Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Nicholas Sparks book by any other name…is still a Nicholas Sparks book

By StarGazer 

            Nicholas Sparks is an asshole. Yes, I said it. If you’re one of those people who swoons at the thought of Rachel McAdams and a disheveled Ryan Gosling running toward each other and embracing in the rain, I respect your opinion. Still, you should probably get out of here if you weren’t already put off by that opening remark, because I’m going to shit over something that you probably hold dear to your heart, and that’s never fun.
            Now, I normally try to refrain from judging books, movies, TV shows, etc. that I haven’t personally read or watched, and perhaps it is unclassy to essentially devote a blog post toward dissing a guy I’ve never met, but fuck it, this guy’s just begging for me to make an exception.

Also, I’ve seen The Notebook.
It’s a truly special kind of movie that makes me want to punch Ryan Gosling in the face.

            In case you’re wondering where this vitriol’s coming from, let’s note that last weekend, Hollywood decided to bombard the public with yet another blockbuster based on one of Sparks’ novels, this one starring Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling as the two blandly attractive leads. The Lucky One bowed in second place, above juggernaut The Hunger Games but below the surprise hit Think Like a Man, to decent though not spectacular numbers, suggesting that it will follow in the long string of Sparks-based movies since The Notebook to leave almost no lasting impact on greater pop culture.
            And no, I’m not here to bitch about that movie, as tempting as it is. Judging by the handful of critical reviews I read, like this one  (apparently, I like torturing and enraging myself) should I ever end up seeing The Lucky Ones, I’ll probably be yelling at the screen the entire time.
            Anyway, as I was absentmindedly surfing the ‘net, I stumbled upon this old article from USA Today on Mr. Nicholas Sparks. Written from back when Sparks was promoting The Last Song (a.k.a. the one with Miley Cyrus), this article stood out to me for a number of reasons, not least because it was one of the funniest and most infuriating things I’d read of late, and it didn't even have anything to do with that circus we call the 2012 U.S. presidential election. Among other things, Sparks compares himself to Hemingway (yes, that Hemingway), trashes pretty much universally-acknowledged modern literary great Cormac McCarthy and, when asked for his favorite tale of youth/coming of age story, cites his own book. Yet of all of Sparks’ generally asshole-ish comments, the one that particularly stuck out for me was this: “I don’t write romance novels.”
            Wait, what? No, apparently Nicholas Sparks writes “love stories”. When asked to explain the difference, he says:

“There's a difference between drama and melodrama; evoking genuine emotion, or manipulating emotion. It's a very fine eye-of-the-needle to thread. And it's very rare that it works. That's why I tend to dominate this particular genre. There is this fine line. And I do not verge into melodrama. It's all drama. I try to generate authentic emotional power.”

            Now, aside from the fact that he just implied that he dominates the romance – er, love story – genre because apparently, he’s the only writer in that genre who tries to generate authentic emotional power, he does have a bit of a point, in that there’s a distinction, however fine, between drama and melodrama. Essentially, drama refers to any event or situation that involves conflict, either between characters or through narrative tension, whereas melodrama, in the words of, “does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.”

And this doesn’t count as melodrama…how?

