Sunday, December 23, 2012

On "The Hobbit"

"The greatest adventure is what lies ahead. Today and tomorrow are yet to be said..."

I saw The Hobbit while in Athens. It was good. Not so good that I'd like to see it again, and sometimes painful to sit through. Some points:

-Definitely should have been one movie. Sooo much bloat, and I felt the length. Simply put, you cannot string an epic story out of this material. Every story beat takes too long. I think Tolkien himself would have stopped in the middle of writing the Silmarillion to tell them to wrap it up. Towards the end, when I'm watching trees fall down and dwarves throwing pine cone grenades and dwarves hanging from the legs of other dwarves and Thorin slo-mo battling some main antagonist they made up for the movie, I'm thinking, "Really? All this to get to the eagle rescue? Just have the birds pick them up from the trees."

-There are a lot of callbacks to the first trilogy. This can be cool, as the Lord of the Rings movies have been around long enough to have their own mythology. I loved the Frodo cameo (until it went on too long), and geeked out when Saruman showed up. Certain motifs in the musical score come along at just the right moment, like that choir when the eagles come, and it works.

(Speaking of that council scene, I loved how, while Elrond and Saruman and Gandalf are taking their meeting super serious, Galadriel is just walking ethereally in a circle, looking at them out the corner of her eye and having side conversations with Gandalf. Screw this second coming of Sauron stuff, she just wants to pose. And I love how Gandalf is the quintessential employee, kowtowing to his middle manager Saruman while engaging in telepathic gossip.)

On the other hand, a lot of it is lazy filmmaking. That part where Radagast is outrunning the orcs on his rabbit sleigh? Arwen already did that. The Goblin Town fight? The Mines of Moria. Walking on the side of a mountain in a nasty storm? Just like the first movie. The party getting surrounded by possibly hostile horsemen? Taken from the second movie. There was no reason to have an orc hunting party chasing the heroes, yet here they are, like in Fellowship. It's not a good sign when a filmmaker starts homaging himself. There has to be a balance to these things. For instance, I enjoyed the part where Bilbo falls on his back and the ring falls on his finger. A clear callback to Fellowship that visually links Bilbo and Frodo. Other times, it seemed like Jackson wasn't trying. Using the same upshot as when the hobbits were hiding under the knoll in Fellowship does not work because an orc on a warg is NOT AS SCARY as a Nazgul.

Yet there's also comfort to these familiar scenes. Going into LOTR, I already had a general outline of how the trilogy would pan out. With The Hobbit, I REALLY knew how the story would pan out, so there's no suspense. Add this to the fact that so much of it is retread, it makes for an altogether comfortable film, with familiar faces doing familiar things. And it was great to see my old buddy Gollum show up like no time had passed since his epic fall into Mount Doom. In the ever-capable hands of Andy Serkis, he still has that mix of pathos and menace that made him so compelling. But I'm not sure this makes for great filmmaking. I am comforted to see Hugo Weaving show up, but Elrond doesn't do much of anything in the story. Meanwhile, Jackson keeps treading familiar territory. It's sad that an Oscar-winning director hasn't progressed at all in ten years.

Unlike any LOTR film, I felt the length. For instance, the scene with Frodo. The two Bagginses discuss the Sackville-Bagginses and the party for what seems like five minutes, and I could swear I saw this same scene in the extended edition. Then I wondered if Jackson had simply cut out an EE scene and stuck it in a theatrical film. That's not the case, but it felt that way. This whole movie felt like one of the extended editions. They work great as home DVDs that you can pause every once in a while, but as movies they are bloated and redundant. I swear, that goblin chase was, like, a page in the book. The whole affair needed at least a half hour cut off.

-The part where they're on the rock giants was beyond stupid.

-Martin Freeman is great. I'd never heard of the guy before, but he's definitely got the everyman thing down. I'd say he's well-equipped to be the focus of this trilogy.

-They nailed Riddles in the Dark. This was the one I was worried about, as its a battle of wits/dialogue scene between two characters, without special effects to really on. Serkis and Freeman were great, and Gollum had a palpable menace. Goes to show that, at the end of the day, it's about the actors. The scene where Bilbo spares Gollum was easily the most emotional part of the film for me. The way Bilbo kept holding his sword in different ways, as if any of them would make the kill easier, was spot-on. And Gollum just looked so sad and human. A perfectly executed version of one of the best things Tolkien wrote.

-Another wonderful scene: the morning after the 15-hour "Unexpected Party." Bilbo is walking through his house. Everything is back where it was, other than an emptied pantry. He can continue with his life like nothing happened. Then he sees the dwarves' contract. Right then and there he is faced with a choice. On the one hand is the life he knew; on the other hand is the unfamiliar. Jackson perfectly captures that call to adventure that the best stories have. It's there when Taran decides to chase Hen Wen. It's there when the Pevensies go through the wardrobe. It's there when Matthias decides to find the Sword of Martin. Every time, the hero makes a choice, and Jackson nails that decision. Enchanting scene.

