AEL: Pale Fire, Locked Rooms, Rogue One/The Force Awakens

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov — I still don’t have words. THAT IS A LIE I HAVE SO MANY WORDS I HAVE THE BEST WORDS. Seriously, though. It’s interesting to note the difference between a work of art you enjoy and recognize as skillfully created, and a work of art you may or may not think was skillfully created but in any case hits you in exactly the right place so you’re totally engaged more than with many another work.

Pale Fire hit me in just that place. I do think it was skillfully created — amazingly so — but I also responded to it with a degree of enthusiasm that can only be explained by that peculiar connection that sometimes happens between a work of art and its consumer completely (or at least mostly) independent of quality. I don’t remember the last time my first read through a book was so enjoyable and engrossing.

I was not expecting a Nabokov book to be so incredibly funny. It’s entirely possible I shouldn’t find it so funny, since I may be laughing at manifestations of a severe mental disorder… but the idea of this farcically self-centered, arrogant, irrelevant, poorly edited, and probably largely untrue “commentary” on Shade’s poem being available for public consumption is a joke running through the background of the entire book, and it gets funnier and funnier the more absurd that commentary becomes. Because of that, there were more laugh-out-loud moments in this book — this Nabokov book — than anything else in my recent memory.

Of course I read about the various theories on how to interpret the book, but I have to say I like the most obvious and straightforward one best: that Kinbote is crazy and inventing some or all of his own history. It is interesting to consider that he might have invented Shade as well, or that Shade might have invented him, but I prefer them both as real people because that’s hella funny.

What did Shade really think of Kinbote? Was he quietly amused by and continuing to spend time with him because he recognized Kinbote’s state of mind? Was that, perhaps, the secret he thought he’d figured out? There’s a richness to the character interaction that’s only available through this particular way of reading the story, which is probably why I like it best of all the options.

And Kinbote… Kinbote is such an interesting character that I much prefer him to be a real person and not an invention of Shade’s or some weird manifestation of an offpage secret character. How Nabokov managed to make him so obnoxious and yet so endearing at the same time I’m not sure. His over-the-top arrogance gets seriously irritating at times, but is frequently simultaneously very amusing; and his snarky, cleverly worded criticisms of things and people around him (superbly aided, in the audiobook, by the fantastic performance by the narrator) often invite the reader to join him in curmudgeonliness, and create a sense of camaraderie between Kinbote and the reader that would probably not be present in actual company with the man — a classic Wouldn’t Want To Have By You character.

Additionally, whether it’s all real or imaginary, Kinbote’s melancholy regarding Zembla and its history and his own history there is easily felt by the reader, lending pathos to the character even if it’s undeserved — and, in fact, if Kinbote has invented all of this history and even the country where it takes place, that pathos is possibly even deeper as the reader tries to imagine what state of loneliness and lack of self-regard would need to exist to drive a man to come up with something like that — to “peel off a drab and unhappy past,” as Shade puts it, “and replace it with a brilliant invention.”

Kinbote’s homosexuality fascinates me quite a bit too. He does, as I speculated near the beginning of the commentary, come across somewhat as a Depraved Homosexual — but, because all of his descriptions of his sexuality are made from his own perspective, it’s not as bad as it could be; and in fact he even implies that, despite being condemned by others that seem to subscribe to the same religious beliefs he does, he himself is not convinced that he’s living a life of sin and is doomed in the eyes of God. But that attitude is coming from a very controversial character that may or may not exist and/or be completely insane.

What I really wonder is why Nabokov chose to make this main character gay. Having himself a disdain for homosexuality, it seems not unlikely that he was merely taking the simplistic “assign a bad character trait to a potentially bad character” route… and yet I get a bizarrely sympathetic vibe about Kinbote’s lifestyle throughout the book. That may be due only to the perspective aforementioned, and some wishful thinking on my own part, but it’s still the impression I got… and, for me at least, it adds further complexity to an already layered character, enhancing the pathos that may, by certain interpretations, be one point of the book as a whole.

Kinbote’s supposed feelings for his supposed queen also add to this fascinating situation. Taking his story at face value and Disa as an actual person, the emotions he describes — the falsified love in absentia and the inability to muster real love in her actual presence (on account of being gay, obvs) — are as interesting to read about as any other, “truer” form of the state, and far more than some.

