Random things I thought of while watching ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’

No, not the 1940’s Disney story, the 2010 Disney story. The one where a young man is called on to save the world by a strange wizard who makes him his apprentice (the apprentice is also seeking true love).

I’ve been reading a bit of fantasy lately, and felt like watching some with wizards and lightening. The movie is workmanlike, but certainly not brilliant.

I won’t bother too much with the plot – I was more interested in a few other points. One is that the movie gives a significant amount of fictional/fantasy set-piece in the first three minutes. This provides all the context that the viewer needs early on. But it also removes any mystery that’s left. I particularly found this interesting in the context of David Lodge’s distinction between mystery and suspense. A mystery is a question where the how is uncertain – a suspense is a question where the ‘what comes next’ is unknown. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice ostensibly has suspense (although you can guess as soon as you’ve heard the premise how it’ll end. You’d be right). But it could have had mystery, too; the unravelling of a strange new world as we follow the protagonist. Instead we tear through it in the first three minutes.

It’s easy, too, to see the three levels of conflict play out. Granted, the sequencing isn’t water-tight, but it’s close. The protagonist experiences an internal change. That has implications for his relationships with other people. Those have implications for humanity.

I wouldn’t recommend this as a good movie. But if you want some low-energy action while you’re doing something else, this isn’t terrible.

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The weekly laundry

I’ve been watching and reading a few things recently that I haven’t had a chance to do proper reviews of, but wanted to make some quick notes on. It’s media consumption in that absent-minded way that I think is quite easy to do – but I like to take at least a moment or two to reflect on what I’ve enjoyed, or haven’t.

  • Jessica Jones: Is the story of a superhero with a troubled past, battling with the trauma of a previous attack, and standing up to the villain who assaulted her. It started out brilliantly. A great noire feel, an interesting set of characters, and a good storyline. I particularly liked the way it dealt with a whole set of gender issues. I stopped watching around episode eleven of thirteen though. Partially because I have a low thresh-hold for violence. Partially because it felt as though at points the plot was being driven more by accidents and mistakes, than by character development. Having said that, it’s received rave reviews – it may be your cup of tea.
  • Wizard of Aus: The premise of this SBS show is simple, but fun – what if a wizard tried to emigrate to those seedy student suburbs in North Melbourne? It’s nice to see new Australian TV that’s interesting. This one has a lot of promise, at least in the premise. It manages to be mildly entertaining throughout, but it opts for a series of easy jokes through inversions, rather than thinking about what character development might mean. It’s a reasonable choice to make, I suppose, particularly in a TV show with a total of around ninety minutes viewing time across six episodes.
  • Endless nights: It may not be the quintessential example of ‘peak Guardian‘, but I think the article ‘So you’d like to get into highbrow comics. Here’s where to start‘ is certainly a contender. Fortunately, though, it led me to Endless nights, which I tremendously enjoyed. It’s an excellent stand-alone collection of stories by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by several authors. It was enough to whet the appetite, and make me want to read the Sandman series soon.
  • The Final Empire: I enjoyed Brandon Sanderson’s novel, the first in his Mistborn trilogy. The story is set in a fantasy universe, where a dark lord has ruled for a thousand years – but a small group of rebels has an audacious plan to change that. The writing wasn’t always brilliant, and at times it felt clunky – but it was enough to carry the story. And as I’m becoming increasingly aware, having a story that feels largely coherent and moves quickly over the pace of more than six hundred pages is no small accomplishment. Certainly not something to be taken for granted. Sanderson also sits in what might be an ‘uncanny valley’ of social analysis – he’s aware that it exists, and doesn’t simply ignore it, like some fantasy writers might. His story has a clear underclass, who are cowed into submission by a ruling class and a belief system that centres on the evil overlord. It’s fascinating, and if at times it feels like Sanderson’s social story-telling is simplistic, it’s still an interesting set of questions. This one isn’t LotR, but it’s not too shabby either. Worth a read.

 

What if fantasy heroes hired management consultants for project management?

