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Wolf Hall, Episode 3: Anna Divisora [23 May 2015|08:01 pm]
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[place |Denmark]

Welcome back to our regular erratic examination of 16th century English history via 21st century dramatic television. If you missed the previous installments, these handy hyperlinks will take you to Episode 1 (which you really ought to read first as it lays out my thesis), and Episode 2 (which is skippable if you're pressed for time, as I, apparently, wasn't).

The past two episodes, I've made a point about the title, but "Anna Regina", I think, is fairly straightforward. It's the episode in which Anne becomes Queen, and more importantly Anne is The Boss, well before she is crowned. It may be interesting to note, though, that the title is in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church, while Anne is the motivation for severing England from said institution: one of this episode's leading subplots is the clash between Rome and the Reformation. Notice also that the title – Queen Anne – shares the screen with Katherine of Aragon, who is, at that point in time, still technically the Queen. With this juxtaposition we see the beginning and end of this arc all in one go.

The concrete subplot may be Rome vs the Reformation, but the abstract theme explored in this episode is Pragmatism vs Idealism. Episode 4 will play with it as well, but it is heavily established in, and central to, "Anna Regina." The foils, Cromwell and More, exemplify either side. In their playing off each other and reacting to the events around them, the deeper issues come forth, and the audience is challenged: What would you do in this situation? What do you believe in? To what extent would you stick to your ideals? What would you say to get ahead? Whose side are you on, and whose side would you want to be on?

Much of this conflict is played out in the religious divide, and tensions that arise because of religion, but there is still plenty to chew on if affairs of church and state don't interest you. Democracy is a belief system, not a million miles from a religion, and we see crimes perpetrated against it in this episode. The same goes for the values of romantic love, tolerance, and justice, all of which get skewered by pragmatism. We all have immaterial, non-empirical ideas we hold sacrosanct, so being challenged to examine the power of belief applies to us all.

It's a very relevant episode to our modern world as well, as we struggle with the lack of big ideas in politics, the clash of Islamic fundamentalism and what we consider 'Western values,' and the polarisation and entrenchment of opinion. When is compromise effective and when is it weakness? How much crossover should there be between government and finance? How much influence should moneyed individuals have in the system?

The screenwriting guru who taught at Disney harped on the idea that drama uses history to comment on the present, and that great films hit the rotten nerve of the time in which they are made. This episode is an hour of solid neuralgia, in that respect.

Words and PicturesCollapse )

From here on to the end of the series, Cromwell's shadow side will come ever more to the fore, and the façade of unimpeachable goodness fall away. At what point will you realise it's an illusion?
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Mighty Crom [20 May 2015|07:16 am]
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Nothing like co-opting a former colleague's fanart for your own amusement ... sincerest apologies to Cory Loftis but it was too good to resist. (He is amazing, you guys, check him out; I do miss seeing his artwork in the halls every day.)

Jean Kang has also done some super cool and spooky Wolf Hall fanart without even having to steal it from anyone!
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Bipedal Fantasy [16 May 2015|10:25 am]
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Someone on Tumblr asked me if I'd listened to the recent radio dramatisation of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. I have – the first episode at least – and if you wish to do so you'd better hurry up because it expires tomorrow evening (UK time): Episode 1 / Episode 2

Le Guin's own story is intriguing, what little I know if it, and the trails for the drama sounded interesting; the promotional image was of two people manhauling across a frozen waste, so with that and it being a drama on Radio 4 I was as a moth to the flame.

I think I might have tried reading A Wizard of Earthsea (which has also had a BBC dramatisation) when I was a teenager – I definitely remember trying a few highly recommended fantasy novels at one time and not being able to get into any of them. The memory which stands out most was dropping out after five pages of Dragonriders of Pern when the internal screaming got louder than the words. It's your world's analogue to a year, just call it a year! Why are you capitalising so many random nouns? Most fantasy to me felt like drowning in worldbuilding, a lot to keep track of with nothing to hold onto, no emotional life ring or a foothold on something I knew.

