Zootopia

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Zootopia is a solidly made crowd-pleaser and one of Disney’s freshest and most heartfelt in years, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights that it’s aiming for.

The challenge with making tentpole animated films seems to be how to incorporate elements that will appeal to children as well as to adults, creating an end product with universal appeal. There are many permutations to this approach. In Zootopia’s case, while there are elements that appeal to children, the film nonetheless feels like it was made primarily for adults.

There are all the human-like animals, of course, from the cute and cuddly to the ferocious-looking and magestic, and that sheer visual spectacle of a futuristic, colorful city populated by them is sure to be a sensory delight to taxonomically-inclined children. But at the same time, Zootopia has that rare distinction, usually achieved only by the better Pixar films, of daring to interrogate its cartoonish premise on a deeper thematic and psychosocial level.

Zootopia – the setting – feels authentic, a location with real presence and heart. From the five wildly different biomes that make it up, to its utopian aesthetic and metropolitan verticality, there seems to be real care being put into thinking how a city made up of a thousand species of animal might function. (I do have a question though – does that mean all the animals are vegetarian? Even the predators?)

Zootopia is a society comprising predator and prey, and the two races have reason to distrust each other. While animal-kind has “evolved” to live in relative harmony with each other, insuperable biological differences remain, that isolate predator from prey. Above that, the biological differences between animals of the same kind also create a kind of division of labor and expectations around what animals are best suited for what jobs, a fact that the protagonist bunny Judy Hopps is made painfully aware of when her dismissive superiors consign her to meter maid duty on her first day on the job as a Zootopia Police Department officer.

There is a tension between the easy solution of keeping every animal in their biologically-mandated place and instituting inclusionary measures to ensure that animals can be whatever they want to be. Although Zootopia’s creed leans towards the latter, it is no utopian caricature. It is still a place where mostly well-meaning people constantly struggle to figure out how to live in a society that tries, but often fails, to be just and inclusive. That willingness to broach those themes elevates Zootopia’s premise from kid-friendly schtick to somewhat-intelligent commentary.

Zootopia excels in other respects, too. The writing for this film is mostly solid and often hysterical. The ironically-named arctic shrew mafia boss, Mr Big, is a hilarious parody of Godfather, and the naturalist colony where everyone is naked is a humorous nod to the cartoon absurdity of a film where animals walk around wearing clothes. Our bubbly protagonist, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), is exuberant and enthusiastic but also smart and relatable, and she has great chemistry with her would-be partner, small-time con-fox Nick.

The thing that Zootopia isn’t so good at is disassociating itself from some of the more common bad habits endemic to Disney animated films. While the setting and themes of Zootopia are meaningful and original, the actual plot isn’t quite as inspired. Zootopia’s narrative starts out great in the first half, when Judy and Nick team up to solve a missing mammals case. It’s a compelling, smartly-paced police procedural with most of the funny bits. But then, in the second half, the plot falls apart as the filmmakers write themselves into awkward plot contrivances in order to hit a bullet-point list of some of the tireder Disney tropes – the unwitting friendship-betrayal, the nadir-of-protagonist scenes, the scene where the protagonist figures things out, and the whole unexpected villain shlock.

There is also that annoying tendency in animated film to make everything just work out for everybody through fortuitous coincidence and foreshadowing. Judy is saved from being iced by the mafia because she happened to save the don’s daughter earlier that day. Judy happens to be chasing a criminal that was carrying a package that happened to foreshadow the big plot reveal later on in the film. I get it. It’s necessary to make the film understandable to children by linking everything to each other. But it makes for a truncated, too-neat film, with everything neatly packaged, a contrived fable about acceptance and inclusivity rather than something with more complexity and verisimilitude. It’s a shame, because the setting of Zootopia had a much more promise.

Funnily enough, there are also some jokes, that rather hypocritically, try to be funny by relying on stereotypes about those animals, which somewhat goes against the message of “being all you can be” that the film spends its entire length promulgating. The worst joke in the film (and one that nearly put me off watching it) was the whole sequence with the sloths at the DMV, which suffered both from cheap laughs at the sloth stereotype, as well as being terribly paced and (you guessed it) far too drawn out.

