LBTM: Growing Pains

As we begin Part 3 of the movie, CamCam is back at GNN space command central, editing his footage of the mysterious man in the prophet costume. But this time, Mr. Fake Beard and Bathrobe is speaking in Hebrew.

"What's he saying?" CamCam asks.

"I don't know, it sounds like Hebrew," the mystery girl from Part 1 says. Several days have passed since we first saw her (I think), and she's wearing a different outfit, but she still has that greasy smear on her forehead. So if it's not Ash Wednesday, what is that? The Smudge of the Beast?

"I was there," CamCam says. "I heard him. It was English."

As he says this, CamCam appears sincerely and genuinely to be trying to look like someone who is puzzled. This is the only way one can apply the words "sincere" or "genuine" to his performance in this film. "Never let 'em catch you acting," Spencer Tracy said, but it's a rare moment in this movie when we don't catch Kirk Cameron doing exactly that.

We need to deal with this recurring obstacle if we're ever going to get through this movie, so let's just state this directly here: Kirk Cameron is not a good actor.

Growingpains
This is not entirely his own fault. Cameron began as a child actor and, like many child actors, he was for years rewarded for obnoxious behavior, mugging, over-reacting, etc. And for most of his career as a child actor, he was working on a three-camera sitcom with awful writing in a context that never really required him to listen or react when his character wasn't the one speaking. During his formative years, in other words, he was in a sense indoctrinated with some of the worst habits a young actor could develop.

When considering child actors and former child actors, we should always try to be charitable. Think of Stand By Me. That film featured some quite good performances from a quartet of very young actors. The most gifted and impressive of the bunch died at 23. For two of the others, that childhood role turned out to be the best thing they ever did — one of them is now an accomplished blogger and the other survives as a "Celebreality" relic on VH-1. Only one of the four has gone on to a solid career as a capable adult actor.

Those are roughly the odds for a child actor, the Stand By Me odds — a 1-in-4 shot at the narrow path to a successful future in acting, with the perils and pitfalls of self-destruction and the Surreal Life looming on either side. For every Doogie or Opie who grows up to become a successful artist, there are even more Drummonds and Bradys and Coreys who wind up as sad-case tabloid fodder.

So recognizing that Cameron is a recovering child actor, I want to be somewhat charitable and not be unfairly critical. Having said all that, though, he's still simply not a good actor.

This is of interest to us here because it seems to me that Cameron's acting woes are inextricably tied up with his particular religious views. Kirk Cameron is famously (infamously?) a born-again Christian and a devout believer in precisely the peculiar variety of American evangelical Christianity that LaHaye and Jenkins teach and promote through their Left Behind books.

In working through the first book in that series, we noted the many ways that Bad Theology leads to Bad Writing. Here I want to turn to the related matter of how Bad Theology can lead to Bad Acting.

The word "theology" means, literally, the study of God, but this is not and never has been the exclusive concern of theology. It is also eminently concerned with the study of human nature. The nature and meaning of human existence is a central concern of all Christian theology. It is also, of course, a central concern of the theater and of acting.

The Rube Goldberg machine of Tim LaHaye's dispensational eschatology is Bad Theology not just because it's a silly 19th-century invention that requires the vivisection and pureeing of scripture, but also because it's based on assumptions about human nature (and divine nature) that are incompatible with what most Christians believe. It's based on assumptions about human nature, in fact, that seem irreconcilable with what most humans believe — with what most humans know from experience.

Any attempt to dramatize, to act out, this theology is thus going to result in something that seems false, unreal and inhuman. Capable actors will resist this.

We've already seen this dynamic at work in Left Behind: The Movie. Brad Johnson is a capable actor who seems determined to overcome the script he has been given by portraying Rayford Steele as a real, flesh-and-blood human being. In his first, brief scene as Rayford he thus conveyed not just Rayford's dislike for his wife and her brand of religion, but also the guilt he felt as a consequence of having such feelings toward his own wife. We haven't had the slightest glimpse of Hattie Durham yet, but we've already seen enough of Rayford's self-loathing to realize that this is a man who is contemplating an affair.

