Sunday, April 17, 2011

Recent Reading

I'm reading two boring novels.

The first is They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy. You've never heard of it for the same reason there are two baffling accent marks in the author's name – it's Hungarian. Hungarian is a strange tongue in the Finnish-Estonian language group, which is not related to romance languages or Germanic languages. If you hear white people speaking and you have no idea what language it is, they might be Hungarians.

The story is set in Transylvania in 1905. It shows life in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. There are lots of counts, balls, servants; many vapid people, and a few deep people.

First I must give my opinion that the title is one of the worst ever for a novel. War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice, The Man Who Laughed – these are splendid titles that promise both drama and food for thought. But They Were Counted? What's that about, math class?

Worse, the book is the first of a trilogy that has two names, The Writing On the Wall and The Transylvanian Trilogy. Since Bram Stoker's Dracula, Transylvania has come to mean the silliness of Halloween. It's a section of Central Europe that Americans cannot take seriously. The other two books are called They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided. The titles seem to promise a story about a people who get screwed by history. It all sounds deterministic, but we'll see.

I'm reading this as part of research for a novel I'm planning set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I just finished page 87. Here is what happened in the plot in 87 pages: The hero, Balint Abády, is in love with a young married woman. He tries to kiss her on page 87, she gets angry, and he thinks he has lost her forever. The rest of it is filled with a ball in which a vast array of characters, from the nobility to barefoot servants, are introduced.

I'm holding out hope that the novel will get more interesting. Sometimes old-fashioned novels start out boring but pick up once the plot gets going.

The second novel I am reading is Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. We're told this novel is brilliant, one of the greatest ever. Both V.S. Pritchett and Somerset Maugham loved it. Pritchett called it the ancestor of all British novels. If he's right, that might explain why I prefer French and Russian novels; it's in the genetics.

I've read about 200 pages. This novel was written before people knew how to write novels. The dictum "show, don't tell" was unknown. Fielding writes his story as if he were telling an after-dinner anecdote to his friends. He'll digress for a chapter on some matter that has nothing to do with the story, then sum up in a paragraph what should have been dramatized at length. It's all done in windy 18th-century prose, replete with semi-colons, parenthetic phrases, dollops of latin and assurances to the good reader. Few of these sentences could fit into a Tweet; some might find this a blessed relief from modern manners.

I can't read more than a chapter a day, and I'm having a hard time forcing myself to read even that much. I'll let you know in a future post if it gets better.


Inspector said...

Interesting... Your description in many ways reminds me of my own perception of most movies that were made before colorization.

(Not that the color has anything to do with it, but it's a good enough marker for that time period.)

I often hear (older) people talk about how movies from that era are so much better than most anything since, but I find them nearly unwatchable.

It's the pacing, among other things.

Say what you will about modern films overdoing "fast-cuts" and other such techniques, but older films have a way of just... lingering on nothing in particular. Or at least, needlessly.

One thing you'll almost never notice in a movie made in the last few decades is a deafening silence. The soundtrack will always have a proper presence. Older films were riddled with times where nobody is saying anything, and the soundtrack is still... Not because there's a tense moment, but just because nobody bothered. They just kind of left the camera running.

I joked once, (or perhaps MST3 did; I can't recall) that there was an era where movies didn't feel the need to be doing something. They were content sometimes to simply... be. This was not a compliment.

Your Hungarian novel sounds like it suffers from the literary equivalent. (and then some)

Art has been steadily imploding in many ways, but I suppose that even during that implosion there have still been advancements.

Inspector said...

(that should read "MST3K")

Myrhaf said...

I know a young person who thinks filmmaking was not perfected until the 1980's. Everything before that is inferior.

I disagree vehemently. Technical standards have improved hugely -- the digital age now makes it possible for us to do on film what Jack Kirby did on paper in the 1960's -- but story telling has declined.

