Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green was tne No. 1 New York Times bestselling book this year. A huge number of people I know have read it, and loved it, which is why I was a bit wary about it- these are people that don't like reading recreationally, yet here they are raving about a book. How good could it possibly be?
The main character of the book is Hazel, and she has lung cancer. She's sixteen and has been out of school for three years, but she takes community college classes and reads a lot. She opens the story by telling us her mother decided she was depressed, " presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death."(page one, TFIOS) To get her out of the house, her mother sends Hazel to cancer kids support group. Here she meets Augustus Waters, and the rest of the book is dedicated to their love story and their fight against cancer, with a spontaneous trip to Amsterdam thrown in.
Considering the cult following this book has, I'm not sure I dare say this, but... I didn't really enjoy this book. I suppose I should be expecting a crowd of angry pitchfork and torch-wielding youths at my door any minute now. The thing is, I can understand why people would like this book-it's clearly marketed towards teenagers, and it has all the emotion and romance and angst any adolescent would want. But here's the thing about me; when something is so obviously supposed to be sad, I can't really get absorbed in it and connect to it because I know what it's trying to do. That's probably a pretty big reason I couldn't enjoy this book.
John Green banks too heavily on the cancer and death factors of his book to get the reader to connect and become invested. To me, it just seemed like an easy way out of actually building a meaningful plot. I mean, everyone makes such a big deal about TFIOS not being a "cancer book",about it being about these characters, but can I ask: if you were to take the cancer aspect out of this book, and were left simply with the characters and ideas, would you care about either? I wouldn't, because I don't think either were particularly well-written or explored well. I mean, I didn't like Hazel, or connect to her. She didn't really have any interesting thoughts, and her whole clever and witty persona started to wear on me after  awhile. AND ALL THE CHARACTERS TALK THE EXACT SAME WAY. From Hazel to Augustus to the parents to the novelist Van Houten-they all sound like John Green. And as for any kind of subtext or ideas, what were they really? Every little metaphor or symbol was straight-out explained by the characters in the book-there was nothing left for the reader to think about or interpret on their own. So if these aspects aren't quality, all we are left with is the cancer aspect, which leads me to believe the whole book was a "cancer perk" , an idea Green talks about in the book. Cancer perks are special things cancer kids get because they have cancer. The acclaim this book received was a special thing it got because it had cancer. What really annoyed me was that the cancer didn't mean anything. When a character in a book is physically ill, we as readers are trained to look for the sickness to symbolize some other problem that is perhaps mental, or of the heart. Physical sickness is never just physical.... Except in this book.
Another aspect of Green's story that kept me from enjoying it was how formulated it was for it's audience. Like I said before, Hazel's attitude is so obviously supposed to mirror that of the average teenage girl. But by trying so hard to do this it really just makes her boring. And the number of slapped-in pithy quotable lines really got to me. Just these moments of pseudo-deep thought that felt like they were drafted separate from the book and inserted wherever the author saw fit. On top of that, the number of references to authors and philosophers really held up the story. I think of F. Scott Fitzgerald when I'm saying this, and he's good to compare to. The man was obviously very well educated, and as an effect of this tended to allude to many authors, philosophers, classical works, but they flowed as a part of the story; they enhanced the text if you understood the reference, if you didn't you just skipped over them. However, John Green puts all these names and such into the story in such a pretentious and contrived manner, and then assumes the reader doesn't know what he is talking about so sets the story aside to explain them. It really did start to drive me insane.
Overall, I didn't consider TFIOS to be a particularly well-written book, and I think part of the reason it has sold so many copies is the propaganda surrounding it. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love John Green as a person, and I watch Vlogbrothers religiously, so I was really let down when I found out what sort of an author he was. He has such a following I bet people feel a sort of duty to read his books. I can understand how people liked it, but this just wasn't the right book for me. I think I would recommend it just for cultural literacy at this point.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Bottle Rocket(1996)

Bottle Rocket was Wes Anderson's debut film, and considering how much I love his work I've always been curious to see it. I got it as a Christmas present and watched it that night. The film stars the Wilson brothers, along with Robert Musgrave, and it was co-written by Owen Wilson. Luke plays Anthony, fresh out of the asylum and re-united with his vivacious friend Dignan(Owen). Dignan has got the idea that they should be criminals, rob stores and be on the run until they can join back up with Mr. Henry, the area's crime lord slash landscaping contractor. They bring their friend Bob along as a getaway driver, and consider themselves a gang.

