Sunday, April 22, 2007

More reviews

While I try to take violence to the next level, a few good books and movies.

I recently finished EM Forster's classic lecture series Aspects of the Novel. While the first sections on plot and character are quite interesting, apart from the references to books solidly in the British tradition that I haven't read, like Tom Jones and Portrait of a Lady, the later sections suffer from some concerns peculiar to his era. The section on fantasy, in particular, was written to explain to people that they could suspend their disbelief and let fantastic things become a part of their stories. Our hindsight, with the benefit of Tolkien and all his progeny, need not be told. The comparison of (I think it was George Eliot) with Dostoyevsky was instructive, though. Both depict scenes of conversion, but Eliot goes with a voice of preaching, while Dostoyevsky takes the strange, sacred voice of the prophet (in a scene from The Brothers Karamazov). What he was trying to get at was that Dostoyevsky was writing deeper than Eliot.

I've come across the same theme in a great book by the lady who wrote A Wrinkle in Time. It's called Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle. I would buy this book. It is a third, say, a reflection on art, a third theological, and a third devotional. I could read books like this all day and all night. In some ways it reminds me of The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy L. Sayers, but it's more personal and magical. I haven't finished it yet.

I also finished a great memoir. I don't read too many of these, but a friend recommended it way back when. It's called Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life, by Lauren Winner. It's the odd but true story of a girl born to interfaith parents, who first decided to become an Orthodox Jew, then slowly came around to Christianity. She never writes exactly why she became a Christian; there is no conversion moment. Instead, there is a loving description of both her Judaism and her Christianity, of life lived through those prisms and what faith does in an ordinary life.

I saw the new James Bond movie the other day. It was action violence as you might expect, but it had heart and character too. It was a very interesting, throwback James Bond, in the Sean Connery mold, certainly better than the Pierce Brosnan fare we've had to swallow for the past few years, but nothing so spectacular as I had been led to believe. Solid, meaty, but not world-beating.

If I object to anything, it's the depiction of poker. Yes, big pots are won and lost by a great hand losing to a phenomenal hand, but it's more often like two pair losing to three of a kind, or just maybe a full house losing to a higher full house. But even more often, tournaments end with the escalation of the blinds, as more and more players are forced to protect their stacks by moving all-in with subpar hands.

For that reason, I found the scene where a four-of-a-kind loses to the straight flush to be a pretty hack move. I just read a great Aristotle line about the audience in Walking on Water (paraphrase): People will believe the probable impossible more than the possible improbable. In other words, presentation is everything; dragons can be more convincing than this kind of poker hand. Truth may be stranger than fiction; there is a story in The Biggest Game in Town where Johnny Moss recounts a hand where he won a boatload of money. His opponent turned over the 6 of spades with the 7 through 10 on the board for the straight flush, but Johnny had the jack of spades, the higher straight flush. The fact that it really happens is no excuse for putting it into a story, though.

I also saw The Prestige the other day. It's one of the best movies I've seen in the past year, perfect at what it does. It's the story of a sometimes nasty rivalry between two magicians at the turn of the century. Magician A is suave, debonair, with a flair for the dramatic. Magician B is more rough and homely, but he does a fantastic trick that Magician A can't match. Magician A becomes obsessed with beating Magician A, learning his secret, and topping his trick. The characters are pretty cruel to one another. When they get violent, it's realistic and raw. The cruelty is probably worse than the violence itself. But the plot is so good, and every note is so right, it's yet another strong recommendation for an adult-content, violent movie.

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