…and while I enjoyed reading it, I can’t really say I was able to take its philosophy all that seriously.
This book is the first nonfiction piece from underground horror icon Thomas Ligotti, published by Viking Press in 2010. This book is meant to highlight the philosophy that lies behind Ligotti’s fiction, and boy, is it ever bleak. I think the man himself summarizes this book’s thesis best in the “Blundering” section of the first essay:
Consciousness is an existential liability, as every pessimist agrees- a blunder of blind nature, according to [Peter Wessel] Zapffe, that has taken humankind down a black hole of logic. To make it through this life, we must make believe that we are not who we are- contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox. To correct this blunder, we should desist from procreating. What could be more judicious or more urgent, essentially speaking, than our self-administered oblivion?
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
The titular “conspiracy” Ligotti is talking about is perpetrated by those who believe that “being alive is all right” and that human consciousness is not inherently “MALIGNANTLY USELESS.” Since we are the only beings in this universe (that we know of) that have consciousness, it is only fair to assume that our consciousness was a mistake and that the best way to correct this is to essentially self-terminate. Sure, anyone who wants to can have children, but only as long as the human population keeps on a downward trend.
Seems simple enough, right? Well, apparently not, because Ligotti seems to feel the need to repeat these messages over and over again throughout the book. While the repetition didn’t annoy me as much as it did some other reviewers I read on Amazon and Goodreads, I admit it was kind of off-putting.
As for the actual philosophy, I’m not sure if I’m all that qualified to critique it, as I’m no expert on the subject. I can only offer my own reactions to Ligotti’s philosophy based on my own personal outlook on life- and boy, do they clash!
For example, Ligotti’s claim that consciousness is a uniquely human trait is not actually supported by science. Granted, animals can’t communicate with words, so we can’t be certain of this. However, several animals can recognize themselves in mirrors, including elephants, bottlenose dolphins, magpies, chimpanzees, and possibly even cleaner wrasses.
Ligotti claims that all animals except us are only responsive to the four F’s; fleeing, fighting, feeding, and… mating. Yet elephants have been observed mourning their dead and have been observed to hold grudges. African gray parrots have shown the ability to learn as many as 950 different human words and use them creatively. None of this is to say that any of these animals are capable of contemplating their place in the universe like we are, but it does puncture several holes in Ligotti’s “consciousness as a fluke” narrative.
Also hurting this book is just the sheer overwhelming nature of Ligotti’s cynicism. Yes, I know that Ligotti suffers from anhedonia, which means he literally can’t experience pleasure, but that doesn’t mean his depressive state automatically makes his opinions more mature and realistic; it just makes him look like he’s got a giant stick up his ass.
Maybe I’m biased as well because I consider myself a believer in the afterlife. However, I also tend to believe, as a libertarian socialist, that the reason life seems like an endless train of misery is not because of some inherent flaw in human nature. It’s because capitalism puts the most selfish and irresponsible dregs of humanity in charge of the rest of us and makes life suck for most decent human beings on this planet. Needless to say, I can’t entirely agree with Ligotti’s assessment that “both the inhumane and humane movements of our species are without relevance. None of us are at the helm of either of these movements. We believe ourselves to be the masters of our own behavior- that is the blunder.”
Although apparently, even Thomas Ligotti seems to disagree with this statement. In a 2011 interview with the blog “The Damned Interviews,” he claims to support socialism because he thinks that would be the best way to ensure everyone’s comfort as they wait to die in his anti-natalist utopia. Granted, he clarifies that he thinks too many people in this world are “unadulterated savages” andwill never let go of capitalism. But he does seem to hint that he thinks a socialist society is at least possible, which really doesn’t seem to gel with the hard determinist perspective he takes in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
In the end, I think this book is valuable as a way of understanding the kind of mind that could create the Lovecraftian horror stories that Ligotti is so well known for. Pretty much every other review I read online also praised the book’s final essay, which is Ligotti giving a mini-history of horror literature through his own unique perspective. However, his philosophy definitely leaves something to be desired. His arguments that human life is so inherently meaningless that it is not even worth preserving are far too melodramatic to be taken seriously. Indeed, the whole time I was reading this book, I kept being reminded of this speech by online film reviewer Kyle Kallgren, who reviewed the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia as part of his Brows Held High series (specifically calling out Von Trier for romanticizing depression):
Depression is a disease, make no mistake. Von Trier can romanticize it all he wants, but depression is a stasis; it’s a dead end. Succumbing to it is to surrender to death. And he can go on and on about how hollow our culture is and how shallow life is, but what of it? I’m alive. And I can experience the new and share it. Here, now, I’m alive. And what happier thing can be said? And we should all keep creating and sharing. Because, in the words of a better filmmaker [Orson Welles in “F for Fake”]: “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Keep on singing.”
Kyle Kallgren, Brows Held High: Melancholia
Ligotti may be comfortable with surrendering to death, but I’m definitely on Kyle’s side here. And I’m giving this book a 5/10 (it’s closer to a six than a four). Also, check out my list of my top ten favorite short stories written by Thomas Ligotti, which is coming out very, very soon. Thank you! Bu-bye!
…and I can safely say that it deserves it’s status as a modern American classic.
Released on December 4, 1981, by Paramount Pictures, Reds was released to widespread critical acclaim in the United States, which is rather surprising considering its subject matter. The film stars Warren Beatty (who also directed, produced, and wrote the film) as John Reed, a journalist who is famous for his socialist beliefs and for writing Ten Days That Shook the World, which chronicles his first-hand experience of the October Revolution of 1917 that turned Russia into a Communist state. The fact that the film features an honest portrait of leftist politics and still managed to win three Academy Awards (out of twelve nominations!) in the same year that the notoriously anti-communist Ronald Reagan was elected president almost boggles the mind. Although even he was a fan of the film, so… maybe there is something here for everybody.
The film is divided into two acts and covers the last four or five years of Reed’s life. The first act covers his meeting with Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton) in Portland, their time spent in New York City’s Greenwich Village with many other leftists and bohemians of the day, Bryant’s affair with Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson), Reed’s growing frustration with America’s anti-communist practices as it enters World War I, and his and Bryant’s traveling to Russia and witnessing the Bolshevik revolt firsthand.
The second act shows Reed as his life falls apart in the wake of Ten Days… publishing. He tries and fails to introduce the spirit of revolution to the United States, causes the Communist Party to split in two, is deported to Russia with the increasingly authoritarian Bolshevik leaders stripping more and more freedom away from the people they swore they would lift up, and finally dies of typhus in a Russian hospital aged only thirty-two as Bryant tries and fails to nurse him back to health.