None of this was true of the Rayford Steele we met in the pages of the book. In the novel, Rayford was not allowed to feel guilt or remorse or the pangs of conscience until after his conversion. The unsaved, in L&J's book, are reprobate and without conscience. They have to be such in order to seem to deserve all of the vicious punishments the book's God has planned for them. And they have to be so in order for the book's readers to be able to enjoy and savor seeing them punished.

Yet with Johnson in the role of Rayford Steele, capable acting seems to correct Bad Theology. Just by doing the job responsibly and portraying Rayford as a real human being, Johnson makes a kind of theological assertion: non-RTCs are human too. Simple, workmanlike acting winds up undermining a central theological premise of the book.

I'm afraid that something like the reverse of that seems to be happening with Kirk Cameron's role in LBTM. He agrees with the theology of L&J, and thus is incapable — both theologically and artistically — of portraying Buck as fully human.

But there's another larger problem for Cameron, another way in which his religious beliefs seem to be crippling whatever talents he may have as an actor. A 2003 Christianity Today profile — "The Rebirth of Kirk Cameron" — recounts his conversion to evangelical Christianity and the problems this created on the set of his TV series, Growing Pains:

"When he came back from [the summer hiatus in 1990], Kirk was very different," producer Steve Marshall told the cable series E! True Hollywood Story. "No practical jokes, very serious. If he wasn't in a scene, he'd go away." …

"He seemed kind of sad, and we thought that was odd for somebody who had found religion," adds Marshall. "Usually religion brings joy into a person's life, and he didn't seem very joyful."

As he got deeper into his faith, Cameron found himself wanting to be an even stronger role model in the public eye. He now objected to sexual innuendoes, such as a scene that actually depicted a bad dream his mother was having. Mike Seaver was to be in bed, without his shirt on, lying next to a beautiful girl. The writers wanted him to say the line: "Hey, babe. Good morning. By the way, what's your name again?" Immediately his mother, Maggie Seaver, would bolt up, wake from her nightmare, and be thankful it was just a dream.

"You didn't know it was a dream at first," says Cameron. "It was for shock value. At the time, I felt really uncomfortable with that." He told the producers, "Surely we can think of something else that would make Maggie break out into a sweat." …

Gung-ho about his newfound principles, Cameron began to further ostracize himself from the other cast members. He fell in love with his costar Chelsea Noble — an actress who also was a Christian — and they began spending their free time together. By the time they married in 1991, none of the Growing Pains cast members were invited to the ceremony.

Cameron became more concerned with being a role model than he was with his role because he had found a spiritual home in a branch of Christianity that had an almost entirely negative concept of virtue. According to this form of religion, being good means not doing certain things — not doing a lot of things, actually. And being really good, I suppose, means doing almost nothing.

According to this view, being morally good doesn't take any work. It's not something you have to learn, or study, or practice. It comes by fiat, through God's intervening grace. We saw this idea of moral goodness in the book Left Behind: say
the magic words and God w
ill transform you into a good person.

Once you embrace this notion of what it means to become and to be good morally, it tends to infect your notion of what it means and what it requires to be good at other things too. Evangelicalism's negative concept of virtue can thus be disastrous for the practice of any vocation that requires study and practice. Like, say, acting.

Here is the line from that CT profile that I found most shocking. This is where Cameron confesses that he doesn't believe or understand that virtue is a craft and craft is a virtue. Cameron describes his life before his conversion:

"There was this aching, empty feeling that left me very disillusioned with the business I was working in," he says. "What else was there? What else did I have to shoot for? I'd basically reached the top of the ladder, and I was 18."

He had "reached the top of the ladder," Cameron said. And he still seems to believe that this is true.

That's an astonishing thing for him to believe when you realize that at this same time he was being introduced to the newest member of Growing Pains' cast: Leonardo DiCaprio.

Now certainly DiCaprio's work as Luke Brower-Seaver, the show's Cousin Oliver, wasn't on the same level as the quality of work he would later go on to do, but he was already clearly a talented and committed actor. Just one year after Growing Pains was canceled he was astonishingly good in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, so I think it's safe to assume that he was already an obviously better actor than Cameron at the time they worked together.

So for at least one year of his professional life, then, Kirk Cameron was confronted, regularly, by an example of what a real actor his own age should look like. And yet he spent all that time on the same set with and in the same scenes as DiCaprio without apparently learning anything — without even seeming to realize that he needed to learn anything.

