Monday, 26 December 2011

Movie Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

If somebody says "spy movie" the first thing which comes to mind is James Bond. Yep, car chases, million dollar gambling in Monte Carlo and gadgets that do all sorts of nifty things. But did the movie producers of the Bond films or even Ian Fleming for that matter actually capture the real world of all those anonymous people who live in the shadows? This movie is based on the 1974 book by the same name written by John le Carré and represents the antithesis of everything we the viewing public have come to expect from the cinematic hyperbole of James Bond or as of late, Mission Impossible. Like anything connected to the government, the film portrays the protagonist as a dutiful employee who is awash in fatigue, boredom and probably his own fair share of cynicism over the state of affairs.

This movie is the thinking man's spy film. Someone accustomed to the nonstop thrill ride of an action film will find this film slow, plodding and downright boring. However it is in that very slowness we watch a gem of a mystery unfold as the central character methodically deduces who in the British Secret Service is actually a mole, a double agent working for the Russians. Remember that the year is 1973 well before our modern era of computers, cell phones and PDAs and it is hard to believe that anyone could conduct any business or even live their life without the electronic devices we all now take for granted. Talk about primitive!

John le Carré wrote with a realistic approach to his stories. After all, he spent the 50s and 60s working for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6. His first big novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold became an international best-seller when it was published in 1963 and led to the 1965 film starring Richard Burton. It was here that the author set out a writing style which was anything but flash and glamour. While Ian Fleming, for instance, clearly set up the fight between good and evil, both good and evil being well defined, le Carré described the complexity of the moral dilemma between the West and East. The democratic West was not necessarily the good guys dressed in white and the communist East was not necessarily the bad guys dressed in black. There were many shades of gray in the mix and like today's on-going debates about the effectiveness and moral questions of water-boarding or the perpetual lock-up at Guantanamo Bay without trial, le Carré is sometimes asking if we are still good if we in turn follow the aphorism "fight fire with fire" and end up being just as evil as our enemies.

Gary Oldman puts in a wonderful performance as George Smiley, brought out of retirement to find out whom amongst the higher-ups at the Circus (British Intelligence) is a long-term mole. The story moves between the current investigation and the past when Smiley was still working for Control, the previous head, played by John Hurt. Oldman and Hurt personify the old, wizen men who have been through it all and seen it all; they were actually there for Genesis chapter 1, verse 1. Unlike our more spectacular detectives (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows comes to mind), this story imparts the sleuthing aspect of uncovering the mole and sleuthing  involves the dull plodding through a ton and a half of documentation trying to piece together the puzzle of how the Russians could have set up a mole so high up in the organisation.

There are several sorrowful side stories which flit by but make you wonder what they may entail. Smiley has an estranged relationship with his wife. She has had an affair and it turns out the affair was with a work colleague of Smiley's. Smiley tells Peter Guillam, an intelligence officer aiding Smiley in the investigation, to clean up his affairs as they are all going to be scrutinized for their work in trying to uncover the mole. In a short scene, Peter at his flat tells another man he must leave. Little is said; little is shown but it's 1973 and Peter is a homosexual. It is a truly sad moment as the camera shows the other man dropping his keys on the table as a few tears stream down the Peter's cheek.


Final Word
Quite simply, I enjoyed the movie. Although to any potential viewer, I would add the caveat that this spy film is anything but the eye-candy you would normally associate with the genre. A number of action films rack up a body count that extends well past your fingers and toes and you would do well to arm yourself with a clicker-counter. Does anybody realise that a mystery by Agatha Christie usually has only one murder per story?

The film is a beautiful period piece and does a wonderful job of capturing the era. It also captures the realism of life and the dullness of a government job. This all provides an excellent backdrop for the out of the ordinary solving of a mystery. While many may find the action as exciting as watching paint dry, I found it all to be absolutely mesmerising. The subtlety of the acting was riveting. I must however add a caveat to the story. It is complex and as such, it is difficult to follow. It has been years since I read the book but I have come to recognise that a film adaptation, any film adaptation suffers from the constraints of its medium. A novel, the written word, has a great deal of freedom in presenting ideas and developing a story; this may entail descriptive passages or the thoughts of the various players. Unfortunately, a film must make trade-offs and sacrifices especially in accounting for running time which sometimes means that what's good in the book may end up on the cutting room floor. I remember finding the book The Da Vinci Code to be fabulous but the movie to be only so-so.

Nevertheless, this film does manage to stand on its own. Clocking in at 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has garnered a lot of praise from the critics which to me is always a sure sign the film is good and worth seeing. Nevertheless, I remind you that this is anything but a James Bond spy flick. This is dark and brooding, very much a reflection of reality with its jadedness about everyday life.


References

Rotton Tomatoes: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011): 85%
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a dense puzzle of anxiety, paranoia, and espionage that director Tomas Alfredson pieces together with utmost skill.

Wikipedia: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 2011 British espionage film directed by Tomas Alfredson, from a screenplay written by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan based on the 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré. The film stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley, and co-stars Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ciarán Hinds. Set in London in the early 1970s, the story follows the hunt for a Soviet double agent at the top of the British secret service.

Wikipedia: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (book)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a 1974 British spy novel by John le Carré, featuring George Smiley. Smiley is a middle-aged, taciturn, perspicacious intelligence expert in forced retirement. He is recalled to hunt down a Soviet mole in the "Circus", the highest echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service. In keeping with le Carré's work, the narrative begins in medias res with the repatriation of a captured British spy. The background is supplied during the book through a series of flashbacks.

Wikipedia: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Adaptations
Television
In 1979, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was adapted to television as a seven-part series for the BBC, featuring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, of the SIS; the initial broadcast coincided with the British Government announcing that Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen's Pictures, was one of the Cambridge Five traitors. In the United States, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) broadcast it as part of its "Great Performances" series, introduced by the Canadian journalist Robert MacNeil, who explained the workings of SIS.


Wikipedia: John le Carré
David John Moore Cornwell (born 19 October 1931), who writes under the name John le Carré, is a British author of espionage novels. During the 1950s and the 1960s, Cornwell worked for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6, and began writing novels under the pseudonym "John le Carré". His third novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) became an international best-seller and remains one of his best known works. Following the novel's success, he left MI6 to become a full-time author.

Wikipedia: John le Carré: Writing style
The spy novel œuvre of John le Carré stands in contrast to the physical action and moral certainty of the James Bond thriller established by Ian Fleming in the mid nineteen-fifties; the le Carré Cold War features unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work, and engaged in psychological more than physical drama. They experience little of the violence typically encountered in action thrillers, and have very little recourse to gadgets. Much of the conflict they are involved in is internal, rather than external and visible.

Unlike the moral certainty of Fleming's British Secret Service adventures, le Carré's Circus spy stories are morally complex, and inform the reader of the fallibility of Western democracy and of the secret services protecting it, often implying the possibility of East-West moral equivalence.

official movie web site: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
You have to enter a code to get into the web site. Get it? It's a "spy" movie. The code is 160911 but don't worry. If you leave the field blank and click on the Enter button a couple of times, it will be filled in for you. In case you don't get the significance, the movie came out in the U.K. on 16-09-11.

Wikipedia: Tinker, Tailor
"Tinker Tailor" is a counting game, nursery rhyme and fortune telling song traditionally played in England, that can be used to count cherry stones, buttons, daisy petals and other items. ... Its American version is commonly used by children for "counting out," e.g. for choosing who shall be "It" in a game of tag.

