Rereading ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’

Life’s been a little rough recently. So I’ve been reading for comfort – something easy to read, that I won’t get through quickly, and that keeps me entertained.

A Song of Ice and Fire was perfect. I started re-reading sometime in January with the first book, A Game of Thrones, and a few nights ago I just finished off the latest published edition, A Dance of Dragons. The timing is good too, as there’s an outside chance that George R R Martin may get another volume (The Winds of Winter) published this year. Oh, and season six of the TV show has just kicked off.

A Song of Ice and Fire really is an amazing piece of writing, on many levels. If you like good fantasy, this is absolutely worth it.

One of the things it does brilliantly is to convey a world that’s very real, and gritty. In parts, it’s the small things:

Confusion and clangor ruled the castle. Men stood on the beds of wagons loading casks of wine, sacks of flour, and bundles of new-fletched arrows. Smiths straightened swords, knocked dents from breastplates, and shoed destriers and pack mules alike. Mail shirts were tossed in barrels of sand and rolled across the lumpy surface of the Flowstone Yard to scour them clean. Weese’s women had twenty cloaks to mend, a hundred more to wash. The high and humble crowded into the sept together to pray. Outside the walls, tents and pavilions were coming down. Squires tossed pails of water over cookfires, while soldiers took out their oilstones to give their blades one last good lick. The noise was a swelling tide: horses blowing and whickering, lords shouting commands, men-at-arms trading curses, camp followers squabbling. 

This is a world filled with confusion and dirt. It’s also a world filled with treachery, betrayal and deceit. In fact, it often feels as though for Martin the chief vice is naivety, and the highest virtue is cunning and realism. When so many fantasy stories hang on an implicit idea of justice, a resolution where order is restored, that leaves a faint pang of longing for justice, a hope that it still exists in the world of GoT. There’s a sense of rightness when Joffrey dies, finally, having ordered Ned Stark’s death so long ago. But for the most part justice is sorely absent; the characters we might think of as just, or right die unheeded, along with thousands of others.

Another thing Martin does well is to give a sense of wonder. It’s there in the history of the places, a world that feels so inhabited that archaeologists could spend lifetimes there. The magic he creates is never spelt out, but always mysterious, something around the next corner – so he avoids falling into the trap of engineering it.

His use of different viewpoints is deft, and it works. It lets him show us different characters, and sympathise with them to different extents, or in different ways, as they misunderstand and hate each other. It is, in that sense, a perhaps more postmodern piece, with no single character who anchors the narrative in the way that Sam does in Lord of the Rings. 

We can know, to some extent, the central question driving Martin’s narrative, because he told us, in a letter he wrote while pitching the series:

Each of the conflicts presents a major threat … my imaginary realm, the Seven Kingdoms, and and to the lives of the principal characters. 

The first threat grows from the emnity between the great houses of Lannister and Stark as it plays out in a cycle of plot, counterplot, ambition, murder, and revenge, with the iron throne of the Seven Kingdoms as the ultimate prize …

While the lion of Lannister and the direwolf of Stark snarl and scrap, however, a second and greater threat takes shape across the narrow sea, where the Dothraki horselords mass their barbarian hordes for a great invasion of the Seven Kingdoms, led by the fierce and beautiful Daenerys Stormborn, the last of the Targaryen dragonlords … 

The greatest danger of all, however, comes from the north, from the icy wastes beyond the Wall, where half-forgotten demons out of legend, the inhuman others, raise cold legions of the undead and the neverborn and prepare to ride down on the winds of winter to extinguish everything that we would call “life”. The only thing that stands between the Seven Kingdoms and an endless night is the Wall, and a handful of men in black called the Night’s Watch.

It’s gripping stuff, and it’s a neat set of concentric challenges, each posing a real threat to the survival of the Seven Kingdoms. Since that initial conception for a trilogy though, it seems he’s up to a planned seven, and running far behind schedule. In part, that seems to reflect Martin’s gift for creating drama at every turn. Every new scene, context or character he turns his mind to seems to open up new possibilities and intrigues, rather than concluding storylines. It helps contribute to the richness of the world of the Seven Kingdoms, but it also means there’s a very real risk Martin may not make it.

Which would be a sad moment. A Song of Ice and Fire is easily one of the best fantasy series written, and I’m keen to see how it ends. Yes, there’s the TV show, but that’s already diverged enough that I feel it’s a parallel universe, an alternative piece of art, rather than the same narrative. I want to read the rest of the books – and if you like good fantasy and haven’t already, you’ll want to as well.