In other words, in melodramas, characters simply act as props pulled along by the strings of the plot, and moreover, the plot itself is merely a series of events designed to trigger a specific emotional response.
            So, here’s what we’ve learned from Sparks: love stories = drama (i.e. genuine), romances = melodrama (i.e. artificial).
            Overlooking Nicholas Sparks’ insistence that his stories aren’t melodramatic, an assertion I think we can all agree is complete bullshit, and the fact that he seems to contradict his own definition of a romance elsewhere in the interview, what bothers me most about this whole thing is his promotion of what some call genre ghettoization, that is, the idea that genre stories have only a limited appeal and, therefore, are somehow lesser than general fiction.
            Of course, it should be acknowledged that, on some level, this is all semantics, and the boundaries of genres can be relatively flexible. The simplest definition of genre fiction is that the work appropriates or conforms to certain characteristics and tropes of a specific category of literature. So, science fiction involves imaginary but theoretically plausible concepts, such as futuristic technology, aliens, space travel, paranormal phenomena, parallel universes, etc. Fantasy uses magic, often employing make-believe worlds or fantastical creatures, and so on.
            A romance is simply a novel (or film) that focuses primarily on the romantic love and relationship shared by two people. No one is going to deny that Titanic is a romance, or Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby. Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which Sparks cites as one of his favorite books? Romance. Another thing that no one, or at the very least, only a few people, would deny is that all of those works, plus many, many more, are classics as worthy of serious thought and praise as non-genre classics like Citizen Kane or Ulysses.
            So, why is Sparks so adamant that he writes love stories, not romance, when in reality, the two are basically two different labels for the same thing? He’s not the only person who stigmatizes genre works. It’s not so long ago when science fiction was largely consigned to pulp magazines and B-movies, despite the contributions of such celebrated authors as H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov, among others. Fantasy used to belong to Dungeons & Dragons geeks, and even The Lord of the Rings was considered niche and dorky. The term “fanboy” still usually carries a negative, even derisive connotation.
As for romance novels, most people think of those Harlequin paperbacks with their risqué, vaguely trashy covers, referring to them as “smut”, essentially women’s pornography or erotica. Given this not-so-tasteful reputation, perhaps Nicholas Sparks might be forgiven for trying to disassociate his work from the romance label, but it might surprise you that, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, romance novels are the most popular genre in modern literature. The only way to erase the stigmas around the romance genre, as well as other genres, from fantasy and sci-fi to thrillers and horror, is for those who work within those genres and for those who enjoy reading them to fully embrace their status as genre fiction writers/fans and to remind people that these labels merely signify what category they belong to and have no bearing whatsoever on the quality or merits of the actual work.
Basically what I’m saying is, Nicholas Sparks, you write romance novels, whether you like it or not. And it’s okay to admit it.

 You know what isn’t okay? Using Alzheimer’s disease as a fucking plot device in your silly, cornball romance.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


     Fight scenes are hard to write, and if done badly, are pretty hard to read as well. There are a lot of common pitfalls for writers to skewer themselves on, and some simple tricks that are often ignored. I don’t claim to be an expert on any kind of combat that doesn’t involve a sixer of Code Red and a high speed internet connection, but few can match my skills at nitpicking and disgruntle-ry. So here goes my list of fight tropes, good and otherwise.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sated: Looking Back on the Hunger Games

****WARNING: Contains spoilers for the Hunger Games series. *****

As it turns out, taking a nap from 7-9pm is a terrible idea. I came to this realization at around 4:30am, after staring at the ceiling above my bed for five hours and willing myself into unconsciousness. That having failed, I settled for the next best thing other than slowing my brain’s inevitable slide into a grayish stew: reading. And that is the story on how I finished the Hunger Games trilogy.

I have to say, I profess myself disappointed. If you were to graph my enjoyment of the three books, it would look something like a skier going over a cliff. Still, in the grand scheme of things I found the series engaging and entertaining.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Why Must the Haters Hate?

While watching Titanic 3D, I couldn’t stop smiling. That probably sounds weird, considering the movie is about a real-life disaster that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, but there was something so awe-inspiring, almost transcendent, about seeing it on the big screen. Like floating in a waking dream. When you watch a good movie, whether for the first time or the fiftieth, there’s usually a moment in which you decide to surrender yourself, when you become so engrossed in its story and characters that everything around you melts and nothing exists except you and the images flickering on the screen in front of you. For me, in Titanic, that moment came about half an hour into the movie, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson climbs onto the railing and hollers at the top of his lungs, “I’m the king of the world!”, his arms raised in triumph. It was a moment of such pure, unrestrained joy that I wanted to whoop and cheer along with him, but because I was sitting in the middle of a theater in Northern Virginia, all I could do was beam deliriously and try not to squeal like a pre-teen girl at a screening of The Hunger Games. This is what movies are made for.