At some point, each of us has been in such a situation. Each of us has been engaged in some pursuit when we encountered someone demonstrably and immensely better than us at whatever that pursuit might be. When that happens we really have only two choices: We can give up and find some other activity to pursue, or we can shut up, take notes and learn as much as we can. What we cannot do in such a situation is what Cameron apparently did — continue deluding ourselves that we are at "the top of the ladder."

I don't want to rub this in too much, but just to clarify why I find this "top of the ladder" comment so astounding, try to imagine an alternate universe in which Mike Seaver and his adopted brother trade their future roles. Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio as Buck Williams. Now imagine Kirk Cameron as Arnie Grape, or Jim Carroll, or Romeo, or Amsterdam Vallon or Howard Hughes.

See what I mean?

Maybe Cameron wishes he had taken the time to learn more about the profession and the craft of acting from his more gifted or more experienced fellow cast members. Maybe he wishes he had tried to learn from DiCaprio the way DiCaprio has spent his career trying to learn from people like Johnny Depp and Daniel Day-Lewis and Cate Blanchett. I don't know.

But Cameron doesn't seem to appreciate that he ought to have done so, that he was ethically obliged to do so — that not doing so was, in fact, immoral. A sin.

Since I really do believe that Cameron's spiritual and artistic blindspots are inextricably related, my advice to him — unbidden and probably unwelcome — is intended to address both. That advice is simply this: Get off the set and get on the stage.

Cameron's most recent project, Fireproof — an RTC version of Rescue Me produced by the amateur film studio based at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. — was just about the worst thing he could have gotten involved with. He needs to get away from choosing projects based on the didactic content of the message (the classic distinction between art and propaganda, between storytelling and sermonizing) and he especially needs to get away from situations where he is the most experienced actor on the set. If he wants to get better, then he needs to surround himself with actors who are better than he is.

So Kirk — can I call you Kirk? — let me recommend Shakespeare.

Think regional festivals. Don't bother with Ontario or Oregon, not yet, but I'd bet there are plenty of smaller regional Shakespeare festivals that would be happy to give a former TV star a chance to try acting. You're a celebrity, so you won't have to start at the very bottom of the ladder, but you won't get to jump right in at the top either.

Try Horatio, or Lysander, or maybe even Claudio or Orlando. Then try working your way up to more challenging roles: MacDuff or Laertes or Edgar — better yet, Edmund. Take your time. Take other people's time. Learn what you have to learn. Learn what there is to learn.

So OK, then. I'm afraid that this blog is an altogether inappropriate forum for offering such advice with any hope that it might be heard or welcomed, but I needed to get that off my chest because I really do think it would be the best thing for Kirk Cameron as an actor and, yes, as a Christian. I really do believe that the negative virtue taught by L&J's anti-Antichristianity prevents him from growing as an actor, but I really do also believe that he might be capable of getting better. (He might actually not be bad as Orlando if he could recapture the charm he once displayed before restricting himself to reciting the words of LaHaye & Jenkins or to explaining how bananas disprove science.)

It doesn't need to be acting, mind you, any craft that requires patient study and practice — music, woodworking, needlepoint, card tricks — could also serve as a potential antidote for this negative virtue. But acting is where Cameron started and it's where he still imagines himself to be, so for him I think acting is probably the best place to start learning about the need for learning.

Virtue — being good, whether morally or artistically — isn't mainly about abstaining, but about learning and growing. That takes work, of course, but if you want to grow — as an actor, as a Christian, as a person — then you'll have to learn to deal with, yes, growing pains.

  • Jenny Islander

    Also, back on topic: Fred’s essay about what Cameron thought he was doing vs. what he actually was doing brought up a scene from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. (Briefly, it’s a book based on the old Catholic assumption that anybody who wants to can leave Hell and visit Heaven; the catch is wanting to stay.) A damned artist meets an old colleague on the edge of Heaven. The damned one is welcome to stay, but he is dismayed to find out that he won’t be surrounded by the great artists of his school (Heaven is big, plenty of time to bump into them later), insulted to learn that he will have to start again from the beginning (forgetting all of his work on Earth and becoming a student again) and finally furious to hear that he and his old colleague have been forgotten by the art scene (and his stuff is worthless). That’s the deal breaker for him. He began as an artist, but ended up a mere celebrity.

