Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Seeing The Elephant: Terry Pratchett – 1948-2015

Sir Terry Pratchett - 1948-2015

It still feels a bit erroneous and unreal to think that Sir Terry Pratchett is dead, as if someone has simply botched a worldwide headcount and missed him out. But he is, and that makes me incredibly upset. Tears have been shed, and it hardly seems relevant that I didn’t know the man. I’m an artistic, creative type and we’re often a pretty sensitive bunch. We tend to take it quite hard when our heroes die.

And a hero and a formative influence he was. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t an inspiration, or I didn’t aspire to his level of talent and wit. Pratchett is the reason that I first picked up a pen and started to write my own stories. It’s a source of profound sadness to me that his own story is now at an end.

If I can indulge in a bit of reminiscing I’d like to write a little about how I first became familiar with Sir Terry. It was a long time ago so I probably have some of the details wrong, but that happens quite a bit with memory. Looking back in time inside your own head is a lot like looking at your reflection in a funhouse mirror – it’s an inaccurate picture, oddly misshapen, and things don’t often appear where they should, if they appear at all. Additionally, extra lumps may pop up out of nowhere and it takes someone from the outside looking in to remind you that your eyes aren’t actually in your chin. But this is how I remember it.

In 1992, just before my 13th Birthday, my parents bought me a gift. They knew I was into folklore and fantasy, and I had heard of this Pratchett fellow from some place or other, but had never read him. The gift was the paperback edition of Terry’s then-latest, Witches Abroad. I would go on to learn later that it was the twelfth book in a series, and not even the first story in which the characters appeared, but I didn’t care.

Before I even started the book I knew I was going to enjoy it. Eccentric cover art from Josh Kirby (another sad loss) and an intriguing dedication – a cryptic reference to something called ‘The Hedgehog Song’ – led me into a vivid world of and about stories. From the first footnote there was an idea planted in my head. By the time of the brief altercation between Granny Weatherwax and a suspiciously Gollum-like creature, that idea had transformed me irreversibly and I had made up my idiot childish mind. I wanted to be a writer. Without understanding how hard it would be or the astronomical unlikelihood of success, I knew what would occupy my spare time and thoughts for the rest of my life.

Cheers, Mr. Pratchett. It’s all your fault.

So I devoured Witches Abroad whole within 48 hours. There were things I didn’t understand about it, but I wanted to. I wanted more, and it wasn’t long before I got it via my second Discworld book, The Colour of Magic. Because I had to start at the beginning.

At first I was slightly bemused when Rincewind showed up. I wanted more info on Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat, not this silly-hatted interloper who was now the star of the show. I think I slightly resented him at first, but I soon thawed and looked on him too with affection. Through Rincewind I started to see Pratchett’s acute eye for character. His ability to cut right to the heart of a character and paint them vividly in my head with a single line of dialogue or one arch observation will always be a source of wonder. But it wasn’t until I hit the Guards! Guards! And Wyrd Sisters era of Discworld that the true extent of Pratchett’s wit and wisdom was thrown into sharp relief.

In between sessions devouring Discworld I delved into more of his worlds. Truckers. Strata. Only You Can Save Mankind. And of course the astonishingly brilliant Good Omens. Each one a pearl in its own right, but Discworld was something special. It bridged the gap between fantasy and humour like nothing I had ever seen before, and by having multiple casts of character to move between each book it never got old or trite or overworn. Each book was entirely self contained – no need to wade through a seven book series to understand what was going on in the final volume here. And more importantly, each book was about something entirely new. And for 250-400 pages, Sir Terry was an authority on and a gateway into a new subject that I might not have known or cared about until that point.

I would read up on the subjects and themes Pratchett explored in his books. Wyrd Sisters got me into Shakespeare. Pyramids made me fascinated by the culture of ancient Egypt. Small Gods encouraged me to look at theology with a more logical, analytical mind. Reaper Man made me wonder about death. And not a single one of them ever told me that using my imagination was a bad thing or something that I should eventually outgrow.

Pratchett and Discworld broadened my horizons. That Discworld's own horizons expanded with each successive book says all that needs to be said about how far that one series by that one magnificent man has taken me. Now he’s gone and I feel slightly lost.

