Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Prayer for Owen Meany—A review

While my reading tastes are heavily weighted toward fantasy, horror, history, and military non-fiction, one cannot subsist on a diet of magic, mayhem, and combat alone. At least I can’t, which means that I occasionally dip into other genres as well.

John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989, Ballantine Books) had been on my to-read list for some time. Now that I’ve completed it, I’m very glad I made the effort. At first I debated reviewing it here on The Silver Key, which is dedicated to “all things fun and fantastic.” But a few things led me, in the end, to do so: 1) It concerns miracles, so it kind of fits; 2) It’s a great book and worth talking about; and 3) This is my own ill-defined blog and therefore have license to write about what I want to :).

I typically treat the books I’m reading with zealous care. But since my copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany came pre-beat up and creased (I bought it for pennies at a church fair), I took the rare, luxurious, and lazy opportunity to dog-ear those pages that I thought contained a memorable passage or were otherwise worth returning to or writing about. By the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany I had bent the corners of more than a dozen, and could have marred many more, but I started feeling badly about the wanton damage I was inflicting. It really is a great book.

A Prayer for Owen Meany tells the story of two classmates and good friends growing up in the late 1950s/60s in the small New Hampshire town of Gravesend. It’s told from the viewpoint of John Wheelwright, a smart but self-conscious kid struggling with his identity and trying to find his way. Wheelwright grows up not knowing who his father is, and when his mother dies early in the book from a tragic accident he’s left parentless and drifting, in the care of his grandmother and stepfather. He vows to discover his biological dad’s true identity. Both in a literal and spiritual sense, it’s a trip to find his (and the) father.

But the main character of the book is Meany. He’s a precocious, diminutive boy-genius with an oddly high-pitched voice (Irving uses a CAPS LOCK style to convey his dialogue). And he’s not just physically different, but morally and spiritually special as well. Meany is convinced that he is God’s instrument and believes he knows the date and details of his own death. Because of his faith and his precognition, he’s blessed with a wisdom far beyond his years, and he knows that his life has a purpose and a meaning. He does not fear the end. His favorite passage from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, It seems to me the most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.

Meany’s charisma and ability to unsettle with his spiritual insights invites comparisons with Christ, though in other ways he remains firmly grounded, an out of place kid struggling with odd parents, girls, a demanding job in a granite quarry, and the difficulties of academic life. In short, he’s a wonderfully drawn and memorable character.

Through Meany, Irving explores the nature of religious faith, which ultimately requires that we put ourselves in the hands of a higher power, one we cannot see with our own eyes on this earth. It’s a hard thing to embrace. “Faith based on evidence is no faith at all,” Meany explains. And also: “Faith takes practice.” Wheelwright constantly struggles with his own faith, but Meany makes him a believer.

In addition to its spiritual themes, A Prayer for Owen Meany is firmly a “baby boomer” novel. Irving uses it to explore the grand events of that generation, including the sweeping optimism surrounding the election of John F. Kennedy, JFK’s subsequent fall from grace (his rumored affair with Marilyn Monroe), and his eventual assassination. Of central importance to the novel is the Vietnam War. Wheelwright is a bitter, dyed-in-the-wool liberal who loses his faith in America due to the war and eventually flees to Canada to evade the draft. Though Meany is also skeptical of our ultimate objective, he accepts his duty to his country and enlists, much to the dismay of his anti-war friends. Later in his life (Owen Meany is told through a series of flashbacks), Wheelwright voices a similar disgust for the presidency of Ronald Regan and that administration’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair.

The carnage of Vietnam and Kennedy’s unfortunate fall represented a loss of innocence for the U.S. Framed by these larger events, Wheelwright and Meany suffer the smaller but equally poignant losses of their childhood, including the death of loved ones, and the revelation that their idols and role-models—parents, teachers, priests, even Presidents—are deeply flawed, weak, fraudulent, and all too human. But the miracle of Meany’s life gives us hope that something better awaits in the hereafter.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Red Dawn retrospective

When I was a kid I wanted to be a Wolverine and kill Russians. That’s what happens when you watch Red Dawn about 45 times in a year, as I did circa 1984-85.

Last week I revisited Red Dawn after many, many years and found it surprisingly … watchable. I admit that some scenes are pretty awful and cringe-inducing, and nostalgia may be obscuring some of its warts, but in general Red Dawn has held up as an entertaining action film with a great premise that, sadly, fails to live up to its heady potential.

I’ve often seen Red Dawn labeled around the internet as a) jingoistic and b) junk. While a) is mostly true, I will say this: Red Dawn is in every way a product of its time. In the mid-80s its premise seemed plausible. With films like The Terminator, Wargames, and The Day After on television and in our consciousness, World War III was a doomsday scenario to consider, not some fantasy to laugh at. The media likes to call the 1980s a decade of innocent excess and consumerism, but beneath the MTV veneer lurked the fear of instant annihilation. In some respects these were scary times, and Red Dawn represented our fears writ large. Given the enemy we were facing, albeit in a “cold war” standoff situation, national pride was nothing to scoff at. Cynicism was not as rampant as it is now.