  • Wesley Parish

    Raj – namaste, wantok, one “internet” coming up. I gutpela!
    Hawker Hurricane, I misread “rural gentlemen” and “feral gentlemen”. Fair enough. One of the stories I’m writing is set in a city where the gentry are in fact feral. One of the characters in it, Vheratsho, is being used by an ambitious gentlewoman to assassinate as many of her opponents as possible – and that’s because Vheratsho – Demoness in her own language – is feral herself. Offense is after all, the best form of defense.

  • Mau de Katt

    > Me: [..."You're not depressed, it's really DEEEEE-muns!!!"....]
    Kit Whitfield: Wow. That’s just awful. I’m really sorry to hear that. Metaphorically I’d say that depression can function like a demonic possession in that it can take over the personality of the sufferer and have a completely malign effect, but treating that literally…. Wow. I hope you got actual medical help in the end, and that you’re feeling better now.

    Oh yeah, I got better. (Mostly… it’s become a “chronic but treatable” thingie, now.) Prozac and counseling, and later, Effexor, beat “deliverance prayer” hands down. *g*
    But you are definitely right about depression being almost an entity in its own right. I read your linked essay; you really nailed it with that “depression fighting for ~its~ life, against your own” thing there. I read somewhere that Winston Churchill called his Deep Dark Depression episodes “the black dog”; that really resonated with me. I call it “the Beast,” however; my mental image is of some sort of malleable, clingy, shape-changing black thing… like cross between The Tar Baby and an evil, vaguely canid/ursinoid version of Choo Choo Bear from Something Positive.
    > > > …Evangelion….
    > > And the Eva movie’s ending features the entire human race turning into
    > > Tang…which is somehow a good thing, because it means that everyone
    > > finally understands each other or something.
    > You. Are. KIDDING ME. “Drink the puddled remains of humanity! It tastes
    > like orange!”

    Wasn’t it the OVAs that ended that way? The actual series, as I recall, ended with what was basically an episode-long Jungian phychotherapy session, concluding with Shinji Finally Working Out His Issues and everyone applauding. (I was told later by an Evangelion fan that this ending was just a symbolic telling of the later “literal” OVA Puddle Of Tang ending. Um… o-kaaayyyyy….)
    Oh — the “humanity turning into Tang” thing, for the person who asked and whose name I’ve forgotten, was humanity being liquefied or dissolved or something into one large communal ocean. The person who compared it to The Great Link of Odo’s people in ST:DS9 had it best.
    And since Shinji rejected the Great Pool Of Humanity, electing to remain individual and isolated, doesn’t that mean that in the OVA ending, he didn’t Work Out All His Issues? (It’s a veddy veddy weird anime. I’ve watched it a couple times now, and it’s still Veddy. Veddy. Weird.)
    > re: LoTR books and movies
    I loved Loved LOVED the book series. It was actually a full-blown Ritual for me when I read them. I had hardcover editions of all the books, I had maps, I had TWO separate concordances, and when I read them I would read them in “story chronology” order: The Silmarrillion, The Hobbit, and ending with the Trilogy itself. And all the while I’d be cross-referencing with the maps and concordances. Seriously, if I’d put the effort I did when reading them into actual school study and research, I probably could have graduated some version of cum laude. Or at least gotten much better grades. *g*
    I hadn’t read them in years, though — perhaps two decades — when I saw the movies. And, I loved the movies, too. Oddly enough, however, the movies ruined the books for me. When I re-read the Trilogy, shortly after watching the third movie, where before it had seemed Epic, it now just camed across as… pompous. The Good Guys were impossibly good and restrictively two-dimensional, the songs were derivative (I even recognized a lot of the folk songs and epic poems that Tolkein used as bases for them), heck even the Elven Tengwar alphabet was just uncial warmed over. I hope that down the road I can regain my love of the books, because I really did enjoy them, and it saddens me to have lost that.
    > I like Aragorn and Faramir myself, but it *would* be an amusing scenario. And I’m sure there’s about seventy-five fanfics out there dealing with it.
    Oh. Oh my. *snicker* So no one here has read The Very Secret Diaries of Frodo Baggins et al.?
    Sam will kill you. *snicker*