But I do think Zootopia is one of the few Disney properties with actual promise as a franchise. The city of Zootopia is a fertile playground to spin more stories about this eclectic land of cohabitating mammals, and I actually do hope that they come up with richer stories to populate that universe – tell us where all the reptiles went, maybe?

I give this film: 4 out of 5 carrot recorders

 

 

 

 

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Firewatch

***SPOILERS.***

Firewatch is the debut game of new studio Campo Santo, which has the enviable pedigree of being composed of a number of ex-Telltale developers. As a debut game, Firewatch does feel very much like a working prototype: a tentative hybrid of choice-based narrative game and a more conventional open world setting. Mechanically, it is a game that seems slightly uncertain about where it stands between the two. Nevertheless, the game is a promising start for Campo Santo and a testament the potential of video games to achieve a level of subtlety in videogame storytelling usually reserved to film and literature.

The game places you in control of Henry, a forty-plus year old man who signs up for a summer stint as a fire lookout in the Shoshonne National Forest. His marriage is troubled – his wife has early-onset Alzheimer’s and children are on the way. While she is placed in the care of her parents, Henry seeks solace in isolation as a means of getting away from it all, even temporarily. There, he meets and befriends Delilah, a spunky, sympathetic fellow lookout and his supervisor. Their friendship blossoms, possibly into something more – but as the summer wears on strange things begin to occur – and they need to find out what is causing them.

The game is a cross between a Telltale-style narrative choice game, Gone Home-esque walking simulator, and open world exploration game. But it hews much closer to the former two than the latter. There are no quests or discrete narrative chunks that the player chooses to activate. The storytelling is more linear and naturalistic, with most of your interaction being with an unseen voice on the radio – that of your supervisor Delilah. But at the same time, Firewatch is also a game very much about exploring its lushly-detailed environment.

In fact, the best way to enjoy Firewatch as a game is to immerse yourself in it and pretend that you’re really there, taking in the sights, snapping pictures with your in-game instax camera. That entails fiddling with the in-game options to switch off the option to see your location on the in-game map, forcing you to use a compass, the map, and nearby landmarks to navigate the land. At the start of the game, this can be slightly frustrating but also great fun, as you roam the map looking for supply caches and getting to know the lay of the land. If Firewatch has an element to distinguish itself from other choice-based narrative games, it is this element of wilderness exploration.

And this exploration has its particular pleasures. The environment of Firewatch – a small but lovingly crafted (if somewhat unpolished in places) parcel of Wyoming backcountry is gorgeous, with a painterly aesthetic and sound effects that make you really feel like you’re there as Henry, wandering around and free. That sense of freedom is essential to the story, because it gives Henry the licence to temporarily abandon his responsibilities and wander around unspoilt, majestic nature. That element of the narrative is a big part of the thematic tension that Firewatch establishes between freedom and obligation.

This tension is also reflected between the taut narrative of Firewatch and its open-world nature. That tension has long been an issue that plagues most, if not all, open-world games. How do you balance the player freedom of an open-world game with maintaining pacing and tension in a cinematic narrative? Open-world games like The Witcher often sacrifice the latter for the former, which creates issues with narrative flow and immersion. Firewatch, on the other hand, has tried to solve this by breaking down the open world action into discrete time segments. As Henry, the player spends each day performing tasks to advance the plot, and once those goals are met, the game timeskips to the next segment. Usually, the goals are those that allow the player some freedom of maneuver, but the game does use all the tricks in the book – one way passages, corridors, you name it – to narrow the traversable environment when it wants to instill a sense of urgency, or move the narrative forward.

On paper, this seems like a nice compromise solution – give the player freedom, but bound by temporality to preserve a sense of narrative pacing. In practice, though, it can be disruptive and off-putting when the scene transitions to the next time segment without warning. And the game doesn’t warn you which narrative flags will trigger that cut to the next scene, so to speak. So the player could be happily exploring the map to find a supply cache and talking to the deuteragonist Delilah on their walkie talkie – but then concluding that conversation will trigger a cut to black, and the player will find themselves back at the tower, a day having passed. That kind of wresting of control away from the player when they don’t expect it isn’t an inspired design decision – it diminishes that sense of agency which is so vital in games.