His death feels to me like I've just come in from a break in an especially brilliant lesson given by my favourite teacher, only to find that he has died in the interim. Sorrowful to see his life cut short, but also lamenting that he still had so much knowledge, so much wisdom yet to impart. Knowledge that will forever be lost to me and the rest of the class.

It's a selfish grief, to pity myself for the loss of a great inspiration. He was more than just his books and more than just an author. His philanthropy fast became laudable in its own right, independent of his writing career. His work towards the preservation of the orang-utan species alone was praiseworthy in its significance. His championing for the cause of assisted dying has done much to further that debate. It's now possible that having had such an eloquent voice arguing in favour of it for the last few years, law and legislation may change a little sooner because of him.

And of course, since his diagnosis with Alzheimer's, his work in raising money and awareness for the disease has been invaluable for both those afflicted with it and those seeking to find a cure. I'm sure that the family and friends that he leaves behind feel enormous pride for the courage and conviction he showed in the face of such adversity.

The Alzheimer's itself was a tremendous injustice. For such a vicious degenerative disease to afflict such sparkling intelligence seems like a singular cruelty. But Pratchett himself must have been a little more pragmatic than most about his condition and wouldn't have bemoaned the world or complained about its lack of mercy. This is the same man that in Hogfather wrote Death saying to Susan “take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy,” and I doubt that his own feelings on the subject were far removed from those of his greatest creation. He understood that they are phantasmal conceits, but he also understood why people sometimes needed them when the world seemed especially unjust or unmerciful.

Ultimately I think that's the finest thing I can say about him. He understood. And what he didn't understand he explored to the best of his ability, tried to answer himself and then offered those answers to the rest of us. Right up until the end. He's a man who never stopped thinking, even when his mind was slowly being taken from him. That made him astonishingly bold and dauntless, and made me admire him all the more.
Sir Terry Pratchett - 1948-2015
Perhaps his own philosophy was mirrored most closely in what was apparently his favourite creation, Commander Sam Vimes of the City Watch. Vimes was a decent man who had a sober, prosaic view on his world and the people in it. He knew that his world was a grim and difficult one, unnecessarily harsh and unfair and with little promise of reward for honesty, and that because of that most people were selfish, dishonest and hostile. But despite that he believed that everyone deserved to be given the same chance to be something more, because deep down they were worth the opportunity.

Pratchett appeared to feel the same. He was, at heart, a cynic and a pessimist. His works were biting and satirical and cut right to the deepest flaws in anything he saw fit to explore. But his prose was never downbeat or bitter and his voice always had an avuncular twinkle, a cheerful and reassuring disposition. It radiated the feeling that for all the bitterness, grimness and despair of life, and despite the universe being an infinite, fathomless place and our role in it brief, insignificant and purposeless, the joy that we can find in it makes it somehow worthwhile. That occasionally, something can come along to cast light upon the shadow, to provide meaning amidst the madness and make it all worth it in the end.

Sir Terry taught me that, so I can't feel wholly sad that class has been dismissed before the lesson was properly over. Instead I'm grateful that he was there at all to teach it.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Death at a Comedy

I originally started writing this as a Facebook post. When I got several hundred words in I realised that it'd probably be better suited here, resurrecting this old blog type thing. Here goes...

This evening I decided to conduct an experiment. I just watched both versions of Death at a Funeral back-to-back, starting with the original.

It was not a pleasant experience, in the same way that it’s not nice to come home after a pleasant day at the zoo to find someone has set fire to your dog and nailed it to your front door.

The original British version is a charming farcical comedy, reminiscent of the classic Ealing comedies. Just the right combination of English restraint and eccentricity, starring a strong line up of stars from British and American character comedy. It’s genteel and absurd at the same time, and yes, it manages to tug the heartstrings at the end. It’s not perfect, but it’s full of stubborn, pompous, arrogant, flawed but intricately performed characters, because the actors all knew and understood that the comedy lies in how those characters react to the absurdity around them, not in the absurdity itself. In short, it’s very, very good.

