Oh, I’ve been persuaded alright!

First things first: I have a great deal of respect for how Jane Austen was able to make a living from her writing in a time and place when the vast majority of women financially depended on a husband or male relatives. I also recognise her technical skills at sentence construction and ability to write very artistic prose. I additionally respect her for being known on her own merits instead of through a husband, father, or brother.

All that, however, doesn’t mean I emotionally connect with her writing. I have a very difficult time reading 19th century literature, even understanding writers in that era operated under much different literary conventions; e.g., overdescribing things irrelevant to the plot, opening with backstory.

Still, I’ve enjoyed other 19th century books which were written under much different sensibilities. What didn’t I like about this one?

1. Opening with pages upon pages of infodumpy backstory! We truly don’t need to know this family’s entire life story down to the most irrelevant details! It’s like Dostoyevskiy insisting readers need 50 pages of backstory to understand The Brothers Karamazov. Hard pass!

2. Overly formal language. I get that people in that era spoke much differently, but were they really that formal all the time?

3. Distant narration. I never felt in anyone’s head, or at least emotionally pulled into the story.

4. Hard to keep track of who’s talking. I’ve 100% been guilty of this myself in the past, but I’ve worked hard to show characters doing little things every so often in a long dialogue scene with only the two of them. Even when we know dialogue alternates, it’s easy to forget who’s on first when all we see are talking heads.

5. Archaic literary constructions. I wish an editor had updated these aspects of the language, like unnecessarily split words (every thing, any one, every one), “shewed” (i.e., “showed”), and &c. WTF was the lattermost all about! Was there something wrong with writing “and so on” or even “etc.”?

6. I didn’t really like any of these people. Beyond the distant narration, no one seemed particularly sympathetic or compelling.

7. I can’t really relate to the idle upper-class of early 19th century England. If they’d done something beyond sit around gossiping, going for walks, and talking about themselves, I could’ve been compelled to care about their lives. I understand women’s lives were extremely limited in this era, but they weren’t all this boring!

8. TELLING! It seems like at least 95% consists of “This happened. Then that happened. X and Y discussed this. Z and Q discussed that. Name felt this. Name felt that. Tell tell telly lots of telling! Infodumpy dialogue. Let’s have some more telling!” There were almost no active scenes. For all the issues I have with Hemingway’s beyond-Spartan prose of “Noun verb noun. Noun verb noun. I drank another vermouth,” at least he told active stories!

9. It would’ve been more effective had we seen Anne and Captain Wentworth’s original relationship, followed by their breakup and reunion years later. How can we give a damn about them getting back together if we never saw them during the first gasp of their relationship or how Anne was persuaded to jilt him?

10. We also never get an active sense of just why Lady Russell is so overbearing and a poor judge of situations and people, nor why Anne still likes her. Merely telling us a character is a certain way does jack to actually bring that out!

11. Too many irrelevant characters who contribute jack towards the story.

12. Total slog! Even after over 100 pages, I felt like nothing had been accomplished, with nothing happening. That’s kind of what happens when most of a story is a summary of events.

After this experience, I’m no longer so hesitant to attempt reading Jane Eyre again (a DNF at age thirteen), or to read another Hemingway novel. At least those are actual stories instead of dull summaries of dull events!

Dracula disappointed me

Bela Lugosi, DRACULA, 1931.

I was really looking forward to watching the 1931 version of Dracula, always having had the impression it’s one of the all-time greats and classics of horror cinema. Instead, I found myself yet again disappointed by something surrounded by years of massive hype.

For all the issues I have with Nosferatu (to be discussed more in-depth next October), at least that film succeeds brilliantly at creating a creepy, spooky, foreboding mood, with tension in the air. It’s all thrown away with a whimper instead of a bang, but at least it’s there.

Béla Lugosi cuts an awesome figure as Count Dracula, though he seems to do about as much active vamping as Max Schreck, which is to say, not nearly enough. It does start out promisingly, but once it moves to London, the stiltedness begins.

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Stripped of all the hype and classic status, this is just another creaky, stilted early talkie. So many early talkies feel like filmed stage plays, since the first sound cameras couldn’t move very far and still pick up noise well. Dracula was indeed based on a stage play, but I really don’t feel like that best-suits any kind of horror story.

The horror is more talked about after the fact, instead of shown as it’s actually happening. How is that supposed to create a frightening mood? Silent horror films work so well because they’re not bogged down in a bunch of dialogue. We see horrific events, and experience the building of a creepy mood. Even in a sound horror film, do you really need a lot of dialogue to understand what’s happening?