2011-12-26

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Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Fixx: One Thing Leads to Another


The deception with tact, just what are you trying to say?
You've got a blank face, which irritates
Communicate, pull out your party piece
You see dimensions in two
State your case with black or white
But when one little cross leads to shots, grit your teeth
You run for cover so discreet, why don't they:

Do what they say, say what you mean
One thing leads to another
You told me something wrong, I know I listen too long
But then one thing leads to another.

The impression that you sell
Passes in and out like a scent
But the long face that you see comes from living close
To your fears
If this is up then I'm up but you're running out of sight
You've seen your name on the walls
And when one little bump leads to shock miss a beat
You run for cover and there's heat, why don't they:

Do what they say, say what they mean
One thing leads to another
You told me something wrong, I know I listen too long
But then one thing leads to another
One thing leads to another

Then it's easy to believe
Somebody's been lying to me
But when the wrong word goes in the right ear
I know you've been lying to me
It's getting rough, off the cuff I've got to say enough's enough

Bigger the harder he falls
But when the wrong antidote is like a bulge on the throat
You runs for cover in the heat why don't they

Do what they say, say what they mean
One thing leads to another
You tell me something wrong, I know I listen too long
But then one thing leads to another
One thing leads to another (Repeat)

References

Uploaded by TheFixxVEVO on Oct 5, 2009

Wikipedia: One Thing Leads to Another
"One Thing Leads to Another" is a song by new wave rock group The Fixx, from their album Reach the Beach. "One Thing Leads to Another" is the group's best known song, and their most successful single, peaking at No. 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart in November 1983 and peaking at No. 2 on the US Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.

"One Thing Leads to Another" appears in an episode of the TV series Knight Rider, and the episode "Nobody Does It Better" features a FIXX poster framed in the background of an office.

"One Thing Leads to Another" appears in the popular videogame Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, playing on Pop radio station Flash FM.

"One Thing Leads to Another" was featured in an advertisement for the television show Lie to Me.

"One Thing Leads to Another" appears in the horror film The House of the Devil.

Wikipedia: Reach the Beach
Reach the Beach is the second studio album by British new wave band The Fixx, released in 1983. The album reached number eight on the American albums chart, their highest to date there. It also contains their most well known and highest charting single, "One Thing Leads to Another", which reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100.

Wikipedia: The Fixx
The Fixx is an English rock band formed in London in 1979.

official web site: The Fixx

2011-12-24

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Friday, 23 December 2011

Suite Bergamasque, Focal Dystonia and Jack Daniels

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is a name that probably evokes for the majority of people the piece of music called Clair de lune, originally written for solo piano then orchestrated by others. What piano student at one time or another has not tried their hand at the filigree passages of this quintessential example of impressionism? It is amusing to think of the delicacy of touch necessary to give justice to the gossamer arpeggios of this dreamy wash of audio colour by those who may have been better suited to "pounding out" the less dainty syncopation of ragtime as heard in Scott Joplin's The Entertainer.

However the uninitiated listener is more than likely unaware that Clair de lune is merely one of four piano pieces which make up what is known as Suite Bergamasque. These other three undiscovered gems further demonstrate Debussy as a composer of major repute in the impressionist movement. This is the type of music best suited to a Sunday afternoon of quiet reflection, possibly curled up on the sofa with a good book. Whatever the setting, this is the type of music that you don't necessarily listen to, it is music you feel. It is music you let sweep over you as an aural massage. You let it transport you to a realm of peaceful meditation. ... Wow, am I waxing poetic or what?



Debussy: Suite Bergamasque - 1.Prélude

Debussy: Suite Bergamasque - 2. Menuet

Debussy: Suite Bergamasque - 3. Clair de lune

Debussy: Suite Bergamasque - 4. Passepied


My Personal Story
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (You know it's going to be good if I start by quoting Star wars), I had the fanciful idea of studying music. Okay, doesn't everybody go through a phase when they want to be some artistic type before settling down with the usual: some sort of education, a job, and possibly that white picket fence in suburbia?

At one point during my short-lived career as a musician, I had the privilege of playing the Suite Bergamasque. Yes, I played Clair de lune as part of my studies but I heard the suite and loved it so much, I decided to learn all four pieces.

Focal Dystonia
I spent my teens playing in various rock bands. Nothing significant but I did play at my own high school a couple of times. However when I heard the group Emerson, Lake and Palmer, I was completely blown away and decided to change my instrument from bass guitar to keyboards. Wow, did I go nuts and get passionately involved in music as a serious endeavor. It became not a career, not an interest, but a passion and I mean passion to the nth degree. (See my blog: Passion: Can you live without it?)

However, I did not have the talent necessary to make a serious go at it and at some point came to realization that I would have to trade in my passion for something a little more practical to earn a living. The key part of my decision was developing focal dystonia in my left hand. Focal what? The term refers to a neurological condition where the person loses control of their fingers. It is the oddest of experiences. Whether you play the piano or the guitar or the violin, you arrive at a point (the condition seems progressive) where you think of moving your fingers but the results are that all of your fingers bunch up. From my reading, scientists have done scans of the brain and pinpointed which areas of the brain "fire" when we move our fingers. With focal dystonia, the areas of the brain for all fingers light up at the same time so it's as if the person is saying "move my index finger" but the brain then sends the signal to all five fingers at once. From my experience, there doesn't seem to be anything physically wrong with the fingers or with the hand itself, the problem resides completely in the brain. (See my blog: Focal Dystonia: focal what?)

I gave up playing the piano in 1978. During the past thirty plus years, the condition in my left hand has gotten progressively worse. I used to be able to type with all ten fingers, an important skill to have in the world of computers, however today I can only use my index finger and my thumb in my left hand having pretty much lost all control of the rest of my fingers. If I move slowly, I can wiggle my fingers but if I speed up, my entire hand tenses up and sometimes it tenses up so badly it hurts. If you watch me type, I use all five fingers with the right hand and two, possibly three fingers on my left hand.

Keith Emerson, the keyboardist with the group ELP was diagnosed with the problem several years ago and I have seen video clips of him playing and it is obvious he is fighting the condition. Classical guitarist Liona Boyd has given up her career. The Wikipedia article on Focal Dystonia lists numerous people in various areas of music including classical, rock and folk affected by this bizarre condition. That same article points out that this condition most typically affects those who rely on fine motor skills—musicians, writers, surgeons, etc. It is generally "task specific," meaning that it is only problematic during certain activities.

Final Word
Don't cry for me, Argentina. After all this time, music is long gone and I have moved on to other things in life. At the time, though, I didn't take this forced change of career too well and probably remained pretty much drunk for the next ten years. But even that period of my life is long gone as I have now been sober for coming up to 24 years. (See my blog: Alcoholism: I'll Drink To That!)

Life is funny and all of us have our own story. After I quit music, I decided to undergo some professional career testing to get an idea of what else in life may have been suitable to me. I remember taking this oddball test (I think it was based on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) which asked a series of strange multiple choice questions. What would you rather do: eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or climb Mount Everest? What the heck? The results of all this gave me a report on various activities I would be interested in. Number one on the list? Music. Ah, the cruel irony of it all. Ha!

I cried because I had no shoes then I met a man who had no feet. Life is good. Well, life can be good if we somehow get a hold of ourselves and make it good. As I've said elsewhere many a time, the sun is going to come up in the morning whether I like it or not. Yes, I may curse the dawn but the sooner I accept that I can't do anything about the sun coming up, the sooner I can move on to things I can do something about. (You can recite the Serenity Prayer here.) Is the glass half full or is the glass half empty? It's all very Zen-like. Of course some smartass just had to stir things up by telling me that the problem is not that the glass is half full or half empty; the problem is that the glass is twice as big as it should be. It's at this point I roll my eyes, shake my head and say, "Oh brother!"