I'm more than twice the age now, have done a lot of reading in the meantime, and have made an effort to try to understand and appreciate the unfamiliar and initially distasteful, so I thought I'd give it another try. Unfortunately the old familiar drowning feeling came right back. I tried to soldier through, appreciating the production and ideas at least, and I think I got all the way to the end, but couldn't make myself go for Episode 2. I'm really sorry.

Of course I had to keep picking at it; I had to figure out why this turned me off so much when it ostensibly has a lot in common with other things I like. An idea I had in college came back to me, that speculative fiction really ought not to be divided into Sci-Fi and Fantasy (the boundary between which is famously subjective) but rather Fantasy With One Foot In Reality (Bipedal Fantasy, for short) and Wholecloth Fantasy, which is an entirely distinct universe with at most a passing nod at our own. Whether it's set in a quasi-medieval Arcadia or a hyperfuturistic space station, a story tends to be either tethered to our own reality or completely free-floating.

All the fantasy I like is Bipedal:
Watership Down is a book about another society, with its own rules, mythology, and vocabulary, but it happens to be made up of ordinary rabbits in ordinary Hampshire (which, admittedly, is a fantasy world to a five-year-old in San Diego) and the familiar pokes through often enough it never feels very foreign.
Redwall is set in another world, but with familiar furniture – it could be the same world as Wind in the Willows, Beatrix Potter, or Disney's Robin Hood – and in the early books at least it is not magical.
Harry Potter is magical, but has one foot planted in our everyday reality; most of the books start at the Dursleys', and Harry comes to the magical world with a relatable Muggle frame of reference. We only start losing the lifeline to our reality when the wizarding world has become a second home, and even that alternate reality plays off what we find ordinary.
The Dark Is Rising is very similar, and while its magical world is less of a riff on the nonmagical one, it keeps one foot in each world much more consistently than Harry Potter does.
Discworld is set in another world, and is magical, but it is plainly our world reflected in a funhouse mirror. Its thematic and satirical aspects are the foot it has in reality, and the characters it uses to illustrate its high-concept side are fully relatable human beings (for a given value of human).
Ray Bradbury's writing also uses its satirical side to ground us in a familiar reality, often the quintessential 1950s suburban ideal or stereotypical mid-century image of The Future.
Fatherland, being Alternate History, depends upon on our knowledge of WWII, but being twenty years down another leg of the Trousers of Time, maintains a certain distance. The power of its ending comes in part from its swinging back around to connect with our reality.

The Left Hand of Darkness' idea of gender-shifting humanoids is fascinating and opens all sort of narrative and philosophic opportunities, but I felt like I got more juice out of the Dwarf Feminism subplot in Discworld, and especially Monstrous Regiment's illustration of 'People are people' – the characters in Left Hand of Darkness seemed to spend more time explaining the implications of gender fluidity and how their society and relationships were structured around it than they did being people. Wouldn't it have been more effective to make us know and love the characters and then find out their species' quirk?

It's personal taste, of course. I know there are lots of people who are over the moon about Le Guin and her ilk, and I can see why if I step far enough back from myself. I wish I had that capacity for falling headlong into Wholecloth Fantasy, but my imagination is, as Professor Trelawney would say, 'hopelessly mundane.' I don't wish to tell them they're wrong, only explain where I'm coming from in a way that makes some systemic sense. Does it?
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Practise, Practise [14 May 2015|09:53 pm]
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The exercises in not snapping my watercolour brushes in frustration continue apace ...

... not a very grueling pace ...

The skies here are amazing, and good sky watercolours are amazing, but I keep getting laid up by darn complicated pretty buildings which I make a hash of. I dunno. More skies!
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Another Milestone [29 April 2015|10:06 pm]

Today, I outlived this guy.

Salutations, Soldier.
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Wolf Hall's Entirely Beloved: Episode 2 [16 April 2015|05:22 pm]
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Greetings, Internet, and welcome to another episode of Metapiece Theatre. Our offering today is, a little bit late, Episode Two of Wolf Hall, entitled "Entirely Beloved."

As with "Three Card Trick," whose writeup you should definitely read before this one, the title of this episode is not a coincidence. The entire hour is a game of beloveds, as we set up the relationships whose ramifications will play out in the rest of the series.