Forget horror; ANY film, of any genre, becomes boring and stilted when there’s more dialogue than action. Books also suffer when they’re little more than talking heads.

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We never once see Dracula biting anyone, rising up out of his coffin, transmogrifying from bat to human, or even just showing his fangs. Beyond that, we don’t even see bite marks on anyone’s neck! Come on, those are basic elements of any Dracula story, no matter which version it’s based on!

Horror movies don’t necessarily have to be a nonstop parade of horrific images and frightening events. Sometimes the horror is more about a foreboding mood, a creepy mystery, or dark human emotions, not paranormal creatures, psychotic murderers, or blood and guts. However, I didn’t get a palpable sense of any type of horror here.

A slow pace also doesn’t work with most horror films.

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The film was directed by the legendary Tod Browning, though he was a last-minute choice. This wasn’t his project from the jump, which seems to suggest, sadly, that it’s just an urban legend that Lon Chaney, Sr., would’ve played Dracula had he still been alive. Still, I can’t help but imagine how awesome Lon would’ve been as Dracula, even with the same script and stilted feeling.

There’s also an old rumor that Carl Laemmle, Sr., of Universal Studios, wanted the awesome Conrad Veidt to play Dracula. Though he had to go back to Germany with the advent of sound, due to his thick accent and poor English, Lugosi also had a heavy accent, and his troubles with learning English are well-known. It could’ve worked with Veidt.

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Just because I most love old films doesn’t mean I automatically love all of them. It’s such a myth that lovers of classic cinema think it’s immune from criticism, only watch it because it’s old, refuse to watch anything modern, or heap praises on films just because they’re old. There were just as many bad apples then as now, even if I’d much rather watch a bad or mediocre old film than something current.

I’d give this a 2 out of 5. It wasn’t terrible, but there was nothing special or innovative about it. Even Lugosi’s character didn’t do much to elevate the overall experience.

Why I HATED Life Is Beautiful

Happy Shavuot!

(Among the pages I was unable to recover during my frenzied search of caches and web archives in the immediate wake of losing my old Angelfire site were both of the long, detailed rants I wrote about this film. I wrote those pieces when the film was much fresher in my memory, but I’ll try my best to recreate and summarize the most important points.)

I actually hadn’t thought about this insulting farce of a film in a good long while, but since I mentioned it in a recent post, it seemed like a good opportunity to excoriate it anew. So, let’s do that!

La Vita È Bella is one of the most overrated films of the Nineties, and of recent memory. I’m not going to squee all over it simply because it’s a (supposed) historical drama, a foreign film, and (supposedly) about the Shoah. Yet apparently many other people do squee all over it for those very reasons, simply because they’ve barely seen any other foreign films or historical dramas. Contrary to popular belief, a book or film about the Shoah isn’t an automatic tear-jerker or even high-quality just by mere virtue of its subject matter.

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Robert Benigni thinks he’s the second coming of the great Charles Spencer Chaplin, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Whatever you think of Chaplin’s personal life and politics, you at least have to give him credit for being a great filmmaker and comedian. Even a lot of people who find some of his films overrated at least respect his place in history and cinematic genius.

Benigni is always on, constantly mugging for the camera, doing obnoxious slapstick, making himself the center of attention, never deviating from the same personality, pouring on the pathos at all the “right” moments. Chaplin’s Tramp character, and the later non-Tramp characters he played in talkies, were much more nuanced. He had the right mixture of comedy and seriousness, the ability to be a sweet, put-upon underdog and then fight back against bullies. I also never feel emotionally manipulated by Chaplin, being told when to laugh or cry.

Also, to Chaplin’s great credit, he later said he would never have made The Great Dictator had he known the situation was anything but funny, and much worse than what everyone thought.

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The first half of La Vita È Bella actually isn’t that bad. It’s not particularly memorable or great cinema, but it’s at least somewhat bearable. There are a couple of amusing moments scattered throughout, and Benigni is in his element. Although it’s obvious he shouldn’t be casting his real-life wife in all his movies. I’m sure she’s a lovely lady, but she’s not a great actor.

There are a lot of plotholes and undeveloped storylines and characters in the first half. Why, for example, would Dora leave her comfortable life to marry some Jewish joker? How did Guido get into a country club on horseback, without being kicked out and punished? Why did she finally fall for him?

The second half is what most people have the biggest beef with. It’s a complete slap in the face to historical memory to depict the Shoah as Ernest Goes to a Concentration-Camp Meets Hogan’s Heroes. Seriously, that’s exactly what the second half feels like. Dark, irreverent comedy can be done well, but one has to be very careful about the execution. Benigni has claimed it’s supposed to be a heartwarming fable and not taken seriously, but then why even choose this particular setting?

