Saturday, January 29, 2011

Once Upon a Time.

Lately it seems the only things I post are reviews. Actually it gives you a fair idea of what I'm spending my time doing - lots of reading, lots of watching, lots of listening. This all - all but the reading - happens while I knit.

Showing the knitting will have to wait - the light is so bad here in January that you'd not be too impressed with what I'm making if I took a picture of it during these dark days. In the meantime, let me tell you about Pan's Labyrinth.

The complications of life in the information age have divorced most of us from our folklore. Early humans resorted to invention in order to understand the mysteries of daily life - go back far enough, you will find stories to explain why the sun rises, why the moon's appearance changes every day. Guillermo del Toro thinks that, as the "external" mysteries are mysterious no longer, storytelling has turned inward - has focussed on the internal mysteries. Pan's Labyrinth explores the internal mysteries carefully - builds them into layers of significance. Only a few of them are apparent to the casual watcher - the most important threads are the invisible little strands, hidden behind the curtain, that hold the whole structure up.

Visually, the movie is gorgeous. Evocative in its use of colour and light, there is a whole story to be found just in the shadows, in the shades. The cinematography perfectly represents the paradox of the parallel universe, the realm of faery that is only a step removed from the daytime world: the two contained in one.

It's a truly excellent piece of work. It's a beautiful, razor-sharp story with all the things that are most important to us humans: longing, fear, loss, cruelty, redemption, hope and dismay.

I loved it.

It was so complicated and yet so simple. The characters are immediately recognisable, though sometimes reinvented. The princess. The servant girl. The spirit guide. The woodsmen. The dictator. There is a wicked stepfather. Other elements: the quest, the trinity, the sacrifice, the terrifying tasks. The violence.

I hated it.

I mean, I hated it. It freaked me out so deeply, I don't know what to do about it. I am not sure whether I can watch it again...because my BluRay player hasn't got a viewing option labelled "Never Show Me This Scene Again". The fairytale part was not the problem. The problem was the aforementioned wicked stepfather, who is a sadistic abomination straight from the pits of hell.

I can handle implied violence - an axe descending towards a shrinking captive, then the scene cuts away and you don't see the moment of contact - but I can't handle the kind of relentless, inhuman brutality in this movie. It all gets screentime. Less than a half hour in, I had my eyes tightly shut and my hands over my ears because I hadn't got to the scan-forward button fast enough to prevent my seeing and hearing a man being bludgeoned to death with a wine bottle, directly on his face.

I had to stop it and go do something else for an hour, during which time I debated whether I would even finish the thing.

I did finish it, but made damn sure I had both hands on the remote - left thumb on "mute" and right thumb on "skip". Also, during my intermission I had checked online reviews to see exactly what other scenes I had to watch out for - a good thing, as it allowed me to scan past the "man who gets tortured with hammer in face" and the "Pale Man monster with eyeballs in his hands, who eats babies" and the "man whose leg is amputated with a handsaw".

Obviously I'm still sorting out my feelings on Pan's Labyrinth. I really do not know which one I mean more: "I loved it" or "I hated it". As far as its intention goes, it's a smashing success. It's truly a fairytale, with all the archetypes which that genre contains. (And for an excellent discussion on that, see this post.)

Modern childrearing shuns the old tales, deeming them too violent for children - and in fact if we saw the fairytales we knew as a child "in living colour", as it were, we'd be horrified: imagine being a fly on the cottage wall while the wolf is eating Granny. Yerch.

But when Little Red and the Woodcutter arrive to save the day, Granny is exhumed from the wolf's belly not as mince, but in one piece - nightcap firmly in place. It's the bizarre appeal of folk tales - the cheerful lacquer we have painted over the dripping gore, hopefully leaving the moral of the stories intact, for the next generation of children to learn from and thrill over.

So I've decided what to do. I'm going to go brush my teeth (had to have cocoa to comfort myself after finishing El Labyrinto del Fauno) and while I'm doing that, I'm going to lacquer over the evil stepfather, firmly closing the shutters before the bottle comes out. I'm going to paint a rosette of fresh crocus on the princess' nightgown, and pretend it protects her from harm. I'm going to wash all the blood off and tell myself that the girl was not afraid, that the faithful maidservant arrived in time, that the doctor wasn't dead after all.