-I'm going to be in the minority, I feel, but I liked Radagast. When I go to see a fantasy movie, I want fantasy. I want little gnome guys with blue orb-y things in their wizard staffs nursing hedgehogs back to health. And i don't mind the rabbits sleigh, because I'm sure he does enough for those rabbits that they don't mind dragging him around. That he doesn't work tonally with the rest of the film goes back to problems with them trying to squeeze an epic trilogy from a children's story. Sooo...really all they needed this whole time to defeat the orcs were rabbits? Those suckers could have ran circles around the Uruks at Helm's Deep.

I really don't know why they couldn't just film it as a kids' flick. I'm more interested in seeing a quality children's fantasy film than a kinda-kids'-flick-kinda-LOTR-retread at this point. For instance, I saw Wreck-It Ralph a few weeks ago. That movie was confident in what it was, and was pretty much better than Hobbit in every way.

-In the end, I did get one thing I missed from my beloved trilogy: high-octane male bonding! That hug Thorin gave Bilbo in the end? Waterworks. Give me more, please.

Anyway, there were some thrilling parts, and some emotional beats that worked, and some of the trademark Tokien "quaint" that I found charming. But Rankin-Bass has nothing to worry about. Their Hobbit is still the gold standard. I have no real urge to see the second one. This first one already drew too much from the Appendices, so I can only guess the next will have a major case of appendicitis in order to fill three hours. It's a shame del Toro dropped out, because this is a franchise that needs new blood. Jackson's not challenging himself at all. Anyway, I'll probably go see the third because, you know, dragons. Ugh. It was George Lucas who started this bloat thing, designing a whole trilogy of prequels where only the last one mattered. Now it's a fixture of how Hollywood goes for the geek dollar. Doesn't make for good storytelling at all.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Jules Bentley's blog has some awesome articles.

Read it NOW.

Tour update--New Orleans

I've had a great time in New Orleans, going to parties and meeting new people. Hanging out with various queers, crusties, and hobos. I'd forgotten how nice it is to hang out with people who are pozy, which is the majority of folks Ben and Dziga surround themselves with. I'm also realizing how small the world is. My tourmate Dziga had not only heard of Camp Butchinson, the movie I extra'd in back in August, but knows some of the actors. And who do I see at a party in New Orleans, but one of the founding members of the hippie house I used to live in. And who did I read with on Wednesday but Ben Kopel. He toured this year with Kim Vodicka, who I toured with last year. The United States is starting to feel like a city block. No wonder I've been getting the travel bug.

New Orleans has fast become one of my favorite cities. It's so beautiful, and I love that there's MUSIC everywhere. I was just walking around a lake today, passed by one of those gorgeous old-time houses and heard trumpet coming out the window. Or those kids I saw in the French Quarter, singing Christmas carols with trumpet and tamborine. It's been a nice stay, but I'm ready to hit the road. We finally--FINALLY--booked Atlanta, so starting in Pensacola it's going to be a reading per day.

The reading at Fair Grinds was easily the best-attempted reading I've ever done. Standing room only. 40+ people. My book launches in Pittsburgh and Oakland might have been as well-attended, but I doubt it. It was also one of the most effortless shows I've ever done. No hitches. Smooth transitions. I read from "When the Law Come," and found out I have a large amount of the story memorized. Once again, smooth. Dziga's friend Gorgios was good. Ben Kopel was good. Everybody was good. It's interesting doing shows on the other readers' home turf. Even though I'm the headliner, nobody came there for me. It kind of inspires me to step up my game.

At some point, an audience member asked about the title of the tour. As I came up with the title, I gave an eloquent explanation as to why the blues is still relevant in this day and age, maybe more than ever. After which, New Orleans literary luminary Jules Bentley yells out, "What about Dusty Rhodes?" After which, I not only admitted I took the title "Hard Times Blues" from a Dusty Rhodes promo, but began to act out said promo.

Speaking of eloquence, at one point Dziga, who was MCing, spoke about why he wanted to do this tour so much. He told how people, when asked about our respective fields--poetry, comics, and fantasy--speak about them as something that other people are into. And maybe, in seeing our shows, they'll feel comfortable saying that poetry, comics, and fantasy are something they're into as well. Deep.

After the show, we hung out with Ben, and a few of Ben and Dziga's friends, and the nice chaps from Maple Street Books, who sponsored the event. We went to a bar. I learned that a deep fried jalapeno is just that. A jalapeno. Ouch.