As for b), no, I don’t consider Red Dawn junk, just very, very far-fetched. But once you commit to divorcing it from realism, I think it’s pretty entertaining. Put another way: If I want to watch a realistic war film which depicts the terrible reality of bullets meeting flesh, I’ll pop in Saving Private Ryan or an episode of Band of Brothers. If I want bloodless action masquerading as real war, Red Dawn fits the bill.

There are of course several things wrong with the film that I simply cannot gloss over. For example:

• Why are the Central Americans and Russians bothering with a shithole town in the middle of Colorado with no apparent military value?

• How is a limited nuclear exchange in any way possible? What, did the Soviet Union and the United States realize that mutually assured destruction wouldn’t make for a good film? If I was the U.S. and being overrun, I’d give the Soviets six hours to reverse course, or the nukes would be flying … at their country. There’s some discussion early in the film about “selective nuke strikes” wiping out silos in Omaha, Washington, the Dakotas, and Kansas City, but how they hit the U.S. with no advance warning is never satisfactorily explained.

• Why do the enemy forces that the Wolverines ambush a) lack any accuracy; b) not use grenades, artillery, heavy machine guns, etc. to just wipe these kids out as soon as they start firing from their “concealed positions” by the side of the road?

• Why is C. Thomas Howell’s death scene so bad? The suicidal last stand, his gun blazing, accompanied by cheesy, swelling music, his final cry of “Wolverines” as 23 mm helicopter cannon take him down—this is so bad as to defy description.

But now that these not insubstantial complaints are out of the way, on to the good.

John Milius’ writing. Milius is a good screenwriter and has a particular talent for crafting memorable dialogue. If you like the sparse but memorable lines of Conan the Barbarian, Dirty Harry, and Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech from Jaws, you’ll also love his work in Red Dawn.

The pacing. Red Dawn doesn’t waste any time with exposition or character development. It opens with some stark subtitles about political crises and food shortages in Europe and the Soviet Union, and bare minutes into the movie we’re hit with...

The initial attack. Who can forget the shock of seeing Soviet Union paratroopers landing in the school yard? Like the silhouette of an annihilated atomic blast victim at ground zero, the image of the teacher walking outside to confront the soldiers before getting mercilessly mowed down is permanently burned into my brain. As is the next scene of the Russkies raking the classroom window with machine gun fire. I always felt bad for that girl lying in the window frame with a bullet in her head. You know the one.

Great “brother love.” I couldn’t help but be moved by the scene with Patrick Swayze cradling his dead brother (Charlie Sheen) on the park bench in the snow at the end of the film. Red Dawn actually contains an undercurrent of anti-war sentiment (the Central American officer putting down his AK-47 in disgust, Patrick Swayze sobbing at the old pictures of he and his brother Matt’s lost childhood, etc.), although this admittedly feels tacked-on and rather lost amidst the non-stop, kick-ass carnage.

The downed air force colonel. Powers Boothe has a great turn as Col. Andy Tanner, a downed F-15 fighter pilot who briefly joins the Wolverines. He plays the wise old warrior and Milius gives him most of the best lines in the movie, including:

The Russians need to take us in one piece, and that's why they're here. That's why they won't use nukes anymore; and we won't either, not on our own soil. The whole damn thing's pretty conventional now. Who knows? Maybe next week will be swords.
• You think you're tough for eating beans every day? There's half a million scarecrows in Denver who'd give anything for one mouthful of what you got. They've been under siege for about three months. They live on rats and sawdust bread and sometimes... on each other. At night, the pyres for the dead light up the sky. It's medieval.

I also love this early exchange with he and the Wolverines around a campfire:

Swayze: Well, who *is* on our side?
Tanner: Six hundred million screaming Chinamen.
Darryl Bates (played by Darren Dalton) Last I heard, there were a billion screaming Chinamen.
Col. Andy Tanner: There were.

Red Dawn is currently being remade and is on schedule for a 2010 release, according to the Internet Movie Database. I’m not sure how I feel about this: While it’s possible it could be improvement on the original—I always felt that Red Dawn was a great idea for a movie, just under-budgeted and riddled with flaws—I also think, as noted above, that it works as a product of its time. Times have changed, and now terrorism, not conventional war, lurks as our biggest threat.

That said, it would be interesting to see what CGI and a bigger budget could do for this film. I always wanted to see the big engagements in the South, the tactical nuke strikes, and the invasion of Alaska on the screen. Perhaps the remake will deliver.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Good vs. bad art

All this talk around the web about the new Solomon Kane film has me thinking about bad vs. good art. Now, I have no idea whether Kane is a good film or bad. Although some of the early reviews I’ve read have dimmed my optimism, Kane may very well turn out to be the next “Skulls in the Stars” or “The Blue Flame of Vengeance.”

But consider a film like Conan the Destroyer. Many consider it as cheesy but fun, a fair use of an hour and half of one’s time on a rainy weekend afternoon. Personally I think it sucks, and lacks all of the atmosphere, fury, and grandiose bombast that made Conan the Barbarian a great film. But for the sake of argument, let’s just say you like rubbery demons, slapstick sidekicks, and films starring Wilt Chamberlain. That makes Conan the Destroyer harmless entertainment, right?