To be clear, this was far from the first time I’d seen Titanic. I own the DVD, and I often catch snippets of it on TV, but I was about kindergarten-age when it was originally released in 1997, so this was my first chance to see it on the big screen. And holy shit, is it worth the price of admission. Admittedly, the 3D is unremarkable (in fact, if it wasn’t for the cheap plastic glasses perched on top of my nose, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed it), but the film is so grand and absorbing on its own that you don’t need an extra dimension to be completely immersed in it. For the first time, I could fully appreciate the richness of the visuals – the elegant costumes, the intricate set design, the CGI that looks stunning even when it seems a tad dated (not to mention the vividness of Billy Zane’s eyeliner). Regardless of what you think about the movie as a whole, you have to admit that it looks pretty fucking amazing.

Yet, even as I lost myself in the surreal magic of James Cameron’s epic disaster tale-meets-romance, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that for every person like me who falls in love with Titanic, there are dozens who regard the movie as nothing more than maudlin, histrionic trash. I’m supposed to find the script cringe-worthy, the romance excruciatingly clichéd, the protagonists obnoxious, the emotion artificial and manipulative. Even many of the movie’s fans describe their affection for it as “corny”. In other words, no one is supposed to like Titanic as anything besides a guilty pleasure because God forbid anyone actually thinks it has real merit or depth. But there’s nothing corny about my love for Titanic. To me, it’s a genuine masterpiece of old-fashioned spectacle and no-guts-no-glory ambition.

That’s not to say it’s beyond reproach. Some of the lines sound cheesy and ham-fisted; the present-day exposition is too long and not as engaging as the main story; there is a plethora of plot holes (though I’d still argue that if you were trying to survive in ice-cold water at two o’clock in the morning, you wouldn’t exactly be thinking clearly either); and the portrayals of upper-class snobbery occasionally cross the line between satire and caricature. I’m not so protective of the movie that I won’t acknowledge its flaws or make fun of them when appropriate. And I’m not opposed to criticism as long as it’s reasonable; it’s your opinion, it’s not the end of the world, haters gonna hate, etcetera, etcetera. Where I draw the line, however, is when people go out of their way to disparage a movie and its fans by using such meaningful phrases as “It sucked”, “It was crap” and “HATED [such-and-such movie] and couldn't wait for [so-and-so] to die so I could get out of the theater.  My friend and I were giggling and saying 'just die already' for what seemed like an hour”. It’s one thing to dislike something, but it’s another to act like your opinion is a definitive fact and somehow makes you superior to everyone else.

The fact is that the animosity directed at Titanic frequently extends beyond mere criticism. By now, I’ve accepted the fact that most popular movies – whether in terms of the box office, critical acclaim, awards or a combination of the above – inevitably receive a backlash of some kind, a reactionary movement in which people who found a movie in any way disappointing or flawed feel compelled to proclaim to the world that said movie was “overrated” or that it “didn’t live up to the hype”, as though their personal dissatisfaction is somehow the fault of everyone who did enjoy the film. But few, if any, movies receive a counter-reaction as rancorous as the one that greeted Titanic after its initial release and subsequent rise in popularity; even the Twilight hate is, to some extent, tongue-in-cheek. In a way, Titanic never escaped the contempt that hounded it prior to its premiere, when the media and a sizable portion of the public eagerly anticipated what seemed all but guaranteed to be a failure of Herculean proportions. With a bloated budget of $200 million (making it the most expensive movie ever made at that point), multiple delayed releases, rampant rumors of on-set quarrels, and a running-time of three hours and twelve minutes, it was the personification of Hollywood excess, an exercise in self-indulgence and bombastic sentimentality that reeked of hubris – ironic for a film centered on the infamously “unsinkable” ship that sank on its maiden voyage along with over 1,500 unlucky passengers.

As Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman so eloquently pointed out, the Titanic backlash represents one of the many byproducts of our Internet-savvy, post-9/11 era: it isn’t only popular to hate Titanic, it’s cool. 21st century society is one in which people hide behind anonymous usernames in order to liberally express their opinions without fear of consequences, in which irony is the celebrated as the pinnacle of wit, success and popularity are scorned, and optimism is considered disingenuous and shallow. So it’s no surprise that Titanic, with its sweeping scope, starry-eyed romance and shameless idealism, became an easy target for elitist contempt. It simply doesn’t play into contemporary notions of hipness. In a society obsessed with realism and masculine toughness, James Cameron dared to tell an earnest, impassioned story that took the concept of true love seriously, and skeptics responded by dismissing it as superficial, melodramatic BS that appealed to no one except for hysterical teenage girls in search of wish fulfillment. They couldn’t tolerate the idea that, even in a fictional universe, the concept of love-conquers-all could be anything other than absurd. It was too unapologetically emotional, too quixotic, too… feminine.

For beneath all the gripes about the predictable plotline and “embarrassing” dialogue is an unmistakable layer of misogyny, a sense that if men don’t like something, no one should; that because Titanic is a non-ironic romance that wears its heart on its sleeve, it isn’t complex, edgy or serious enough to deserve its status as a modern classic (I forgot, only depressing movies can be deep). It’s virtually impossible to have a conversation about the movie on the Internet without numerous guys fuming over how they only saw it because their girlfriends or wives dragged them to the theater, flaunting their narrow-mindedness like a badge of honor. Never mind that it’s the 2nd highest grossing movie in the world, a Best Picture winner and an undisputed cultural icon. For many people, Titanic is still a sappy chick flick that men should be embarrassed to like (or watch willingly), successful not because anyone thinks it’s legitimately good but because throngs of hormonal girls and women wanted to swoon over Leonardo DiCaprio – to them, it’s Twilight masquerading as art. Never mind that the dialogue in, say, Star Wars is as clumsy as anything in Titanic, yet you never hear anyone prattle on about how laughably bad that is. Or that men are free to fantasize about Marilyn Monroe or (gag) Megan Fox to their hearts’ content, but when women venture to be open about their celebrity crushes, they’re stupid, immature and delusional. Or the fact that many of the most controversial Best Picture winners, like Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love and Ordinary People, are period pieces, romances or relationship dramas, whereas the movies that they supposedly robbed (Pulp Fiction, Saving Private Ryan and Raging Bull) are dark, R-rated movies about crime, war and men being men. The cynical, male-centric Internet can’t comprehend our female sensibilities, our obsession with “feelings”, so any movie that dares to be sincere about those things is labeled slight and sentimental. 

No wonder this thing we humans call love is so foreign to them – they’re all men.

Then, there’s the hype itself. If Internet commenters are to believe, no one had anything against Titanic at first, but then, it became the highest-grossing movie in the history of the world, swiped a record-tying 11 Oscars and generally monopolized media and public attention for months on end. Naturally, those not completely infatuated with it responded by retroactively deciding that they couldn’t stand the movie and insisting that the hysteria was massively, outrageously overblown. It may have been a perfectly okay film, but it wasn’t anything special and certainly didn’t deserve this level of adoration. And to a certain degree, I get it: it’s hard not to feel resentful or alienated when you can’t go a day without hearing other people rave about how amazing such-and-such movie/TV show/book/etc. is. But at the same time, I’m always baffled by people who boast about how X is so overrated and how they don’t see what all the fuss is about, as though their contrarian opinion is somehow proof of their superior, more refined taste. There’s nothing wrong with disliking something, but why do people take so much pleasure in being negative? Relentless cynicism isn’t clever or subversive; it makes you sound like a pretentious asshole. I guess I just like liking things – except for Glee. Always hate Glee.

I like you Darren Criss, but this picture?
Kinda like the show as a whole: flashy, bizarre and the slightest bit douchey.

