Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Responding to Mercy

I'm not a fan of musicals. For the few I have been able to sit through, I have heard good music or seen a good story, and some have both, but I've never been able able to suspend enough disbelief to enjoy the genre as a whole. I have seen the fairly good Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush (non-musical) version of Les Miserables, but have not seen the musical on the stage. And the prospect of seeing the famous "Les Mis" after reading the book last year did scare me. Why would I want to experience such a rich and powerful story hampered by people belting out songs designed more to show off the voice than to advance the narrative?

But I found this movie -- all two and a half hours of it -- riveting. Sure, a few of the subplots are left out or minimized, but most of the story is left, and director Tom Hooper does a great job holding it all together. The music is moving, and the acting marvelous, and on and on so forth. You can read better analysis of those elements of the film elsewhere, so I'd rather focus on what intrigues me about this production.

I was awestruck with the stark look of some of the songs where the character is singing in front of a bare background with a single object to balance the frame in a visual sense while tilting the picture in a metaphorical sense. For example, Javert (Russell Crowe) sings with a statue of an eagle in the scene, which is appropriate because he represent the obsessive devotion to the law and the presumed -- and oppressive -- order it provides. Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, bares her soul and most of her hair and ragged clothes in singing the beloved "I Dreamed a Dream," focusing not only on the unfairness of her plight, but the emotional poverty she has been driven to. Perhaps Mr. Hooper is a bit heavy-handed. I don't care.

This story is about much more than good triumphing over evil. When I first read the book and at the beginning of the film, I had the sense that the story was about the how good can transform even people we might think have valid reasons to see the world through bitter eyes, such as Jean Valjean and Fantine. But the film and the book are about mercy, not only the showing of mercy, but the varied response to it. Valjean is forever changed by the bishop's decision, and responds by trying, humbly, to be that "better man." On the other hand Javert is twice shown mercy by Valjean and his inability or unwillingness to accept that mercy proves to be his real downfall.

I'm sure there are flaws in this movie that people who know much more about the art of film-making and musical theater can point out. However, this is the first time I have actually felt a musical should win the Oscar. Les Miserables is not merely an enjoyable movie; it can be a compelling experience.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Flash with Little Fire

A Flash of Inspiration: A Collection of Very Short Stories by Indie Authors by Helmy Kusuma

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I love flash fiction, short-shorts, twitter fiction, whatever you call it. There is something terrific about a tight, terse story. A good piece is like a punch in the gut or a flower in the barrel of a gun. Something visceral happens to the reader, as it does when a poem or painting makes one do more than smile at the cleverness of the artist.

And I wanted to love A Flash of Inspiration, a book composed by members of a Facebook group of independent writers. Independent writers should get more attention than they do, and a book like this could help. But it doesn't help.

Flash fiction should come across as natural, like fine conversation. It should not, however, read as if it was written in a flash. While there were some startling and well crafted pieces in this book, most were more potential than finished stories. That is, they could be good with more polish and care about language and images.

Many of these stories relied on shocking or surprising endings. That worked for a few, but for several the endings seemed more gimmick than gravitas. Not that I expect all seriousness. Laughter has heft too and great value.

These writers can write. The question is can all of them revise?

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Small, but very much alive

A Blackbird Sings: a book of short poemsA Blackbird Sings: a book of short poems by Fiona Robyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anthologies of poems need introductions where simple volumes of a poet's work generally do not. I tend to roll my eyes and sigh in pain when a poet in particular feels the need to spend more than a couple of sentences explaining and/or defending her/his work. However, anthologies need a few words. This is even more true it seems when the collection is based as much on philosophy as form, as in the case of A Blackbird Sings. On the other hand, I wonder how much is too much. Compared to how much actual poetry is in this book, I am tempted to say the editors might have given us more than necessary. At the same time, I am hard pressed to decide what needs cutting.

As for the poems, most are quite a delight to read. Much of the aforementioned philosophy is about the poet taking a single still moment to write about, much like the ancient haiku, but with more vivid imagery and less reliance on rigid season words. Though a handful of pieces were a bit too cliched or wordy for my tastes, most leap off the page as if to prove the still life is the only real life.

The closing part of the book is a short instructional exercise in writing small stones, the type of short poems in the collection. This is not only for poets themselves, for any who recognize the need to slow down and observe the wonder of the world, if only a few moments of the day. I really don't think this is necessary for the book, yet I suspect some readers will be grateful for the information.

Overall, A Blackbird Sings is a reminder that poetry is alive and can transform the open heart.

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