One of the most unique features of this film is the use of “witnesses.” That is, talking head-style interviews with people who actually experienced the events dramatized in the film. Some of these individuals include radical pacifist Scott Nearing, author Dorothy Frooks, muckraker George Seldes, ACLU co-founder Roger Nash Baldwin, and Tropic of Cancer/Tropic of Capricorn author Henry Miller. These interviews, which Beatty began recording about a decade before the film was released, really helped give the film a unique character, as the “witnesses” provide a true connection with the actual events that a lot of other historical films lack.
Of course, everything surrounding them is great as well. All of the actors were excellent. Beatty, Keaton, and Nicholson all received Oscar nods. The only actor who actually won, though, was Maureen Stapleton, who, despite her rather limited screen time, shines as the great anarchist activist Emma Goldman. Indeed, probably my favorite part of the film was her argument with Reed over the Bolshevik government’s legitimacy. She argues that the Bolsheviks have destroyed any chance of a real socialist government by centralizing power in the hands of a few and murdering anyone who protests. Reed argues that centralization is necessary because Russia’s infrastructure is not modernized enough, and its peasant population too uneducated to run things for themselves. Given my own anarchist leanings, that fact that there were areas of the Soviet Union that were successfully run on anarchist principles for a short time (like the Free Territory of Machnovia in Ukraine), and how the Soviet Union would eventually turn out, I’m gonna have to side with Goldman on this one.
The script also does a great job of portraying not just Reed’s life, with his strengths as well as his faults, but also gives us an amazing portrait of life in the WWI era. The costumes and set design really made Beatty, Keaton, and company really feel as if they had literally stepped into the late 1910s. And despite the three hour and fifteen-minute runtime, the film really didn’t feel unnecessarily padded in any way. I did tend to tune out a little bit during some of the more talky scenes, but that’s probably more because of my autistic brain needing visual stimulation than any fault on the film’s part.
Overall, I can definitely see why this film is so highly rated even in a country as notoriously hostile to leftist politics as my own. I feel its sympathetic portrayal of America’s communist underground is especially needed today as the faults of the capitalist system America was built on continues to be laid bare. Which makes it somewhat ironic that I watched it on Amazon Prime, which is owned by a guy who is practically Lex Luthor in all but name. But yeah, especially if you are a leftist or interested in leftist politics, then, by all means, check this film out. If you hate leftists with the same burning passion that I hate the Trump administration, then still check this film out. And I’m giving this one a 9/10.
On this edition of P.J.’s Ultimate Playlists, I want to pay tribute to one of rock and roll’s most recent fallen heroes. On January 7th of this year, Neil Peart, drummer for the illustrious prog-rock power trio Rush, died at 67 after a three and a half year battle with glioblastoma. True, that isn’t nearly the worst thing that has happened this year…
…but for someone who considers these guys some of the best musicians of all time, it definitely wasn’t easy news to hear. Still, I think the band ended their tenure in the best way they possibly could have. Their final album, 2012’s Clockwork Angels, was one hell of a swansong, in my opinion, and while I haven’t seen any footage from their final tour, R40, from what I’ve heard, it was a fitting celebration of the band’s history.
Still, Peart tends to get criticism for the writing quality of his lyrics and his affinity for Ayn Rand in his younger days. As an anarcho-communist, I definitely get the Rand criticism, but Neil had grown out of that phase by the late ’80s if his lyrics are anything to go by. In fact, not only has the band long since removed the shout-out they gave to Rand in the liner notes of 2112, but Peart also stated that “it is impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and be a Republican” in a 2012 interview with Maclean’s magazine.
As for the “bad lyricist” criticism, I realize this is a pretty subjective opinion, but I’d have to strongly disagree there. Kevin Smith, in his Tweet memorializing Peart, called him a “brilliant lyricist” and pointed to this passage from “The Spirit of Radio,” the opening song from 1980’s Permanent Waves:
All this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted;
Not so coldly charted, it's really just a question of your honesty.
Yeah, your honesty.
However, here I want to focus on the song that closes out the album, a tale of science, nature, and humanity’s unending struggle to preserve their natural surroundings in an era of relentless industrialization. So join me as we deconstruct the meaning behind “Natural Science.”
The song, running just shy of 9 1/2 minutes, is divided into three movements.
The first movement, “Tide Pools,” features Geddy Lee softly singing the opening lyrics over the sound of waves splashing over a rocky shoreline and Alex Lifeson’s soothing acoustic guitar. The lyrics introduce a theme that runs throughout the song, comparing our society on Earth with a tidal pool just beyond the reach of an ocean representing the universe’s vastness.
In the lyrics, Neil outright states that he is merely using the tidal pool as “a simple kind mirror to reflect upon our own.” That is, a metaphor to communicate his opinion on humanity’s place in the universe. He describes “the busy little creatures chasing out their destinies. Living in their pools, they soon forget about the sea…”
After a short instrumental break, in which the music transitions from a lonely acoustic piece to the full-throated progressive hard rock the band is famous for, we get something of a semi-chorus with this passage:
Wheels within wheels in a spiral array,
A pattern so grand and complex.
Day after day we lose sight of the way;
Our causes can't see their effects!
The song then transitions into the second movement, “Hyperspace,” which begins with a short passage full of spacey sound effects before exploding into a fast-paced hard rock section in 7/8 time that makes up the bulk of the song. The music’s chaotic nature reflects the lyrical theme of the chaos resulting from humanity’s attempts to alter the natural world in ways it wasn’t meant to be.
Peart describes the inhabitants of this “mechanized world out of hand” as “superior cynics who dance to a synthetic band.” This most likely refers to the corporate overlords of the modern age. Their hubris is lambasted in the following lyrics: “In their own image, the world is fashioned. No wonder they don’t understand!”
The “wheels within wheels” verse is repeated, and the song transitions into the final movement, “Permanent Waves.” A much more relaxed rhythm starts in common (4/4) time and then switches between 6/8 and 12/8. It offers a much more optimistic lyrical picture than the previous movement.
Science, like nature, must also be tamed
With a view toward its preservation.
Given the same stage of integrity,
It will surely serve us well.
Peart seems to say that science must be pursued with a purpose other than transient short term gains, like, say, in profits.
Alongside science, Peart lists “art as expression, not as market campaigns” as a similarly vital force in preserving society. He also assures us that:
The most endangered species, the honest man,
Will survive annihilation,
Forming a world, state of integrity,
Sensitive, open, and strong!
Finally, the song ends as it began, with the tidal pool swallowed as the sea slowly rises.
Wave after wave will flow with the tide
And bury the world as it does;
Tide after tide will flow and recede,
Leaving life to go as it was.
Thus, the snake eats its tail, and the cycle begins anew.
This song certainly gives us a lot to chew on in terms of philosophical ponderings.