The worst part is that in the midst of all the mockery and hostility, few people seem to appreciate just how masterfully constructed Titanic really is. On paper, the central romance is somewhat conventional and far-fetched, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet share such natural, intoxicating chemistry that their characters’ relationship is never less than believable, even though they only know each other for a couple days. But Titanic is more than a simple story about star-crossed lovers. It’s also an exploration of early 20th century class relations and a coming-of-age tale about a sophisticated yet fiercely independent woman who discovers her own inner strength and learns to survive in a callous, unjust world. And most notably, it’s an allegory about hubris and what happens when the illusion of control that humans so cherish is shattered. What makes the movie so devastating and memorable is not the romance at its center, as poignant as that is, but the morality tale intertwined with it, the horror of watching thousands of people descend into anarchy as they gradually begin to recognize the fragility of their existence. The Titanic isn’t just a ship; it’s also a symbol of power and civilization, and the events that unfold after it strikes the iceberg feel utterly authentic in their depiction of panic, selfishness, despair, savagery, perseverance and courage in the face of near-certain death. It’s a vision of destruction, lost innocence and unexpected grace that’s bizarrely, almost disturbingly resonant in our post-September 11 world. It seems to say, we are all kings of the world. Until we aren’t.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

For the Love of a Game

         Here’s a tidbit about me that some of you might find quite surprising: I love baseball. I’m not going to pretend that I’m a huge fanatic – I don’t follow any teams besides the ones I actually root for (Go Nats and Rangers!) or spend my free time pouring over obscure stats for random players whose names not even the team’s fans remember, and I admittedly know about as much history as a six-year-old – but I’d also be lying if I said that watching and talking about baseball doesn’t take up a significant amount of my time, at least between the months of April and October.

           Normally, I have to be content with ranting and raving about games with my dad, who is probably the main reason for my current enjoyment of the sport, because the majority of my friends find baseball as interesting as an accounting class, which is to say they’d probably sooner be dead than listen to me gush about how amazing it was when Henry Rodriguez struck out the side in the seventh inning of last night’s game. And I understand that; everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and even if I wanted to, I can’t force people to enjoy something that simply doesn’t interest them (though, seriously, how awesome is this? The correct answer is, very awesome). But that’s the great thing about Internet blogs – you can prattle on about whatever you want, and it doesn’t matter if anyone listens. So, because the upcoming baseball season is starting today and I feel like it, allow me to take this chance to talk about why I love this game and why it’s much more than just a game.
Or, if you don’t want to read my ramblings,
just watch this movie.

            At one point during Moneyball, Brad Pitt’s character, Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, wistfully asks, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” The truth is, at least for fans, it’s impossible not to be. It may not be as popular as football, but arguably more than any other sport, baseball lends itself to flights of fancy, as deeply ingrained in our collective imagination as fireworks on the Fourth of July or spur-of-the-moment cross-country road trips; after all, it is America’s national pastime. For children, it’s a rite of passage, and for adults, it’s a comforting whiff of nostalgia, an opportunity to revisit those blissful, long-lost days of youth. When people go to a baseball game, they’re not going just to see the game. They’re going for the grease-laden hotdogs, the overpriced drinks, the trademark memorabilia, the ceremonial singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the scent of grass, dirt and sweat that clings to the air, the memories of lazy summer nights that never seem to end and carefree weekends spent frolicking outdoors with friends and bonding with family over sizzling barbeque. When you step through that turnstile, you leave the outside world behind and lose yourself in a fantasyland buzzing with chatter and giddy anticipation. For those few hours, nothing exists besides the here and now – it’s just you, the players on the field and the crowd cheering in the stadium seats.

         Of course, baseball isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. As I’m sure any fan will tell you, it’s a roller-coaster ride of emotions, full of joy, exhilaration, suspense, frustration, bitterness and anguish. One second, you can be jumping up and down in euphoria, and the next, you’re fighting back the urge to fling your television set out the window. One part of you knows that it’s just a game, that individual wins and losses don’t matter in the grand scheme of things and there are worse tragedies in the world than your team not making the play-offs, but at the same time, in the heat of the moment, when you’re watching the game unfold before your eyes, it’s hard not to let yourself get carried away. Victory feels like a blast of adrenaline, and defeat feels like a 100-mph fastball to the head.