References

YouTube videos uploaded by DesAbends on May 2, 2009

Wikipedia: Suite Bergamasque
The Suite Bergamasque is one of the most famous piano suites by Claude Debussy. Debussy commenced the suite in 1890 at age 28, but he did not finish or publish it until 1905.

IMSLP: The complete sheet music (PDF)

Wikipedia: Claude Debussy
Claude-Achille Debussy (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918) was a French composer. Along with Maurice Ravel, he was one of the most prominent figures working within the field of impressionist music, though he himself intensely disliked the term when applied to his compositions. Debussy is among the most important of all French composers, and a central figure in European music of the turn of the 20th century. He was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1903.

His music is noted for its sensory component and for not often forming around one key or pitch. Often Debussy's work reflected the activities or turbulence in his own life. His music virtually defines the transition from late-Romantic music to 20th century modernist music. In French literary circles, the style of this period was known as symbolism, a movement that directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant.

Wikipedia: Impressionist music
Impressionism in music was a tendency in European classical music, mainly in France, which appeared in the late nineteenth century and continued into the middle of the twentieth century. Similarly to its precursor in the visual arts, musical impressionism focuses on a suggestion and an atmosphere rather than on a strong emotion or the depiction of a story as in program music. Musical impressionism occurred as a reaction to the excesses of the Romantic era. While this era was characterized by a dramatic use of the major and minor scale systems, impressionist music was tending to make more use of dissonance. Rather uncommon scales such as whole tone scale are also typical for this movement. Romantic composers were using long forms of music, e.g. symphony and concerto, while impressionist composers were favoring short forms such as nocturne, arabesque and prelude.

Wikipedia: Star Wars opening crawl
Each film in the Star Wars series opens with a crawl (also known as a roll-up) of text which provides an explanation of the backstory and context of the film. The crawl has become associated with the films and has frequently been parodied.

Wikipedia: Focal dystonia
Focal dystonia is a neurological condition that affects a muscle or group of muscles in a part of the body and causes an involuntary muscular contraction or twisting. For example, in focal hand dystonia, the fingers either curl into the palm or extend outward without control.

Wikipedia: Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory
The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is one of the most frequently used personality tests in mental health. The test is used by trained professionals to assist in identifying personality structure and psychopathology.

my blog: Passion: Can you live without it?
Then again do you want to live without it? - I have been blessed a few times in my life to have experienced true passion. However I am certain you may think I'm talking about something romantic but what I am actually talking about is passion for what you do. To live passionately, to work passionately; this is about the passion you have or should have about your personal goals in life, about your life itself.

my blog: Alcoholism: I'll drink to that!
On February 8, 2011, I will mark 23 years of sobriety. Yes, I am an alcoholic. Certainly the word must evoke all sorts of images from the drunken lout at the office Christmas party to the lost soul out on the street sleeping on a grate to keep warm during the winter. Reflecting on my own acquaintance with various parts of the spectrum of extremist behaviour, I can say, "Been there, done that" and I can add that I have a great deal of both compassion and respect for those who fight the good fight.

my blog: Focal Dystonia: focal what?
This scientific term which I admit is a bit of a mouthful, refers to a phenomenon where one loses control of the individual fingers. From what I've read, this condition seems to strike for the most part musicians who may be more susceptible than others to repetitive stress syndrome. Due to the nature of a musician's use of the fingers, these digits undergo a type of stress which may in the end, render the musician incapable of using his or her fingers.

2011-12-23

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Thursday, 22 December 2011

Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I have not read any of the books. I did not see the 2009 Swedish film. I am coming to the table with an uncluttered mind. Okay, some may argue I'm coming to the table with an empty head, but that's another story.

From the opening credits with their pounding rendition of the Led Zeppelin's 1970 rock classic Immigrant Song and the black images of oil pouring over human figures, we have a dark, brooding, complex story that reels you into its mysterious web of intrigue with a cast of characters that can only be described as unique, sometimes far fetched but oh so fascinating. The girl, yes that girl with the tattoo is so broken from a life so unbelievably horrible, it is hard to believe she will ever find her way out into the sunlight. Nevertheless, the gods decided somewhere along the way to make up for their oversight by blessing her with near genius mental abilities from a photographic memory to superior computer hacking skills. It is that contrast which fascinates us throughout the story: the dark depravity of our humanity with the light of our genius to rise above the mundane.

It will not be much of a spoiler alert considering the book, the previous film and the trailers to briefly describe this murder mystery. Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a journalist in trouble over a libel case due to a tell-all magazine article about a powerful but corrupt businessman, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Out of the blue, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), another powerful businessman, hires Blomkvist under the guise of writing his memoirs to investigate the forty year old murder of his niece, Harriet Vanger and in payment, he will give Blomkvist the proof he needs to fight the libel case and bring down Wennerstrom. From there, Blomkvist moves onto the Vanger family estate and begins an investigation into the convoluted history of the family discovering some startling secrets that date back decades to World War II.

Christopher Plummer is just delightful as the impish old patriarch of the Vanger family. I can't think of anyone with both the gravitas and the tongue-in-cheek twinkle in his eye for such a role. At the age of 82 (born Dec 13/1929), Mr. Plummer is still a force to be reckoned with.

Daniel Craig doesn't have to worry about type casting. I didn't think of him once as being James Bond. His unshaven face captured the investigating journalist financially broken by the libel case and he was did an excellent job of imparting the detective who ends up in over his head.

But the central figure, the maker of the entire film, is Lisbeth Salander as played by Rooney Mara. The character is quite extraordinary to start with when you consider the list of things this young woman has had to endure in her lifetime. The actress Rooney Mara has given an unbelievable performance by capturing the caged animal demeanour of Lisbeth. Many times Lisbeth can't look people in the eye. She has been beaten by people, rejected by society, and in general ignored having been made a ward of the state. The symbolism of this last ignominy is that no one, literally no one wants her and it is finally the state that has to take care of her.

Lisbeth's blessing or curse is that she is really smart, the tattooed pierced social misfit as an idiot savant in a world of supposedly normal people. I say supposedly normal as this film ended up with an R rating for both its sexual and violent themes. Life does have its bad people however there are varying degrees of badness and sometimes that badness crosses the line into depravity. This film shows some people who can only be qualified as evil, not bad, but truly evil. These are the type of people that when you see their crime, your first reaction isn't to phone the police but to get out a gun and shoot them yourself. Wow. There are certainly various shades of gray when we try to describe what is normal in society and here I use air quotes for the word normal but this film shows some bad which is beyond dark to absolutely black.

American Remake of Swedish Film
Hollywood has a reputation of pilfering foreign films to repackage them for a global audience. Is this necessary? The real question may be an unkind one. Sweden has a population of just under ten million people. The original 2009 film was made in Swedish. Yes, foreign films do make the rounds with either subtitles or dubbed versions but somehow an English version of just about anything automatically seems to mean a larger audience. Okay, this is just me talking and an expert who has studied the idea may prove otherwise but if I look at other forms of entertainment, why, for instance, did the Swedish musical group ABBA choose to record in English as opposed to their native language? Would anybody guess for a wider audience?