But if he made it all up, what then? Was there, perhaps, a woman in his true past that inspired a similar state, which made such an impression on him that it got translated into his fabricated royal past? Or was there never any woman, and that part of his fiction is merely a reflection of his longing for things to be Other than what they are — perhaps a longing that he could be a heterosexual man in a relationship considered normal by society? In any case, all of this, yet again, adds to the pathos of the character.

Kinbote’s attitude toward women in general is interesting. He’s definitely got some gay misogyny in there, but at times he is also remarkably sympathetic, even going so far as to refer to Hazel Shade as a kindred spirit to himself (though that may only have been one of the many subtle hints about his upcoming suicide). And in this I almost feel he’s more a reflection of Nabokov himself than manifesting any story-related trait. But who knows? A book like this is so open to so many interpretations that possibly any reading of it is valid.

And that’s definitely part of what I loved so much about it, but — since, as I said, I like the most straightforward interpretation best — it’s probably the funny, sad character of Kinbote that really made me enjoy this book most. I was sorely tempted to reread it immediately I had finished my first read, in fact, and that’s a rare impulse. I’ll be very happy, in a few years, when I get back around to it again.

Locked Rooms by Laurie R. King — This is probably my least favorite Mary Russell book. It’s not bad or anything; it just doesn’t hold my attention very well, and I keep listening to fanfiction (er, non-professional fanfiction) instead.

I kinda don’t like breaking away from Mary’s narration. Yeah, getting Holmes’ perspective is interesting, especially in how he thinks about Mary, and certainly much of the action of this book takes place out of Mary’s presence… but eight intallments into the series, it’s a bit jarring to encounter such a major change. I understand that in Garment of Shadows (which I haven’t read yet), they even dragged in a second narrator to read the Holmes parts. Not looking forward to that.

Anyway. When you’re writing a series, you sometimes pick up and examine things you’ve already established — often completely mundane and innocuous things like where a character was born or the name of someone’s first boyfriend from years and years before — in the light of how they might be useful as more significant plot points later. Sometimes you can work such plot points in smoothly, and sometimes these ideas don’t pan out very well.

And given the nature of this series and its drama and its Mary-Sue protagonists (all aspects I love, of course), I suppose it was only to be expected that we’d eventually discover Mary’s family’s already untimely and distressing death to have been no accident after all. I guess I’m mostly OK with that. And Mary’s memory gaps and psychological discord play into it well, but even Holmes’ lampshade, “that condition is extremely rare outside ladies’ fiction, and generally stems from a severe head injury,” can’t save it from being just a touch more melodramatic even than I like. And finding the sabotaged brake-rod thing this long after the fact? I dunno. It all seems kinda contrived. Mostly I want to get back to England.

The inclusion of Hammett is a cute cameo, though I don’t find him as interesting or ultimately endearing as Baring-Gould was. He is, however, used better than some of the quicker, more in-your-face, name-droppy-style historic references like LOL a bridge across the Golden Gate No way that would ever work LOL.

I like to see the Chinese characters, and to have the more diverse cast that travels around the world allow (outside of the Holmes-and-Mary-are-blending-in-in-Palestine-type story, which is a different kettle of fish), especially given some of the painful racism in the canon. I do feel, though, like there’s a whiff of The Gay ‘Thank You’ about the interaction, in particular, between Mary’s parents and Tom’s… but I also kinda feel like King did as well as she possibly could avoiding that sense, and for that I have to give her credit.

Of course when writing a book about white characters in the 1920’s, if you want to work with that aforementioned diverse cast, you have two options: white characters that are just as racist as you would expect them to be for people born at or before the turn of the century, or an emphasis on unusually non-racist attitudes that might seem a little Gay ‘Thank You’-y whether you were trying to shine a spotlight on their progressive attitudes or not.

There’s always, I’m afraid, going to be a hint of ‘Look at how awesomely non-racist my white characters are,’ no matter how hard you try, in a story like this… because you can’t simply ignore the fact that racism exists around them and that in behaving (even relatively) reasonably toward their fellow humans they are acting abnormally.

At the same time, realistic levels of racism even as a trait that adds verisimilitude to a character you want to be believably fleshed out is (at least in my opinion) only acceptable up to a certain point. If the main character of a series I’m reading turns out to have racist attitudes, and dealing with and overcoming those attitudes is not a specific conflict within the story sometime during that series, I’m not likely to read all that much of that series.

