Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Book Review: "The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings"

Book: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings
Authors: Philip and Carol Zaleski
NYC, New York:Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, c2015

Mythopoeia (“myth-making” in Greek) is not a word in everyone’s vocabulary, but maybe it should be.  A storytelling device characterized by a rich, densely structured, artificially-created mythos, it has existed since humans first told stories, but filtered into popular imagination today through the efforts of fantasy icon J.R.R. Tolkien.  The Oxford don’s compelling mythic narratives practically built our modern iterations of dwarves, elves and dragons, and we encounter variants of his creations in nearly every drop of fantasy media around, whether they are games, books, art, or the silver screen.  It's no exaggeration to say that the story of high fantasy in the second half of the 20th century and beyond is, ultimately, the story of Tolkien; everyone else is either a mimic, a detractor, or a renovator of his legacy.  

Tolkien’s towering presence in all things Fae is matched only by C.S. Lewis, the famous writer, scholar, and Christian apologist, as well as Tolkien’s friend and colleague.  Between them, they created some of the most memorable works of fantasy found in the English language.  But their most attentive devotees are well aware that the men were more than just casual friends.  Tolkien and Lewis were both part of an altogether higher order - an informal circle of like-minded peers, most hailing from the University of Oxford, gathered to discuss literature, philosophy, and the contemporary trends of society.  These men, “the Inklings,” were a diverse lot, bound only by a common Christian faith and a fondness for the fantastic, but they left a lasting impact in the world of letters and fantasy literature.  The fount of this grand legacy is captured in the wise and well written work by a husband and wife team; writers and religious scholars Philip and Carol Zaleski.  The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a riveting group biography, chronicling not only the lives of literary greats like Tolkien and Lewis, but also covering some of the lesser known members of this cabal, particularly Owen Barfield, the Anthroposophist philosopher; and Charles Williams, Anglican mystic and delver into supernatural worlds unseen.  The Zaleskis shed new light on these writers, and in the process weave together a spellbinding narrative of collaboration, friendship, and ultimately, the triumph of wonder over the technical ingenuity of their literary peers.

The book’s function as a literary biography lends an idiosyncratic structure in which the lives of the Inklings are accompanied and bolstered by examinations of their relevant works.  This proves a successful showing, though it took some time before the core of this got going. The book's first half or so narrows its focus to Lewis and Tolkien, who are given a very thorough treatment of their lives from birth onward.  It make sense narrative sense, since both Lewis and Tolkien are unquestionably the main draws of both scholarly and informal study of the Inklings: the former recognized as maestro of the Inkling gatherings and the advocate of their place in intellectual discourse, while the latter is crucial to their modern fame and their launch into current fictional consciousness.  The authors cover their early lives, including their nascent years and the deaths which shaped them, and onward to their harrowing experiences during World War I and post-war lives as academics, translators, and writers.  The narrative grabs you like a fantasy epic, one informed by personal letters and reflections, and leaves you following the trail of these “characters” as you would any of their fictional creations: Lewis’s climb from atheism to “mere Christianity,” Tolkien’s dealings with a national and intellectual environment hostile to his beloved Catholicism, and the manner in which both men confront the materialism and skepticism rife in their surroundings with faith and humor.  My only issues is that the two other foci, Barfield and Williams, are given comparatively skimpy treatments, their stories subject to curt summation in the space of a chapter or two, with the importance of their roles initially limited to their relationships to Lewis.

But soon after the Inklings formed, the book really hits its stride, seamlessly integrating the great works by these men and the corresponding life events that shaped them.  They come alive as  personalities along with their highs and lows, and the Zaleskis’ lively prose keeps things moving along in a well-plodded pace.  The language can get a little flowery at places, but that minor quibble pales before the passion clearly shown for their subjects on every page.  Likewise, some important aspects of the Inklings' private lives are left curiously unexamined, like the tensions between Tolkien and his wife Edith over his religion, or details of Lewis's courtship with and eventual marriage to American writer Joy Davidman - which seems odd, considering the amount of detailed they poured into many other areas.  That said, the final analysis reads like a clear and balanced apologia of Inklings’ place in literary history: though lacking either the stylistic sophistication of their modernist contemporaries, or the thorough mastery of technical argumentation present among academic theologians and philosophers, they were able to tap into a sense of wonder and joy clear only to unjaded eyes, and in the process shaped the face of modern fantasy fiction - and will likely continue to do so for many years to come.