I like movies from the '20s and '30s more than later ones, even though the technical standards are crude. They engage my mind in ways modern movies rarely do. I especially love German movies: The Blue Angel, M, The Last Laugh, Fritz Lang's silents, Ernst Lubitsch's silents.

The constant barrage of sound and fury in modern movies alienates me. It's just mindless spectacle. I go into movies more in this post:

Inspector said...

I'll definitely grant that a lot of modern stuff suffers in content, for all the (to my mind, improved) increases in pacing. It doesn't have to be this way, though. It's not like any pace beyond the, at best, "leisurely" one of old necessarily removes intelligence, although I've heard people complain that this is what happened.


I'm rather curious about the divergent it seems that we percieve these movies. If it isn't simply a growth in cinematic technique, but rather a "generation gap," it becomes a point of curiosity to me.

Does the pace itself alienate you, or is it because of the lack of deep thought, comprehensible characters, and/or coherent plots? Do you have any examples of movies where sound and fury got on your nerves?

I'll try to see if I can remember any old movies where I was driven up the wall by the lack. I know my wife refuses to watch the original Star Trek because of this issue. (oddly enough, she will watch The Twilight Zone even though it is almost as rife with it)

Inspector said...

Dr. Strangelove works, as an example of a movie that gets on my nerves with its pacing. Don't get me wrong, it's a hilarious movie; one of my favorites. But there are many scenes where it just seems to be taking its sweet time to detail scenes that aren't essential to anything. Mostly scenes where a character performs a task. They'll be too long - unnecessarily long, detailing something unimportant - or at least not worthy of showing every last bit of, and usually without soundtrack or dialogue. And not because it highlights a point of any particular kind.

I actually find this naturalistic - as in the director doesn't have any sense for what's essential or isn't interested in economy of scenes. He's just showing you literally as a character mixes a drink or drives or something else. Like they haven't yet figured out that pace is a part of the experience, and that the audience can become more or less engaged based on that pace.

I hope I'm making sense here.

Myrhaf said...

Dr. Strangelove does go on too long. Every Kubrick movie does. 2001: A Space Odyssey bored me to tears. It's probably a combination of naturalism and a director no one could control, who did long scenes just to impress the intellectuals.

What modern movies offend me with their sound and fury? Almost any blockbuster movie. Some are worse than others. I tune out when absurdity piles on absurdity; my mind stops functioning, and I just sit there like a vegetable letting the sensations wash over me. Those movies mean less to me than the popcorn I eat while watching them. Movies like Transformers. Comic book shit. I found the science in the Core laughable, but that's a different issue.

Inspector said...

Yeah, that was Kubrick, I hadn't remembered that.

Transformers is the sound and fury thing, as Spinal Tap said, up to 11. I remember watching it and thinking, wow, this is just action after action. Everyone's just reacting to things happening. I still enjoyed it though, is what struck me as odd.

The Bourne series is similar in that regard, but I enjoyed them quite a lot nevertheless.

Still, those have to be at the extreme end of the spectrum (although a Kubrick film is, too! hehe). I'd comment on the ones you've mentioned, but I haven't seen them.

Let's tone it down a tad and gage your reaction. The Empire Strikes Back was basically one long chase scene... did it bother you in regards to pacing?

Myrhaf said...

I loved Empire Strikes Back. It is easily the apex of the series. I think having Leigh Brackett, whose SF writing goes back to the 30's, on the screenplay helped a lot. The sword fight between Darth and Luke was so much more interesting than fights usually are because there was something human at stake, and an awesome plot twist in one of the most famous movie lines ever.

The third movie went downhill with those singing teddy bears at the end, which Lucas put in because toy sales were bringing in more money than ticket sales.

The second trilogy is inferior. It has meaningless action. Like that spaceship battle high in some planet's atmosphere at the beginning of one movie. I had no clue what was going on and so I didn't care.

What about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? Is that too slow for you? It might have a few boring moments, but I like the faceoff at the end.