While I’m not sure if this was intentional, the lyrics seem to have distinctly Nietzschean overtones. This isn’t the first time Rush has dealt with Nietzsche; many have noted the apparent influence of his 1872 work The Birth of Tragedy on the 18 minute opus “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres,” from their previous album Hemispheres. “Natural Science,” on the other hand, brings to mind this passage from On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense:
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most mendacious and arrogant moment of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873)
While this may seem to be the epitome of fatalistic cynicism, Nietzsche actually wanted to show people that by recognizing this truth, they would make the most of their life on Earth instead of just waiting to die and go to a possibly nonexistent paradise.
Indeed, that seems to be what Peart intended to communicate with this song. Humanity has the capacity to create a true paradise on Earth if only we can allow ourselves to move beyond the selfish need to control nature and subjugate it for profit. Given my far-left political views, I tend to view this song through an anti-capitalist lens, even if I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Peart’s intention.
I also can’t help but notice some echoes of Daoism in the “wheels within wheels” verse. The third line (“Day after day, we lose sight of the way”) especially since the word Dao literally means “way” in Chinese. In Daoism, the Dao is described as the natural order of the universe. The Dao is not something that can be rationally understood; it can only be grasped intuitively by living the way nature intended. Indeed, founder Lao Tzu, in his seminal work, the Tao Te Ching, warns against the rule of small-minded individuals like the ones portrayed in the second movement of this song, who try to bend the world to their own whims instead of just letting it exist in its natural state. “In their own image, the world is fashioned. No wonder they don’t understand!” Compare this to Chapter 30 of the Tao Te Ching:
If you used the Tao as a principle for ruling
You Would not dominate the people by military force.
What goes around comes around.
Where the general has camped
Thorns and brambles grow.
In the wake of a great army
Come years of famine.
If you know what you are doing
You will do what is necessary and stop there.
Accomplish but don't boast
Accomplish without show
Accomplish without arrogance
Accomplish without grabbing
Accomplish without forcing.
When thing flourish they decline.
This is called non-Tao.
The non-Tao is short-lived.
Should we choose to live in a world where nature has an equal footing with man, Lao Tzu and Peart argue, then life would be all the more joyful. So what do you say we kick all the corrupt politicians and corporate overlords out of their positions of power and make our own paradise in their memory? We have nothing to lose but our chains.
But in all seriousness, I would like to thank Neil Peart for giving us such wonderful music before his untimely passing. I hope I get to see him jamming with John Bonham and Keith Moon when I get to Heaven.
…and I’m not really sure what to make of this one, guys.
(Disclaimer/Content Warning: The following post will contain discussions of sexual assault, incest, and pedophilia. Those who are sensitive to those topics should proceed with caution.)
For those who aren’t aware, The Mists of Avalon was written by Marion Zimmer Bradley and published by Alfred K. Knopf Inc. in January of 1983. It is a retelling of Arthurian legend told from the female characters’ point of view. While Guinevere, Morgause, Igraine, and others get their focus, the story’s main plot follows Morgaine (aka Morgan Le Fey) as she tries to save her Celtic pagan faith from the Christians who want to stamp it out, including King Arthur himself.
While the book was highly praised when it first came out, including from the likes of Isaac Asimov and Jean Auel of Clan of the Cave Bear fame, it has increasingly come under scrutiny in recent years thanks to certain disturbing revelations that came from Bradley’s daughter, Moira Greyland, in 2014.
It turns out that Marion Zimmer Bradley led a double life as an incestuous pedophile who started sexually abusing Moira when she was only three. Not only that but Bradley’s husband, Walter H. Breen, operated an entire pedophilia ring, which he even involved his children in with Bradley’s approval. Bradley had known about Breen’s pederast tendencies even before they married in 1964 and even helped him edit his writings in defense of pederasty.
Thankfully, this madness ended in 1990 when Moira herself (thirteen at the time) reported her father to the police. The charges stuck, and he died in prison three years later. Bradley, who faced no prison time for her crimes, suffered a series of strokes over the following decade and died of a heart attack in 1999.
“But what does any of this have to do with The Mists of Avalon?” you may find yourself asking. A lot, unfortunately. And frankly, I don’t even know where to start with this one!
Perhaps the most appropriate place to start would be how the book handles the Igraine/Gorlois/Uther subplot that kicks off the whole mythos. A little context first: Viviane is the Lady of the Lake, which in this retelling of the myth means she’s the high priestess of Avalon, located in a parallel universe hidden behind the titular mists. As Christianity slowly becomes the dominant religion in the British Isles, Avalon’s pagan faith is being forgotten, and the isle is slowly drifting away from the “real world,” so to speak.
And what is Viviane’s solution to this problem? First, she works with the archdruid Taliesin (who goes by the title the Merlin) to convince (i.e., gaslight) Igraine to ditch Gorlois and, after he dies in battle, get with her “destined true love” Uther Pendragon. Then, shortly after their son Arthur is sent north to protect him from assassins, Viviane takes Morgaine to Avalon.
She spends seven years training Morgaine in Avalon’s ways, and shortly after her initiation, she drugs her and Arthur and forces them to have sex as part of their Beltane ritual!
This is where Arthur’s bastard son Mordred comes into the picture, who in this version is intended to be the real savior of Avalon in case Arthur surrenders to the Christians. And how exactly does Viviane intend to secure Mordred’s claim to the throne?
Yeah, we never really learn exactly why Viviane thinks the common people will accept Mordred as king over Arthur. She seems to believe that the commoners will automatically accept whoever is backed by Avalon… even though the common people turning away from Avalon to the point that it is literally fading away is what kickstarts the plot in the first place! By the time she decides to initiate this plan in Book III Chapter 3 by announcing Mordred’s parentage in front of Arthur’s court, she’s murdered by one of her nephews, so we never find out what her endgame is.
Although honestly, the more I thought about it, it makes perfect sense that the Avalonian religion is being abandoned because Bradley’s description of it makes it sound downright satanic! Rituals like the one where Mordred was conceived appear to be regular occurrences, and the priestesses seem to have no qualms about letting underaged children participate in their Beltane orgies. This makes it rather difficult to take Bradley’s criticisms of Christianity seriously when they aren’t the ones claiming that incest and statutory rape are holy acts. And not only that, but it’s also implied at several points that human sacrifice and even cannibalism are regular features of this religion.
And don’t think I’m criticizing paganism itself here and/or mindlessly defending Christianity. For one thing, I have a lot of problems with organized religion myself (which I may explain in another blog post sometime in the future). Normally, I think paganism is a perfectly reasonable alternative for those who question the Bible but can’t bring themselves to become agnostic or atheist. But Bradley’s version of paganism bears absolutely no resemblance to the ancient Celtic peoples’ Druid faith. It’s more akin to Wicca or any other new-age faith of the 70s and 80s, except with Bradley’s fucked up ideas about sexuality and incest placed front and center.