            I won’t lie: being a baseball fan is a disillusioning experience. If you expected life to be fair before, I can guarantee that after a year of following baseball, you won’t anymore. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve started questioning my faith in humanity and the universe after watching the Nationals throw away seemingly insurmountable leads the way most people toss bread crumbs at ducks or discovering that certain players behave in certain ways not because they’re overly aggressive and competitive but because they’re just dicks. The fact is, most of the time, things don’t go the way you hope they will. Even the best teams lose on occasion. Players get traded, bought and discarded like furniture. Umpires make shitty calls, and fans can be petty, belligerent assholes. Rookies don’t always fulfill their promise; in fact, more often than not, they end up floundering once they reach the majors, and even if they do turn out to be everything you’d expected, their careers can end in the blink of an eye due to injury or some other twist of fate. I know that by now, especially as a Nats fan, I should have accepted all this, and I suppose this is another reason why I don’t count myself as a real baseball fanatic. Seasoned devotees learn to keep things in perspective, to stop treating each game as a matter of life and death and to appreciate the little things instead of staking everything on whether their team wins. In the end, one person’s triumph is another’s suffering – ask Cardinals and Rangers fans about Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, and you’re liable to get radically different reactions (i.e. one will enthuse about how it was one of the most exciting games in recent history, and the other will glare at you as if you killed his or her pet dog).

We were thisfuckingclose, goddamn it.

           And yet, somehow, every second is still worth it. Baseball is like a long-term relationship: despite all the anger, disappointment and heartache, you can’t bear to let it go. There’s something exhilarating about the sight of a ball soaring through the night sky, the sharp crack of a bat, the sensation of standing and cheering along with hundreds of people whom you’ve never met yet with whom you were connected, if only for that one extended moment. At the back of your mind, there’s always the threat of failure, the possibility that everything could come crashing down, but right now, you’re suspended in the present, your stomach knotted with tension. That’s the thing about baseball. Unlike most other sports, there’s no clock, so up until the last out, anything is possible.  

            And then, there are the times, rare but not unheard of, when everything goes exactly right. Imagine this scenario: the Washington Nationals are playing the Philadelphia Phillies, a rival team that has dominated the Nats so thoroughly in the past that its fans have dubbed the Nationals’ stadium “Citizens Bank Park South”. Predictably, even though the Nationals are the home team, it sounds as though the majority of the audience consists of Phillies fans. The game is tied at 4-4. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning, bases loaded, two outs, and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman steps up to the plate. Several pitches go by, and Zimmerman works it up to a full count: three balls, two strikes. Deep down, everyone in the stadium senses what’s going to happen next; it seems all but inevitable. The pitcher goes into his wind-up, releases the ball, Zimmerman swings – and crushes the ball. I still remember the thrill of pure, delirious ecstasy that rushed through me as I watched that ball land in the seats on the far side of the field, lost amid a sea of fans, their arms raised in celebration. Just one minute of raw, hysterical, indescribable joy and disbelief. It is moments like that (and this) that make me proud to be a baseball fan.  

Picture Reference:

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A New Beginning

CE Jenkins

        As one of the recent updates to the look and feel of the blog, all posts from now on will be written in Comic Sans. Enjoy!

         March has now retired, zipping into the distance like a greased baby on a slip ‘n slide. But even as we mourn March’s passing (not really, I’m sick of stepping outside dressed for polar conditions and being hit with a beam of 80 degree sunlight) we must also look the future; and all of the tasty, tasty release dates which await us there.

·         13 days until Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods.
·         34 days until Avengers (KLASJ;KLJGA;LDS)
·         41 days until school is over.
·         41 days until the Fringe season finale.
·         51 days until Snow White and the Huntsman.
·         61 days until Prometheus.
·         111 days until the Dark Knight Rises.
·         257 days until the Hobbit.
·         274 days until the end of the world.

I shall sit here consumed with lust for the remainder of the evening(s).