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    I read somewhere that Winston Churchill called his Deep Dark Depression episodes “the black dog”; that really resonated with me. I call it “the Beast,” however; my mental image is of some sort of malleable, clingy, shape-changing black thing
    Yes, I’ve noticed people often give it a name or a personality. I know someone who also came up with the ‘black dog’ without knowing about Churchill, and you’re in good company too – Antonia White called her bipolar disorder ‘the Beast’. In I Don’t Want To Talk About It – very, very good book on male depression – there’s a point where a guy describes his depression as being like a gorilla, and I think I’ve read about other people calling it a snake… It sort of helps, I think: if you can recognise the depression as an enemy, it means you don’t have to engage with depressive thought. They become easier to dismiss when they’re coming from the Pig or whatever.
    Man, I hate depression. Some days I wish it really did have form so I could find it and beat it to death.

  • SchrodingersDuck

    Jenny Islander: That’s a pretty good synopsis, except Shinji’s mum isn’t the liquid – she’s Shinji’s robot (and also all the clones of Rei). Yeah. That’s… pretty messed up.
    Wasn’t it the OVAs that ended that way? The actual series, as I recall, ended with what was basically an episode-long Jungian phychotherapy session, concluding with Shinji Finally Working Out His Issues and everyone applauding. (I was told later by an Evangelion fan that this ending was just a symbolic telling of the later “literal” OVA Puddle Of Tang ending. Um… o-kaaayyyyy….)
    Well, the feature film (End Of Evangelion) has the melting into goo ending. My understanding is that the TV version is what is going through Shinji’s mind just before he turns into goo himself (hence why he has that fantasy where he has a happy family and gets up to lots of cliché anime harem hijinx). Of course, the real meaning of the ending of the TV series roughly translates to “we spent all our money on drugs; lets make the last episode out of still crayon images, stock footage, and photographs of the script and call it ‘meta’”.

  • http://mikailborg.livejournal.com/ MikhailBorg

    Yes, I’ve noticed people often give it a name or a personality. I know someone who also came up with the ‘black dog’ without knowing about Churchill, and you’re in good company too – Antonia White called her bipolar disorder ‘the Beast’.
    At some point, I read a book of science essays on the brain, and got the idea that people’s personalities may well be stored redundantly there, so that in case of survivable trauma to the brain, as much of their self can be preserved as possible. Furthermore, in patients with certain kinds of brain damage, the redundant parts would surface and compete, for example perceiving slightly different things out of each eye.
    I have wondered if depression is partially the result of some of those redundant stores becoming more active than they should, and attempting to compensate for ‘damage’ (i.e., the presence of the original, dominant personality). I suggest this because I, too, have felt ‘possessed’, or at war with myself, when depressed; I can easily imagine giving the problem a name and an identity of its own – it really feels like one sometimes.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    @MikhailBorg: Interesting.
    I’ve linked here before, I think, because it’s the latest research on depression I’m aware of, but what it suggests is that depression is neurodegenerative like Alzheimers (only treatable, mercifully), which does indeed sound like trauma to the brain. And thinking of the ‘different eyes’ thing – well, one friend of mine found that their lazy eye started working a lot better after they went on SSRIs; it seemed that the medication was patching up the optical parts of their brain as well as the emotional.
    I wouldn’t say that depression is an ‘original’ personality; in fact, based on personal experience I’d say the reverse. Depression as I’ve encountered it doesn’t bring personality out, it buries it; more of a body-snatcher than a backup enabler. I’ve noticed, for example, that on support boards it’s common for spouses of sufferers to comment ‘We’re all married to the same person!’ Of my friends who’ve suffered from it, they’re very different people when they’re well, but start talking more and more like each other the sicker they get. So unless we assume that everyone has the same fundamental personality – and an anti-social one at that, which doesn’t seem very probable – I don’t think that idea works.

  • Fraser

    I haven’t seen the Evangelion movie, which explains why I didn’t remember everyone going tang at the end of the series.

