Friday, February 24, 2012

Rewatching Peter Jackson

So, on my trip back from Arkansas just before Tolkien's birthday (e.g., in the terminal at Love Field and later during the layover at Albuquerque) I re-watched the theatrical version of Jackson's THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING for the first time in years. It occurred to me recently that whenever I re-watch this, it's always the extended version, which I've come to think of as the 'real' version of the film.

Rewatching it again, first on my laptop with headphones on in airports and on the flight back to SeaTac (hardly ideal conditions), and then again last weekend under much more congenial conditions,* I'd have to revise that conclusion.

One thing I deliberately tried, as a kind of thought experiment, was to try to look at the film as a self-contained work rather than an adaptation. That is, how would this look from the point of view of someone who'd never read the book, who only knows the story as it's being told, minute by minute, on the screen.

First, the theatrical version holds up very well as a coherent film. There's an awful lot going on, --a complex plot and lots of names of people and places-- but the viewer doesn't get lost. It's moving, and funny, and frightening, and exciting by turns; a love story and a war story and a suspense story and a best-buds story. Its range can embrace thoughtful discussions (the Council of Elrond, Shadow of the Past, Gandalf's long talk with Saruman before the wizard-fu nonsense) to well-choreographed action scenes (the best of which was Aragorn's advancing to take on the entire uruk-hai company solo).

Second, the film contains and conveys an awful lot of information. Enormous amounts of backstory and debate and discussion, often taking up thirty-page chapters in the book, get presented in five minutes or so. The temptation to dumb down the story must have been enormous, and it's to Jackson's credit that he resisted it as much as he did.
Third, the film highlights something truly unusual in Tolkien's book that I've simply gotten used to over the years. Someone watching this film with no preconceptions might well wonder, a half hour or so into it, who's supposed to be the main character. At first it looks like Bilbo, but then he exits, stage left. Gandalf looks like the next best bet, but after the wizard-fu scene he's offscreen for quite a while. Just as you might firmly settle on Frodo, Strider appears and seems to take the lead. There have been so many articles over the years debating over who was the real hero of LotR --Frodo or Gandalf or Strider-- that I'd forgotten how unusual it is in any twentieth century work, fantasy or realist or modernist, to have this kind of bifurcation. Impressive that Jackson embraced this element of Tolkien's work and made sure it came to the fore.

Most of us at Mithlond felt that FELLOWSHIP (a) held up well, ten years later, (b) really did have its own merits vis-a-vis the later expanded/extended director's cut, (c) was the best of the three Jackson films overall.

My favorite comment, which either came from Chris or Yvette (I forget which), was the observation when Gandalf arrived at Orthanc: "when you find out your old friend is played by Christopher Lee, look out!"

--John R.
current reading: MIDDLE-EARTH AND BEYOND, ed. Dubs & Kascakova

*we decided to devote this month's Mithlond meeting to seeing the film, and our hosts' delightful cat Max joined in (their other cat, Maya, also made a rare appearance about two-thirds of the way through, perhaps wondering why we were still there).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

No Women as Witness

So, here's a weird new story. A congressional committee holding hearings into the new rules of whether women who work for a religious-affiliated institution should have contraceptives included as part of their health plan refused to allow any women to testify before the committee. Here's the link:

I find this interesting not for the politics of the thing, but because of how it's an indication of people talking at cross-purposes because they're living in different worlds. For one side it's an issue of women's rights; for the other, it's first amendment religious freedom.

My thoughts:
(1) if a school or church or hospital takes public money, it has to abide by public rules. A faith that believes in miracles still has to follow the local fire code.

(2) it's a sad commentary that when assembling a panel of ten religious leaders to serve as witnesses, they cdn't turn up a single woman in a prominent position.

--John R.


And now, for something completely different: BUNNIES running an obstacle course.

I particularly like the one who won't cross the finish line, because there's nothing there to jump over.

Thanks to Janice for the link.

