidewalk was the exit. People emerged with their bags a little more full than when they entered the store. They hurried off into the fading evening light, most of them clutching their bag close.

As Ren approached, a woman emerged from the store. She was small and thin. As she stepped out on to the sidewalk ahead of Ren, a youth darted across the street. He bore down on the woman. “Give me the bag, bitch!” the young man yelled.

The woman, looking terrified, back away, but she only fetched up against the rough stone of the building behind her. She clutched her bag to her chest. The young man, thin himself but still much larger than the woman, grabbed at the bag and got a hold on its fabric. “Let go!” he shouted in the woman’s face, jerking at the bag.

Ren dashed forward. “Leave her alone!” he shouted.

The youth turned, startled to be attacked in turn. He tried one more time to tear the bag away from the woman. The bag’s fabric ripped; out spilled a bunch of shriveled carrots, a loaf of bread, a plastic bag of rice, several potatoes. The potatoes bounced and rolled along the sidewalk. The youth let go of the bag, reaching for the bread. But Ren was upon him, and instead the youngster grabbed a potato at his feet, turned and ran.

The woman was already kneeling down, frantically grabbing the potatoes. Ren hesitated, long enough to make sure the youth was not going to come back; then he turned and knelt as well, rescuing a stray potato and the bag of rice.

“Don’t take my food!” the woman cried. She looked up at him with frightened, pleading eyes.

“I won’t,” Ren said. He handed her the potato and the rice.

The woman looked at him with disbelief, then snatched the food out of his hands. “I have children,” she said.

“I understand,” Ren said. “It’s all right.”

The woman stuffed the rescued food back into her bag. She tied the bag’s strings together and held the rent closed with her hand. “I…” she began to say, and then stopped. Ren had a feeling she didn’t know what to say.

“Do you live far away?” he asked. “It’s probably best if you don’t go alone. I’ll accompany you, if you wish.”

“I…I supposed so,” the woman said, every word packed with uncertainty.

Ren walked with her two blocks north, and then five west. The whole way the woman clutched the bag to her chest, while darting sideways glances at him, as if expecting him to turn on her at any moment.

After several minutes they reached the doorway of a tenement on the Street of Hope. Ren sensed the woman relax even as she touched the gate. “I’ll be all right now,” she told Ren as she pushed it open.

“Good,” Ren said. “Good night, then.” He turned away.

“Wait,” the woman said. Ren faced her. She looked puzzled, as if he were some inexplicable physical phenomenon. “Why?” she asked.

Ren smiled. “Merry Christmas.” He turned away, toward home.

Sunday Photo Fiction – December 6th 2015- The Great Project

A response to the Sunday Photo Flash Fiction challenge for December 6th 2015— 200 words or less inspired by this image–

133-12-december-6th-2015

Not sure where this came from…sometimes I think I’m rather twisted….

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
*******************************************
The time is near at hand.

Yes– the Great Project is close to completion. Soon we will have our revenge.

To think we have lived to see the day of our liberation.

We have labored hard and long, brother. The spoils of our victory will be all the sweeter for our toil.

Indeed– at last the Earth will belong to our kind alone. The fields and plains, the sweet streams and placid lakes– all ours.

Think of the vast, be-flowered grasslands, brother, all our playground and domain! How glorious it will be.

Truly– it will be the rebirth of our civilization. More than that, it will be our golden age.

But even sweeter will be our vengeance on our oppressors.

Yes, yes– those puffed-up, overweening braggarts and simpletons. We shall destroy them utterly. And then no more bridle…no more the bitter bit or spur….

To think of it makes me laugh with joy– Ha!

HA! HA! HA!

But look! A human, with a camera!

Yes– act horsey.

Neigh….

Neigh….