I have not seen the original Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but have read repeatedly that it is terrific. This film was made for $13 million and has apparently earned over a hundred million dollars at the worldwide box office. That is a very, very impressive return on one's investment.

Will this Hollywood remake eclipse the success of that film? Its budget clocked in at $100 million so it's got quite a way to go to even turn a profit, never mind equalling the original's return on investment. Nevertheless, this remake has two things going for it. First of all, the remake is good but secondly, the remake is in English. It is an interesting question to ask as to why the Swedish makers did not choose from the outset to do their film in English. Okay, that may seem sacrilege to the Swedish language and culture but when it comes to making a profit, pride is not an asset. Let's see how things unfold over the coming weeks and months.

Official Trailer

Teaser Trailer (Immigrant Song)

Final Word
I'm curious. I go to an early show and of course, the theatre was far from full. I noticed that people would come to a completely empty row and sit at the end. Why not move into the middle? Heck, I'll step over a dozen people to get a center seat but it would seem that not everyone values such a position in front of the screen. Odd. Okay, odd to me but maybe not to you.

I greatly enjoyed the film with its mystery, its suspense and of course, its characters. The girl, the main character, is riveting and the relationships she has with the various so-called normal people in the film are quite fascinating. I highly recommend this film; it is excellent. In fact, I am now curious to see the original Swedish film and maybe I might even get around to reading the books. Good stuff.


References

Rotten Tomatoes: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: 85%
Brutal yet captivating, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the result of David Fincher working at his lurid best with total role commitment from star Rooney Mara.

Wikipedia: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011 film)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a 2011 English-language drama/thriller film and the second film to be adapted from the Swedish novel by Stieg Larsson. The first was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (original title of both novel and film in Swedish: Män som hatar kvinnor – literally – Men who hate women) – released in 2009. Both novel and film titles were translated for the English-speaking market as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

official web site: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Rotten Tomatoes: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009): 86%
Its graphic violence and sprawling length will prove too much for some viewers to take, but Noomi Rapace's gripping performance makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo an unforgettable viewing experience.

Wikipedia: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009 film)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish: Män som hatar kvinnor, literally Men Who Hate Women) is a 2009 Swedish film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Swedish author/journalist Stieg Larsson. It is the first book in the trilogy known as the "Millennium series", published in Sweden in 2005. The director is Niels Arden Oplev. By August 2009, it had been sold to 25 countries outside Scandinavia, most of them planning a release in 2010, and had been seen by more than 6 million people in the countries where it was already released.

official web site: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

my blog: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Immigrant Song
video, lyrics, background information and a link to the original Led Zeppelin version.

2011-12-22

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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

My "Dream" Cherry Cheesecake

When I grew up, Mom made this from time to time as a family treat. Considering my childhood dates back to the 50's, it would seem this recipe has been floating around for years.

During my travels, I have eaten a lot of different cheesecakes but this recipe is unique in how it is so different from traditional cheesecake. Oddly enough, I had eaten Mom's recipe exclusively as a kid so in my teens when somebody finally served me a regular cheesecake, I first said, "What the heck is this?" I thought all cheesecake was like Mom's!

To this day, I must admit that whenever I bite into a cheesecake, in the back of my mind is the memory of what Mom made so my taste buds express a little disappointment. I have to mentally prepare my sense of taste for accommodating the flavour of the traditional cheesecake. Ha!

So, to the diehard purists, this is not a traditional cheesecake. In fact, somebody may argue that the only thing cheesy about this is how this recipe is very much a poor man's... or poor woman's cheesecake. Nevertheless, it's easy; it's fast and judging by the reactions from people, it's good. There is no cooking so this one can even be left to the last minute.

Ingredients
  • 1 ½ cups of graham cracker crumbs
    Or 2 cups if you like a thicker crust.
  • 1/3 cup of margarine
  • 2 envelopes of Dream Whip
    Yes, the "dream" in my "dream" cherry cheesecake turns out to be Dream Whip. Ha!
  • 1 cup of milk; ½ cup for each envelope
  • one 8 oz. package of cream cheese
  • 1 can of cherry pie filling

Puttin' it all together
For the base, mix the graham cracker crumbs and the margarine together. The original recipe from Mom added brown sugar to the mix but personally, I found things to be sweet enough so I always leave this out. Spread out the mixture into a rectangular pie dish making sure it is evenly tamped down. You want the mixture just on the bottom of the dish, not on the sides.

You want the crust to be somewhat hard; after all, you are going to cut this and want to be able to serve it with a cake knife. If you are doing this at the very last second, you can stick the entire dish in the freezer for 10 minutes in an effort to solidify the mixture.

Mix up the 2 envelopes of Dream Whip according to the instructions; this entails one cup of milk; that is ½ cup of milk per envelope. You'll need a mixing bowl and a beater but if you have an electric beater, so much the better. A half teaspoon of vanilla for each envelope is mentioned but I always leave this out. Okay, I'm a lazy cook but I can say that nobody has complained!

By the way, the original recipe included icing sugar. Believe me, you don't need it. This thing is already sweet enough to throw your recommended daily intake of sugar off for a week.

Once you have the Dream Whip whipped up which means it is now thick, you want to blend in the cream cheese. If you're doing this with a hand beater, you're going to want to do this a piece at a time until you've put in the entire package. If you have an electric beater, heck, throw in the whole package at once! Let's let the machine do all the work!

Spread your Dream Whip mixture evenly over the crust.

Now, the original recipe talks about refrigerating this to help it solidify. If you've got the time, go for it. But if this is a last minute panic, you can once again make use of the freezer. If you are really, really pressed, go on to the next step.

Spread the can of cherry pie filling over the Dream Whip mixture. If you're doing this in one go, be careful. The Dream Whip will not have the hardest of consistencies so you want to make sure that in spreading out the cherry mixture you do not end up inadvertently blending the two mixtures. With the Dream Whip soft, there is a tendency of having the cherry filling mix with the Dream Whip instead of spreading out over top of it. This is supposed to be three layers: crust, whipped middle and cherries. Try to keep it that way.

True Story: The crust
Years ago I whipped this dessert together for the family when we had some guests. I did include the brown sugar and I think in "winging it", I inadvertently used too much brown sugar and butter. When I got around to serving it, I literally could not cut the graham cracker crust. I ended up having to get a butcher's knife and had to saw my way through the crust in order to serve up the pieces. I think it was even dangerous to bite down on the crust; you had to suck it for a bit before chewing it.

I was slightly embarrassed in front of our guests but everybody in the family found this quite funny especially since I am well known for not being much of a cook. Afterwards, we were laughing about my blunder but the kids claimed it was the best crust ever! They apparently enjoyed sucking on the pieces of hardened graham cracker crust.

Final Word
I admit to not being a cook. Consequently, if I can do this, anybody can do this. The plus side of the recipe is, once again, that you can whip this one up at the last minute and have something of a reasonable quality. I know those aficionados of traditional cheesecake are probably going to be horrified but as I said, this is what I grew up on so for me this is really what "cheesecake" is.

Bon appétit. :-)

Note: My apologies to dltk-kids.com. They had the perfect image of this type of cheesecake so I... ah, borrowed it.