Check out Fritz Lang's M. The first five minutes are a master class in how to use image and sound. The suspense throughout is gripping. Peter Lorre is over the top as a psycho killer, but it works. The climactic scene blows me away. The guy who played the mob boss is brilliant. Unfortunately, he became a Nazi and made propaganda movies for Hitler.

Inspector said...

Yeah, definitely have to agree that Empire was the best. And with everything else you said. Hated the Ewoks; thought a lot of things in the second trilogy were just stapled on without near the same level of polish. Of course, everyone else I know also agrees with us on all of the above. So there's some taste left out there.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly could almost be a counter-example to my theory: it's a movie with what on the surface looks to have the pacing I describe of earlier films, but it's one of my favorite movies of all time. And the pace doesn't bother me in the least with it. But perhaps it isn't a counter-example because I never get the sense that any long scene is longer than it needs to be. There is a *purpose* involved. Always, *something* is being shown or demonstrated, I think. I could be wrong.

Then again, I could just have no problem with it because Ennio Freakin' Morricone is playing. You could have the letters "intermission" across the screen for twenty minutes but if Morricone wrote a score for it, I'd be on the edge of my seat.

But, really, I'm talking about earlier films than that. Black and White, for sure. I really need to get some more examples. It's hard, though, since if a film really has the quality I describe, there's a chance I didn't finish it. Or at least didn't watch it more than once. I want to say, "the first three quarters of Bullitt," and "Lawrence of Arabia," but my memory's foggy on the first and the second, I'm not sure that I gave a fair chance to it. Plus neither are black and white, so I know I'm not going far back enough.

I seem to recall that some of The Pink Panther movies (again, favorites of mine) have parts with this issue, but I get those confused as to which was which. And, again, not going far back enough.

I'll try to get some more examples, if not of actual films overburdened with this issue, at least examples of movies that *contain* it. So you can at least get an idea of what I mean.


I had a mental note somewhere to watch something by Lang. I'll upgrade that to a physical note, based on what you said. (I have an actual notepad for this... takes me years to get to things sometimes, but I get to them.)

Inspector said...

At the risk of being too vague, I'll say on the Pink Panther movie - forget which one, I remember some long scene where someone drove up to and checked into a hotel. (I may be confused on the details, there, but bear with me) What struck me about it was that this was a comedy, but quite a while was spent on this scene where nothing even remotely funny was happening. And there wasn't anything about the plot being established, or shown about the characters. It was just a long scene containing nothing of consequence. Maybe something about the scenery was supposed to be impressing me? Even if that were the case, it was several minutes on end.

I guess what I mean is, say what you will about the vices of modern movies, but you sure won't find a problem like that. Whereas with older films, even the really good ones had a lot of problems of that nature.

(I was going somewhere with this, but I need to sleep right now.)

Myrhaf said...

The Pink Panther scene you describe sounds vaguely familiar, and I probably thought it was strange when I first watched it back in the '60s.

Lawrence of Arabia used to be my favorite movie when I was a child. About 10 years ago I tried to watch it again and I was bored to death. David Lean went for the epic shots of desert in the setting sun, that kind of thing.

So you might have a point that there are longuers in old movies. It might be that with the internet the pace of life has picked up. But it is also true that modern blockbusters are mostly idiotic, and movies are worse for the death of the A pic.

Inspector said...

Absolutely! For example, I remember watching Independence Day for a second time.

Yeeeeesh. It was *bad.* And the full extent of it hit me all at once about halfway through. I could never watch it again. Even now, years later, I'm still angry at how dumb that movie was.

But, every so often, we do sometimes get ones like The Matrix, which was cerebral and action packed. (even if its philosophy did demand it fall flat in the end, it was a hell of a ride) And Pixar's stuff is great.

Overall, I have to say that considering the state of the culture, cinema could be a LOT worse.

Anyway, good talk.