  • http://mikailborg.livejournal.com/ MikhailBorg

    @Kit: you make a good point, though I’d suggest it’s still plausible that the ‘emergency backup’ personality could be primitive and undeveloped, and therefore remarkably similar among sufferers. Plausible, not necessarily likely. I’m very much a layman in this area.
    It does seem, though, that the general self-destructiveness of the depressed personality would make it fairly useless from an evolutionary standpoint. I think I need to read the article you’ve linked.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    I’d suggest it’s still plausible that the ‘emergency backup’ personality could be primitive and undeveloped, and therefore remarkably similar among sufferers
    I’m not sure I’d buy that. It’s an interesting theory, but as much simpler brains than humans’ can still manifest different personalities – I mean, cats don’t have much in the way of higher-brain stuff like language or social structure, but they’re still very diverse characters – I’m sceptical of the idea of a ‘primitive’ personality. I don’t think there’s any such thing; personality is a developed characteristic. If a life form is simple enough to be called ‘primitive’, it doesn’t have a personality at all.
    Plus, as you say, if ‘primitive’ humans had been hopeless, unmotivated, irritable, self-neglecting, uncooperative and suicidal, I very much doubt we’d be here today.

  • McJulie

    Well, I loved Wicked, the book. So there.
    (Has anybody else read Geoff Ryman’s Was?)
    I think LoTR is primarily a proto-environmentalist anti-industrial fable. There’s other stuff in there too, but the evil of the ruination of the natural world is a dominant theme that plays out again and again. That’s why the one-dimensional nature of the evil has always worked for me, since it’s a metaphor for vast impersonal mechanistic forces.

  • lonespark

    Didn’t we have a whole thread about depression and its evolutionary value? “All the same person” is an apt way to put it, but I think that’s just because certain traits come to predominate, and the unique personality is suppressed.

  • lonespark

    Palantir better than cable.

  • http://mikailborg.livejournal.com/ MikhailBorg

    going tang
    This is my new phrase for a condition of complete exhaustion and incoherence.
    “I stumbled home from work, fell onto the living room couch, and went tang.”

  • Jessica

    Burgundy wrote: “I am so relieved to see the comments on Wicked. I read it years ago (high school? college?) and had the sinking feeling that it was A Great Work of Literature that I ought to like much more than I did, so obviously there was something wrong with me. I’ve read other books of his – the Cinderella one, which was decently good, and the Snow White one, which left me even colder than Wicked did. I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t have a Maguire-compatible brain, and I leave aside any question as to whether that means there’s something wrong with my reading, his writing, or both.”
    I think I must be the same way. So many things about his female characters don’t feel right. I can’t come up with an example at the moment, it’s been a while since I read Wicked and ZOMG, I didn’t love it, so I tried to forget as much of it as I could, but there you have it. I suggest that Maguire should stop writing books from a woman’s perspective.
    Izzy wrote: “This is one of those exceptions to the Mary Sue Litmus Test rule. Total author stand-in, totally loved by all the other good characters, still totally awesome.”
    I have found, as a general rule, that the Mary Sues of Stephen King tend to be at least somewhat likeable and cool. But I guess I generally tend to find Stephen King a pretty likeable guy. LaJenkins, OTOH, not so much.

  • jamoche

    The distinction between self-insert and Mary Sue is that Sues are idealised; King is too skilled an observer of human nature to make that mistake.
    Palantir better than cable.
    But when you look into the cable, it does not look into you.
    That’s the downside of having a direct internet link to the brain; much as I think it would be cool, especially when someone here mentions something and I just have to google it, I’d want something a hell of a lot better than the current virus scanners protecting my brain.

  • Izzy

    Aw, thanks!
    Re: Stephen King, I agree. I could have done without the literal self-insert in DT6, but at least he *wasn’t* shining and perfect and courageous and blah blah blah.
    I’m also going to take a stand here in favor of remaining individual and isolated. Helping my fellow man, sure–but, to misquote Brunching Shuttlecocks, being part of a group mind loses a lot of its appeal once you’ve met a few dozen people. (Along those lines: from everything I’ve read about Shinji, having him reject said group mind sounds like he’d be doing the group mind a hell of a favor.)