This awkwardness in game design, however, is still an encouraging step forward because it does show some attempt to find solutions to the problems endemic to open world games. And I do think that from a purely narrative standpoint, the game maintains a very good sense of flow and pacing, even if some of the plot threads and revelations can be a bit clumsily telegraphed due to the presence of player agency (think players ignoring vital clues when searching the area, etc).

Unlike walking simulators like Dear Esther, that rely primarily on environmental storytelling, in Firewatch the narrative is sustained primarily by the interactions between Henry and Delilah. That is also where the element of choice comes in. The player’s ability to make discrete choices is limited to picking out their replies to Delilah, and the choice of reply supposedly affects the tenor of the relationship you have with her. Not having played the game more than once, I cannot attest to the accuracy of that statement, but I suspect that the constellation of choices made available to us are mostly there for show. The main storyline is linear in all the important bits – there are no “major decision points” that you might expect from your typical Telltale style game. In that sense, the narrative is much more natural but also more linear. I don’t see a problem with this – I’m not a fan of forcing player choice for its own sake. But others may decry the linearity of the story.

As for the story itself, it’s not your average video-game fodder. At its heart, the game is very much about Henry and his struggle between the tantalising freedom offered by the outdoors and that promise of starting afresh in the figure of Delilah, and the crushing weight of his obligation to his wife. That tension is reflected in the game’s mechanics, in the secondary “conspiracy” story that the game tells, in Delilah’s own story as well. In the end, the game’s seeming position on that inner conflict is not what you’d expect from a genre that customarily involves the player in escapist fantasies – the denouement of the game is actually more of a nullification of the possibility of escape. Henry cannot remain in his tower forever, his belief in conspiracy revealed as something more mundane (and tragic), he doesn’t “get the girl”, and as he is literally carried out of a flaming forest, he must return to face the harsh realities of life and face them, tempered by that harsh lesson that he has learnt as a lookout in fire-prone Wyoming backcountry.

At its end, Firewatch is therefore a short but taut game, a little piece of narrative involvement with some sprinkles of game-like exploration. Although it is at times clumsy at reconciling its two aspects into one seamless package, its willingness to back away from tired gaming tropes and critically reflect on gaming’s penchant for escapism is a refreshing burst of fresh air. It’s a good start for Campo Santo, and I look forward to their future efforts.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 radios

Spotlight

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Spotlight is the second of the two Oscar-bait docudramas I’ve watched so far this awards season, after The Big Short.

The two could not be more different.Where The Big Short is rambunctious, crudely funny, bombastic, polemical and angry, Spotlight is understated, earnest, naturalistic, even-handed and quietly but firmly compassionate. And it works its charms to communicate its message as effectively and with as much aplomb as The Big Short did.

Spotlight is a filmic account of how the Spotlight investigative team at the Boston Globe worked to uncover the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of child-abuse cases committed by their priests, for which they won a Pulitzer Prize. Their investigation revealed that the extent of the cover-up was far greater than anyone had suspected, and was bigger than just Boston – it was a national, if not global, pattern of behavior by the Church.

In that sense, it’s a film about fundamentally good people doing things that they think are right. A film about people motivated by a sense of compassion and justice, and also by their professional duty to uncover and report news that the public needs to hear.

Those kinds of performances are hard because they require a lot of nuance to keep things interesting. These are not grandstanding superheroes – they are normal people, people like you and me. And it is to their credit that the cast pulls it off so beautifully and with such nuance. You can see the fire in Michael Rezendes’ (Mark Ruffalo’s) eyes as he stands at the back of a Catholic church watching the children’s choir sing a Christmas hymn, as the priests look on. You can sense Sacha Pfeiffer’s (Rachel McAdam’s) struggle to maintain a professional demeanor as she interviews a former Catholic priest who glibly admits to his history of child abuse. The whole cast shows a remarkable degree of sensitivity of portrayal. No one cast member stands out. This even-handedness of direction provides the film with a kind of graceful sincerity that shows that it really means what it wants to tell us.

The phenomena of child abuse – and the narratives of the victims – are also presented with sensitivity and respect. The victims – survivors – are often treated like nameless ciphers by the media. This film gives them presence and gives them a voice to contribute their own discourses into the film’s own constructed narrative.