So, yeah, what I’m trying to say is that King did a pretty good job finding a happy medium between “believable racism” and “ZOMFG look how non-racist my characters are,” and I appreciate that. Still find this book kinda boring, though.

Rogue One — This is absolutely unprecedented. Not only have I watched FOUR movies in the theater this year, I also actually liked all of them. 2016 may have sucked for many reasons, but on that front it has been unusually good.

I watched this movie on the day Carrie Fisher died, and you better believe I sobbed when Leia (who I didn’t think looked all that bad) appeared onscreen, as well as when, in the credits, they all-unknowingly thanked Carrie Fisher near the end. That effect will surely be augmented when Episode VIII comes out next year.

Anyway, this movie was fantastic. I’ve heard a lot of people saying they like it even better than The Force Awakens, and I have a theory about that. I find it hard to compare the two because they’re so different: one of them thirty years after the story we know setting out into new territory, the other right in the middle of the story we know describing something we already knew happened. I think it’s specifically because Rogue One leads so directly into the very opening scene of A New Hope that it hits us all in a soft spot and is making many people declare it the best Star Wars movie (or at least the best new Star Wars movie) evar. Otherwise I think it and The Force Awakens are on equal footing in many ways.

And in fact, since I went home soon after and rewatched The Force Awakens, I have to say I like them about equally — for those exact reasons mentioned above. TFA is so much fun with its new characters and new directions for old ones (and for the series as a whole), but RO is so nostalgic, gap-filly, and neatly told. Still, there are some interesting points of comparison and contrast between the two that should be taken into consideration.

Where The Force Awakens shines as Rogue One doesn’t is in its inclusion of plenty of women. The Force Awakens really gives you the feeling that the New Republic is made up of lots of men and women in various roles; and even the First Order, now that they’ve escaped Palpatine’s misogynist influence (unless they’ve discounted that bit of old EU and have some different excuse), is a lot more diverse as well. I cried all through The Force Awakens because I kept hearing women’s voices in every scene, seeing female characters pop up, in contexts and roles where previous Star Wars films had been aggressively male-dominated. (Also I cried on Hyperspace Mountain every time at Disneyland for the same reason.) Yay women!

But Rogue One pulled way back on that. It’s not as bad as older Star Wars installments, but after The Force Awakens it was pretty disappointing on that front. And that takes points off in the “Episode VII vs. A Star Wars Story” aspect of my thoughts on the film.

Rogue One‘s racial representation, however, is decent, and it throws in some disabilities where we haven’t seen a lot of that. However however, in the case of Chirrut Îmwe, it’s that good old “disability with a compensatory super power,” and I immediately heard in my head the FiW line, “…and that’s why the film Daredevil sets unrealistic expectations for today’s youths.” Could we please sometime have a blind character that’s just… blind? Without badass super-hearing?

Star Wars has a long history of Othering pretty badly, in my opinion particularly when it comes to alien races. One complaint I’ve always had (a minor one, and one on which many people disagree with me) is that I’m human and I live amongst humans… if I’m going to watch the adventures of a group of heroes in a galaxy far, far away, why would I want it to be primarily composed of humans, the type of people I see around me every day? This is really just me, though, and wouldn’t bug me quite so much in the Star Wars universe if non-humans weren’t so consistently presented as disturbing, comedic, incompetent, or downright evil.

Unpleasantly often, when someone not human appears on screen, the audience is expected either to laugh or to recoil. Even Chewbacca, a main character, never gets subtitles for his dialogue (and he’s not infrequently the voice of reason) for added humor, which makes him seem not only (as aforementioned) Other but also less intelligent and more animalistic than he really is. I thought The Force Awakens largely escaped from this distressing Othering process, but Rogue One fell right back into the trap. Sad day.

However, I thought Rogue One‘s music was superior to The Force Awakens‘. Like, there were moments in RO where I was sitting there actively thinking, The music in this scene fits it so freaking well *__*

Characterization (besides the Othering, I mean) is another point of interest in both of these movies, and once again I feel like they come out fairly equal because one’s an apple and the other’s an orange. If I had to choose a winner in this particular race, though, I’d go with Rogue One — which is funny, since I’d heard so much about it being weak on the characterization front. So here are my thoughts:

The characterization in The Force Awakens is solid but not extensive. Since we’ve got future installments to build on what’s been started here, I’m not too concerned that we don’t know the new characters as well as we could yet. What we do know is pretty good.

