“Arrival”, time paradoxes, and me

I was eager to see the movie Arrival because my novel Forbidden Sanctuary is also a first-contact story involving a linguist and a bunch of aliens.  There isn’t much overlap between the stories, though.  My aliens are pretty human-like — that’s the point of the novel, really.  Arrival‘s aliens are spectacularly, um, alien.  The plot involves Amy Adams desperately trying to understand what they’re saying before various bad things happen. And it’s really well done, up to the point where the movie springs its science-fictiony twist on us to tie things up, with the result that we’re desperately try to rethink everything we’ve seen as the movie rockets to its conclusion.

Spoiler coming.

I don’t think the twist works.  The idea is that, when Amy Adams finally has her breakthrough and understands the aliens’ language, her perception of time is altered at the same time, such that all time is a continuous now to her, instead of a linear progression from past to present to future.  (Or something like that.)  So that some events that we perceived as flashbacks were actually flash-forwards — except that they weren’t, not really, because they are all part of the eternal now.  (Or something like that.)  So she is able to use information from the sort-of future to solve the crisis happening in the sort-of now.  And over this is layered the personal story of the sort-of-future Amy Adams deciding to have a child, despite knowing that the even-more-future Amy Adams will see that child die, and her husband will leave her when she tells him what he’s done.

This is not the kind of complexity that a viewer can deal with while linearly watching a movie. I am OK with time paradoxes — I have read Jeffrey Carver novels, and I generally understand what is happening (that may be a bit of an exaggeration).   But even I couldn’t completely follow what was happening in real time while watching Arrival, and I wasn’t interested enough to re-watch the thing.

As a writer of science-fictiony novels, I am always worried about how much time I should spend in a novel explaining stuff — inventing some bogus theory about how the portal works in my Portal series, for example.  Or, perhaps more important, making sure that whatever bogus theory I have in my head about the portal is internally consistent, so that readers don’t get annoyed at plot developments that don’t quite make sense.  My sense is that readers will forgive a lot of minor inconsistencies if the story is interesting enough.  But I don’t want to piss them off.

I’m afraid that Arrival, for all its virtues, ended up pissing me off.

Writers in the movies: “Trumbo”

One more in an apparently very occasional series.

Trumbo, of course, is the movie about Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter who wrote Roman HolidaySpartacus, and other major movies.  The film mostly focuses on his time on the blacklist, when he had to cobble together a living by writing scripts anonymously, with the screen credit going to fronts.

Bryan Cranston is fine as Trumbo, and I guess he deserved his Oscar nomination, but Trumbo struck me as being a very bland movie.  Trumbo is presented as a secular saint, with his opponents–Hedda Hopper, John Wayne–presented as purely evil.  The only flaw we see in Trumbo is when he gets cranky with his kids for not wanting to deliver some of his rewrites to a movie set–but he quickly repents and goes off to apologize to his daughter, who, like him, is devoted to the cause of justice for the downtrodden.  Couldn’t we at least have had a scene where he explains why he’s still a communist despite what was then known about Stalin?  Life and politics in the 1950s were more complex than this movie lets on.

If Trumbo soft-pedals its hero’s politics, it pretty much ignores his writing.  We see a scene from Roman Holiday and another from Spartacus, and we learn that Trumbo likes to write in the bathtub, but there’s virtually nothing about the craft itself.  Well, there is a scene where he and a blacklisted co-writer (played by Louis CK) discuss the plotting for a quickie called “The Alien and the Farmgirl”.  Why does the alien fall for the farmgirl?  Because he reminds him of his girl back home.  OK, then.

Too bad.  Trumbo seems like an interesting guy, and the blacklist is certainly an interesting subject.  They deserve a better movie.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a post about “Love Actually”

See here and here and here for examples in this genre.

The most tear-jerky part of Love Actually is its ending, a sequence of joyous reunions at Heathrow’s International Arrivals Terminal, set to the Beach Boys’ glorious “God Only Knows”.   Like so:

So, we had a joyous reunion with our son the other day at the International Arrivals Terminal of Boston’s Logan Airport, coming home to the States after a couple of years in the Middle East.  And my lovely wife got it in her head that this arrival should also be accompanied by the “God Only Knows” soundtrack, playing it on a speaker attached to her iPhone.

This was a pretty good idea.  Except, you know, for the part where her son would hate it.  He goes over and hugs her, and at the same time disconnects the cord, stopping the soundtrack.  And here is the photographic record of the wonderful reunion, my son beaming at the camera and his mother desperately trying to figure out how to get the music playing again:

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No matter — life is better than any movie.  Welcome home, James!  And happy holidays, everyone.

Mystic Pizza in Madaba

For some reason one of my most-read posts was about our visit to Mystic Pizza in Mystic, Connecticut, the inspiration for the movie that launched Julia Roberts on the path to stardom.

Now my expat son sends me evidence that Mystic Pizza is a global phenomenon — at least, it shows up in Madaba, a city in central Jordan:

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Um, why?  My son has been to a Dunkin’ Donuts in Beirut, but Mystic Pizza is not a chain bent on global pizza domination.  It’s not a chain at all, as far as I know.  Here’s the original.  Note the different font on the sign.  And everything.  Well, the world is an interesting place.