If anyone’s given short shrift, it might be the Church, whose members and advocates are portrayed as moral cowards, by and large, unwilling to rock the boat even if it means silencing those who have suffered abuse at the hands of some of their members. There is a clear antagonist in this film and it is the Church. But the film is effective as showing them up as the other side of humanity – frail, fallible, far from the mouthpieces of God that they purport to be. It is an important lesson to not put your faith too much in the fallible and human institutions of organised religion.

Spotlight is a tightly written film with a defined message that eschews bombast to deliver incisive commentary on its topics: the power of journalism, the juxtaposition between courageous action and cowardly inaction, and giving the voiceless victims of child abuse a voice. The film isn’t interested in the indictment of the Church or of revelling in its own sense of justice, and it is telling that it ends right when the story breaks and the team has no time to celebrate in their scoop, but instead – their real work – gathering the stories of victims empowered by their expose to come forward – begins.

I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 notepads

 

 

The Witness

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***SPOILERS***

(The poster is actually also a minor spoiler.)

After enough hours playing The Witness, it gets to you in funny  ways. You start seeing its puzzles in everyday objects. Its aesthetic – circles and circuitous lines – pop out at you everywhere you look.

The Witness is putatively a puzzle game with a singular gaming mechanic – panels of mazes in which the player must draw an unbroken line through a maze from start to finish, obeying certain rules. There are hundreds of these puzzles scattered around the game environment, of varying levels of difficulty. Solving these puzzles will reveal new areas, unlock audio recordings, and inch the the player closer to the endgame.

But The Witness is more than just a series of maze puzzles. I think, at its core, The Witness is a game about exploration and discovery. The game environment is a large island with many different biomes for the player to discover and wander around in. The environment itself offers many secrets; hidden vistas, underground caves, secret scenic spots, where the player can take in the beauty and serenity of the island.

Few games I’ve played rival The Witness in terms of that unfettered sense of exploration. In open world games like The Witcher, there is always the tension between taking it all in and advancing the plot or leveling up your character. In The Witness, there is no such tension. The puzzle-solving is inherent in the act of exploration. And exploration is the only reward for puzzle solving, other than opening up more puzzles. But The Witness does not rush the player. The narrative, or what exists of it, is minimal and unobtrusive. The player is free to wander where they wish, indulging in the fantastically picturesque environments of the island: brilliant pink cherry blossom orchards, forests of bamboo trees, scorching deserts, woodlands, underground caves festooned with bioluminescent plants. There is also a kind of in-game reward for exploration – many environmental features on the island line up into maze-like pathways when viewed from the correct perspective, which the player can also trace to solve.

That exploration is the chief appeal of The Witness – that feeling of excitement when you visit an area for the first time and apprehend its puzzles. Different puzzle types are native to each area, too, ensuring that the act of exploring new territory also holds a sense of novelty.

This focus on puzzle-solving and exploration, without obvious gameplay or narrative rewards, makes the game rather more suited to certain types of players. The Witness is by no means a particularly accessible game. There are no instructions, no sense of guidance. The player is thrust into the world with no driving force to propel them on except their native desire to explore and to solve the puzzles around them. And the endgame itself is not particularly rewarding – solving the final puzzles pretty much just resets the game and earns you a Steam achievement.

The puzzles themselves are inventive and well designed for the most part, and most areas have some sort of sequential solving order that introduces players to the particular rules of the puzzle vocabulary of that area at a manageable learning gradient. Some puzzles are more inspired than other. Some puzzles rely on environmental cues, and these are often the most frustrating, because they involve some element of pixel hunting, rather than logic. And the endgame has some truly irritating puzzles that derive difficulty from things like obscuring the puzzle board with flashing lights. But The Witness is endlessly inventive in the variety of puzzles that it throws at you, and for the most part, they’re well thought-out.