Because I have to go to bed now, and I've just heard a scary story.

I think I loved it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Recalled To Life

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 11, Number 1

My quest for self-improvement, and the list of books I hadn't read, led me to this Dickens classic. Written in 1859, it deals with the French Revolution - specifically, with the Terror.
Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate. Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease, and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France; but, his morning's chocolate could not so much as get into the throat of Monseigneur, without the aid of four strong men besides the cook.
Book I, Chapter 7

Dickens can be a tricky author to read. Some of his works tend towards the grandiose, in language as well as in plot ambition. Two Cities, though, is beautifully stripped down - has an urgent tone that matches its setting, and events in the plot. It seems incongruous to call it "refreshing", but that's how I felt afterwards - as if I had been plunged into something and brought back out again.

It's a pretty scary book. For me, the French Revolution is almost a theory rather than an actual event: so far removed as to be more "a force in European history" than anything else - an event that led to other events, and a thing that I viewed as part of a whole. Two Cities brought this remote past back to life - clamourous and sweeping, crying, gasping, and bleeding. It was awful.

Every day, through the stony streets, the tumbrils now jolted heavily, filled with condemned. Lovely girls; bright women, brown-haired, black-haired, and grey; youths; stalwart men and old; gentle born and peasant born; all red wine for La Guillotine, all daily brought into light from the dark cellars of the loathsome prisons, and carried to her through the street to slake her devouring thirst.
Book III, Chapter 5

I suppose if I had thought much about this book before reading it, I would have given a list of words such as "classic", "literature", and "grand". Maybe "prosy". Definitely "wordy". I knew vaguely that it was about the French Revolution (thanks, I'm ashamed to say, to a game of Trivial Pursuit I played when I was about 19 years old), but was not interested in finding out more about it. I, like everybody in creation, knew the first part of the first line: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times..., and that was more or less enough for me.

But when I finished A Tale of Two Cities I sat there, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mum with a Bachelor's degree in European History on the wall behind me, Googling "causes of the French Revolution" for two hours.

And, really, that's what this whole exercise is for: to push my boundaries outward, and find out what it is that I've been missing all these years.

The National Razor shaves close.

I've been thinking about my reading schedule, and I've decided that I should have a "classic" on the bedside table at all times. There's something different about reading literature - there's a reason these books are still in print one (or two) hundred years later. In a word, they're good. I also have a theory that reading classics broadens my mind and improves my English.

As a side note, I used a different edition than I normally would - the Penguin or Signet style. I am a fan of annotated works, with footnotes that expand on the text, and help place antiquated phrases or vocabulary in their context. This time, I read the "Collector's Library" edition, a small format, which contained gilt pages, the original set of illustrations (by "Phiz"), no modern introduction and no footnotes. I LOVED it - it felt wonderfully current, not in the least as though I was studying something 'old'.

I think next I might try "The Scarlet Pimpernell" - may as well carry on with the French Revolution while I'm thinking of it.

I wholeheartedly recommend that you read A Tale of Two Cities. The first couple of chapters are a bit bewildering - you are introduced to a complete stranger and immediately asked to care a lot about what he's thinking during a long night drive - but if you can get to page 120 you're all set. The rest of the book will go by all too quickly.

Vive le Boz!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser.

A few years ago I found out about this 100 pushups thing, and posted about my initial test. You do as many pushups as you can, in a row with proper form, and then you work towards a goal of 100 consecutive's quite good for you, apparently. Good for your core strength. And I guess a 'cold' test is supposed to be a reliable indicator of your fitness level. In September 2008, I did twenty.

My fitness level is way down at the moment, due mostly to me not having time to exercise during the past....oh, long time. I can tell this by the way I am puffing and panting just going up a couple of flights of stairs.

But this is weird - I just tried the initial test again, and I did thirty pushups. Thirty. What the hell? Remember that WKRP episode "Fish Story" where Johnny Fever is doing an on-air test involving the effects of alcohol consumption on drivers? And the more shots he does, the faster his reflexes get? Well, apparently I, like him, get better and better as I am getting worse and worse.

And no, I am not going to carry on towards the 100. My wrists are already burning. I will go have some Mayan chili chocolate instead. (Also excellent for your heart.)