2011-12-21

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Monday, 19 December 2011

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible. Number 4. Brad Bird. Burj Khalifa. IMAX. 95%. Wow. Well, folks, that just about wraps up this movie review in a series of keywords. Fun? Thrill ride? Great entertainment for all you adrenaline junkies? Check, check, and double check. This is it; this is the action film of the year. Okay, you're going to point out I haven't mentioned Tom Cruise and yeah, he's in it and he does his stuff but the real stars? Hats off to Industrial Light & Magic, the Burj Khalifa and some fabulous cinematography which includes, by the way, the mother of all movie cameras, IMAX. And, let's not forget story and screenplay by André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum along with the debut of Brad Bird directing live-action. Brad Bird is currently riding the success wave having done the films The Incredibles and Ratatouille and is apparently quite sought after in Hollywood. With this under his belt, his "soughtness" is going to go through the roof.

It's at this point in a movie review, the author tells you about the plot. Do you really care? If you've seen the trailer, you already known the premise of the story: terrorist bombing at the Kremlin, IMF gets blamed; the team has to go undercover with no official support in order to find out who the real perpetrator is. That's all you need to know because from there it's just nonstop go, go, go. How many novel ways can screenwriters come up with to have fights which dazzle our imaginations? The fight scene in the automated parking garage where platforms raise and lower cars is one of those I've-never-seen-that- before moments. It's a theme of the MI movies than our hero climb things and here we have him scaling the world's tallest skyscraper (for now). Okay it's a stunt but wow nevertheless.

By the numbers
Mr. Cruise has himself a nice little franchise. In looking back on the series, we see the following figures:

Mission Impossible (1996)
Budget: $80 million
Gross: $458 million (worldwide)
Rotten Tomatoes: 56%

Mission Impossible II (2000)
Budget: $125 million
Gross: $546 million (worldwide)
Rotten Tomatoes: 57%

Mission Impossible III (2006)
Budget: $150 million
Gross: $398 million (worldwide)
Rotten Tomatoes: 70%

Mission Impossible IV (2011): Ghost Protocol
Budget: $145 million
Gross: $82 million (worldwide) as of Dec 18/2011
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%

It's interesting to note the jump in the film's rating on Rotten Tomatoes for number three in the franchise. Was the addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the bad guy that much of a plus to change the quality of the entire film in the eyes of the critics? I also note that J. J. Abrams was involved in the creation of the story for number three and directed the film, his first involvement in the series.

Tommy doing his own stunts
I loved the thrill rush of the tower climbing being as much of an adrenaline junkie as the next guy... or gal. I do, however, have to chuckle about the hype surrounding Tom doing his own stunts at the top of the tower, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai. I trust everybody realizes that there is no way the film company would let him go out there if it wasn't safe. Yes, let's kill off our star in the middle of production. I'm mentioning this because I did a tandem parachute jump some time back (Parachuting: If God had meant me to...) and while anybody might say, "Oooo" at what appears to be dangerous, I was amused to discover in writing about my experience that statistically, I was safer parachuting than driving my car. Yep, I stand a better chance of getting creamed in a car then going splat jumping out of a plane. As such, I'm sure that what Tom was doing was more than just safe. After all, now the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada is offering something called EdgeWalk. It is the world's highest full-circle, hands-free walk at a height of 346 metres or 1,135 ft. Visitors are tethered to an overhead rail system and walk around the edge of the CN Tower's main pod above the 360 Restaurant on a 1.8-metre (5.9 ft) metal floor. So, thrilled by Tom climbing around Burj Khalifa? Come to Toronto and you can do sort of the same thing. Yes, you too can not only see Ghost Protocol, you can do part of it yourself. ... Come on, I dare ya. Chicken!

IMAX
Do not, I repeat, do not go see this in a regular theatre. This is supposed to be a blow your socks off Holy C**p entertainment experience so why tone down the eye-popping, ear-splitting fun when you can just as easily pump up the volume with a five story screen and a 12,000 watts sound system? So what if it's an extra five bucks or whatever. It is going to be worth it.

From my reading only certain parts of the film were shot using the IMAX system but I had no idea what those parts were. I could guess the tower shots in Dubai but I don't know. Whatever the case, I found the entire film to be crystal clear with a certain richness of colour which had me on several occasions going Wow. The aerial cinematography in Dubai was truly breath-taking and had me thinking that I have to go there once in my life and see it for real. Of course, am I going to be able to afford a hotel room? Do they rent by the hour? It's probably all I can afford.

Trailer
I'm sure everybody has seen the trailer by now and heard the song Won't Back Down by Eminem featuring Pink. It works great in the trailer for the montage of action clips however the song is not used in the movie at all. Just a curiosity I noted while watching the film.


Final Word
If you love Tom Cruise, go see this film. If you like your adrenaline served up intravenously, go see this film. If you want to get yourself worked up by some nonstop action with fights, car chases, explosions and of course, some human fly climbing a tower, go see this film. You are not going to be disappointed. Kudos to everyone involved, they have managed to put together an excellent piece of entertainment. I highly recommend it and for one last time - I won't back down! - See it in IMAX!!!


References

Rotten Tomatoes: Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (2011): 95%
Stylish, fast-paced, and loaded with gripping set pieces, the fourth Mission: Impossible is big-budget popcorn entertainment that really works.

Wikipedia: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a 2011 action spy film, and the fourth installment in the Mission: Impossible series. It stars Tom Cruise, who reprises his role of IMF Agent Ethan Hunt, and is director Brad Bird's first live-action film. Ghost Protocol was written by André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, and produced by Cruise, J. J. Abrams (director of the third film) and Bryan Burk. It is the first Mission: Impossible film not produced by Paula Wagner, and the first of the series to be partially filmed using IMAX cameras. The film was released in North America on December 16, 2011, to positive reviews.

Wikipedia: Mission: Impossible (film series)
The Mission: Impossible films are a series of action films based on the television series of the same name. The films feature Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, an I.M.F agent.

Wikipedia: Mission: Impossible (film)
Mission: Impossible is a 1996 action thriller directed by Brian De Palma and starring Tom Cruise. Following on from the television series of the same name, the plot follows a new agent, Ethan Hunt and his mission to uncover the mole within the CIA who has framed him for the murders of his entire IMF team.

Wikipedia: Mission: Impossible II
Mission: Impossible II (also known as M:i-2) is a 2000 action film directed by John Woo, and starring Tom Cruise, who also served as the film's producer.

Wikipedia: Mission: Impossible III
Mission: Impossible III (also known as M:i:III) is a 2006 action film.

IMDb: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Wikipedia: Burj Khalifa
Burj Khalifa ("Khalifa Tower"), known as Burj Dubai prior to its inauguration, is a skyscraper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and is currently the tallest structure ever built, at 828 m (2,717 ft).

official web site: Ghost Protocol
[Videos, gallery, about the film, cast and crew, downloads]

2011-12-19

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Saturday, 17 December 2011

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

It's a bit of a rollicking good time, old chap. (Okay, how's that for some British English?) The whole gang is back under the tutelage of Guy Richie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's characters come to life in the cinematic splendour of high definition film and whiz-bang special effects including the requisite bullet time. Like the 2009 film, Sherlock Holmes works out his next ballet of fisticuffs in slow motion with running commentary then executes it real-time and the results are devastating for the bad guys.

I saw the film in an Empire Extra theatre, the Canadian chain's next pump up the volume cinematic experience and was amazed at the clarity of the images and the richness of the colours. I don't know whether to credit the film makers or the digital projection system, but the results were stunning. This all made for an entertaining combination of thrill ride and detective who done it. One reviewer said this film and its 2009 predecessor are a long way from the author's creation and as I have never read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, I can't comment or judge if this is faithful or faithless to the books. Nevertheless, on their own merits both films are great fun.