Perhaps what is frustrating about The Witness is how inscrutable it feels on a teleological level. What is the island for? Why is it put there? Who built it? Why are there all these statues of humans scattered around the island? There are a variety of theories out there on the Internet, but my personal favorite is that The Witness is at some level a ludological representation of someone’s interior mental state – possibly that of Jonathan Blow. The island is a mind, with hubs to unlock to reach a greater state of self-understanding, with different approaches to puzzle-solving to make the player understand that there are many ways to view a certain thing. The act of puzzle solving is a way to simulate that journey to greater self-awareness – the kind of act of concentration and the flash of enlightenment that accompanies finally solving the puzzle after employing another lens by which to view it.

What I like most about this explanation is that it also suggests that the game is a kind of vehicle for the player to experience a kind of OCD – of that compulsive need to trace lines through paths, to see the symmetry in things, to follow certain arbitrary rules of logic when solving a puzzle, to avoid the lava, as it were, when crossing the carpet. There is a secret ending in the game that bears this theory out, but I’ll leave it to the prospective player to figure out what that is. Essentially, the game may be a very personal way for someone – perhaps one of the game’s designers – to allow players to feel what it must be like to have OCD.

There are also these audio logs and videos that the player can stumble upon and view scattered all through the island – audio logs that hold snippets of meaningful quotes by various scientists, philosophers and religious figures. They are beautifully narrated, providing a meditative soundtrack to accompany the player’s explorations or puzzle-solving attempts. My favored interpretation is that they are ideological fragments that have stuck in the mind of this person whose interiority we are experiencing.

Essentially, The Witness is appropriately named – the player is witnessing the interiority and hoariness of a mind through the act of simulated experience, complete with surreal images, extracts of articulated ideas, and abstract representations of people and places. It’s somewhat apropos that Blow, the game’s creator, has said in interviews that he “wanted to make a game for people who read Gravity’s Rainbow” – and here he has made a game  with the same kinds of dreamlike logic that Pynchon readers will be accustomed to experiencing and navigating, in order to make us feel  the humility of accepting that the world is beyond complete understanding: a kind of game where the experience, and not the end, is the whole point.

 

I give this game: 4.5 out of 5 shady trees

 

Morning Star (Red Rising #3)

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***SPOILERS BELOW***

Morning Star is about as good as I’d reasonably hope a conclusion to the Red Rising trilogy could be.

Red Rising was a serviceable, if slightly formulaic take on the Hunger Games YA model. Golden Sun was when the series really started to distinguish itself on its own merits – with its sympathetic protagonist, its compelling future society, and its willingness to take the series in original, if dark, directions.

Morning Star caps that with an effort that is at least as expansive as Golden Sun, even if it does seem to wrap most of the threads up a little too neatly. The events of the second novel end on a cliffhanger that, in not-too-revealing terms, changes the dynamics of the central conflict from infiltration and deception to open, brutal struggle.

In Morning Star, Brown provides meaningful closure to Darrow’s character arc. Darrow is no longer in a position where he needs to live double lives – he is now able to forge a syncretic identity for himself. At the end of Golden Son, he decided to reveal his true identity to his friends and allies; in a bid to earn their genuine trust and commitment to his quest to unshackle his people. In Morning Star, this commitment to trust pays off, and, indeed, it is only with that openness that Darrow shows to his nearest and dearest that ultimately wins him the day.

But it does seem that he has it too easy, sometimes. Leading a rebellion against an entrenched system of overwhelming superiority is no mean feat, but Darrow gets some major unexpected allies, pulls off a number of major tactical miracles by what seems the skin of his teeth, benefits from incidental treachery, and depends all too much on the goodwill of erstwhile enemies to make good. Although Brown does kill off a few beloved but token characters to up the stakes (and their deaths do stir up pathos quite effectively),  it seems a bit like stage dressing to throw off the fact that really, Darrow is winning all his battles a little too easily. Except for a clever bit at the end where everything actually does seem bleak beyond belief, it’s a steady but bloody march up for Darrow and buddies.But I do suppose there’s no recourse for it, in order to end things off neatly in the span of a book.

One other thing that disturbed me slightly was Darrow’s willingness to commit what were practically war crimes in the name of strategic gain. This, I think was the one moral question that the series didn’t interrogate enough to get much out of it. War is bloody business, and tens of millions die in the span of these books. It’s understandable that there should be sacrifice in the name of the ideals that Darrow and co. are fighting for. But Darrow makes strategic sacrifices to advance that cause, slaughtering innocents, which seems oddly dissonant with his rhetoric about friendship and trust. It’s the one moral weakness in his cause that could have been milked a bit more by the enemy to provide some added moral complexity to the plot, but it seems like its left hanging. I do think Brown missed a good opportunity on this front.