I’m enjoying The Final Empire. The writing isn’t perfect, but it’s enough to carry the story, and there are some pieces I do enjoy. Though it’s heavy-handed at times, the questions about perspective, power and class are mildly interesting.

My favourite part, though, was when the leader of a rebellion hired a group of criminals – for their project management skills:

Previous attempts to overthrow the Lord Ruler have failed because they lacked proper organization and planning. We’re thieves, gentlemen– and we’re extraordinarily good ones. We can rob the unrobbable and fool the unfoolable. We know how to take an incredibly large task and break it down to manageable pieces, then deal with each of those pieces. We know how to get what we want. Those things make us perfect for this particular task.

They then go on to discuss a profit-sharing arrangement.

Guy Rundle’s ‘A revolution in the making’

Guy Rundle writes like that garrulous old uncle at family gatherings. And like that garrulous old uncle, it can sometimes feel like whatever the topic, he brings it back to the same themes. For Rundle, it’s inevitably a discussion of social change in sweeping terms, usually through a Marxist framework.

Which is fine if that’s what you’re after. Given that a lot of contemporary commentary is class-blind, it can be refreshing to read someone explicitly thinking about politics in terms of class. But it can also be frustrating at times when it’s an especially long bow to draw (why Essendon’s doping crisis relates to societal changes), or when he writes on things he knows nothing about (my personal pick for these is Middle Eastern politics).

Having said all that, I enjoy his writing. He has a good turn of phrase, and thinks about things at a macro level that is often absent from day to day analysis. So I was excited to read A revolution in the making: 3d printing, robots and the future. The title’s certainly a promising one.

Unfortunately, it was somewhat disappointing. The bulk of the book is Rundle’s meandering’s through different types of technology, currently at the cutting edge. But as he acknowledges, some of this stuff will become irrelevant within a few years, and other pieces will be crucial. Which begs the question – why is he bothering to write a book about it?

The final chapter or two get closer to the meat of it – what the technological change means for society. Here though, Rundle’s style lets him down. He’s willing to talk about class and society explicitly, in a way that some writers aren’t, which is a positive thing. It’s just that he doesn’t have very much concrete to say about them. He expects there will be major change, but acknowledges he really has no idea how it’ll play out, because these things are uncertain. True, but not really helpful for someone who’s slogged through (an admittedly very light, readable book) to get to his comments. Again, it begs the question – if you don’t have something to say, why are you writing a book?

If you’re uncertain whether technological change will bring about major social change, then maybe this book will persuade you. He doesn’t present compelling arguments, but his rhetoric is strong. He has the sweeping confidence of a first year Arts student who knows that the tutorial needs their opinion, even if he hasn’t done the reading or know what the topic is.

But if you’re after some concrete predictions of what this future will look like, or systematic analysis, this is not the book for you.

Dave Eggers’ ‘How we are hungry’

Dave Eggers is a good writer. Which isn’t to say that everything he’s written has received good reviews; but when it’s good, it can be very good.

How we are hungry is his collection of short stories. I liked some of them. A few are quite amusing. A lot, though, seemed to have this vague air of ennui-filled, spaced out thirty-somethings. Which is fine, I just didn’t care very much, and found myself close to skimming at points.

Worth it if you love Dave Eggers. Probably not a great starting point otherwise.

Idiocracy

The premise of Idiocracy is a classist one: the people with lower intelligences (laying aside the multiple critiques that could be levelled at a ‘g-factor‘ theory of unified intelligence) reproduce more frequently, and come to dominate the population.

For reasons that are complicated and irrelevant, an average person ends up there, and by virtue of being average in a land full of people with low-IQs, is instantly above average. This is the basic premise of the movie.

But implicit in the portrayal of Idiocracy, although not explicitly spelt out, is that corporatization consumes much of modern society, leaving little in the public space that doesn’t have a logo stamped on it. It seems that society breaks down, and things fall apart – hospitals are filthy pits of disease, and rubbish litters the streets.

It’s a fascinating premise, with a lot of potential. Sadly, Idiocracy doesn’t live up to that potential. The plot’s basic, the ideas are even simpler, and threaded throughout are boringly stupid assumptions about gender. This isn’t one I’d recommend to others.