Mystic Pizza sign

The New York Times proclaims “Love, Actually” a Christmas classic

I guess this is my annual Love, Actually post.  The New York Times  ran an article recently contemplating which recent holiday movies were classics.  And Love, Actually makes the cut:

The director Richard Curtis fills the cast with nearly every great British actor, and they make even ridiculous moments — Mr. Grant’s dancing to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (for My Love)” through 10 Downing Street — seem like master classes.

Thanks to the way-back machine that is the Internet, we can see what the Times had to say about the film back in 2003, when it first came out.  You don’t see reviews of major movies much worse than this one:

”Love Actually” is a patchwork of contrived naughtiness and forced pathos, ending as it began, with hugging and kissing at the airport (where returning passengers are perhaps expressing their relief at being delivered from an in-flight movie like this one). The loose ends are neatly tied up, as they are when you seal a bag of garbage — or if you prefer, rubbish.

Yikes. (Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 63%, slightly over the line from rottenness. Audiences like it much better, coming in at 73%.)

Speaking of hugging and kissing at the airport, the latest episode of The New Girl features the cast at the airport heading to various places for the holidays. It plays a cover of “God Only Knows” at one point as it cuts from character to character, clearly a reference to the soundtrack of Love, Actually.  Does a movie become a classic when a sitcom pays homage to it?

“The Kiss” and Chekhov’s Gun

The Kiss, from 1929, was the last silent movie for both MGM and Greta Garbo.

There’s no to watch it except for Garbo.  That’s because there’s just not much going on in it.  As the web site Silent Volume says:

I got the feeling that The Kiss, Garbo’s last silent film, was acted on the sly, as though everyone knew the Temptress had run its course and wanted to see how little they could build around the character and still make it work. For The Kiss is short: 62 minutes; without a subplot of any kind, one scant scene of comic relief; a barely resolved second act and no real third act at all.

A commenter on the site suggests that the studio just gave up on the film because it knew that talkies were the future and didn’t want to waste time and money on something no one would watch.

I’m always interested in plots that involve Chekhov’s gun, however, and The Kiss includes a very rudimentary implementation of the technique — every bit as rudimentary as the one in The Two Mrs. Carrolls.  In an early scene we see Garbo’s husband dropping some papers, and then opening the bottom drawer of a file cabinet to insert them into it.  Inside the drawer we and Garbo see — a gun!  Later on (spoiler alert!) Garbo is trying to stop her husband from beating up the callow young man he has seen her chastely kissing (Lew Ayres, appropriately awful). The husband thrusts Garbo aside.  She is on the floor — she suddenly recalls the gun in the file cabinet next to her — she takes it out — she shoots!

I don’t know the state of forensics back in the 20’s, but it seems odd that the jury lets Garbo off on the theory that her husband committed suicide.  The bullet, after all, was fired from a gun at least half a dozen feet away, held at the level of the husband’s kneecap.  Such details aren’t worth worrying about in this movie, however.  Better to just look at Garbo.

Writers in movies: Stuck in Love

Another in a random series.

Stuck in Love is a pleasant indie movie from 2012 starring Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly.  Here’s the IMDB summary:

An acclaimed writer, his ex-wife, and their teenaged children come to terms with the complexities of love in all its forms over the course of one tumultuous year.

What the summary leaves out is that both the kids are writers (or would-be writers) as well — the father (Kinnear) is determined to make them novelists like him.  So we’re given a whole family full of writers, which is a recipe for dysfunction and angst if I ever heard one.

The writer/director, Josh Boone, drops quotes from Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor into the script and clearly has a sympathetic sense of the writing life.  Here’s something he gets right: The movie begins with Kinnear preparing Thanksgiving dinner for his son, who is in high school, and daughter, who home from college.  At dinner the daughter drops the news that her novel has been accepted by a major publisher.  The predictable result is that dinner is ruined.  The father is upset that she abandoned the novel he has helped edit and written an entirely different book over the summer; the brother is so jealous of her success that he can’t be at the same table with her.  Writers are just awful!

Here’s what Boone gets wrong: The daughter writes a novel over the summer, sends it to her agent, who submits it anonymously and gets it accepted by a major publisher, and page proofs are ready by Thanksgiving?  Really?  In what universe?  (I’m into the fifteenth month of working on my current novel, so I may be feeling especially grumpy about this part.)

The father has written two successful literary novels, but has had writer’s block since his wife left him.  The writer’s block is reasonable; I’d be pretty upset if Jennifer Connelly dumped me.  But, with no other apparent income, he still manages to live in a gorgeous ocean-front house and pay his daughter’s tuition to college.  How does that work?

Later in the movie, the son writes an SF short story, which his sister gets hold of.  Then what?  Without telling the brother, the sister sends it to Stephen King, who loves it so much he gets it published in a major SF magazine and calls the kid to let him know.  Of course.  Happens all the time.  (I remember the stories I wrote when I was in high school; just thinking about them makes me cringe.)

In other words, this is a typical movie world, where success comes too easily and is rewarded too much; love is what’s hard.  It makes me appreciate the world of The Wordsin which the writer is talented and hard-working, pours his soul into his novel, and gets exactly nowhere.  That’s a lot more like the real writing life.