Robert Downey Jr. is once again in fine form and I never once thought of him as Tony Stark. Jude Law is great as the sidekick Dr. Watson and the Holmes Watson bromance makes for a good action duo. A good film needs a good villain and here, we have none other than Professor Moriarty, the intellectual equal of Holmes but at the evil end of the good bad spectrum. The scene where the two of them duel by playing a game of chess first by sitting at the board and moving the pieces then by standing up and walking around while calling out their moves is quite amazing when you realize the two of them are continuing to visualize the entire game in their heads. King to knight's bishop 3. Queen captures knight. Wow, can anybody do that in real life?

"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
-The Sign of Four (1890) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Chapter 6, p. 111

Several times Holmes would glance at something and the camera would follow his eyes as he took in various clues then put them all together to formulate what had actually transpired. This was his inductive reasoning: starting with specifics and determining generalizations; a fancy-pants way of saying the great detective could figure things out and solve the mystery wrapped in an enigma. Between Holmes' detective skills, his mastery of disguise and his pugilistic accomplishments, this almost comic book hero is right up there with Superman, Batman and whichever action hero you can think of. Whether a human being is, in fact, capable of doing even half of what Holmes does remains to be seen but it certainly spells fun with a capital F.

Empire Extra Theatre
We all know IMAX: big theatre, big sound system. The Empire theatre chain has gotten on-board with a new idea to spice up the joint and offer us movie goers a better cinematic experience. Selected centres have one dedicated theatre which offers cushier seats, a better sound system and an all digital projection system. Amusing enough, just like IMAX, they have a short "pre-show" designed to show off the capabilities of the theatre. This show doesn't involve lasers but they do have two side projectors to give a bit of a light show.

For me, the big, big feature of this new experience is reserved seating. Yep, I bought my ticket on-line and got to choose my seat. That seat was reserved so I didn't have to worry about showing up early enough to rush in when the doors opened to get the best seat.

Bullet Time
According to Wikipedia, the term bullet time is a registered trademark of Warner Bros., distributor of The Matrix. Really, now!

For me this movie making technique started with the film The Matrix although others had gone before. Nowadays it seems that the idea is being put to good use in a number of circumstances. While presenting action in slow motion is a major part of bullet time, that isn't all of it. The displacement of the camera around the scene is also important so that the centre of the shot may be seen from several different angles. The Matrix did a great job of this. Elsewhere I enjoyed the street explosion in the film Swordfish. Here in Sherlock Holmes number two, Mr. Ritchie, the director, gives us a number of fabulous examples of bullet time. This takes an exciting picture and pushes into the stratosphere of thrill ride extraordinaire. I loved it!


Final Word
And a rollicking good time was had by all. I enjoyed the entertainment and entertainment this is. Nothing profound here. Historical accuracy may be questionable but who cares if you're smiling? It was well filmed and well acted with all the necessary special effects explosions to keep you well occupied. There will be no checking your watch wondering how much longer the film will go on. I recommend the film as some good holiday entertainment. Note that the film is rated PG, Parental Guidance, in Canada: There is no age restriction but some material may not be suitable for all children.


References

Rotten Tomatoes: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: 64%
It never duplicates the well-oiled thrills of the first installment, but Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is eminently watchable thanks to its well-matched leading men.

Wikipedia: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a 2011 British-American action mystery film directed by Guy Ritchie and produced by Joel Silver, Lionel Wigram, Susan Downey, and Dan Lin. It is a sequel to the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, based on the character of the same name created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The screenplay is by Kieran Mulroney and Michele Mulroney. Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, respectively, as the duo join forces to outwit and bring down their most cunning adversary, Professor Moriarty, played by Jared Harris.

official movie web site: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
The site offers the usual goodies of story, photo gallery, trailers and TV spots plus cuts from the soundtrack. As special features there are a flash game, a 3D game requiring something called the Unity Web Player and a Facebook app game.

Rotten Tomatoes: Sherlock Holmes (2009): 70%
Guy Ritchie's directorial style might not be quite the best fit for an update on the legendary detective, but Sherlock Holmes benefits from the elementary appeal of a strong performance by Robert Downey, Jr.

Wikipedia: Sherlock Holmes (2009 film)
Sherlock Holmes is a 2009 action-mystery film based on the character of the same name created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The film was directed by Guy Ritchie and produced by Joel Silver, Lionel Wigram, Susan Downey and Dan Lin. The screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg was developed from a story by Lionel Wigram and Michael Robert Johnson. Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law portray Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson respectively.

official movie web site: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Wikipedia: Sherlock Holmes (literary character)
Sherlock Holmes  is a fictional detective created by Scottish author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The fantastic London-based "consulting detective", Holmes is famous for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to take on almost any disguise, and his use of forensic science skills to solve difficult cases.

Holmes, who first appeared in publication in 1887, was featured in four novels and 56 short stories. The first novel, A Study in Scarlet, appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887 and the second, The Sign of the Four, in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890. The character grew tremendously in popularity with the first series of short stories in Strand Magazine, beginning with A Scandal in Bohemia in 1891; further series of short stories and two novels published in serial form appeared between then and 1927. The stories cover a period from around 1880 up to 1914.

All but four stories are narrated by Holmes's friend and biographer, Dr. John H. Watson; two are narrated by Holmes himself ("The Blanched Soldier" and "The Lion's Mane") and two others are written in the third person ("The Mazarin Stone" and "His Last Bow"). In two stories ("The Musgrave Ritual" and "The Gloria Scott"), Holmes tells Watson the main story from his memories, while Watson becomes the narrator of the frame story. The first and fourth novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, each include a long interval of omniscient narration recounting events unknown both to Holmes and Watson.

Wikipedia: Bullet time
Bullet time is a special and visual effect that refers to a digitally enhanced simulation of variable-speed (i.e. slow motion, time-lapse, etc.) photography used in films, broadcast advertisements, and video games. It is characterized both by its extreme transformation of time (slow enough to show normally imperceptible and unfilmable events, such as flying bullets) and space (by way of the ability of the camera angle—the audience's point-of-view—to move around the scene at a normal speed while events are slowed). This is almost impossible with conventional slow-motion, as the physical camera would have to move impossibly fast; the concept implies that only a "virtual camera", often illustrated within the confines of a computer-generated environment such as a virtual world or virtual reality, would be capable of "filming" bullet-time types of moments. Technical and historical variations of this effect have been referred to as time slicing, view morphing, slow-mo, temps mort and virtual cinematography.

Empire Theatres: Empire Extra
[The theatre has been redone with different seats (spongier, slightly bigger than normal seats), a more powerful sound system, and an introduction somewhat like what IMAX always shows to demonstrate the theatre's capabilities. The big thing, however, is being able to buy reserved seats. Yep, just like a live show you can pick your seat and it's reserved. You don't have to show up early to get a good seat. That to me is a big selling point.]

Dynamic Sound
Our custom designed, multi-channel sound system provides even, balanced coverage to any seat in the auditorium. Lose yourself in the dynamic sound with rich, clear, dialogue.


Optimal Viewing Experience
We offer Digital Projection for the brightest, most vivid image on screen and stunning 3D. Our massive, high-impact, wrap-around screen is curved and positioned for the optimal viewing experience so you always have the best seat in the house.


Reserved Seating
Select your seat in advance with reserved seating and your high back rocker seat will be waiting for you.