Recommendation: Must Read

Saturday, May 6, 2017

"Power Rangers": current confusions and future directions for a franchise-to-be

When Saban’s Power Rangers reboot stormed into theaters a few weeks back, I met it with an almost glacial indifference.  I don't hate the franchise, and I never did; I grew up during its heyday, and even I offered my share of terrible karate mimicry along with my nerdy peers back when it was all the rage.  But puberty had scoured all the morphing out of me, and for a long while, I paid no heed to its numerous derivatives.  My misgivings only grew after seeing the movie's trailer, which gave off the disjointed self-awareness so typical of children's properties that make a stab at the "darker and edgier" route.  Still, I walked in expecting little more than a harmless trip down nostalgia lane, filled with Super Sentai camp and buckets of cheese, and framed by a superficial mantle of "relevance."  

But walking out, I'm honestly not sure what I watched. I can't say Power Rangers is bad per se,but it is certainly a film asunder, blowing its energies and potential in a confused effort to appeal to multiple tastes and maturity levels.  The tumult wobbles back and forth throughout the movie, channeling The Breakfast Club and its teenage angst one minute, before indulging in wacky, Ferris Bueller-esque night time romps al la Jason and Billy the next, and then bringing it all home with the now standard superhero assemblages seen in the MCU.  And all the while, we're exposed to a strange comedy chop suey, with adult-leaning jokes embedded in campy, adolescent humor ripped straight from the days when Jason David Frank reigned as undisputed king of the spandex brigade.  

It’s Crowded in Here…

The problems with Power Rangers began before the movie even came out.  Back when the original series and first film premiered, big screen superhero options for children were virtually nonexistent.  The exposure most of us had to the DC and Marvel worlds beyond the comics was through their sanitized and poorly animated treatments on the boob tube, so the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers was a unique treat for restless kids starved of high-flying martial arts action in the flesh.  But those days are long gone, and the advent of the MCU and its host of rounded characters and sensible plot lines gives us little reason to long for the quaint nonsense of past Power Ranger glory.  It doesn’t help that standards of what are considered "acceptable" levels of violence and maturity have shifted considerably since the 1990s.  It's almost laughable to modern audiences to discover that the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers incited such a row among parents when it first came out due to its supposedly violent content.  With stylized hyper-violence now endemic in PG and PG-13 hero films, the conflicts so assaulted before look positively feeble in comparison.  While I don’t fully agree with Variety critic Owen Gleiberman’s damning assessment of the movie, it’s hard to argue with his central claim: with so many options on the table these days, children no longer need “safe, lame and pandering” heroes to occupy them.

Who’s movie is it, anyway?

But Gleiderman does drop one other, largely unexamined hint.  We shouldn’t assume that Power Rangers was strictly for kids, and certainly the theater I attended was packed with adults who, like me, still remember halcyon days of reenacting the zords and Kung Fu action with exuberant delight.  These kids were now parents themselves, bringing their little ones along on nostalgia high to relive their own joys.  And therein lies the problem; Power Rangers didn't do a good enough job communicating who, exactly, it was targeting.  Children?  Too many mature themes and veiled masturbation jokes - and at least for the Russians, lesbians.  The adults?  While the nostalgia crowd swarmed in rank and file, I doubt even they knew what to expect from this reboot.  The confusion is very evident in the film’s execution, where the aforementioned mood swings threw off the narrative flow quite a bit.  While the awkwardly cobbled together display did little to beat down the most stalwart devotees (moviegoers gave Power Rangers, on average, a far higher rating than critics) minus an adjustment made for lowered expectations, Saban’s morphing quintet remained locked in a centrifugal trap, their potential wasted in a fruitless attempt to go everywhere at once.