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Guido and Giosué would’ve been killed for any one of the stupid things they do during the course of the second half. Stepping out of line, trying to talk to guards, wandering around at ease, taking over the broadcast system, hiding in the Barracks, you name it. There’s never any real sense their lives are in danger.

Real children who survived the camps were under no illusions as to what was really going on. They didn’t believe it was just some big, elaborate, fun game. They couldn’t get away with hiding undetected all day. Unless they’re supposed to be at a camp like Terezin, there’s no way a child would’ve been spared upon arrival. At least give us a plausible if unlikely reason a child wouldn’t have been gassed on arrival, like the gas chambers malfunctioned that day, or there were too many people waiting to be gassed. I call BS on no one ever seeing this kid or a child being totally shielded from all the horror and deprivations.

My stomach turned when Guido joked about buttoning themselves up and washing themselves up with their friends. I felt so sick and nauseous anyone would even make a joke about that. The second time I watched this film was even worse than the first, and not just because it was a dubbed version.

If you’re going to depict something that was extremely unusual/unlikely, at least ground it in circumstances within the realm of plausibility, and emphasize this wasn’t normal. I’d give this a 2 out of 5, since at least the first half was bearable, there were a couple of genuinely moving moments sprinkled in, and I believe Benigni’s heart was in the right place.

The most overrated album of all time

Just because you like an album doesn’t mean you’re immune from looking at it with critical eyes. Sgt. Pepper is hands-down the singularly most overrated album of all time, bar absolute none. I’m glad more people have come to see it as more hype than substance. The review I gave it at my old Angelfire site was a generous 4 stars, but if I’m being perfectly honest about its faults, I’d downgrade it to 3.5 stars.

There’s FAR too much filler on this album for it to seriously be considered “the greatest album of all time.” Be honest. Are songs like “Fixing a Hole,” “Lovely Rita” (after which I named my fourth journal), “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” “Good Morning Good Morning,” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in the same league as songs like “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Come Together,” “In My Life,” “Something,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” and “Eleanor Rigby”? “Mr. Kite” and “Good Morning” in particular are throwaways, which John called out as garbage.

You cannot say this is their strongest, best, most classic album. Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Abbey Road are all way stronger and more substantial than this. Some people criticise AR for how most of Side Two consists of song snippets instead of complete songs, but it wouldn’t be the same album without all those mini-songs blending into one another. It just works for that album. Pepper is extremely disjointed, no cohesive style. Again, some people have leveled that same criticism at The White Album, but that also fits that particular album. Each Beatle has songs in his own style, and it sounds like a solo showcase for each instead of a unified band effort.

People seem to mindlessly heap praises on Pepper for superficial reasons, not because the music is awesome and stands up well to the test of time. It’s got one of the greatest, most iconic album covers of all time, and really helped along the shift from generic band pictures to real artwork. It was also the first widely-known album to include lyrics, and it also came with paper dolls of The Beatles in their psychedelic outfits. All of which are awesome, but have nothing to do with the actual musical content.

There’s an undeniably trippy, psychedelic sound, and perhaps it sounds even better on acid. (Not that I’m going to try psychedelic drugs!) There are layers of sound, new types of sounds, and innovative use of instruments. Again, that has more to do with surface things, NOT the actual musical substance. Coating dross with layers of gold doesn’t change the fact that there’s still dross lurking underneath. As much as I love Sixties music, some songs of this era do sound dated now, because of the overly psychedelic, experimental sounds. They can certainly be enjoyed as period pieces, but let’s not kid ourselves that they’re timeless classics.

The “concept” is laughably simplistic and unoriginal, a band giving a concert. How long did it take to come up with that one, Paul? This “concept” only lasts two songs anyway, and then comes back in the brief “Reprise” near the end. There are far superior concept albums from this era, like The Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake and The Who Sell Out. (Seriously, if you love Sixties music, I highly recommend The Small Faces. Don’t let U.S. oldies stations fool you into believing their only song was “Itchycoo Park.”)

These songs just don’t beg to be listened to over and over again, aren’t the types of songs you particularly need to listen to to understand The Beatles. Looking at it honestly, the strongest tracks are “She’s Leaving Home,” “A Day in the Life” (a timeless classic), “Getting Better,” and “Within You Without You.” A lot of people like to crap all over George’s contribution, but I’ve always adored it. When I first heard it at age 14, it were like an invisible door to another world opened up and expanded my mind, showed me all these possibilities, introduced me to Indian music. “With a Little Help from My Friends” is also fun, obviously one of Ringo’s most famous Beatles’ songs.