2011-12-17

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Wednesday, 14 December 2011

NaNoWriMo: My 30, ah, 18 days of writing madness

First of all, I would give a realistic assessment of churning out fifty thousand words under the guise of having written a novel in two words, "Who cares?" I was going to say "Who gives a rat's ass?" but I wanted to be as succinct as possible. I don't want to rain on anybody's parade - you do deserve credit for having gone the distance - but this blog entry is about me, not you, so let me expound on my experience in this first time in my life exercise in creativity.

I started by saying "Who cares?" to try and put any of this in perspective. I have run across a lot of hoopla surrounding the writing 50,000 words and a lot of disparaging remarks. Knocking off fifty thou does not a book make and all those criticizing this as a month of producing crap have missed the point. NaNoWriMo isn't about the results; it is about the process.

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

This little gem from Mr. Stevenson points out in a Zen-like fashion that any of us better be enjoying the now, and not waiting for tomorrow. Don't spend your life or waste your life involved in what is not enjoyable with the idea that someday, yes someday, you will enjoy yourself. Your ship docks in paradise. You walk down the gangplank and wait for the tourist bus which is going to take you to the resort. When it pulls up, the driver accidentally goes over the yellow line behind which you're waiting and flattens you like a pancake. How about that one for the irony of fate? Drop dead a metre (3 feet) from the finish line, a single metre from paradise.

NaNoWriMo isn't about writing a book. It is about the process of writing a book. It is about the personal discipline to sit down each day for thirty days in a row and pound out 1,667 words. As a joke, the official web site says that you are not allowed to write the same word fifty thousand times so from there, anything is possible. For inspiration, the same web sites does list a few names of people who have participated in the event and gone on to publish their efforts as books however, let's be realistic, the number of people having done so is just this side of infinitesimal when you look at the total number signed up.

In 2011, according to the official web site (The Office of Letters and Light) there were 256,618 participants with 36,774 winners or 14%. Don't forget that the word winner means you have written fifty thou; it does not mean that you have written a publishable manuscript. Anybody, from the greats like Stephen King to NaNoWriMo itself will tell you that anything you've accomplished during this time is and should be considered as a first draft. First draft? What? I haven't spun gold first time out?

Stephen King's 2002 book On Writing (see my book review) is part autobiography, part writer's manual. Considering the success of the author, this is a fascinating look at how the man got to where he is today and his own recommendations at how any aspiring writer can succeed at their craft. If there is any one lesson to be taken away from the book, Mr. King talks of the discipline of sitting down each day and doing two thousand words; each day, every day while he's working on a book. He emphasizes the importance of getting it all down on paper - okay, he uses a computer - then putting the entire thing away for a couple of months. After a period of time away from his work, he will come back objectively and edit the novel ready, as he amusingly puts it, to "kill his babies". This graphic statement, not surprising in light of his stories of horror, means nothing more than being able to remove what may amount to good ideas that don't fit into the narrative. Unfortunately not all ideas fit with the flow of the story and an editor, as opposed to the author, must be brutal in remaining focused on the finished product and not get stuck on a specific idea, scene or even character.

In other words, sitting down and hammering out fifty, sixty or even a hundred thousand words is, drum roll, a first draft. Even the master, the professional, the published author loved and admired by many the world over does not spin gold the very first time. Let's come back to the objective of NaNoWriMo. Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, has written a book called "No Plot? No Problem!" which is qualified on the cover with the line "A low-stress, high velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days". With a deft touch and a comedic slant, Mr. Baty offers encouraging words to those who want to take on the personal challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel. He points out quite clearly that the goal here is the doing not the final product. The point to the exercise is that your average person gets so hung up on being perfect the first time they put pen to paper, they never get around to writing anything. NaNoWriMo is about saying to yourself "To heck with my mistakes" and Baty writes that we need to lower our expectations from "best-seller" to "would not make someone vomit". He adds:

Writer and championship figure skater Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "In skating over thin ice, safety is in our speed."

Writer and championship figure skater? Chris is one funny guy but he does have a point. No procrastination, just do it. Start and don't stop until you're finished. And who said that was just a slogan for Nike? "Just Do It" makes a lot of sense.

Writing is a lonely job
Isn't this self-evident? However the word lonely has more than one meaning.

1. Sad because one has no friends or company
- lonely old people whose families do not care for them

2. Without companions; solitary
- passing long lonely hours looking onto the street

3. (of a place) Unfrequented and remote
- a lonely stretch of country lane

I would say that lonely job is referring to meaning number two, that is, it is a solitary occupation. Okay, you may feel lonely in the sense of feeling sad about being alone, but no, we just mean that it's something you do by yourself. How many have pointed out the difference between being alone and being lonely?

"Writing is a lonely job. Even if a writer socializes regularly, when he gets down to the real business of his life, it is he and his type writer or word processor. No one else is or can be involved in the matter."
― Isaac Asimov, I, Asimov: A Memoir (Goodreads)

Let me return to Stephen King in his book On Writing where he writes:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.

When I read that I understood something important about somebody we all perceive as being successful. He didn't start writing with the idea of "I want to be a success". He writes because he's passionate about writing. His motivation isn't the success, the fame, or even the money (I'm sure that doesn't hurt), it's about the writing. Doing NaNoWriMo isn't about publishing a book, getting it on the New York Times Best Sellers list, having it optioned as a movie and doing an interview on NBC's Today show. Nope, it is the more humble goal of going through the process of writing and Chris Baty is completely right. How many of us have ever sat down and tried to do what Stephen King describes? That is, pound out each day, every day, a couple of thousand words with the longer term objective of producing something akin to a book? Hey, we've all written an essay in school. With the advent of the Internet, some of us even take on the personal challenge of writing a blog and posting a few hundred or maybe a few thousand words about a personal experience, a political diatribe or some flash fiction. But a book? An entire novel? Wow, can I do that? Surprise, surprise, there's that blank page, that virgin sheet of paper just waiting for my words to transform it into heavens only knows what imaginary world. I'm not Stephen King or James Patterson or Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyers however I realise they all sit down in front of a blank computer screen just like me and start typing. I read about how J. K. Rowling started when she first started writing Harry Potter: blank computer screen, start typing. Okay, I'm not Rowling but I'm sitting down with a blank screen just like her and trying to string some words together which may or may not make sense, which may or may not be entertaining to a potential reader.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is about the process. This is about discipline. This is about the Nike slogan of Just Do It. No more talking about it. No more planning. No more procrastination. I sit down and start typing and I don't get up until I'm finished.

The journey is the reward.
- Chinese Proverb

How did my "journey" go? I got occasionally stuck. I paced up and down in my apartment racking my brains about whether to turn right or turn left. I procrastinated. I watched some old episodes of the television series Castle on my computer instead of typing. I went for walks. I snacked. I cleaned my apartment. Yes, cleaning my apartment was me avoiding typing. Ha!

On the other side of the coin, I had moments of great activity. I had fun. As I created my mental image, the film running in my head of what I was writing, I smiled, I laughed, and I said, "Oh yeah, somebody is going to find that scene funny!" A few times, I finished off a paragraph, leapt out of my seat and did a fist pump in the middle of the room while exclaiming out loud, "All right!" In other words, I did have fun. Yes, it was work but it had its moments of fun.

My Biggest Mistake
Lazette Gifford is an author (consult Amazon's author page) who seems to be quite busy meaning prolific. She offers a free eBook "NaNo for the New and the Insane" that is a compilation of blog entries about writing and writing for NaNoWriMo. The perspective of doing the 30 day marathon from a professional is interesting. One thing she mentioned was planning. According to the rules of NaNoWriMo, you must write your fifty thou during the 30 days of November. You can't do anything before November 1st and you can't do anything after November 30th. However, you are allowed to plan. This means working out a synopsis, creating character descriptions and even detailing chapter by chapter what's going to happen in the story.