Specifically I like Kylo Ren. Obviously when writing a new skin for A New Hope, it was important for them to rewrite Darth Vader so as to avoid another “This was the Death Star and this is Starkiller Base” scene. And what they came up with was brilliant. He’s occupying the same niche in the story as Vader in A New Hope, but he’s so so different. His temper tantrums and total lack of Vader’s dignity and presence are downright hilarious without making him any less threatening to his subordinates or dangerous to his enemies. In many ways I think he’s a direct representative of a certain type of Star Wars fanboy.

Finn is… I’m ambivalent about Finn. I love to see a stormtrooper take the route he does, and I think he’s funny and sweet, and in general I love him. But to hear him declare that he didn’t want to kill for the First Order right in the middle of a story where he (along with the rest of the cast) does a lot of casual killing is… jarring. He doesn’t seem to flee the First Order because he has a new conviction that they’re the wrong side to follow… he seems to lack conviction completely. And if you’re freaking out about killing, it takes some serious conviction to start killing even if you believe in the side you’re on. I don’t think Finn had reached that point through much of the story, so I feel his characterization was a bit… inconsistent.

I’m glad to hear that Leia has a larger role in Episode VIII. Of course I cried every moment when she was onscreen again in The Force Awakens, though much of that was story-related. I have to admit, though, I thought the scenes between Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford were more stiff and unnatural because they just weren’t acting as well as they could have been opposite each other than because the characters were awkward together due to their past.

On a totally more frivolous note, I thought Carrie looked damn good. Like, Hot Older Woman City, right there. Yowza.

Where The Force Awakens missteps, I feel, is not so much in the characterization of individuals as in the bond between characters. Because while there’s a delightful feeling to some of the interactions among them (specifically between Finn and Rey), it never really seems earned. Everyone knows everyone (and calls them by name) far too quickly, and the bonding they all do happens in, like, two minutes. Finn’s attachment to Rey is somewhat justified in that she’s the first person he’s ever met that treated him like a fellow… y’know… person… but even that’s a little rushed. That is, in fact, my biggest complaint about the movie.

Rogue One is a different story. A Star Wars Story. Sorry. Its characterization is minimalistic, in some cases to an extreme, and at first that bugged me. I found myself thinking, Why are we weighed down here with so many meaningless characters? Why not forego Chirrut and Baze and even Rook in favor of fleshing out Jyn, Cassian, and K-2? Oh, great, and now we have a whole team of people I don’t know and don’t have time to get to know?

That was before I realized they were all going to die.

Lately I’ve been discussing with a friend the advisability of a trope I complained about in a recent PL (as demonstrated in that dumbass Predator helicopter scene): the team that’s destined to get killed off one by one and is comprised of characters we’re supposed to have some sympathy for because they each have Exactly One very blunt characteristic that is established immediately we meet them.

Friend suggested that this sort of characterization is appropriate for this sort of story… and, while I couldn’t agree that the example I’d specifically mentioned — the Exactly-One-characteristic-apiece Predator example — is good or acceptable writing, I do feel she was right about the story type requiring a different type of characterization than another movie such as, say, The Force Awakens — and I think Rogue One is an excellent example of that style of story with the requisite style of characterization done right.

These characters don’t need to be finely detailed; we don’t need to know them all that well. I absolutely would not like to see them given precisely one characteristic apiece, but I’m just fine seeing them painted in broader strokes — so they are somewhat sympathetic and their deaths are meaningful, but not too much time is wasted on any of them when it’s the story, not the characters, that’s important here.

As such, I think the dynamic among them beautifully avoids the pitfall of The Force Awakens and gives us only exactly as much camaraderie as has been earned during the course of the film. And you know what? It’s kinda bizarre to say it, but I really liked that they all died at the end. I should have gone into the movie expecting that, since it is the best way to keep us all from wondering where these characters are during later installments in the series. But beyond just that, it was, as I said above, an exceptionally neatly told story with all loose ends satisfyingly wrapped up. The deaths created a greater poignancy and sense of heroism, and (though I obviously haven’t had a chance yet to watch this one and A New Hope back-to-back) probably lent that to the following story as well.