My equivocal, wishy-washy answer is both yes… and no. Let me explain.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: New Line settles; The Hobbit continues its quest

I’m not sure whether this qualifies as old news, but it’s news to me, and so I thought it worth sharing with readers of The Cimmerian and The Silver Key. According to thehollywoodreporter.com, New Line Cinema has settled a lawsuit from the Tolkien estate and can now press ahead with its film adaptation of “The Hobbit.” From that source:

Good news for all those J.R.R. Tolkien aficionados waiting for a film adaptation of “The Hobbit.”

New Line Cinema, the Tolkien estate and publisher Harper Collins have settled the lawsuit over profits from the “Lord of the Rings” films released between 2001 and 2003.

The Tolkien estate had sued New Line for at least $150 million in damages for failing to pay 7.5% of gross receipts from the three films, which netted an estimated $6 billion combined. The estate claimed it hadn’t been paid “one penny” from its contractual share and took issue with many of New Line’s claimed expenses, including “advertisement” payments made to AOL (also owned by Time Warner) and money for production offices and facilities being used for other New Line films.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The fall is fun--but very busy

I love the fall. It's got my favorite weather, my favorite scenery (New England in autumn is arguably the most beautiful place on earth), and my favorite holiday (Halloween of course, which gives me an excuse to bust out all manner of disgusting horror films). The fall is also the start of football, my favorite sport.

That said, the fall is also the busiest time of year for me. I went from playing football to covering it for a local newspaper, an enjoyable way for me to earn a few extra bucks. But that also means my time to blog is significantly reduced in the fall. One or maybe two posts a week at The Silver Key is probably all I'll be able to manage, I guess. Sorry in advance for the reduced posting.


Off topic, but thanks to the 17 people who voted on my "Best Robert E. Howard Conan story" poll. Beyond the Black River won with five votes, narrowly edging out Queen of the Black Coast (four votes). I'm not surprised that BtBR won, given that it's a great story. I was pulling for Red Nails, my personal favorite, but this fine, blood-soaked tale of genocidal butchery in the ancient city of Xuchotl garnered only three votes (actually two; one was my own). Ah well, you can't go wrong with any Robert E. Howard.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Satify your sword-fetish with Reclaiming the Blade

As a fan of medieval arms and armor and middle-ages combat, I highly enjoyed the recent documentary Reclaiming the Blade (Galatia Films, July 2009). Written and directed by Daniel McNicoll, it’s a well-done, fun piece of film with some terrific visuals, and an obvious labor of love.

Narrated by John Rhys-Davies (perhaps best known for his portrayal of Gimli in The Lord of the Rings), with appearances by LOTR stars Viggo Mortensen and Karl Urban, and LOTR artist John Howe—yes, it has a very strong LOTR feel and flavor—Reclaiming the Blade is all about the king of blades, the sword. Its central message is that the western art of sword-fighting, long overlooked and largely forgotten by historians, was just as effective and rigorously practiced and applied as its eastern counterpart. A popular belief exists that samurai, ninja and other eastern warriors were superior in training and skill to European knights and men at arms. For years many history books have perpetrated the untruth that armored combat was a clumsy and artless affair, consisting of unskilled opponents bashing away at each other with heavy arms and armor.

Reclaiming the Blade puts the sword to the myth by bringing to light the highly detailed and complex hand-to-hand combat texts of the middle-ages, which, with rigor and science, taught advanced forms of combat the equal of anything in the east. It dispels the romantic notions about sword fights, which the film reminds us typically ended on the ground, with the victor grimly driving a point through a visor slit or a weak chink in his opponent’s armor.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site http://www.thecimmerian.com/?p=5525.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: The Tower of the Elephant dazzling on audio

“We saw men grow from the ape and build the shining cities of Valusia, Kamelia, Commoria, and their sisters. We saw them reel before the thrusts of the heathen Atlanteans and Picts and Lemurians. We saw the oceans rise and engulf Atlantis and Lemuria, and the isles of the Picts, and the shining cities of civilization.”

—Yag-kosha, “The Tower of the Elephant”

This week I’ve been listening to my new copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Tantor Media) on my drive to work. So far the experience has been a delight: With a talented narrator (Todd McLaren) delivering unaltered, pure Robert E. Howard with passion and precision, fans of the Texan can ask for little more.

Listening to the stories—I’ve gotten through six of 15 discs so far—has reminded me of the brilliance of “The Tower of the Elephant,” Howard’s fourth tale of Conan of Cimmeria. Howard would eventually complete 21 Conan stories, a few of which are arguably better than “Elephant” (I’d place “Red Nails,” “Beyond the Black River,” and “Queen of the Black Coast” in this category, representing the pinnacle of Howard’s ability). Nevertheless, when judged against the entirety of his output, “The Tower of the Elephant” is certainly one of Howard’s best stories.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.