But what about the feminism, you might be asking. Is this book a least a good feminist tract? And, I admit, I’m just an incredibly sheltered and moderately privileged white guy who has yet to reach the age of thirty. Even with that in mind, though, I’m going to have to venture a guess and say…
Before I explain myself, let me ask you this: What exactly is the point of feminism? Maybe you believe the point is that women deserve to be valued as more than babymakers and housewives. Or maybe you believe that it is that women deserve to be allowed to make their own choices. Perhaps the #MeToo movement makes you emphasize the need to prioritize women’s safety over men’s feelings.
Bradley, however, seems to disagree with all three points.
Avalon’s forcing of Igraine and Morgaine to bear the children they think will save the isle against their will is treated as necessary, and the women’s objections to it are brushed aside or belittled.
When Morgaine chooses to leave Avalon due to her anger at what Viviane did to her at the Beltane ritual, she is treated as wrong because she refuses to “acknowledge” that Viviane was only doing this to save Avalon.
And we only need to be reminded of the underage sex at the Beltane rituals to see how much Avalon prioritizes its female acolytes’ safety.
Indeed, Bradley’s brand of feminism seems to be exactly the kind that conservative antifeminists often stereotype feminism as: a matriarchy that behaves exactly like the patriarchy, only sexist women are the leaders instead of sexist men.
Not to mention, Bradley seems to be operating under what TV Tropes.com calls the “Real Women Don’t Wear Dresses” delusion. This is basically the belief that women can be girly or badass, but never both, which, ironically, seems kind of misogynistic to me. This is probably best demonstrated by her treatment of Guinevere (or Gwenhywfar, as she spells it).
We’re meant to view Guinevere as a whiny, spoiled brat in this retelling, mostly because of her strident Christian beliefs and the way she constantly forces those beliefs onto Arthur, to the point that she drives a major wedge between Arthur and Avalon when she browbeats him into flying a Christian banner she made at his final victory over the Saxons at Badon Hill, rather than the Avalonian dragon banner.
The problem with this is a) to any sane person, Avalon truly is as evil as she claims it is, and b) it’s tough to hate Guinevere when you learn her backstory. Her father, King Leodegrance, was emotionally abusive to her as a child. However, Bradley tries to brush this off by writing her three sisters as a lot more emotionally stable than her, presumably because admitting that Leodegrance was wrong to treat Gwen the way he did would be admitting her own failings as a parent.
The nuns also abused her in the convent her father sent her to, where she was beaten for even touching a harp because “it’s not ladylike to be a musician.” She also suffers a truly horrifying rape at the hands of her possible half-brother, Meleagrant, in Book III Chapter 4, which Bradley blames Gwen for because she didn’t fight back. This despite the fact that her description of Mel makes him sound like Gregor Clegane.
But what really gets me about that rape scene, aside from Bradley’s gratuitously graphic description of it, is the fact that the Avalonians were plotting to do exactly that to Gwen in Chapter 1 of the same book because they’re backward heathens who think that Arthur will simply sell out Guinevere to Meleagrant because his rape would mean he can legally marry her now.
But Bradley’s bass-akwards idea of what feminism looks like isn’t the only problematic theme running through this story. She tends to dip into uncomfortable racial territory when she describes Avalon’s native people, who are described as small and dark-skinned and always obedient servants. This definitely leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially since, as of the time I’m writing this, my country is embroiled in civil unrest over a racist legacy it has yet to face up to.
Of course, one might wonder why Avalon doesn’t do as the Christians do and preach about their faith to England’s common people. Well, that’s where the classism comes in! You see, the common people are too stupid to handle the inner mysteries of their pagan rape cult, so evangelization is pointless. Instead, they decide just to do whatever they think is necessary to preserve their rituals, even if they make no sense. And it doesn’t matter who gets hurt in the process. You can trust their betters to police themselves if they go too far.
In all truth, I didn’t pick up on a lot of this the first time I read the book. However, I suspect that might be because I found it surprisingly difficult to concentrate while reading this book. This might be because Bradley seems laser-focused on removing all excitement from the story. For all her accolades as a feminist icon, Morgaine barely does anything to forward Avalon’s cause except bitch and moan about how nothing is going Avalon’s way until the final book, where she engineers the fall of Camelot. All of the battles and the knight’s quests happen off-screen, as it were, and all fantasy elements (fairies, dragons, even magic itself) are kept to an absolute bare minimum, presumably because Bradley thinks it would take much-needed space away from her rape and incest apologia.
Look, if this book did have a positive impact on you at an impressionable age, that’s great. No one should be able to take that away from you. But to me, in the end, this is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. And I’m giving this one a 1/10.
Special thanks to the fine people (namely ZeldaQueen, Gehayi, and The Idiot Alchemist) over at Das Sporking. There you will find their incredibly detailed (and incredibly caustic) review of The Mists of Avalon. Be forewarned, though. Their review goes one chapter at a time, and each one is incredibly comprehensive, often picking the book apart paragraph by paragraph. Full disclosure, I haven’t even read the entire thing myself, just the parts I felt were most important to this essay.
If you have a few hours to spare, though, maybe go check it out. Or don’t, it doesn’t really matter to me. See you next time!
Welcome to my first ongoing series on this blog! Here on P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist, I will choose a song from any genre that really speaks to me on a personal level and explain (or at least try to) what it is that I love about it. My musical tastes are mainly centered on rock, country, and metal. However, I am willing to give literally any genre a listen at least once, so don’t expect songs from just those three genres. You can expect some Celtic folk tracks, some 60’s soul hits, maybe even a Disney tune here or there. But for now, let’s kick things off with a bittersweet track from one of the premier singer-songwriters of the 1970s folk scene.
“Fire and Rain,” which opens side two of Taylor’s second album Sweet Baby James, was the single that helped him break into the mainstream. It’s certainly not hard to see why it gained such success. It packages Taylor’s own personal struggles in a song that is just ambiguous enough to be relatable to anyone who has had a life as rough as he had at that point.
Even though he was only 21 when the song was released, Taylor had been through a lot by the time he recorded it. His late teen years were marred by a deep depression, which became so bad that he checked himself into the McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. After his friend and fellow guitarist Danny Kortchmar convinced Taylor to check out and follow him to New York City to pursue a music career, Taylor developed a heroin addiction. This, along with a series of poorly planned gigs outside the city, caused the breakup of their band, the Flying Machine.
James entered rehab after recording his self-titled debut album in London. Although recording with members of the Beatles was certainly a high point, the two tragedies that struck him during this period would mar his psyche. First, he broke his hands and feet in a motorcycle accident shortly after a well-received performance at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1969. Then, while he was recovering from that, his friends told him some tragic news that they had kept from him out of fear that it would distract him from his newfound success. His childhood friend, Suzanne Schnerr, had died by suicide while he was in the middle of recording his debut. He didn’t learn about this until six months after the fact.