Cromwell is beloved of Wolsey
Wolsey . . . Cromwell
Cromwell . . . Johane
(and then vice versa)
Gregory . . . Cromwell
Cromwell . . . Mary Boleyn
Jane . . . Cromwell

Primarily, though, the overarching Beloved of this episode is Cromwell, of the audience. We come to love him for how much he loves others, as well as some cheaper tricks thrown in for good measure.

Of course, to show the Beloveds in greater contrast, we must have the Unbeloveds:

Cromwell vs Henry
Henry vs Wolsey
Cromwell vs Anne
Cromwell vs More
Cromwell vs The Gentry
Cromwell vs Gardiner

Most of these relationships are set up for an evolution, either of sentiment or of power, over the course of this episode or several. And, as mentioned last week, to some extent the value judgment of a character is directly proportional to how beloved they are of Cromwell – those who aren't on his side (e.g. Norfolk) are made out to be baddies, and those who are, are painted in varying shades of gold.

Such energy is put into garnering our sympathy that an alternate title for the episode might be "Laying it On With a Trowel." It's done subtly and organically, but when you start noticing the agenda, each of these moments begins to stand out. Continuing the legal analogy from last week, you can almost year Cromwell telling his take on things with a 'Yeronner...' Doth he protest too much, mayhap?

Let us go then, you and I, where the spoilers spread out against the sky, and pick apart "Entirely Beloved"Collapse )
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Pretty (?) Pitchers [10 April 2015|11:00 am]
[place |Michaelhouse]

Focusing on little compositional studies and trying to get the hang of watercolours has provided a good way to slow down and not use my cranky hand* for the quick repetitive strokes that got it into trouble in the first place. Plus I have nice little rectangular pictures that look decent enough on their own! ... With some exceptions ... see if you can spot the dud in the latest batch of scans:

*I am trying to get this sorted out, it's just taking a really really really really really really really really really annoyingly long time.
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Wolf Hall's Three Card Trick: Episode 1 [24 March 2015|07:24 pm]
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The PBS airdate for the first episode of Wolf Hall is coming up. This series made me ecstatically happy when it was airing on the BBC and I am very much looking forward to finding out what the reaction will be from across the pond. What made me so excited aside from the brilliant acting and gorgeous production and general intelligence of the whole thing, was the subtle game it played with the audience – a game which, I fear, may have been too subtle, as I feel like the only one I know to have picked up on it. Usually I'm the one missing something completely obvious in a movie, so I was a little worried I was hallucinating, but in rewatching, and reading what other people have to say, I'm pretty sure I'm on to something. For that purpose, dear North Americans, I shall write out my take on the show, in the hope that when you see it you can check it against my theories and perhaps enjoy it as much as I did. At the very least I aspire to spark some interesting meta.

I should clarify now, when I refer to Wolf Hall, I mean the 2015 BBC miniseries directed by Peter Kosminsky, screenplay adapted by Peter Straughan. I have not read Hilary Mantel's novels, but I have read the RSC stage adaptations by Mike Poulton, which differ from the TV series quite a lot. As such, I don't know who to credit for the storytelling to which I refer, and whether these ideas and the way in which they are presented are faithful to Mantel's vision or an invention of Straughan and Kosminsky's. I shall refer to the creators therefore as 'they', a nebulous hand-wave in the direction of the font from which this all came, and someone who knows more than me about its creation can inform me as to where credit and blame should fall.

First, a little on the Nature of SubjectivityCollapse )

This is a big claim to make, on behalf of creatives who have said nothing to this effect.* It is possible they didn't intend it, but I hope to lay out enough evidence to prove that even if it were accidental, it still works. If you haven't seen the show yet and want to watch it for the first time without any influence, stop here – if you wish to play the game from the outset, or have seen it already and are wondering what I'm on about, then read on ...
*Of course, if they had, it would ruin the game.