For more depth from Ben and Dziga (I can't speak for myself), here's our interview with Savannah Now:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tour update

Right now I'm in New Orleans, in a warehouse/punk house. What's the technical term for such a place? A werepunk house? This is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous collective spaces I've been in. Two stories, multiple rooms, alcoves, high ceilings, posters from as far back as the 90s on the wall, random things everywhere, lumber, screenprint studio, Books to Prisons HQ, an NES system, a treasure trove of VHS tapes. There are windows that lead into hallways and doors converted into shelves and hidden stairways. Describing it does no justice. I had a communal dinner with the residents last night, in which we broke bread and had a lengthy discussion about the politics of the X-Men. Everyone except me was well-versed in the mythology. Still, good times. I hear it's closing down at the end of the month, as the person who owns the property wants to do some kind of land trust thing with it. Maybe that'll be a good thing, but as of now, it rocks as a collective space.

We had a good show in Lafayette. Small crowd, but they were feeling it, and it worked nice as a dress rehearsal for the rest of the tour. It even felt like a dress rehearsal, as we were in a theater, with a stage and furniture and vases of paper flowers. Both Ben and Luka are cool folks, and Ben's music/comic presentation was super polished.

But it is not tour without disasters big and small. My tourmates rented a car from one of their friends, and drove it to Lafayette. At some point before we went on, Luka went to the car, tried to open it, and the key broke off in the door. I didn't know a piece of metal could just snap in half. This left us stranded in Lafayette with a car we couldn't move.

As disasters go, not so bad. It could have happened in the middle of the tour, when we had less down time. Instead, it happened right at the beginning, during the days we set aside in case we got Baton Rouge or Austin. As there was 15 hours left on their Kickstarter, Luka put up an emergency "we're fucked" message on Facebook. We got a little extra change off of that. For our troubles, the owner of Cite des Arts gave us a drink each, on the house.

Here's how this went. Ben and Luka could not just walk into a locksmith and ask for a duplicate key of a car they don't own. So the person who owned the car had to borrow someone else's car, drive three hours from Nola to Lafayette. They had to have the car towed to the Chevy dealership. Once their friend arrived, then they got a new key, then they got the car, then we went to New Orleans. I spent the whole ride down to Nola grading student papers, and got grades in right at the 9 o'clock deadline, thus gratefully ending the longest semester of school I've ever had. All's well that ends well. I got my papers done. Ben and Luka got a nice long vacation in Lafayette.

I've been homeless for over a month. That is not bragging about how tough I am, or trying to elicit sympathy. It's just reality. I was renting from somebody who basically had a mental breakdown, and one consequence was they kicked my black ass out in the literal cold without explanation. Having to move for the thid time in three months felt pretty disgusting, but there was nothing to be done about it. As I could not find housing in the middle of October, I came back from Canada with nowhere to live, and spent much of November dragging luggage between different temporary shelters. I still went to work every day and did my job. I am grateful that eventually one of the professors put me up for long enough to get done with whatever was necessary, and get things situated for tour. It's funny that, being on the road, I feel more secure than I have been for the last several months.

I want to try out some new material on this tour. All of the stories in Hard Times Blues are ripe for reading. Until I find a printer, it's JDS. Tomorrow I'll read "When the Law Come." We've got two other artists on the bill. And everybody who comes out gets my kudos for bravery, because goddamn it's cold down here. Winter, you have arrived.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Tour News!

I just slept for seven hours through a massive thunderstorm. You never realize how much you miss something until you finally have it. Sleep, my friend. It's good to see you again. And sleep is always best with a thunderstorm in the background. You wake up and it seems like the world is ending, and that's oddly comforting. The impending apocalypse becomes a lullaby. Thunder and lightning and sound of rain in leaves are all very soothing sounds, when you're not out in the open. They remind you the Earth is still working.

I'm going on tour in less than a week! Hitting the road with Ben Passmore and Dziga Daedalus, who is going under the alias of Luka Miro. Ben's a killer graphic artist, Dziga's a killer poet. Here's the flyer Ben dreamed up.

Awesome. You would think he did this for a living or something. Dziga arranged for us to drive a friend's '97 Toyota Camry. Good gas mileage. We'll see how it tackles the Blue Ridges. Anyways, here are our dates.

December 9th--Lafayette, LA--Cites des Arts
December 12th--New Orleans, LA--Maple Street Books
December 14th--Pensacola, FL--Open Books
December 16th--Athens, GA--Flicker Bar
December 17th--Savannah, GA--The Sentient Bean
December 18th--Chapel Hill, NC--Internationalist Books
December 19th--Boone, NC--TBA
December 20th--Asheville, NC--Firestorm Cafe
December 21st--Memphis, TN--Java Cabana

We tried hard to get Atlanta. Really hard. I don't know if I've ever contacted so many people for one city, but, alas, the booking gods did not smile on us. It looks like that'll be our day to go see The Hobbit. And there are gaps in there that I'd hoped would be Texas dates or Baton Rouge, but they all fell through. Oh well, no sense angsting. I'm excited to finally get all bardic in the South. Tour ends, appropriately, on the End of the World. I can't think of a better way to go out.