It was definitely very interesting to see how Anderson got his start- although I didn't think the movie was very good, it's easy to see where much of his trademark style came from. The Wilson brothers fit perfectly with his writing- quirky looking actors, Luke with his big puppy eyes and Owen with his twice-broke nose. I didn't really understand Musgrave's acting, or his character for that matter. He played the bullied younger brother, unsure of himself, awkward, with some kind of exclusion complex. But the whole movie I was just sort of waiting for him to disappear, like his character was only making a cameo and the real third character would appear shortly. Bob just seemed superfluous; the movie could have been solely about Anthony and Dignan. I like to see how Wes found what fit for Luke Wilson- the deadpan, depressed, somewhat ironic romantic. I loved his line:
"One morning, over at Elizabeth’s beach house, she asked me if I’d rather go water-skiing or lay out. And I realized that not only did I not want to answer THAT question, but I never wanted to answer another water-sports question, or see any of these people again for the rest of my life."
It was one of the lines that really felt like Wes Anderson in the script. However, I just didn't believe that his character was a bit crazy, or that he was really under any kind of mental duress at all. It wasn't shown all that well.

The romance between Inez and Anthony was one of the high points of the movie, when it really felt like it was going somewhere. It was very sweet and awkward and reminded me quite a bit of the romance between the youngest brother in The Darjeeling Limited and the train stewardess. I liked the way their relationship moved along; not anything wildly romantic, but cute and sort of realistic. 

The pacing for the rest of the movie didn't quite work. The whole time I was waiting for the plot to actually begin. There never felt like there was a real conflict, and there wasn't enough up and down to make the movie really go anywhere. 

Above all I felt like this was a learning experience for Anderson. Judging from his later works, he figured out what he liked in this and then refined it and played with it to get the desired effect. The yellow of the jumpsuits is seen in the yellow tent of The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom. The up-close shots of writing and drawings and plans are recurrent, as well as the shots looking straight down at a surface with objects arranged on it. The zoom shots of faces are also a common feature. 

What most apparently lacked in this movie was the sense of inescapable irony Wes lends to his films. Whenever something is funny, there's a sad irony to the humor that keeps you from laughing too hard, and when something is said there's a humorous irony to lighten the mood. I don't think Anderson had quite perfected that balance yet, so the movie isn't emotional but doesn't have the irony to keep it interesting.

Although I didn't like the movie and probably would not watch it again, there's a comfort in knowing that even a director as great as Wes Anderson was not perfect from the beginning but obviously learned quite a bit from his mistakes and came out with something better because of them.

Now I have to see Rushmore and I'll have seen his whole filmography!

Friday, December 27, 2013


I breathed on the windowpane and then took a picture of the snowstorm outdoors-- I think it's a nice effect...


Surrogates came out in 2009, directed by Jonathan Maslow and starring Bruce Willis.The story is based in the future, when the invention of humanoid robots, or "surrogates", has completely changed the everyday way of life. People don't go outside anymore; instead they experience the world through their surrogate, which they control from a chair in the comfort of their own home. The surrogates are all twenty-something, attractive, thin, and users can live out their every whim without fearing any sort of harm.

However, there is a countermovement against the widespread use of surrogates- groups of people in every city that refuse to conform, that choose to live in their human bodies and their human bodies only. They have special zones where no surrogates are allowed to enter, and their leader is called "The Prophet". They think the use of surrogates is unnatural and should be stopped.

The movie begins with the FBI discovering there is a weapon that can kill the actual users of the surrogates through killing their surrogates- an idea that goes against the very idea of the robots. Bruce Willis plays the FBI agent Tom Greer, who is determined to solve the case, and this leads him through a series of car/helicopter chases and gunfights. Eventually his surrogate body is destroyed, and he experiences the city in his human form, seeing the negative effects of surrogate culture.

My bone to pick with this movie was that it has really great ideas as far as presenting a dystopian culture, but it didn't do justice to these ideas because of what it was trying to be. Many parallels could be drawn between our present day online personas and the surrogates- oftentimes we edit our digital selves to portray us in the best possible light, or someone else entirely. We're striving as a society for youth and beauty and perfection, while simultaneously drifting farther and farther away from what it really means to be human. But to develop these thoughts would take time and subtlety, both of which the movie did not allow for. It jumped from action scene to action scene to revelation to Bruce Willis's blood and grime-covered face and back without a moment to spare for actual thought. 

What I did think was interesting, until the very end, was that you weren't sure who you were rooting for. There wasn't a bad guy, and the main character wasn't necessarily a good guy. You were caught between your desire for such a beautiful, perfect society, and your gut feeling of wrongness. I guess you could say it was almost an emotional "uncanny valley". It seems right, but there's something just a little off and not quite human that makes you shy away. 