--John R.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

It's so easy to start a war, and so hard to end them

So, there have been a lot of articles lately about how great it'd be if the Israelis, acting as our proxies, were to bomb Iran.

No, really.

The logic, such as it is, is that Israel's having sixty-plus nukes is a stabilizing force in the region, whereas Iran's simply having the capability to someday build one wd bring on the apocalypse.

I found particularly insidious a piece loaned me by the barista at Magnolia's only internet cafe,* who was reading it for a class. Entitled "Israel's Closing Window to Strike Iran" by one David Makovsky, it essentially argues that launching a surprise bombing raid right now on all Iran's nuclear facilities is the only way to slow down their development.** If they wait even a few months, it'll be too late, since the Iranians are taking steps to protect their power plants from attack.

It's eerie how much the "we have to attack now, before it's too late!" sounds almost exactly like what all those Japanese admirals were saying in November 1941. That didn't work out too well for them in the end.

For their part, the Iranians have warned that any such strike will be taken by them as a declaration of war, and will be marked by their shutting down the Persian Gulf and ending all flow of oil to Europe. Which will crash the world's largest economy, the E.U.. Which won't be at all good for us, either.

Here's hoping the Israelis don't follow Imperial Japan down that same path.

--John R.

*internet cafe & tanning salon, an interesting combination I'd not run across before.

**(apparently the ongoing assassination campaign of Iranian scientists isn't working)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Zach Garrison, Life Master

So, yesterday I visited five different Starbucks and one bookstore, and bought thirteen copies of the same newspaper-- the Monday edition of THE NEW YORK TIMES.

The reason? The story about my great-nephew, Zachery Garrison, becoming the youngest-ever Life Master among Bridge players has now spread beyond Bridge circles. Last Friday it appeared in the HOUSTON CHRONICLE (Spring, where they live, being a suburb to the north of Houston), in a nice piece which not only includes a picture of Zach but also quotes from his parents, Kristy and David. Here's the link:

When she learned there was also to be a piece in THE NEW YORK TIMES, I got commissioned to go buy some copies -- "as many as you can find". And I even got a follow-up call on the big day, when I think my sister was horrified to find that it was 12.30 here and I hadn't even started on my paper run yet, Kristy having only been able to find a single copy in her neighborhood.

So, I put aside the book review I'm working on and, amid a number of other errands, visited five of the six local Starbucks I know about ('local' as in 'within a ten mile drive'). Three here, two there, four there: in the end it added up to thirteen in all. Since I'd aimed for ten to twelve, that seemed about right. I'm keeping one for myself,* sending one each to my mother and sister, and boxing up the other ten for Kristy to keep as souvenirs or distribute among the various Garrisons, Rateliffs, Hutchins, Sladaritz, et al.

As for those who failed to buy a paper copy, here's the relevant article, with a point-by-point analysis of a particular hand played, from the upper righthand quadrant of page C4. Enjoy!

And, once again, congratulations, Zach.

--Uncle John

*slowly reading through it, I've already learned of an Off-Broadway production in which a fictionalized C. S. Lewis is one of the two main characters, FREUD'S LAST SESSION -- presumably based on the book about Lewis & Freud from a few years back, which I never read because it looked like its subtitle shd have been "why Lewis was right and Freud was wrong about everything". From a little online digging, the play itself sounds good though.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Magnolia Wrap-up

"Are you here on your own behalf,
or have you come on behalf of a family member?"

--administrator of Magnolia's Assisted Living/
Senior Housing, upon meeting me Friday week.

So, I no sooner got back (on Monday the 6th), than the cold I'd been dosing with over-the-counter medications for more than a week got me good and proper; most of the days since have been spent hacking, muddle-headed, drowsy.* Finally seem to be mostly over it now -- at least I apparently no longer look about a hundred and ten -- and finally back at the desk with reasonable confidence that what I write and edit won't have to be redone by a clearer-headed future me.