Notwithstanding, the worldbuilding continues to astound, and honestly Morning Star is at its best when sketching out the lifeways of the various denizens of the Solar System: the Moon Lords of the outer planets, the underground cities of Mars, the spiked planetoid Phobos, and the white sands of Venus. There hasn’t been a good solar space opera (outside of the Expanse) for too long, and the Red Rising series is one of the better ones out there.

I really like it when the series laughs at its own somewhat contrived tropes as well, particularly the whole shtick about modelling the Society on Greco-Roman ideals – exposing weak children to the elements, stealing Roman nomenclature, strutting about with Praetors and Imperators. One character memorably comments that the Society is “modeled after the musings of Bronze Age pedophiles” and delights in “tossing around mythology like that bullshit wasn’t made up around a campfire by an Attican farmer depressed that his life was nasty, brutish, and short”. It’s refreshing to see a far-future civilisation so cognisant of its own pretensions.

And really, that hits at the ideological heart of why a hierarchical society like the Society invariably stagnates – because the centralisation of power around an elite leads to decadence when the elites hold all of the power, even if they are genetically “superior”. Change and progress come from turnover, rather than order. That kind of thematic awareness acts to fortify the more conventional  reasons for why Darrow should want to see his cause be fulfilled – it is more than injustice – it is ultimately a crusade for the betterment of the human condition.

In all, Morning Star is a page-turning, gripping, and satisfying end to the Red Rising series. It doesn’t provide answers to how the new Society will be structured following its denouement, but I suspect that that will be left to the announced sequel series, Iron Gold, to explore. I have every confidence that Brown will do a great job on it.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 reapers

 

 

V.

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I’ve been meaning to embark on the works of Thomas Pynchon ever since I tore through Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon seven years ago and found out that people were calling that work Pynchonesque.

I’m glad I waited. Pynchon would have been utterly lost on my younger self.

V. is the first of the works of Pynchon, and already sets itself up as a work of overwhelming density. Multitudes of characters, times and places too many to track flash before the reader’s eyes, riotous and following opaque laws of logic and causality. Pynchon’s prose is dense and sprightly, flitting breathlessly from scene to scene, the reader chasing its fleeting silhouette through opaque forests of multisyllabic words with nary a backward glance.

V. is the kind of book that expects your complete attention. It won’t care if you get lost in its labyrinth of twisting prose and its menagerie of misfits. And it does get bogged down in its own overweening cleverness at times. But reading it has its own pleasures and rewards. V. displays an astonishing versatility of styles, and showcases Pynchon’s encyclopaedic, intimate knowledge of his variegated subject matter. To read V. is to sit through a semantic roller coaster, marvelling at Pynchon’s ability to wield the English language like a hammer and chisel, creating exquisite sculptures of meaning. Inscrutable at times, perhaps, but beautiful to look at nonetheless.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about V. is that, once you take a step back from examining its minutiae with a magnifying glass, the overall plot structure is remarkably simple. The book is about the narrative journeys of two men: Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil (there’s a certain irreality about Pynchon’s characters’ last names: they are seemingly random words that seem deliberately chosen for some inscrutable reason).  Profane is an itinerant some-time freeloader: his life is endlessly transitory but purposeless. Stencil is the opposite: his life is a dedicated quixotic quest to find out who or what, in the end is the mysterious, elusive V. Unlike Profane, who has no purpose, Stencil has a singular, all-consuming purpose.

That purpose is the narrative fuel that brings us through the book’s variety of times and places: all pieces of V.’s own journey through time and space. V., in that sense, is the ultimate macguffin, a one-size-fits-all cipher whose only requirement is that whatever it purports to be starts with the letter V. It’s a fantastically vague vehicle to house Pynchon’s various ventures into variegated styles. V. is most commonly a woman, who may or may not be the same woman, appearing in various places and times. Sometimes V. is a place or time, like the  mysterious city Vheissu, or Veronica the rat, a member of the rodent congregation of a mad priest that lives in the sewers of New York.