The American remake is comprised of a cast of people who are either stand-up comedians who are not known for being capable actors, or capable actors with little grasp of farcical comedy. One particular character is played by Alan Tudyk in the original, someone who can imbue any piece of shit character in any piece of shit film in which he appears with genuine likeability and charm. In the remake the role goes to a game but woefully unsuitable James Marsden, the poster boy for earnest blandness. He tries ever so hard, bless him.

And Chris Rock plays the straight man of the story.

Yes, that’s right. Loud, shouty, forthright Chris Rock plays the uptight, tense and awkward straight man. I imagine in the director’s next film he plans to one-up himself in the miscasting stakes by choosing Sir Ian Mckellen to star in a biopic of The Ultimate Warrior.

As a result of the miscasting, the film is peppered throughout by a ridiculous amount of expository padding. Padding that would be unnecessary if they had cast actors who could convey the minutiae of their roles instead of painting with very broad strokes. Minor characters who appear in the original to drive the narrative of more prominent ones have to be given additional and redundant back story, simply because the leaden actor portraying them would be otherwise incapable of conveying the sympathetic aspects of the character. Additional plot threads are introduced that reduce supporting female characters to stereotypical baby-obsessed weirdos rather than characters with personalities and feelings in their own right. The slightly sleazy one who spends half the film lusting after a jailbait girl half his age actually gets the girl in the remake, just so that he has a payoff in the story, no matter how creepy and unpleasant that payoff makes him look.

Moreover, because of all this padding the comedy that still could have worked doesn’t, because anything that should have been given adequate time to breathe and unfold is either rushed through or skirted over, so that nothing gets the time it needs to be genuinely funny. Everyone is in a hurry to get through the scene and to the reaction shots because that’s where the director thinks the jokes are.

That’s not where the jokes are. That’s where the punchlines are, and punchlines are comedy punctuation, not comedy itself. They don’t work without the prep time.

And because nobody is delivering anything that could be described as a characterful performance, the way they respond to the situations that unfold around them couldn’t seem more insincere if they tried. Everyone seems to be just ticking off scenes in their heads and not putting the effort in. Even accomplished veterans like Keith David and Danny Glover seem to be phoning it in, their characters delivering lines and buggering off, rather than being situationally aware of anything around them.

One of the defining attributes of farce is in the situational awareness of the characters and in their increasingly futile attempts to prevent it from catching the attention of those who are unaware of it. It’s built using similar techniques as you use to build tension in a thriller, and successful farce will have the audience biting their nails and cringing as things escalate. That falls flat if everyone approaches their scenes as if they’re self contained and have no context beyond themselves.

But then what could we expect? The original was directed by Frank Oz, a man who has spent decades learning the craft of comedy. The remake is directed by Neil LaBute, the same guy that did the Nicholas Cage version of The Wicker Man.

Cocking up American remakes of excellent British films is what he does best, it seems.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Take me away, I don't mind. But you'd better promise me I'll be...

Back, and about time.

Apologies for not posting recently, but things have been very stressful and temperamental recently and only now do I feel like things are settling down the the extent that I can think about my web presence  again. There's still work to be done, but there is a light at the end of this long, bleak tunnel I have been traversing.

After several weeks of the whole situation feeling very transitional and a bit weird, I'm starting to feel a bit more settled in Bristol. The last few months have been a surreal experience, what with unemployment and then relocating, etc. At times it's felt like I've been living in a bubble. It was deliberate - I have consciously kept my life in standby mode while I sort things out, so apologies for maintaining some degree of radio silence over this period - but I'm beginning to feel like the time is nearing for me to wake up and get things back on track again.

I'm sure this weekend will mark the point where I finally start to feel like I live here now, instead of being here on some odd working visit. New job is great (albeit quite busy and stressful.) New house is great, and in a few days I think I'll have everything just the way I want it. I'm waiting on a few deliveries of things, and after that I should be ready to get on with my life.