With all that in mind, it’s easy to see all the references James makes in the song. The first verse is all about Taylor’s reaction to Suzanne’s untimely death, including his anger at an unknown “they” who drove her to her destruction (“Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you”). Taylor has since admitted that he regrets the way he phrased that line, however. While he has stated that the line was meant to be a jab at fate in general, he sees how it could be easily misinterpreted as condemning her parents, whom James admits he never knew that well.
The second verse deals with his struggles against his heroin addiction in rehab. The line “My body’s aching and my time is at hand” in particular feels very evocative of the often punishing withdrawal symptoms that accompany the drug’s use. The verse also has a strong religious overtone (“Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus? You’ve gotta help me make a stand!”), even though, as far as I can tell, James has never been openly religious.
The third verse deals with James’s feelings as he writes the song, looking back on his successes and failures (“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”). He acknowledges that the struggle is not over and that the friends he still has will help him overcome, seeing as how “there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come.” This would prove true when Carole King (who played piano on the song) based her own song “You’ve Got a Friend” on the line “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” James, of course, famously covered the song on Sweet Baby James’ followup, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.
Speaking of which, the chorus is undeniably profound, probably because it, in part, draws on some powerful symbolic imagery. Of course, here, fire and rain serve the purpose of symbolizing the polar opposite moods Taylor went through in his struggles. Fire represents the warmth of the sun on good days. Rain represents the loneliness of days when the sun is hidden from sight.
It’s certainly hard not to draw parallels between this and Robert Frost’s famous poem “Fire and Ice.” True, the subjects of the two pieces could not be more different. “Fire and Rain” deals with a single man’s personal struggles (friendship vs. loneliness), while “Fire and Ice” is a musing on how the world might end (desire vs. hate). However, if prominent astrophysicist Howard Shapley is correct, there may be a sun connection in the latter.
Shapely claims to have met Frost in 1919, a year before the poem was published. Frost asked him how he thought the world was going to end. Shapely explained how the Sun would turn into a red giant star in about five billion years after the hydrogen fusion in its core collapses. Earth will either be vaporized alongside Mercury and Venus as the expanding gases consume it or be spared this fiery fate only to freeze over as the Sun’s rays are no longer there to warm it. I’m not really sure how applicable these observations are to “Fire and Rain,” but I’m sure you could make an argument about the desire and hate metaphor applying to the song. Fire represents James’ desire for comfort during hard times, and rain represents his hatred of what has become at his lowest points. Or maybe it’s another song about the sunny good times of the 1960s being swallowed up by the grey storm clouds of the 70s, like so many other songs of that time period.
Then again, I may be delving too deep into “death of the author” territory here. More importantly, how does this song speak to me, you might be asking.
Indeed, the biggest overall theme of this song is undoubtedly friendship. Friendship has never been the easiest thing for me. As a person on the autism spectrum, I have a tough time reaching out to people. Sure, I’ll stop and talk to an old schoolmate or teacher whenever I see them in town or at my workplace, but I never really hang out with them, so to speak. This is even true with my parents, who I’ve grown rather emotionally distant from thanks to their support of President Trump. I really don’t feel like I have anyone to talk to at this point in life. It really makes me feel I need to get off my ass and join Twitter already to finally air my grievances publicly.
It is a very lonely time for me, but not without hope. While Trump’s awful leadership has exposed just how much of a shitshow America has been from the day the first African slaves landed on our shores four hundred years ago, it also helped me discover the way out. And as long as there is breath in my body, I will shout from the rooftops that better things are possible in a world without big government and big corporations and that the people are capable of ruling themselves.
But as for my feelings on the song itself, it’s great. James’ smooth, understated voice really makes it feel like he is right next to you, saying, “Listen, buddy, I’ve been there. I know how hard it is right now, but trust me. The next sunny day is right around the corner.” He sings as if his audience already has a heart as broken as his was at the time, and thus he offers comfort in his understated desperation. It’s really songs like this that let downtrodden underdogs like myself know that we are never really alone. We all know what it’s like to be sad, and we know how to overcome and find our next sunny day.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw the film Watership Down, but I couldn’t have been older than nine or ten. I remember how my mother found it in a rental store and, having seen before sometime in the past, decided it would be a good movie to show the kids.
Needless to say, my siblings and I were rather unnerved by the scenes of violence that the film has become infamous for and ended up blocking it from our memories for the next decade or so. During that intervening decade, I grew distant from the Renaissance era animated films of my childhood like Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Prince of Egypt, writing them off as juvenile nonsense that was beneath the more “adult” tastes I was developing.
However, two things happened during my high school years that shook me out of this mentality. The first happened during a field trip I took with my school’s history club (probably to Washington D.C.) when our social studies teacher showed us Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. While literally everyone else on the bus was going, “What the fuck am I watching?!”… well, so was I, but there was a small voice in the back of my head saying, “Oh my God, this is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen in my life!”
As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, that was followed by me rediscovering Watership Down on YouTube, probably sometime during my senior year. My re-watch of that forgotten childhood memory undoubtedly changed my life. I began to pursue film and literature far more stridently and decided that my destiny was to become a creative writer. I ended up falling back in love with animation, recognizing the artistic potential in the medium.
At the same time, though, I began to recognize that the same antipathy I had developed toward the medium in my teenage years was a widespread problem that many animators struggled to deal with. Perhaps Scott Mendelson, writing for Forbes, put it best: “…American animated films are strikingly similar in that they are mostly G or PG-rated comedic capers with stories and characters intended to appeal to younger moviegoers.” It doesn’t matter when these films portray themes like an old man coming to terms with death (Pixar’s Up), racism and prejudice (Disney’s Zootopia and Warner Bros.’ Cats Don’t Dance), man’s relationship with God (Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt), or even discussions of genocide (Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda 2 or Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame). It all kiddie nonsense to a lot of people in this country.
Of course, the obvious question is… why? Why do so many people, especially in my home country, hold onto this misconception of what TV Tropes.com calls the “Animation Age Ghetto”? Many answers can be found in the history of how the medium developed in the United States.
History Pt. 1: 1920s-1970s
Animation first came to prominence in America in the 1920s, especially after the classic Walt Disney short Steamboat Willie premiered on November 18, 1928. The period between then and the early 1960s is often considered the Golden Age of Animation.
It became a tradition to play animated shorts starring the Looney Tunes, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, Tom and Jerry, and others in cinemas as a prelude to the feature presentation. Prominent creators of the era like William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones stated that they had adult audiences in mind when creating the shorts. Indeed, Betty Boop (created by the Fleischer Brothers) was infamous for her provocative fashion sense and flirtatious attitude until the Hays Code caught up with her around 1934.
Walt Disney, meanwhile, proved that animation could be adapted into full-length feature films when Snow White and the Seven Dwarves hit the big screen on December 21, 1937. This would pave the way for future hits like Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi.
However, after World War II, television slowly began to supplant cinema as the go-to form of entertainment consumption. Theatrical shorts were dispensed with as animation began to move toward the small screen. Animation fans often refer to the period between the early 60s and mid-80s as the Dark Age of Animation, and for a good reason. TV studios like Hanna-Barbera and Filmation were forced to use more limited forms of animation due to budget constraints. What resulted was what Chuck Jones once referred to as “illustrated radio,” characterized by an emphasis on dialogue over visuals and a generally lazier aesthetic that often only appealed to children. Fellow Looney Tunes artist Fritz Freleng was less charitable, describing TV animation during the Dark Age as:
“…such a monster. It swallows up this animation so fast that nobody seems to care whether it’s good or bad. These kids’ shows are badly done technically; it seems as though nobody really looks at them but the kids.
The fact that this era of animation came on the heels of a revival of conservative values in the 1950s certainly didn’t help matters. Parent groups were downright savage in attacking anything they did-not deem child friendly. They purged the classic Looney Tunes shorts of their trademark cartoon violence and piling on content restriction after content restriction until even conflict, the very soul of story itself, was excised. On top of all that, animation was often relegated to the now-famous Saturday morning block, which kids would watch while their parents often slept in from a long work week.
The result of all this was the bare minimum of effort being put into TV animation, especially in the 1970s. TV studios, endlessly restricted by the moral guardians, often resorted to cranking out endless sub-par clones of Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, etc. Some quality shows did manage to slip through here and there, like Fat Albert, Star Trek: The Animated Series, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home and Schoolhouse Rock.
They were still vastly outnumbered by poor quality efforts, though. Even the king of animation himself, Walt Disney, expressed his frustrations with artistic restriction toward the end of his life. When he first saw the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, he reportedly told his colleagues, “Now this is the kind of film I wish I could make!”
A Light in the Black: 1970s-1990s
Fortunately, not everything was totally bleak for the medium during the Dark Age. Europe was still producing edgy, avant-garde features like Yellow Submarine, Fantastic Planet, and the aforementioned Watership Down. Meanwhile, Japan started experimenting with more adult series, moving away from kid-friendly fare like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Kimba the White Lion to epics like Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam. Even America saw the likes of Ralph Bakshi, who made such raunchy, controversial, and, surprisingly enough, financially successful escapades as Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin.
Things began to look up for the American side of the medium as the 1980s rolled around. One of the most important factors in this revival was President Ronald Reagan’s rollback of broadcast regulations. This would spearhead the rise of toy-based cartoons like Transformers, My Little Pony, He-Man, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. While these shows are often derided for being “half-hour toy commercials”…
… the fact was that these shows proved that animation could be profitable again. Artists and business investors quickly leaped at the opportunity, and the stage for the Renaissance Age of Animation was set. The Walt Disney Company helped kick-start a new era of quality television animation when the first cartoons of the Disney Afternoon block, like Adventures of the Gummi Bears, Ducktales, and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers first aired between 1985 and 1989. Television networks solely or heavily dedicated to animation like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon began to find a huge audience.
Meanwhile, after languishing in the doldrums for several years after Walt Disney’s death in 1965, animation in American cinemas found a new savior in the form of ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, who introduced a high quality to his animated features that had not been seen since the Golden Age. Features like the cult classic The Secret of NIMH led to financial successes like An American Tail and The Land Before Time, both executive produced by Stephen Spielberg.
This inspired Disney to step up their game, leading to financial juggernauts like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid. This led to animation regaining much of the artistic respect it had lost in the Dark Age, to the point that Disney’s Beauty and the Beast even became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards.
On top of all that, Japanese animation started to develop a fanbase in North America due largely to the gritty and intense adult drama of films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell and the sheer artistic beauty of Studio Ghibli’s filmography. Anime TV series like Sailor Moon, Dragonball, Pokemon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Cowboy Bebop only further cemented its popularity.
A New Downturn: 1990s-2000s
Unfortunately, all of this failed to break the Age Ghetto’s death grip on the American psyche, especially as the Renaissance Age gave way to the Millennium Age around the turn of the century. Many animated films toward the latter half of the 90s started to rely increasingly on the Disney “formula,” resulting in many films that recycled the I-don’t-fit-in characters, “I want” songs, wacky sidekicks, pop culture jokes, and other tired tropes of the time. Warner Brothers’ Quest for Camelot, released in 1998, is often considered the absolute nadir of this trend.
Economic downturns throughout the 2000s also led to a decline in quality television animation, to the point that Cartoon Network actually stopped airing cartoons for a brief period in the late 00s. This proliferation of subpar TV shows may have convinced 90s kids who grew up on Ren and Stimpy and Animaniacs that they had outgrown the shows of their childhood.
It certainly didn’t help that adult animation shows started their own toxic “follow the leader” mentality. They became what I would refer to as Family Guy and/or South Park turned up to eleven in all the wrong directions, overusing edgy and offensive vulgar humor while ignoring the smart political/social satire that made both those shows so beloved in the first place. Thus we received schlock like Brickleberry, Drawn Together, and Allen Gregory that can be better described as adolescent rather than truly adult.
A New Renaissance: 2000s-Present
As the current decade reaches its twilight years, however, there have increasingly promising signs that America may finally be putting the ghetto mentality out to pasture. One sign of this reckoning is the massive popularity of creator-driven cartoons spawned from the successes of such shows as Disney’s Phineas and Ferb in 2007 and Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time in 2010. Other shows like Regular Show, Steven Universe, Over the Garden Wall, Gravity Falls, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and many others have gained massive fanbases even among adults.
Speaking of which, adult animation has also received shows this decade like Bojack Horseman, Rick and Morty, Bob’s Burgers, and Moral Orel that have shifted the focus away from vulgar shock humor and put the spotlight more on character development and more relatable adult issues. Some adult series like Castlevania, Primal, and the Samurai Jack revival even moved away from comedy entirely, becoming dark fantasy epics focused more on story than being as offensive as possible.
The more diverse animation offered by Japan has also exploded in popularity in the States thanks to series like Fullmetal Alchemist, My Hero Academia, and Attack on Titan, largely thanks to the Internet. As the world has grown smaller and more connected, fans of animation have grown closer together and have been able to assert themselves in the public eye more easily and have easier access to content that might interest them.
Sadly though, the ghetto still retains one last stronghold: the Hollywood studios and their executives. Especially as capitalism reaches its late stages, the big studios have grown extremely risk-averse. Since adult animated features have not proven themselves to be financially successful among moviegoers, the executives are hesitant to invest in them. The ghetto mindset is especially frustrating when it comes to how it affects the Best Animated Feature award at the Oscars.
Many anonymous interviews with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences members responsible for deciding the Best Animated Feature have revealed contempt for the art form, viewing it as lesser than live-action. Many interviewed individuals even admitted to having their kids watch the nominated films instead and based their vote on what their kids liked best. One particularly infamous comment from the 2015 voting season had one voter complaining about The LEGO Movie not even being nominated…
…but then they go on to complain about “these two obscure freakin’ Chinese fuckin’ things that nobody ever freakin’ saw” being nominated over it. To add insult to injury, this voter could only have been referring to The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea, which are Japanese and Irish, respectively. I can see why the Oscars are such a laughingstock among serious filmgoers.
Even on this front, though, there is still cause for optimism among animation fans. In 2016, Sausage Party became the first financially successful R-rated animated feature film to be theatrically released since 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. It grossed over $140 million over $19 million budget and earned an 83% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes. The film’s creator, Seth Rogan, has since expressed a desire to create more animated adult films in the future. Sony Pictures, the company that released Sausage Party, has also announced several more adult films in development as we speak. While not as financially successful as Sausage Party, Wes Anderson’s PG-13 rated Isle of Dogs, released in 2018, was also very well-received by critics and audiences, which certainly doesn’t hurt.
C. S. Lewis once had this to say about people who appreciated artistic works for the sole reason of them being “adult”:
Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a form of approval, instead of as merely a descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown-up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish: these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.
C. S. Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children
If I could get the average American filmgoer to understand one thing about animation, it is this; you are not stupid for liking the movies or TV shows your kids like. If anything, the adult who enjoys animation is far more adult than the one who enjoys animation is far more adult than the one who mindlessly insists that live-action is inherently superior. Lewis went on to state the following:
Not only do the elites in Hollywood need to follow Lewis’ advice, but maybe it wouldn’t be out of line to remind them that Walt Disney holds the record for the most Oscars won by a single person (22, to be exact). I mean, the Academy Awards is the place where the very best in film is honored, right?
…and my feelings about it are rather… mixed, honestly.
Before I talk about my problems with the film, let me state for the record that this is by no means a bad film. The film was directed by Ari Aster, who also directed Hereditary, my current favorite horror film of all time. A lot of the elements that made that film so effective are also there in Midsommar. The cinematography is as brilliant as it was in Hereditary, greatly helping to complement the slow-burning tension. The acting was excellent, especially from Florence Pugh, who was definitely channeling Toni Collette during her more emotional scenes. The beginning scene also demonstrates how good Aster is at portraying family tragedies in the same vein as… that scene from Hereditary. Don’t play dumb, people, you know the one.
While I’ve never done drugs before, I’ve also heard that the scenes showing the perspective of characters under the influence of drugs were also very accurate. Indeed, it’s not for nothing that such figures as Nicholas Cage and Jordan Peele have heaped praise upon it.
Where my biggest problem lies, however, is in how some of the characters are portrayed, especially the cult itself. Unfortunately, in order to answer why will require major spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, I would suggest you see the film first before continuing with the review here. If you have seen it, or have no plans to, well then, let’s get started.
My biggest problem is how the protagonist Dani’s induction into the cult is presented in the film. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been watching too much of that Leah Remini series where she muckrakes Scientology lately, but to me, the Midsommar cult seems to be a vile institution. Their members force their elders to jump off a cliff to their deaths when they are seen as no longer useful, and they murder the foreign characters with impunity for questioning their rites. True, Christian and his gang are a bunch of frat-boy assholes, but does that really excuse the cult fucking blood-eagling that British guy for calling them out on said cliff jumping ritual?
The very ending, which seemingly shows Dani having finally achieved peace, thus rings kind of hollow given how she’s accepted this wretched hive as her new family. It certainly doesn’t help that Ari Aster himself was apparently inspired to make this film after he experienced a real-life breakup, even going as far as describing Dani as a reflection of himself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Aster is trying to convince us that it’s good that Dani traded Christian for a giant clan of gas-lighters, but I definitely don’t blame some people if they did come to that conclusion. True, the cult members do put a lot more effort into comforting Dani during periods of emotional distress than Christian could be bothered to. Still, given that one of said emotional episodes was induced by the cult members forcing a drugged Christian into a sex ritual against his will… yeah, that doesn’t exactly endear them to me.
Still, even if the moral ambiguity of it all seems to work more toward the film’s detriment, in my opinion, it’s overall a great work of horror from a director who seems well on his way to becoming a true master in his field. It has a great atmosphere, a solid cast, and great special effects for the drug trip scenes. Definitely check this film out if you haven’t yet, and I’m giving this one an 8 out of 10.
Hey guys, this is a new thing I’m gonna be doing in between my other blog posts, trying my hand at movie reviews. This one was obviously a lot shorter than the Dark Tower one, as it is more in the style of YMS’ Quickie reviews.
I’m not sure how often I’ll be doing these. Just know they aren’t going to have a set release date as the other bigger posts will. I’ll just be doing these whenever I see a film that I feel like I have things to say about it. I hope you enjoy it! Thank you, buh-bye!
Adapting books into a visual medium like film is a very tricky gambit. Sometimes the filmmakers care very much about respecting the source material, resulting in cinematic masterpieces like To Kill a Mockingbird and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sometimes the filmmakers do care about the source material, but for one reason or another, they end up making a film that fails to do the book justice, like comic book legend Alan Moore’s work. But by far the worst thing any filmmaker can do is not care at all about the source material, which is what happened with such works as the Percy Jackson series, Eragon, and the subject of today’s review, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.
Stephen King’s history with adaptations has always been rather spotty. It seems that for every good adaptation of his work (The Shining, Carrie, Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption), there’s a bad one lurking just behind it (Maximum Overdrive, Children of the Corn, Dreamcatcher, etc.). Perhaps nothing illustrates this dichotomy better than the two big adaptations that came out in the summer of 2017, namely The Dark Tower on August 4th and It on September 8th. Whereas the latter stands at the time of this writing with an 86% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and rave reviews calling it one of the absolute best Stephen King adaptations, the former stands at only 16%, with many critics lambasting it as “wildly unfaithful and simplistic.” And honestly, as someone who read all eight books before the movie came out, I think they were right on the money.
Before I get into why, though, let me clear up a misconception often stated about this movie; Sony Entertainment (who distributed the film under their Columbia Pictures division) was not trying to condense the entire eight-book series (totaling 4,250 pages) into a single film running a measly 95 minutes. It was actually intended as a sequel to the books, which was made possible by how the end of the seventh and last book in the series revealed that protagonist Roland Deschain’s quest to find the tower was actually an extended cyclical time loop. In theory, this would have allowed the filmmakers to keep the story’s basic gist intact while having some license to change some elements around.
In execution, however, the film ends up a confusing mess haphazardly combining story elements from several different books in the series. Even though I’ve read the books, I still had trouble following what was going on, so I can only imagine what the film must feel like to someone who hasn’t read them.
The basic Lord of the Rings meets The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly premise of the books is kept intact. The gunslinger Roland Deschain roams an empty, post-apocalyptic fantasy world called All-World in a quest to find the Dark Tower, a universal linchpin that guards the universe against the primordial chaos. Roland believes that the Tower holds the secret to rebuilding his dying home. He has two main enemies that he faces in his quest. The first is an evil wizard called Randall Flagg (or the Man in Black/Walter O’Dim in the film), who seeks to control the Tower. The other is All-World’s despotic ruler, the Crimson King, who wants to destroy it. He is joined by several companions hailing from Earth in his quest, including Jake Chambers, Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean, and Father John Callahan.
However, the film seems to shift the focus away from Roland in favor of making his child companion from the first book, the aforementioned John “Jake” Chambers, into the main protagonist. This, I think, does a great disservice to Roland and his actor, Idris Elba. Granted, I think that Tom Taylor (Jake’s actor) is pretty good as far as child actors go, but I also think that more focus on Roland in his fantastical setting would have helped to better establish the unique universe that Stephen King set up in his books.
Of course, the fact that the film is only 95 minutes long certainly doesn’t help matters. You would think that a film in development hell for ten freaking years would have had at least a little more to offer us. This film definitely needed at least another twenty minutes to make it a proper introduction to the Dark Tower mythos.
One thing that definitely suffers from the minuscule run time is the main characters’ motivations. For example, Roland’s tragic backstory, which explains so much of his single-minded pursuit of the Tower and his need to save his decaying land, is very quickly glossed over in the film in a few short flashback sequences (most of which were re-shoots done after poorly received test screenings). We also receive no explanation as to why the Man in Black (played by Matthew McConaughey) wants to use the psychic energy he gathers from kidnapped children to destroy the Tower. The best we get is “Death always wins,” maybe suggesting an ultra-nihilistic viewpoint.
Furthermore, this is the complete opposite goal of his book counterpart. In the books, he wanted to seize control of the Tower and become a god. It was the Crimson King, who is directly related to the demonic creatures that live in the primordial chaos, who wants to destroy the Tower so he can rule over the chaos left in the void. What makes this even more confusing in the film is that at several points, we see graffiti declaring ALL HAIL THE CRIMSON KING, which just made me wonder where the hell he was supposed to fit into this mess if the filmmakers were going to make the Man in Black into a copy of him.
There were also several instances in the film where I thought that the book’s key terms were misused. For example, when a bolt of psychic energy strikes one of the energy beams that hold up the Tower, Roland refers to the event as a “beamquake.” In the books, however, a beamquake happens when one of the beams actually snaps, which, on top of leaving the Tower more vulnerable to collapse, results in the fiery destruction of any ground that lay in the path of the beam.
Another term I thought was misused was “taheen.” In the film, Roland uses it to refer to the half-human half-rat minions of the Man in Black hunting him and Jake down. However, in the books, the rat-men are referred to as “can-toi,” or “low men.” They are hybrids of humans and the taheen from the books, who are basically humanoid creatures with animal heads (very much like Egyptian gods in appearance) who are speculated to be the only supernatural beings left in All-World. The taheen in this film, however, are basically nothing more than generic evil minions.
Some other miscellaneous elements that didn’t make sense:
Roland’s character arc was stupid. He starts out being as nihilistic as the Man in Black, also thinking that the Tower’s going to fall one day anyway, so why bother protecting it? He now only seeks to kill the Man in Black for the sake of revenge. Except… wouldn’t that still be protecting the Tower? You know, killing the single biggest threat to its existence? Roland gets lectured more than once about putting revenge ahead of protecting the Tower. I don’t see how the two can be mutually exclusive in this case.
Speaking of things about Roland’s character that don’t make sense, what was the deal with him being immune to the Man in Black’s magic? It doesn’t really add anything to the story other than plot armor for Roland. The optimist in me wants to think that the writers may have had an explanation for this, but it’s probably more likely that they couldn’t figure out a better way to stop the Man in Black from just killing him on the spot.
At one point in the film, Roland sees a GEICO commercial featuring talking raccoons and asks Jake if the animals still speak in his world. This joke makes no sense even if you have read the books, because talking animals never show up. The closest we get (aside from the aforementioned can-toi and taheen) is Oy, a billy-bumbler (looks like a cross between a raccoon and a corgi) that Jake adopts as a pet in Book III, The Wasteland. Even then, his speaking abilities are no more developed than that of the average parrot, repeating simple words and syllables that he hears the rest of the team speaking.
There were elements of the film that I liked. While Idris Elba was a controversial pick since his character was white in the books, I personally thought he nailed the gruff personality of Roland Deschain, even if the script didn’t leave him much to work with. I also liked Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers, even if he did steal the spotlight for the first half-hour, and the bonding scenes between him and Roland were a definite highlight. Matthew McConaughey was also clearly having a lot of fun playing the deliciously depraved Man in Black, and watching him snatch Roland’s bullets out of the air with his bare hands and kill people just by telling them to stop breathing was both entertaining and terrifying.
The visuals, I thought, were also well done. The portrayals of All-World in all its decaying glory were a lot like how I imagined them. The way the Dark Tower itself was portrayed in the film, soaring high above the clouds, definitely does justice to its status as the center of all reality. Finally, the action scenes were exciting to watch, even if the Man in Black’s death was a little too unrealistic. Seriously, how does a .45 caliber bullet wound to the head not leave any blood? (Speaking of which, the film really shouldn’t have been a PG-13 film. The books had a lot of foul language and bloody violence, as do most Stephen King books. Granted, the former wasn’t really present until Eddie Dean joined the team in book two, but still…)
In the end, I think my main problem with the film comes down to the execution. The world set up in the book series involves an order of Old West-style gunfighters descended from King Arthur and his Round Table knights (Roland’s revolvers are even fashioned from Excalibur’s blade) roaming a post-apocalyptic world that suffered a nuclear war so terrible that the world still hasn’t recovered thousands of years later, with magical and supernatural threats lurking around every corner. On top of all that, the laws of space and time are slowly unraveling due to the Crimson King’s constant attacks on the very Tower that is holding the universe together.
The film does justice to almost none of these elements. It takes a maddeningly pedestrian approach to everything in its unique and imaginative source material, treating it like nothing more than your average shoot ’em up action film, but with a supernatural twist.
I’ve read rumors on the Web that a follow-up series that Amazon is developing (originally a sequel series adapting Roland’s backstory as depicted in the fourth book, Wizard and Glass) will be revamped as a complete reboot of the franchise. I’ll wait for the series to air before I judge it (which might not be a while, since Amazon passed on the pilot in January). As for the film, I give it a 5 out of 10. It is a shame that the filmmakers made such a flat and uninspired film out of such vibrant and imaginative source material. To paraphrase Rotten Tomatoes: “Go then, there are better Stephen King adaptations than this.”