To Stencil, V. could be anything, and his life’s journey has been to catalogue all the instances of V. that are connected by even the most tenuous of threads. V. has the logical coherence of a dream, a stream of recountings linked by the vagaries of incidental alliteration. And the reader who expects the entire story of the various incarnations of V. to unfold into a cohesive, unified story is likely going to be disappointed.

And where does Profane fit into all of this? His interactions with Stencil and his apprehension of the whole V. business are incidental, two brownian particles colliding in a vast world of random encounters. Profane’s story starts in a different place from Stencil’s, but they converge at the end of the book as Profane accompanies Stencil to Malta to piece together yet another element of the story.

In actual fact, it’s pointless to try to imagine V. as a book that presents some unified, coherent thematic message. V. is a paean to the vast confounding web of cause and effect, a joyous romp through encyclopedic fields of meaning. It is the pre-Internet equivalent of an hours-long binge on wikipedia articles, with the only rule that you must only click on a link that starts with the letter V. Pynchon writes what he will – vignettes in a sea of incidental connectedness, and has Stencil embark on a quixotic quest to piece it all together. Profane’s story, and the various confused accounts of V. are ways for Pynchon to create a pastiche of styles and thematic elements in a single novel, with V. as the framing mechanism to make it work as a singular novel.

So a book such as V. is sustained not by an overarching theme, but by the sheer force of Pynchon’s inventiveness and gift for giving life and texture to the interstices of his gangly narrative web. And for the most part, he succeeds in creating secondary accounts that each have their own themes, messages, symbols, and literary innovations. From the multi-perspective recounting of tale of intrigue and espionage in Alexandria, to a nightmarish account of the rampant evils and inhumanity of colonialism in Africa during the Herero wars, to the Lovecraftian ramblings of an explorer describing a mysterious, apocalyptic city named Vheissu, to a disturbing, Lolita-esque tale of a ballerina killed by her craft, to an examination of the Beat Generation-esque antics of a bunch of pseudo-bohemian layabouts in New York City that Profane and Stencil have dealings with, Pynchon’s range is staggering and his knowledge seemingly boundless – at one point, he spends pages of text on a step-by-step description of a plastic surgeon’s nose alteration surgery.

And there are symbols and images that span these disconnected vignettes – faint ripples across the thematic space of V. – notably a pervasive theme of people that modify their bodies, themselves, either through plastic surgery or through artificial limbs, to make themselves more or less than what they are.

At the end of it all, V. is one work that cannot be encompassed by a single reading. It is a work of immensity, a dreamlike, proto-logical romp, one that will make you feel as if dribbles of meaning lurk amidst the saccades of your eyes as they scan the page, taking in the sights of Pynchon’s reality while searching futilely for some overarching meaning that binds it all together.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Yoyodyne Dummies

 

The Revenant

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***WARNING: SPOILERS***

Another year, another Iñárritu.

There’s a certain overwrought quality to The Revenant. It’s a property that characterises its beautiful, bleak winter wildernesses and its brutal depiction of trapper Hugh Glass’s struggle for survival and revenge. But the film’s overwrought nature also bogs down attempts at a convincing portrayal of the emotional states of its characters.

If The Revenant has one overriding aesthetic goal, it is to showcase the classic narrative conflict between man and environment. In the film’s case, it is a story of how the power of a very human desire – that of revenge, can drive a man to the extremities of struggle against the elements. But Glass also parleys with nature (and the Indian tribes, by the way, are part of what the film constitutes as nature) and reaches a kind of unspoken compact with it in pursuit of his vengeance.

The depiction of elemental, primal struggle with nature is the film’s chief appeal, and therefore it is to The Revenant’s credit that it does so with such arresting visual majesty. Nearly every shot shows painstaking craft in framing and focus. Iñárritu intersperses the primal and intimate  brutality of Glass’s quest for survival with stately, impersonal shots of the vast wilderness in which he is lost. DiCaprio’s performance in this respect is phenomenal: you can really see the reality of his privation in his icy blue eyes as he wends his way through the film’s frigid vistas. The filming process was reputed to have been extremely tough due to the fact that Iñárritu insisted on shooting during actual winter conditions on location in actual wilderness. But it does lend substantial verisimilitude to DiCaprio’s performance, as well as that of the rest of the cast.