Before I forget them, though, wanted to jot down a few odds and ends from the trip. Not exactly a 'vacation report' so much as a few highlights unconnected with the main purpose of the trip that I wanted to remember.

--One morning I saw something I hadn't seen in years: a flocking of hundreds upon hundreds of blackbirds. Cdn't tell what kind they were: certainly not starlings (because they were long-tailed). Think they were too large for cowbirds, so probably grackles (though a little on the smallish side for that) or just possibly redwing blackbirds (though I've never heard of the latter flocking like that). It was fascinating to see, and hear: they'd fly from tree to tree, making a chirping chatter all the while, gradually drifting from yard to yard. It looked exactly like a crowd trying to follow itself, full of swirls and gatherings and hesitations. I know some people have Hitchcockian moments at sights like this, which is a pity: it really was a wonderful sight. Something taking place around us that had nothing to do with us. Glad I went outside at the right time and got to see it; a half-hour later and they were gone (having gradually shifted off out of sight to the north and east).

--I also noted that Magnolia's crows are shy and furtive, avoiding people and largely keeping out of the town. They also appeared only in ones and twos, never in larger groups. I think all this comes with generations of crows knowing that any person who comes towards you is as likely to try to shoot you as otherwise. Pity.

--The neighborhood cat population, I discovered, is relatively friendly, expecting on the whole good things from strangers they meet. I spent some time each day at Williamson Street, this being one of my favorite places in the world that I only get to visit maybe twice a year. While there this trip I did mainly one of two things: either planting flowers (some iris by the back fence, some narcissus in the daffodil circle I planted last year, pansies and a rose bush between the largest oak and the smaller pecan trees) or hanging out with the cats. I never got to see my mother's favorite among all the neighborhood cats she feeds (and in fact have never done so in all the years that cat's been coming up, since it only appears pre-dawn and thenabouts), but I did establish good relations with three youngish cats who were well-disposed to my showing up, putting out a tasty snack, and then sitting on the bench by the back fence reading for a while. The first was a sleek little black cat (I have a great fondness for little black cats) with a v. solemn stare, the second a fluffy grey cat with a whitish mane, and the third who joined them occasionally a rangy yellow and white junior tomcat. The tomcat was happy to be petted as he was passing through; the others liked to plop down and sit near me but didn't want any petting, just hanging out companionably (and, of course, some treats to make it worth their while to come up). So it was nice to get my cat fix while I was away.

--In addition to visiting Dudneywood (where I not only got a good idea what their apartments for seniors are like but saw some v. strange ducks and counted at least eight turtles lurking in the pond, not quite as shy as the ones I'd seen in the Red River in Shreveport), I decided to drive all the way out Dudney Road and see just where it lead to. If you've ever wanted to turn left at an intersection where you'd always turned right, you know the feeling. Along the way I passed by Greer's Chapel, where I stopped and found the graves of the Wallers, some old family friends who'd been close to my mother's family when she'd been growing up; I only time I remember meeting them on their farm was when they pointed out their twenty-two year old cat -- just a regular looking calico who'd had her latest litter a year or so before. That was the first time I realized just how long cats cd live, given the right circumstances and some lucky breaks. I also in the same cemetery found the graves of what must be the original Dudneys, Eli (b. 1811, d. 1899) & Martha (b. 1827, d. 1900), along with the Ozmers (see below). Next time I'll have to do the same to the Warnock Springs Road or maybe the Burnt Bridge Road and see what I find

--As for Dudney, it eventually brought me out near Logoly (pronounced low-go-lie), once a mineral springs resort, then later a boy scout camp,** and now a state park. When I'd been in scouts it was abandoned, though we did go out to do some restoration work there towards the end of my scouting days (in the mid-seventies). I enjoyed a walk around the now-restored pond; a nice place to go for a walk in the woods. Maybe next time I'll go by the old Magnesia Springs instead.