Relocating was a ball ache of epic proportions, but it's done now and the only casualty of my relocation was my PC's 5.1 set, which packed up completely after the move. Thankfully it's still under warranty so I can get it replaced. Oh, and my pride last weekend, as I stood by helplessly and watched all my well-laid plans unravel before my eyes in about three minutes flat. That was not fun.

All in all, I'm still not sure how to feel about the whole experience. In hindsight it needed to happen, for my sanity as well as my working life, but as I still don't know anyone down here I'm very much feeling that all I do with my time is sleep and go to work. It's peculiar that I should feel so isolated in a city four times the size of Chester.

But that will change in time I'm sure. In the meantime there are still things to do. Changes of address, things I need to buy.

Like additional pairs of shorts and t-shirts that are not black. Damn this hot weather...

And writing. I have done literally none at all for over two months. When I'm in the right head space I will be bombing straight into Hudson Falls with gusto.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Under the bludgeonings of chance

I have not had the greatest of times of late, and it makes the optimistic tone of my previous blog entry seem cloyingly naive. As I read it through before starting to write this one I felt almost embarrassed at myself.

Needless to say I'm not in a happy place right now. I'm certainly not doing any writing. I'm not in the right mindset and I don't think anyone would enjoy anything I wrote if I was.

I've spent my time this week trying to correct this little hiccup in my life, and as I've been doing so I've found myself bewildered at the places my mind has gone. When things calm down in the evenings and my mind is at some measure of rest, an inordinate amount of my thoughts have been settling on the Mass Effect series. For reasons that entirely escape me. Maybe because they're games portraying a character trying to maintain control of a desperately spiralling situation and I currently feel some affinity for that. I don't know.

In any case, I'm sure there's a Comfy Chair article about it in me. If I do write something about Mass Effect it'll be a challenge not to let it turn into a Jennifer Hale love fest. Mark Meer is not Commander Shepard.

But not right now. I have more pressing matters to attend to for the time being. Hopefully in a few weeks I'll be feeling more ready to get stuck into some writing. I have a list of things to do a mile long. Maybe once things straighten themselves out I can give myself the kick up the arse I've probably needed for a good long while.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Optimist Prime

Feeling good about the next few months!

Now that the new website has settled down and bedded in, I'm turning my attention towards the next few writing projects.

At the moment I'm in contact with Jack Tempest regarding the art for Malice Aforethought, which I'm already starting to feel good about, and I'm ruminating on the first updates to the website. I have an addition to the Graveyard planned, which is an old idea of mine that exposes some of the serious shortcomings of my early attempts at writing. I know, I'm so brave for being willing to put this old stuff online for all to see. In addition I'm chewing over an idea which will hopefully become a piece for The Comfy Chair.

In fiction terms, the idea currently occupying the most real estate in my brain is my retool of Imagine. I want to develop this ASAP, mostly so I can have something solid to pitch at this year's batch of comic shows. That said, it's also in order to scratch that particular itch, leaving me free to soldier on with Hudson Falls.

My mind is swimming a bit at the moment. I'm assuming that it's the euphoria of actually having a creative plan of attack for a change. But it could be the residual hangover from my boozy birthday weekend. It's hard to tell the difference sometimes.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Fingers crossed

It's looking like the email issues with the website are sorted - It's up, live and running as it should be. Whey hey!

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Your days are numbered now, Decepticreeps!

It's live, people. Some small email snafu notwithstanding, the website is now up and running. There were a few hiccups along the way, and there are still a few to sort out, but for the most part I now have a brand spanking new website for my writing and that and it looks all nice and pretty.

This page is linked on the main menu of the website, so hopefully they'll feed each other and increase their traffic a bit. And for those who have found this blog through the new site, there is a 'Home' link at the top of the side column to take you back to the main body of the site.

See how thoughtful I am? I'm lovely, me.

Anyway, enjoy your time touring the new site. I hope to have the email issues resolved this weekend, but in the meantime there are plenty of other ways to get in touch.

In Increments

Don't want to speak too soon, but it's looking good for a weekend announcement. The website issues have been sorted, which has unfortunately resulted in an email account issue that will hopefully be resolved this afternoon.

I'm recklessly soldiering on with my optimism, with nary a thought for the inevitable disappointment.