Sound is used with great effect, too – in one scene, DiCaprio’s labored breathing accompanies an aerial shot of roiling clouds lit from above by a wintry sun, spinning a narrative of human determination against the backdrop of his insignificance in the stark uncaring beauty of the cosmos.

The film’s focus on depicting the struggle of man and elements is the source of its greatest strength. There is a certain thematic purity to it that sets it very far apart from Iñárritu’s previous, far more layered and ambiguous Birdman. So it’s a shame that The Revenantefforts to weave in the more human story of the man – the titular revenant – who  returns from the dead to exact revenge on the murderer of his son are not nearly as inspired.

Indeed, it seems like the film expended its considerable filmic energy on depicting the man vs nature element, and was therefore too spent to do the same for the rest of the film. The film did not compellingly depict the fact that Glass’ desire to survive was motivated by his desire for revenge. One part of it might be the way in which the film sets up his motivation. His love for his wife, and son, Hawk is depicted in a series of beautifully shot but somewhat bombastic (and repetitive) dream sequences in which he sees his wife smiling at him, or recounts their slaying by a contingent of soldiers. Glass’s interactions with Hawk were also very functional and expository in nature, meant to tell, not show, the viewer of the bond between them. It doesn’t really help that they spoke to each other in badly dubbed Arikara tongue, which I thought robbed the performances of their emotional texture – mostly because the actors sounded like they were still figuring out how to shape their mouths to pronounce the words. Most of the Arikawa spoken by the Indians was actually like that – badly dubbed, stilted exposition that gives the viewer essential information but little in the way of nuance. And when Glass mourns his son, it’s highly ritualised going through the motions – the closing of the eyes, the placement of a plant in his mouth – all symbolic action, as opposed to raw emotional expression, for the sake of  moving the plot forward with a minimum of fuss.

It’s a consequence, I think, of the film’s overwrought nature. The Revenant is not a sensitive film. It’s a film that depicts nature and struggle in its raw, unvarnished brutality. Everything is larger than life, portentous, and grandiose – the shots of wilderness, the fantastical dreamscapes, the foam on Glass’ mouth as he crawls out of his shallow grave. The effect, though, is that the film’s lack of nuance in exposition makes the vengeance quest feel not as authentic as it could be. More examples: the film is reduced to things like having Glass scratch out Fitzgerald’s name in the snow as a way of telling the viewer that he wants to spill his steaming guts out onto the snow. Or having characters act in ways that advance the plot as opposed to being a consequence of authentic human motivation, such as Captain Henry, who, in defiance of logic, ventures out to track down Fitzgerald with only a still convalescing Glass in tow, so that Glass and Fitzgerald can have their mano-a-mano romp undisturbed.

And in the end, the film didn’t quite end the way I’d hoped. There is catharsis in vicarious vengeance, but The Revenant doesn’t quite achieve that. In my ideal vision of how the film should have ended, Glass would have become more akin to a true revenant, a vengeful spirit returned from the dead that uses his newfound mastery of the elements of nature to exact a terrible punishment upon Fitzgerald. That would have capped out his journey and struggle nicely and unified the twin streams of his relationship with the elements of nature and his personal desire for revenge. Instead, however, the film’s denouement features a very raw and very brutal (albeit very well-choreographed) human struggle between Glass and Fitzgerald, with the both of them rolling through the snow and stabbing each other. Glass wins and gives leaves Fitzgerald’s fate “in God’s hands”, by which he means floating him over to the Arikara Indians waiting on the other side to scalp his corpse. I was hoping that Glass would visit upon Fitzgerald more of an elemental, terrible sort of vengeance, which I think would have been more satisfying and also more on point, thematically. But that’s just a preference and expectations thing.

In all The Revenant is not a film that quite lined up to my expectations of it coming in having watched its run of very good trailers. But it is albeit a very beautiful, very stark film, to be appreciated for its aesthetic mastery, if not for its (at times) clumsy exposition.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 water bottles