Catching Out Cromwell: Episode 1 (with pictures!)Collapse )

This is what engagement with your entertainment looks like. Have fun! Accept no substitutes!
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Composition Studies [24 March 2015|11:41 am]

Hamlet the BluetitClarendon HatstandClarendon Chrysanthemums

Inspired by Chris Riddell, one of my good intentions for a Lenten exercise this year was to do a daily composition, as that's an artistic muscle I haven't stretched in some time and I want to get to the point where I can use the page as a frame. Unfortunately my hand started making wee peeping noises a few days into this, and I am at the mercy of the hand – previous attempts at resting up have been thwarted by my impatience, so this time that's it, I'm going to hold off drawing until long after it feels better in the hope I can finally see this thing out and not have to deal with it ANY MORE.

Luckily there are still a few in my sketchbook I haven't scanned, so I can keep feeding the blogs for a little while ... in the meantime, expect a lot more typing. Gonna be doing a lot of reading and typing in the next couple months.

Regarding the randomness of the bluetit illustration: I have been keeping a bird feeder outside the kitchen window, and have noticed that whenever a bluetit arrives to eat, he announces himself with a little fanfare that reminds me of the inappropriate way Hamlet turns up at Ophelia's funeral.

In many respects Lent this year has been a bust, but I suppose I have learned the important and unexpected lesson that it's much easier to be self-disciplined when times are hard than when they're great. Who knew! Now I do.
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We Have Reached the End of Cake [12 March 2015|10:18 pm]
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I logged onto my email this afternoon to find my inbox full of sadfaces. That is how I found out about the death of Terry Pratchett.

There probably isn't one single other author who made me as much who I am today as Sir Terry. I was introduced to his books at the end of high school, and they became my How To Be A Human manual. The summer I was drawing Goblet of Fire pictures I was starting Interesting Times* and Small Gods**, and when Pottery Art really took off I was polishing off the last of my unread Discworlds, just in time to catch The Truth as it was published. I remember the feeling upon finishing it, that there was now nothing new to discover about Ankh-Morpork, and how oddly desolate that made me feel ... well, here were all are now, together.
*Not, I discovered, the best book to start with, but it got me hooked nevertheless.
**I frequently recommend this as a starter, but there was something special about reading it for the first time at the height of a blazing summer in a desert theocracy.

Oddly, though, I found that in the face of all the sadness in my inbox, I wasn't particularly distraught, and sent what were probably alarmingly sanguine replies to my corespondents. They all knew what a huge part he'd played in my life, and most of them had been introduced to him through my work as The Pratchett Pusher. But my last few years hanging out with dead guys has given me a certain perspective ...

It is, of course, a pity that he of all people was struck by a degenerative brain disease relatively early in life. For that matter it is a pity that he didn't live to 120 with all his faculties intact, but that's hardly something we can all expect. What we can all expect is that someday, sooner or later, we will die; when that day comes, we will be very lucky if we can look back as he could on a life so well lived. He was incredibly prolific, hugely popular and successful in his lifetime, maintained creative control and the highest standards of storytelling, touched millions of people, administered new ideas and old ideas with a spoonful of sugar, and used his powers for good. He saw the foibles of mankind starkly and still managed to be a humanist; Neil Gaiman talked about his anger but what impressed me most was his hope (that greatest of all treasures). It's just possible that by releasing his imagination into the world, a small percentage of people will be changed by and live up to that hope, and pass it on, incrementally bettering the human condition. It's hard to imagine a more gratifying legacy than that.

We've had seven years to prepare for this day. He had seven years to prepare for it, too, and didn't waste a single one of them, adding advocacy to his writing regimen and no doubt putting his affairs well in order. That's a mercy, too; imagine if he'd had a heart attack in 2007 instead of an Alzheimer's diagnosis. And in the end he got to go at home, with family, and his cat, having seen a positively glorious first weekend of spring, rather than clinically in a foreign land as he was planning to do.

We have lost a bright light, it's true. The world is a poorer place than it was a week ago. But it's an infinitely richer place than it was thirty years ago, thanks to him, and I'm more grateful for those thirty years than sad at the light burning out. The light it cast will continue reflecting and refracting down the years, after all, down the long corridor of infinitely reflected mirrors, possibly even growing in intensity and reach. Maybe now we'll finally get to call his books 'literature' and take them as seriously as they deserve ... as long as we don't forget to enjoy them, too.


"Sadness, master. I think. Now – "


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