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Producers in both film and TV have been using Canada as a stand-in for the US for years… — Tonio
    My favorite example of that was a scene from Stargate SG-1 that was set at “Area 51″ in the midst of a conifer forest (like you get in the Pacific Northwest). The real Area 51 is in the middle of the Nevada Basin, some of the harshest desert in North America — sun-drained sand broken by jagged mountain ridges with salt-white dry lakes in the valleys between.
    Another was Independence Day‘s alien attack on “El Toro Marine Air Station”, in deserted terrain more like the real Area 51. I worked in an industrial park next to the REAL El Toro; at the time of ID, it was typical California chaparral scrub near the foothills of Saddleback Mountain, in the process of being built up with typical Orange County condos, McMansions, and industrial parks.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Also, what Hapax said. There’s a scene in IT where Stephen King’s self-insertion*…I mean, the author character…is in a college creative writing class, where they’re all talking about the sociopolitical ramifications of these terribly postmodern Marxist-ethic works, and he stands up and says “Look, doesn’t all of this stuff naturally follow if you tell a good story?” Which: word, Stuttering Bill. Word. — Izzy
    In both his non-fiction books (Danse Macabre and On Writing), Stephen King tells a couple horror stories of “college creative writing classes”. In the latter, he skewers the lit-fag obsession with “deep character studies” with “Just take a college creative writing class. You’ll get enough Deep Character Studies to last you the rest of your life.” (And at the time he was there, Deep Character Studies of “Sensitive Young Writers whose parents didn’t UNDERSTAND them getting Sent to Vietnam…”)
    SK pulls off his author self-insert in IT because he knows when to stop to avoid runaway Mary Sue-ism. Plus, he’s a better writer than Jenkins, Paolini, or that Utah Mormon bored housewife who wrote Twilight. (And coming from a seriously blue-collar background, he has little patience with High Literature Posers; in On Writing, he comes across as a craftsman who’s talking about his craft and what he’s learned and what tools to use and how to use them — “Like driving a truck.”)

  • coffeedryad

    For fantasy-books-for-grownups with non-Western settings, there’s also the Black Company books. The first few are set in a more generically-western region, but they end up going through areas with more inspiration from India and Laos/Cambodia/Vietnam/Thailand in the later ones. Also, really good villains.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    HH: Some author with talant (More than me, anyway) needs to tell “Lord of the Rings” from Sauron’s viewpoint
    Well, it hardly aspires to Tolkien’s heft, but there’s always Diana Wynne Jones’s DARK LORD OF DERKHOLM (set in the same world as her indispensible TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND).
    — Hapax
    I second DARK LORD OF DERKHOLM, except it’s not exactly “LOTR told from Sauron’s POV”.
    More like what happens when a fantasy author loses it after hearing/reading One Trilogy Too Many of Elves/Dwarves/etc. (Especially when the author, Diana Wynne Jones, actually attended Oxford when Tolkien and Lewis were both active; she saw the originals, then the parade of knockoffs and imitators from Shannara to Eragon, and it was either take to the typer or start taking hostages.)
    Dark Lord of Derkholm is set in a conventionally-fantasy world (Elves, Dwarves, etc) whose inhabitants have to host what are effectively Full-Contact Live D&D games from Outside. The outworlders get to play D&D For Real, and the locals have to be the NPCs and take all the casualties — especially the poor shmuck who drew the short straw and has to be The Dark Lord.
    Sauron for this year’s Games is a wizard named Derk, an absent-minded professor type whose main worry before he drew the short straw was keeping his marriage together (wizards tend to have high divorce rates) and raising his five teenage children — two human and three gryphon, all adolescents with all that implies.
    Well, this year He’s It. He has to set up everything and be both Dungeonmaster and Dark Lord — especially after he gets racked up accidentally by a dragon early in the prepwork and the rest of his family (wife, human son & daughter, and their gryphon siblings) have to keep all the balls in the air, survive being the Orcs/Urgals/Big Bad NPCs, and try to monkeywrench the offworlders’ setup without getting caught. Working in as many as possible of the Conventional Fantasy tropes cataloged in Tough Guide to Fantasyland in the process.
    If you’ve ever seen one-too-many “Elves, Dwarves, etc” trilogies, Dark Lord of Derkholm is one of the best fantasies I can recommend.

  • http://cereselle.livejournal.com cereselle

    Do you really think so? [Wonders who will play?]
    Why, don’t you?