--The last 'local sight' I saw in my little project to get to know my hometown better was the Ozmer House. I'd never heard of this before this trip, but while sorting through and throwing out some old newspapers my mother had come across a beautiful picture of "the historical Ozmer House" out by the college. This turned out to be an old dog-trot house built in 1883.***
Although the look was v. different, I was reminded of the Neely-Soames house here in Kent: the last of the original homesteads along the Green River only about a mile from here. There were once hundreds of houses like these in their respective areas, but now only these survive. I'd heard of dog-trot cabins before (from my creative writing teacher at SAU, Dr. Skelton). It took some searching, some driving down dirt roads with cow-guards, and some back-tracking , but it turns out to be easy to glimpse as you go by on the bypass; harder to actually see up close (finally just pulling over and walking the last bit). Worth the stop though, if you like this sort of thing. Which I do.

And that pretty much wrapped by my various little explorations. For this time around, anyway.

--John R.
current reading: THE PHANTOM OF THE TEMPLE [a Judge Dee book] and
MIDDLE-EARTH AND BEYOND, ed. Dubs & Kascakova.

*probably didn't help that I inadvertently took double doses of Nyquil for the first few days of that).

**even though by my time we went over at Camp DeSoto nr El Dorado instead, the campfire stories there were still about 'the Logoly Monster', which was less the local bigfoot or Faulk Monster than the amorphous center of any horror story you cared to tell. That is, everyone knew you were supposed to be afraid of it, without having any v. clear idea of what it was. Given how derelict McNeil (the nearest town to Logoly) is looking these days, it'd be easy these days to do a local variant of Lovecraft's Dunwich there.

***built by Henry (1851-1941) & Virginia (1853-1941) Ozmer, whose graves I'd noticed earlier that day at Greer's Chapel, along with those of what was presumably an earlier generation: George (1817-1854) and Nancy (1817-1887) Ozmer.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Liberal/Conservative Smart/Dumb

So, here's a news story that caught my eye yesterday:

A new study suggests that people with low IQs tend to be more conservative, politically and socially, while people with high IQs tend to be more progressive. Here's the link:

My main problem with this is twofold. First, I'm inherently dubious of generalizations about the behavior or beliefs of vast numbers of people. "Women", "Southerners", "Liberals", "Muslims" -- all are too diverse a group to be easily potted.

Second, as Stephen Jay Gould masterfully demonstrated in THE MISMEASURE OF MAN [1985],* IQ isn't a measure of intelligence but of of one's ability to second-guess the test: it's original purpose was to gauge learning speed. What IQ tests test best is the ability to take IQ tests (try saying that ten times quickly): they don't measure innate ability or capacity.

That's assuming there's even such a thing as "Intelligence" that has any more meaning than a D&D stat: that problem solving, verbal skill, memorization, visualization skills, extrapolative logic, &c are all expressions of the same thing, as opposed to widely varied mental functions that have little to do with each other and are found in all kinds of mixes in individual brains.

So, fun headline, but bogus study.

--John R., who scored quite well on IQ tests, actually**

*a book I gave Owen Barfield a copy of -- now at Wheaton, I think -- though I never did hear what he thought of it.

**apparently I'm a low-grade genius. Does that mean my IQ's just high enough not to believe in IQ?

The Youngest Life Master

So, yesterday my great-nephew* became the youngest-ever person to achieve the status of Bridge Life Master. Nine years, two months, and seven days: a new record.

Congratulations to Zach, and to his parents (who did a lot of driving him around and re-arranging their schedule to make this possible), and his sisters for their patience while all this was going on. Here's the announcement:

I don't play Bridge myself, though I relatively recently discovered that I know the basics of the game from so many games of Rook in my youth --a favorite game of my grandmother Smith, specially designed, I now realize, so that people with religious objections to playing cards cd still enjoy a Bridge-like game. It is interesting to see another gamer pop up elsewhere along the family tree, even if with a v. different game than the rpgs I've devoted so many hours to.

--John R.
--still in Magnolia, but now with reliable wi-fi, as of about this time yesterday.

*yes, I am old as the hills. Why do you ask?