But let me talk about Darth Vader for a moment.

Hmm.

I think David Prowse in the original trilogy provided hands-down the best body-language acting I have ever seen in my life. His deadly gravitas and conveyance of fine emotion were skilled beyond belief, and much of the time I used to spend watching and re-watching those three films was devoted to obsessively tracking his every minute gesture and movement. Yes, James Earl Jones is amazing, and I will always love his voice, but to me the real spirit of Darth Vader is in the inextricable combination of the two. Without David Prowse, even with James Earl Jones on board, Darth Vader is just not the same. And, very sadly, it shows in Rogue One.

Oh, they did their best (actually, knowing this was the first appearance from Vader in quite some time, and the first appearance from him during an era of the story about which we give a shit in even longer, they went a bit overboard) with lighting and musical cues and camerawork and such… and the scene at the end when he stalks through the ship slaughtering rebels trying to catch up with the fleeing plans is truly scary and impressive… but it just wasn’t quite the Darth Vader I know and love.

Part of that was definitely the script, though. He seemed to have a bit more levity than I feel is entirely in character for him; all of his lines seemed a little off. Another part was — and maybe I’m just crazy — his helmet looking… not quite right? Like the neck part (at the bottom) was a little too wide? That kinda distracted me.

Even so, it was good to see him again.

I did come out of the movie with a couple of questions unanswered. First off, the torture method Saw used on Rook in response to which “you have a tendency to lose your mind…” So, sure, a “tendency” is not a guarantee that this will happen, and it was a good moment to showcase Saw’s willingness to use extreme methods. But I kinda wish there had been a line in there about, like, the probability of Rook’s going crazy forever or something, just to explain why later he was able to be (apparently) completely snapped out of whatever harm the ear-sucking torture monster did to him. After that line of Saw’s, I really wasn’t expecting him to be as lucid and effective as he was.

Secondly, what exactly convinced the Rebels, after they’d opposed doing it so strongly, to go to Scarif? Mon Mothma sure was pleased at the decision — I loved her attempt at repressing a triumphant grin — but I didn’t quite catch what the hell convinced them to go and, apparently, take their entire damn fleet. It sure was good for Our Heroes that they did!

Thirdly, wouldn’t the hyperdrive on a station the size of a Death Star be more difficult and time-consuming to finish than the weapon? Surely it’s more difficult to propel something that big through hyperspace (and somehow get it to stop at the end of the journey) than to channel a bunch of high-powered energy for purely destructive purposes? I dunno. I don’t build space stations or giant laser thingies.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this movie. I’ll buy it when it comes out, and I already have the soundtrack. I can’t believe I’m a Star Wars fan again. So weird. So weird.

There are several things I’m leaving off this AEL because I want to get some of this posted and I haven’t finished typing up those others yet. I still have that Christmas Movie Roundup AEL to finish too, and I don’t know when that will happen. In short, lots more rambling about art to come in the near future!

2 Replies to “AEL: Pale Fire, Locked Rooms, Rogue One/The Force Awakens”

  1. Okay, no I am going to read _Pale Fire_, like, NEXT, as soon as I am done with (ugh) _Ulysses_.

    Not gonna lie, I skipped over the bit about the Mary Russell book (having as I do certain Views on Holmes’ romantic interests), but I loved every fricking word of the rest of it. I can’t believe I never realised before what an utterly engaging essayist you are. Shame on me.

    1. I was going to be a lot less spoilery in discussing Pale Fire with you, but I can still, now, cross it off the list of things I have to discuss with you :D In any case, if you’re going to read that book next, I’m pleased as shit. But, meanwhile, why are you reading a fairly long book that makes you ugh?

      Hey, in canon I’m definitely a believer in asexual Holmes. If he were more a favorite character of mine, or the pairing of him and Watson one I had more loving connection to, I’d be far less tolerant of straight sexual Holmes. So I totally get it! Anyway that particular book bored me a little XD

      I’m glad you find my essaying engaging. My AEL’s tend to be mostly random and disjointed, I fear, but I try to organize my thoughts to some extent. Some times it works out better than others.

      I HOPE YOU ARE TALKABLE SOON. Even though Pale Fire is off the list, there’s other stuff on there still!!!!!!!!!!

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