As far as character development goes...rudimentary. It was introduced at the very beginning that Tom Greer's son has died, and there are some underlying issues existing between him and his wife that she tries to hide with her use of the surrogate. But it just seemed like an easy way out for the writers. A child's death at some vague moment before the story happened is a surefire way to illicit sympathy without having to go too deep. I found myself not really caring. 

The movie was fine, but sort of a shame. I wish it had focused more on the subtleties and culture of the setting rather than the number of explosions could be fit into two hours. Im sure there have been other movies and novels about this idea, but Surrogates just left me feeling unsatisfied.

P.S. Merry Christmas! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday! I'm planning on posting a lot more soon- I got lots of great books and movies from my family.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Right now I seem to be on a classics stint with my reading, so it was natural I would eventually come to this book. To be honest the only reason I decided to read it was because I really liked the name Dorian Gray. Here's the Goodreads summary:
Written in his distinctively dazzling manner, Oscar Wilde’s story of a fashionable young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty is the author’s most popular work. The tale of Dorian Gray’s moral disintegration caused a scandal when it first appeared in 1890, but though Wilde was attacked for the novel’s corrupting influence, he responded that there is, in fact, “a terrible moral in Dorian Gray.” Just a few years later, the book and the aesthetic/moral dilemma it presented became issues in the trials occasioned by Wilde’s homosexual liaisons, which resulted in his imprisonment. Of Dorian Gray’s relationship to autobiography, Wilde noted in a letter, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to  be in other ages, perhaps.”

I have mixed feelings about Oscar Wilde- in a way I want to hate him, but at the same time I can't. You get the sense from reading his work that he's a very skilled writer, but he's well aware of that fact and so his arrogance leaks into his writing. It reminds me of something Holden Caulfield said in The Catcher In The Rye- I can't remember the exact quote but he says that he doesn't like actors because if they're good they know they're good, and then that detracts from their performance because it gets seems the same with Oscar Wilde. Some things are subtle and well written, but most of the time he isn't even trying for subtlety and really just wants to get his points across and make sure the audience appreciates him. Nevertheless, I really did enjoy the book. The plot was really very interesting- the painting that would grow old and bear his sins whilst Dorian Gray would stay forever young and would be able to sin as much as he wanted. There were some parts that were really slow to get through (there's literally like ten pages describing different types of jewels and perfumes and musical instruments, where I was left wondering why) but reading some of the witty and fast-paced conversations between the characters was a lot of fun, and there was a plenitude of good quotes to take away. 
The book started to make a lot more sense after I read up a little bit on Oscar Wilde and the aestheticism movement: valuing beauty above all else. That was definitely the hugest focus of the book, but what's intriguing is that even though Wilde was a member of the movement, he almost seems to be condemning it in his book. The obsession with youth and beauty above all else ends in ruin for Dorian and the people around him, and Wilde portrays the decadence of the upper classes as a sin. The ringleader of all this hedonistic thought and persuasion, Lord Henry, is shown pretty clearly as the Devil himself, and yet I found that he was my favorite character in the book- his pithy observations about society and human nature were charming and clever and he was oddly charismatic despite not really being involved in anything or giving any of himself to the situations... he remained at a distance, simply influencing the other characters in the story, which corresponds pretty strongly with the role of the Devil, I suppose.
Although the ending was pretty easy to predict, I liked it a lot- that Dorian Gray still had that part of him that wanted to be good, and in the end he was able to purify his own soul by accepting his sins. 
*Spoilers over*

Although I didn't really connect to this book, and at some moments couldn't help rolling my eyes, there's no doubt it was masterfully written and that it's earned its place as a classic. I would definitely recommend that everyone read this.

Favorite Quotes:

"But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid. Look at the successful men in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are! Except, of course, in the Church. But then in the Church they don't think."

"The commonest thing is delightful if only one hides it."

"...there is no doubt that genius lasts longer than beauty."

"And the mind of a thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value."

"Because to influence a person is to give him one's own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else's music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly--that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. The have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one's own self. Of course, they are charitable. They feed the hungry and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. Perhaps we never really had it. The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion--these are the two things that govern us."

"I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect."

"The way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tight rope."

"I am too fond of reading books to care to write them."

"If one hears bad music, it is one's duty to drown it in conversation."

"Nowadays, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

"There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up."

"Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting people in what they are."

"And there was a terrible consumption of nuts going on."

"I love acting. It is so much more real than life."

"There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us."

"I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference."

"Each of us has heaven and hell in him, Basil."

"She lacks the indefinable charm of weakness."

"Every effect that one produces gives one an enemy. To be popular one must be a mediocrity."

"Besides, each time that one loves is the only time one has ever loved. Difference of object does not alter singleness of passion. It merely intensifies it."

"The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame."

"I don't think there have been such lilacs since the year I met you."

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