Silver Linings

My gentle condemnations probably wouldn’t amount to much if this was the end of the line.  However, since Saban insists on spreading his reboot into a six-movie story arc despite the relatively lackluster return in theaters, this might not be the last time we see Jason and the gang karate chopping evil on the big screen.  Is there any hope, then, to see the series rise above superhero mediocrity?  Perhaps, and the key lies in the film’s tight-knit cast and how they skew the usual Power Rangers formula.  In most forms in the franchise, our leading heroes are generally Grade A all-Americans - proficient in martial arts, mostly well-liked, and seated firmly in the high school hierarchy, with every stereotype that implies.  Sure, there is "diversity," in a manner of speaking, but it's literally skin deep - expressed in ethnicity, but not in individual lived experiences.  But things are different this time around; our would-be Rangers are the quintessential rag-tag group of misfits, each with their own burdens to bear.  Jason is a fallen hero, now condemned to house arrest; Kimberly is a cyberbully, and Billy, in a surprisingly convincing portrayal, is autistic - a superhero first, along with Becky G’s Trini, a girl who, if not outright lesbian, is certainly questioning her sexuality.  Last but not least is Zack, who in a welcomed departure from his 90s Cool Black Friend depiction, is a bilingual Chinese-American, saddled with a sick mother who is the fount of his outlandish and at times unstable behavior.  It’s easy to criticize how Power Rangers handled this - the schizophrenic implementation, the lopsided execution - but you can’t deny that the very ideas themselves are groundbreaking.  Even with the diversity of hero flicks out these days, the trials and tribulations of teen heroes - not counting Spider-Man - are still rare on the big screen, and this push for “relevance,” which too often ends in abysmal failure, may point a way through the swamp of camp and string cheese miring the Power Rangers franchise as a whole.

So What Now?

So how can the future films avoid the pitfalls of confusion and contradiction that plague this first entry?   Keep the focus on the kids and their struggles.  The mood should be kept light, to resist the false luster of escalating angst in the name of “art.”  But they should respect the issues which arise naturally from such an eclectic mix of teenagers, as opposed to discarding them to the dustbin of mere superficial diversity.  How far can they take Trini’s burgeoning sexuality?  Will Billy’s autism ever become an actual issue to deal with on the field?  Does Kimberly still have a bit of the mean girl in her, and could this taint her interactions with her newfound friends?  All this and more are ripe for exploration, highlighting the difficult transitions we all face as we graduate from youth to adulthood - learning to get along, opening up to others, and collaborating into a functional unit much greater than the sums of our flaws and insecurities.

Is this a pretentious aspiration, especially in a franchise associated with kicking aliens in the face?  Maybe.  I say it's worth an attempt ether way, otherwise don't bother making characters with that degree of depth in the first place. While this might run the risk of alienating fans who wish only to relive past glories of martial madness across galaxies, it may yet open the door to a longer lived and, perhaps, more satisfying film series.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

May Releases

May Releases

So April's showers have left a few puddles in their wake.  Will May bring the expected late spring blooms?  If so, they're already off to a good start, with Guardian of the Galaxies Vol. 2 storming into theaters this coming Friday.  Tailing close behind is Alien: Covenant, the follow-up to Ridley Scott's Prometheus and another notch in his pre-Alien prequel series.  And, of course, the obligatory sequelitis diagnosis rounds out the big-name movies, with the latest Pirates of the Caribbean and Diary of a Wimpy Kid hedging in the last two weeks of the month.

Among the hot new games set to premiere this month, two stand out: Injustice 2, a sequel to the 2013 DC hero hit Injustice: Gods Among Us; and Prey, a re-imaging of the 2006 first-person shooter of the same name.

Check out below for more, along with this month's hottest books, albums, and television premieres: