‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ review (no spoilers)

I saw Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker yesterday, and it was the movie I expected — and I expected good things. The worst I could say was that it was formulaic, but it’s a guaranteed successful formula, so that’s not all bad. There were also a lot of fast plot twists and little surprises and jokes, even Ewoks and whatever those red-eyed sand critters were from the start of the first movie. Loose ends got tied up, and a few things were added just for nostalgia. Good fun.

As I said, it met expectations. Samuel R. Delaney had something to say about that in Shorter Views (page 121):

“Fiction exists as an extraordinary complex of expectations. Texts that fulfill all these expectations register as moderately good or mediocre fiction: the sort that one reads, more or less enjoys, but forgets immediately. What strikes us as extraordinary, excellent, or superb fiction must fulfill some of those expectations and at the same time violate others. It’s a very fancy dance of fulfillment and violation that produces the “Wow!” of wonder that greets a truly fine piece of writing — a truly wonderful story.”

The series from the beginning never sought to violate any story-telling expectations. It tried to recreate Buck Rogers-style movies, just with better production values. In a sense, those high values — revolutionarily high for their time — were the violation. Movie-goers could easily believe they were seeing strange alien worlds and beings, and watching amazing futuristic technology. Since then, every movie strives for top-quality special effects, although there’s a certain imaginative flair that Star Wars consistently delivers about its big, beautiful, believable galaxy, long ago and far away….

Perhaps Star Wars’ violation is that it brings viewers into the craft of creation even as it delivers a high-quality finished product. It consistently shows that much more exists in its galaxy, little details that add nothing except to create a richer-than-necessary setting. There’s more to explore than what falls within the confines of the story, and viewers can explore that in their own imaginations.

Is that exuberant and excessive world-building enough to vault it into the category of Wow!? Maybe. Critics complain, rightly, about problems with plots and characters, and the movie had its share, but I came away thinking about that glorious galaxy I had just visited.

The best, and last, Christmas tree ever

Beth And Us

This shot of us four Burke kids on Christmas Eve was captured from one of our grandfather’s home movies. Beth is the blonde. I’m wearing green. Lou is the baby. Mike is in back.

My sister, Beth, died in January 2014 of cancer. Her last Christmas was one of her happiest.

In December, Beth’s son and his wife came to visit, and they set up and decorated the tree. Beth had inherited the Christmas tree ornaments from my parents and grandparents, and although she was too ill to do more than watch them work, she was entranced. It was, my sister said, the best tree ever.

She described it to me over the phone (I had a long visit at Thanksgiving), and I could see it as she spoke because I knew so many of the ornaments.

My mother had made a canvas-work embroidery angel for the top of the tree. In keeping with family tradition, a little electric candle had been placed in her hands.

Some old, fancy glass ornaments had been my grandparents’, lovingly cared for by my parents and then by Beth. They were fragile and worn but exceptionally ornate. One had gold stripes edged with glitter and little holiday scenes hand-painted between the stripes.

My sister especially loved the ornament her son had made in grade school, a white paper bird with a long tinsel tail. There was also my ornament from kindergarten, green and red metallic disks glued together around a length of yarn. Other children’s artwork was hung up, too, chronicling a family that grew larger, and boys and girls who grew up. Some ornaments were gifts or careful purchases — each color, each sparkle, each light a story.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “I can stare at it for hours.”

It held happy memories from her whole life, as merry as a Christmas tree could be — the best gift, the best tree ever.

My Goodreads review of “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice”

Living Revision: A Writer's Craft as Spiritual PracticeLiving Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beginning and even intermediate writers will find this book useful if they haven’t come to understand that revision — especially deep revision — gives them a chance to turn adequate work into something extraordinary. “Revision is a form of love,” Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew says. “Creativity is the capacity to see or make newness. Revision is the flourishing of creativity. It is the work of seeing with new eyes … revision is a natural consequence of growth.”

Experienced writers who have already learned that lesson will appreciate the step-by-step approach, helpful exercises, and “toolboxes” that she offers. For example, “Choose one moment in your story where a shift occurs … What of the before and after content belongs in your project?”

At every step, her voice is gentle, encouraging, practical, and, as the title says, spiritual. “The work of revision draws bits of heaven down to earth … the endeavor, regardless of success, is always worthwhile.”

But I think this book speaks too little of the joy of writing. It dwells on the struggles and painful self-discovery, as if writing was always grim labor, and glosses over the thrill of creation, the excitement of seeing a story shaped and reshaped into the thing of beauty you had hoped for, and the near-physical pleasure of doing work that feeds the soul. Writing is hard work, yes, but so is making music. Have you ever noticed how often singers and musicians are smiling onstage? When you write, it’s okay if you smile, too.

Revision doesn’t have to make your heart ache. Actors don’t bemoan rehearsal, and rewriting is the same process in a different art form. If revision is painful, maybe the problem is with your desk chair, not your writing skills or creative soul.

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Ending it right

Thats All FolksDid you like the last book you read or movie you saw? Why? Sometimes it can be hard to explain your reaction to a story because so many elements go into making it good or bad.
One of those elements is the ending. It should leave you feeling that the story was built right and all the parts fit together.

The beginning of the story sets out the conflict, the middle deepens the conflict, and the ending settles the conflict. The ending is the climax of a story, the exciting part when questions are resolved.

BAD ENDINGS
Not all kinds of endings are satisfactory.
* If we learn “it was all a dream,” then we have no reason to care about the story.
* If the story strays too far from the beginning, the ending will have no relationship to the beginning.
* If there is insufficient conflict, the story never actually reaches an ending, it just stops.
* If the resolution is too wide, it becomes unbelievable.
* If the resolution is too predictable or has no tension, it simply fails.
* If the ending suddenly introduces a new character or changes to be able to rescue the situation, it feels like cheating.

GOOD ENDINGS
A variety of endings can feel satisfactory.
* Stories can return to the beginning situation or setting, which is now the right place for the character, who has come home.
* Stories can show that what seemed real at the beginning was false or intolerable, and the ending can deliver a new reality: the character can’t go home again.
* Some endings can be more complex. They can resolve the main conflict but leave secondary questions unresolved: an open-ended story.
* If an ending can resolve all the questions, it’s possible the story didn’t have enough questions.
* Sometimes endings redefine the questions posed by the story by asking new questions, giving them a new context.
* Endings can even resolve nothing clearly and count on the reader to provide the answers from the clues in the story.
* Sometimes endings can reveal that the central question was false or deceptive: a trick ending.

Overall, a good ending stops at the right time and provides just enough closure. The beginning supports the ending, and the ending supports the beginning. And, of course, the conflict is not too easy for the characters to resolve, because that would be boring.

The worst thing a story can do is be boring.

How the printing press changed “you”: when reading changed, so did writing

Amadis_Quixote

These photos show excerpts from Amadis of Gaul and Don Quixote. Upper excerpt: “…what happened to him shall be told farther on. At the time when these things took place, as ye have already heard, there reigned in Great Britain a king named Falagriz, who dying without an heir, left…” — Amadis of Gaul, Chapter 3.

Lower excerpt: “Idle reader: thou mayest believe me without any oath that I wish this book, as the child of my thoughts, were the most beautiful, charming, and prudent that could be imagined. But I have not…” — Don Quixote de la Mancha, Prologue.

………

In the introduction to the Spanish Royal Academy’s 400th Anniversary edition of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Mario Vargas Llosa writes:

“Cervantes, in order to tell Quixote’s deeds, revolutionized the narrative forms of his time and established the foundation on which the modern novel was born. […] Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Quixote is the way in which Cervantes faced the problem of the narrator, the basic problem that must be resolved by anyone who wants to write a novel: who is going to tell the story?”

I think we should also ask: to whom is the story going to be told, and how? The answer to that question helps explain the difference in narrative forms between Amadis and Quixote.

Amadis of Gaul was written in Castilla-León (now Spain) during the late Middle Ages by anonymous authors, and it was one of a number of novels of chivalry popular at that time. This was before the printing press, so books were copied by hand on parchment, which made them expensive and rare. Most people didn’t read much, especially for pleasure. Instead, they listened to books at group readings for entertainment. Pero López de Ayala wrote at the end of the 14th century, “It also pleased me to hear these books many times,” especially Amadis.

Often enough, these books were read aloud during meals to audiences distracted by the soup or their dinner partners. A good story required plenty of action to capture and recapture the audience’s attention, as well as a declamatory narrative style. You can see this in the text, which often addresses the listeners as “vos” in Castilian or “ye” in English, which is the plural form of “you.”

You would have heard this book, not read it, and listened along with many other people. Indeed, the style of the original Castilian makes Amadis a stirring book to read aloud to an audience.

But around 1440, Gutenberg invented the printing press. By 1604, when Quixote was published, books had become more common and relatively inexpensive. Reading had become a private activity, and so, in the prologue, Cervantes addresses his readers with the second-person singular familiar form of “you”: “thou.”

That reader would curl up in a sunny alcove with Quixote as if it were a close friend, and the words from the page would travel directly to his or her thoughts. Cervantes could count on attentive readers, and so the kind of story he could tell them could be different: intimate and nuanced.

Technology had revolutionized the act of reading. It had revolutionized “you.” As a result, it had also revolutionized writing — that is, it had changed what authors could do. The printing press initiated a period of great and fruitful literary experimentation.

Will the internet cause a similar revolutionary change? Will it change “you”? If so, writing will change again, and a new kind of novel will be born.