Ultimately, it smacks of drug-induced overindulgence, elevating the art aspect of music over the actual music aspect. Granted, I’d rather listen to The Beatles’ filler songs than the filler songs of most modern artists, but it’s still more filler than substance. I’d recommend Revolver, Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, The White Album, Magical Mystery Tour, and even A Hard Day’s Night (my favourite album from their early period) over this bloated exercise in excess.

Why I HATED The Book Thief

Oh, yes, I’m going to go there, and I don’t care how many people might think I’m as bad as a kitten-killer for stating my honest opinion on this bloated piece of purple prose on par with a D.W. Griffith movie. And please don’t write some impassioned comment trying to get me to Magickally change my mind and suddenly join the crowd squeeing all over this tripe. Not gonna happen.

When this was assigned as the required historical in my YA Lit class, I was excited to finally get to read this book I’d heard so many good things about. And the first few chapters actually flew by quickly. I thought I was going to love the rest of the book and have it done in a few days.

Was I wrong.

Attempting to read this book was like watching paint dry. It moved at a snail’s pace, with no real plot taking shape and nothing of note really happening. A lot of things happened, but they never really accomplished anything. Even a book that’s deliberately slower-paced and more about character development than fast-paced and plot-centric needs to be hung on some kind of arc. I kept waiting for some kind of inciting incident to take shape, some dramatic midway point, and it never happened.

With the exception of Rudy and maybe Hans, none of these characters felt particularly fleshed-out and three-dimensional. They were like a collection of stereotypes and characteristics, rather like how I used to write my own characters. At least my excuse was extreme youth. None of these people ever really came alive for me. I felt absolutely nothing for any of them.

The prose is excessively purple, and not only that, but it’s overwrought and reads like something you’d find in the notebooks of some self-important teen who thinks s/he’s all that. I’ve been there and done that, so I know what I’m talking about. Sometimes it’s not even deliberate, but your youthful prose oozes the message, “Look at me! I’m so much deeper and more creative than my peers! Look at these unique metaphors and similes! Look how uniquely I use language! Everyone praise me as a special little snowflake and misunderstood genius!”

Page after page contains silly examples like “breakfast-colored sun,” “chocolate-colored sky,” “pinecones littered like cookies,” “disfigured figure,” “lacerated windows,” “the sound of a smell,” and “rusty silver eyes.” Seriously, the language is just bizarre. And “nightmare” isn’t a verb, at least not in English.

It’s way too heavy-handed, beating us over the head with all the subtlety of a D.W. Griffith movie and telling us how to think and feel. At least Griffith’s films are entertaining and tell interesting stories, his personal flaws and Victorian preachiness/moralizing aside. With the vile exception of BOAN, I’d gladly watch just about any of his films again.

Unless Rudy were exposed to radioactive material or a dye job went seriously wrong, his hair would not literally be the color of lemons. A human being cannot have lemon-colored hair naturally. Why do so many writers try to creatively describe hair color?

Death as a narrator is a really bad gimmick that doesn’t work.

Native-speaking Germans have said that the vulgar words constantly bandied about are NOT used as anything but vulgar, lowbrow insults in German. They’re not used as cute, charming, funny terms of endearment between spouses, friends, or parents and children. Just picture one of George Carlin’s 7 Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television standing in for those words, and you get the point. Totally obscene and inappropriate.

Way too much telling instead of showing. I think there’s too much emphasis on ONLY showing these days, but this wasn’t the good, necessary kind of telling. It just made the book even more boring and long-winded.

Nice job stereotyping nuns as ruler-wielding, child-beating sadists!

How not to write omniscient POV: Litter the book with constant spoilers and horn into the narrative to give away pivotal plot points, the fates of just about everyone, and the ending, multiple times. Just think of a book whose ending totally tore your heart out because of a character’s unexpected death, or some other kind of tragedy. Now imagine how different it would’ve been had you seen this every 5-10 pages:

****NEWSFLASH!**** In 5 months, Name is going to die in exactly this way! You’ll never see THAT one coming! Heeheehee! Everyone praise my cleverness! Look how avant-garde I am!

God help the people who seriously think this is “brilliant” or “moving” use of “foreshadowing.” Um, I wasn’t aware that the definition of foreshadowing now included outright giving away the ending and pivotal plot developments.

He had over 500 pages and couldn’t even make it to the end of the War! Serious sign this was an unfocused project.

The title makes no sense, as Liesel only steals a few books on and off.

It takes a special talent to make a book set during this era boring.

And this is why I stay far away from books with massive hype.