Grímur Hákonarson’s ‘Rams’

It’s hard to know where to start with Rams. Judging by the comments about deadpan comedy in the trailer, and the soundtrack that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a Wes Anderson piece, it seemed like a comedy.

This trailer does more than most to elide the nature of the movie.

Rams is a slow, dramatic piece with occasional hints of wry comedy. But it moves slowly, and though the ending is better than you might expect from the rest of the movie, it still feels underwhelming.

One of the major challenges for the movie, fundamentally, is that it’s difficult to empathise with the protagonist. Rams tells the story of Gummi, a younger brother who’s lived next to an older brother he hasn’t spoken to for forty years. For both of them, sheep are their lives. Tragedy strikes (several scenes into the movie) when the sheep in the valley are infected with scarpie, and have to be slaughtered.

From there, Gummi has to deal with the challenge of a bureaucracy that wants to obliterate something he holds dear, and an alcoholic older brother who still resents him. It’s a challenging situation, but throughout I find myself disliking how he responds. I don’t want to use too many spoilers, but it struck me that his response was selfish, and short-sighted. If the director had picked a more sympathetic struggle, or given us something to cheer for, it might be easier to like the film.

The second challenge for the movie is the pace. For the amount of narrative that’s loosely strung across scenes, it feels as though things drag, and there isn’t enough of a narrative or artistic pay-off to justify the delay. In part, that may reflect the sense of isolation, of slow emptiness in Iceland. It still felt unsatisfying.

The conclusion of the movie was the best point; it brings together strands in a conclusion that feels a step above the rest of the film. It’s disappointing, then, that the earlier stages were so empty – so little packed in when there could have been much more.

This is worth it if you love Icelandic cinema; otherwise I’d suggest giving it a miss.

Pick a plot – any plot

I don’t watch, or read, many mystery narratives. So I always feel slightly under-equipped to reflect on narratives that centre around mysteries. Is there some standard trope, or an inversion of one, that I’m missing? What’s the benchmark for a classic piece?

With that in mind, I enjoyed Now you see me, but in a superficial way. It had bright lights and action, and glimpses of an interesting story-line. But it didn’t have any depth to it.

The premise is an exciting one. Four performers, operating in settings out of the limelight – after the opening scene, they’re brought together mysteriously, and then another scene later they’re opening a huge show in Vegas.

From there, we learn very little, but a lot is suggested / implied / hinted at. They may be getting secret instructions from a hidden order of magicians (or are they?), and they are robbing banks (aren’t they?). All the while a helpless FBI agent is trying to track them down, and resolve the romantic tension with his Interpol partner.

[SPOILER ALERT: From here on out it’s the endings – don’t read if you’re keen to enjoy the suspense of a plot twist]. 

The resolution, when it came, felt un-earned to me. Throughout the movie a set of questions about who is manipulating whom are juggled lightly, rather than dealt with in earnest. At points it feels like the movie is struggling to pick a plot, in the same way the magicians hold up a pack of cards, asking some chump in the audience to pick one.

At the end, there’s a resolution of sorts. But it comes through giving new information to the viewer, rather than through any difficult choice a character’s made.

Having said that, I felt less annoyed about the conclusion than I have in other movies (I’m looking at you, Ocean’s Twelve). I’m not sure why that was. Perhaps a more likeable protagonist? Either way, I didn’t feel as annoyed at the end as I have in some movies.

Rewatching ‘Amelie’

It’s been several years since I watched Amelie, but I had the chance to watch it last night. It’s a fun film.

  • SImilarity to MicMacs
  • Different conflict structure
  • The photograph guy

Aesthetically, Amelie has a lot in common with Micmacs, also by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There’s a sense of beauty in the world, captured in the simple things. Bright, colourful scenes, a visual tone that draws on a nostalgia for an earlier era. A fascination with the intricacy of life, of how small things ripple and impact other people, permeates both films.

Their plot lines are very different though. Micmacs is a story about an initially powerless person against powerful ones, about the inversion of power and justice, through cunning and appealing to the community for justice. Amelie is really about an internal conflict within Amelie.

Her character’s established (in the opening scenes, and with that pervasive narration that makes Jeunet’s work occasionally feel novelistic) as introverted, withdrawn because she is afraid of the world, although she desperately wants connection. What follows is the working out of that tension. It seems safe to say at this point that there’s no need to worry about spoilers, but in case you haven’t seen it, I’ll say that it’s a satisfying resolution, and worth watching. As is Micmacs.