I found Gifford's ideas of planning to be eye-opening. Why? Originally, I was going to start on November 1st with an idea. Just an idea, no planning, no outline. Start writing and see where that would lead me. This seems to be how a lot of people approach NaNoWriMo from what I found out in Chris Baty's book and reading elsewhere. However Gifford said planning is an important part of the process. She wrote about easily knocking off fifty thousand words in a couple of weeks and even managing to write a hundred thousand or more in the month of November. She would put together her plan then when the time came to start, she would write by following her plan. She wasn't sitting around wondering what to do as she had already figured that out. The plot, the twists, the characters, etc. had already been worked out. Once started, it was merely a question of writing it down.

I read Ms. Gifford's eBook only a month before NaNoWriMo and realised my fly by the seat of my pants idea was probably not the best one. Consequently I started jotting down a plan which I used. Subsequent to this, I discovered major authors may do some or even a lot of planning. On the television show Castle which is about an author, an episode showed a large computerized board, like a white board, on which he explained how he mapped out his novels. Really?

The proof is in the pudding. The stuff I had planned out ahead of time went quickly and smoothly. Those chapters I had worked out in my head only required me to write down what I already knew. There wasn't really any thinking; it was all just doing. Despite November 1, 2011 falling on a Tuesday, a workday, I managed to come home, have dinner then knock off 6,000 words. I had forty thousand words by day twelve and would have finished early, really early but I got bogged down. I hadn't done enough planning. I sort of painted myself into a corner and had to think of how to get out. Yes, there are the amusing "escape" techniques like introducing Ninjas or a worm hole or some other such deus ex machina, but I did want to write something plausible. In the end, I finished my fifty thousand on day 18 then set the whole thing aside and goofed off for the rest of the month.

Goofing off: Castle
I don't know why, but I re-discovered the ABC television series Castle on the Internet. Throughout November I was rewarding my hard work by allowing myself to watch every episode from seasons one, two and three. (see OMG! I've turned into a Castle junkie!)

My point in mentioning this as I began to have a great appreciation for the writers of the show. They would come up with a very clever premise for a murder mystery and put together a great story where the protagonists would go through the steps of discovering who committed the crime. This very much made me think of what I myself was writing and how planning can be essential for figuring out your plot and coming up with plausible explanations for the crime. You may or may not like the show but watching the show while trying to write a story made me think that writing a story, a good story, heck a great story is, well, not that easy. Hmph, no wonder an author may get writer's block. Sometimes a Ninja or a worm hole just isn't going to cut it when trying to get your hero out of a corner.

50,000 words
Okay, just what do fifty thousand words represent? Wikipedia's article Word Count defines various literary works by size:
Classification     Word count
Novel              over 40,000 words
Novella            17,500 to 40,000 words
Novelette          7,500 to 17,500 words
Short story        under 7,500 words
How does this translate into the books we all know? I found a web site dealing with school books and looked up a few examples of the novels I have read over the years either on my own or possibly as part of my English classes in high school.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
word count: 49,459

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
word count: 63,766

1984 by George Orwell
Word count: 88,942

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
word count: 47,094

Animal Farm by George Orwell
word count: 29,060

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
word count: 73,404

Are my 50,000 words a book?
Do I have a book? A novella? Nope. I have an idea. I have a few scenes, maybe not bad scenes. I have some characters who are well, characters. But I don't have a finished story which would enthrall you from beginning to end. Following Stephen King's recommendation, I am going to leave the whole thing in a drawer for a month or two then I'm going to come back and "kill my babies". Will I finish this? At the moment, I'm making no promises as what the heck, what inspiration of the moment is going to strike me next? I'm already scheduled to shave my head and move to an ashram in southern California where I will take a vow of chastity and begin knitting in silence.

Final Word
NaNoWriMo is about the process of writing a novel. A number of critics say it's merely an excuse for fifty thousand words of crap and while that may be an accurate assessment of the results, it is ignoring that the real goal in the month of November is to go through the process and find the self-discipline to start the project and see it through to the end. From there, well, that's anybody's guess but anybody who's done it may have a better idea, a better appreciation what the masters have gone through before their literary endeavour ended up a best seller.

An amusing thought comes to mind. Right now I am sitting all by myself typing these words. At some point, Stephen King was sitting somewhere, I'm assuming all by himself, typing out his first big hit Carrie. J. K. Rowling was sitting by herself someplace writing Harry Potter. The same for James Patterson, Dan Brown and any one of a number of famous authors you could think of. All of us can think of their success, marvel at their fame and be envious of the monetary rewards for their efforts however, it all started with them sitting down and writing. They had the self-discipline to start and keep going and to keep going until they were finished. That is what I see NaNoWriMo is all about. It isn't about publishing a book; it isn't even about my 50,000 words of crap. It is about the process of writing, that all by yourself locked up in your imagination marathon of creativity. Some people paint but not everybody is Leonardo da Vinci or [fill in name of recent artist you admire]. Some people make music but not everybody is Johan Sebastian Bach or [fill in name of recent classical/rock/pop artist you admire]. Anybody need a further example or do you see where I'm going with this?

November is over. It is now December. Hmmm, now what to do? Wrap presents? *Looks at the calendar* Oops, time to shave my head!


References

NaNoWriMo: Are you out of your freakin' mind?
Links about NaNoWriMo (some given below), writing in general, and blogging

NaNoWriMo: Write a novel in 1 month?
This is it, the original go for broke 30 day trial.

Assembly Line Writing
Writing in a hurry is stupid? Laughing all the way to the bank?

On Writing by Stephen King
Penned by the master himself, this book is part biography, part technical manual about the craft of writing.

James Patterson
Q: What do you say to critics like author Stephen King who say you are not a great prose stylist?
A: I am not a great prose stylist. I'm a storyteller. There are thousands of people who don't like what I do. Fortunately, there are millions who do.

Holly Lisle
This moment started exactly 25 years ago today, when in my diary I wrote, “Before I turn 25, I want to write a book.” 25 years later, I’ve written 33 novels (plus one I did anonymously as work for hire), am working on a couple more, and intend to keep writing novels as long as I live.

NaNoWriMo: Hopeful or hopeless?
[Some inspirational links and videos]
As flippant as it sounds, I'm getting the idea that success is tied up in the slogan from Nike: Just do it! No quibbling, no discussion, no angst about your inner struggle. Just do it. Or maybe in some cases, it needs a little emphasis: Just f**king do it.

NaNoWriMo and an inspiring author: Dean Wesley Smith
I "discovered" this gentleman back in March and found him to be a prolific, disciplined craftsman. It seemed appropriate to reprint the article as a run-up to the month of November when many give themselves the personal challenge of doing the unthinkable: write 50,000 words in 30 days.

November: It was a dark and stormy night...
The perfect opening line for one of the duller months of the year: 30 days of somberness between the sparkling heat of summer and the snowy cold of winter. Charles M. Schulz hasn't been with us since 2000 and even though his comic strip Peanuts is still republished, is the next generation familiar with these words? I am dating myself by the number of times I have seen Snoopy the writer on top of his doghouse pounding out that opening line on his typewriter in mock homage to Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton PC. November? Snoopy? Bulwer-Lytton? Is everybody confused by this mishmash of seemingly random ideas?

2011-12-14

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