  • Caravelle

    Palantir better than cable.
    Except that Sauron is Comcast ? (to tie in with the most recent thread)

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    The Black Company books are quite good, if rather atypical for High Fantasy. They’re set in a fairly typical high-fantasy world (albeit one without elves and dwarves and such), but the story is told from the PoV for the titular Company–a gang of mercenaries working for the local Evil Overlord.
    I like the way the writer does names–most places and people have names like Rust or Whistler. Beats the heck out of the usual “handful of Scrabble tiles, add apostrophes to taste” method too many hack writers seem to use.

  • http://mikailborg.livejournal.com/ MikhailBorg

    Believable names for ahistorical or alien cultures are hard. Tolkien did that bit fairly well, I thought, while Niven’s alien names always sounded like spitting, and Dian Duane’s always sounded like someone singing in Gaelic.

  • Jeff

    I am in love with Izzy. Again.
    I’d say the same, but she might construe that as talk and I’d be stone out of luck!
    ===================
    even the Elven Tengwar alphabet was just uncial warmed over.
    One of the alphabets seems to have been derived from Caroligian, if that helps (and another from futhark, but that may put you back some). Part of what I loved about LotR is that Tolkien stole borrowed from so many stories, alphabets, songs, and other cultural artifacts, made them his own, and made a bang-up tale out of it.
    ========================
    But when you look into the cable, it does not look into you.
    Are you sure?
    ====================
    Why, don’t you?
    Isn’t that simply a negation? (Did I nearly forget the original for my question? And doesn’t pagenation truely SUCK for this game?)

  • Jeff

    Niven’s alien names always sounded like spitting
    Yeah, but that’s appropriate for the Kzin!

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/ Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Mau de Katt: The actual series, as I recall, ended with what was basically an episode-long Jungian phychotherapy session, concluding with Shinji Finally Working Out His Issues and everyone applauding.
    That’s the one I sort of overhead. What’s the right verb for the TV version of “couldn’t help but overhear”? As in, my husband was watching through DVDs of the TV series, and I stumbled in on a few episodes, got sucked in around the point that what’s-her-bucket was discovering she was Made Not Born (And They Made Spares), which was early enough of a sucking-in to feel like a victim of bait-and-switch when that dang “therapy session in the void, population 1 chair” ending happened.
    By then I’d been introduced to Lain and had not yet chilled out enough to stop holding all things anime to the resulting impossibly high standards. Not, I think, that Eva would have benefited from my encountering it after I chilled out.
    Some time later I was forcefed That One About The Origami Monsters, Ha Ha, I mean “Aurigami,” Which Means Big Bad-assed Plants That Destroy Tokyo and The One True Descendant That Can Stop Them, that one sorta ended like that too. Ha ha we go meta on you baaiiiii! Only without the supporting cast’s stand-up ovation.
    What were we talking about, again?
    And wouldn’t origami monsters be cool?
    Kit: Okay, I’ve just put up the new post, Nicole – click on my name if you want to read it.
    Squeee! And it’s not even Christman yet! I can has prezzies!
    *scampers off to read*

  • Caravelle

    jamoche : @interloper: True, the male body types in FMA are much more realistic; I’ll revise my earlier statement to be that DBZ was the first anime I saw where the guys weren’t androgynous or close to.
    I hadn’t mentioned Soul Eater because the character I thought off the top of my head when I read your post is a pencil-thin Goth kid. Then I saw Episode 28. I’m not particularly into muscles myself, but rawr.
    When a friend told me it was as good as FMA I was sceptical, but Soul Eater is seriously starting to grow on me.
    Excalibaaaa ! Excalibaaaa ! From the United Kingdom I’m looking for him, I’m going to Californiaaaa !
    (what drugs are those who wrote this on, you ask ? My theory : Japan makes you high. And I want some.)
    @Jenny Islander : Looove your take on Eva !

  • http://www.angmarbucket.livejournal.com AngmarBucket

    On Sauron: I do think Sauron and his cohorts were evil, but what’s bothersome is that Tolkien was so…ah, cliche about it? I don’t think Sauron had good intentions at all, and if I read a story with his POV I would expect him to be evil… but some more…dimension to the evil characters would be nice. I’ve read the Silmarillion but it’s not hard to notice that evil people are generally unnattractive BECAUSE they are evil (there’s a part in it that says that Sauron, after a certain point, could no longer make himself beautiful. And note that he only made himself beautiful when he was tempting someone–since he’s eeeevil he’s usually ugly/not attractive). Stuff like that makes Tolkien’s work seem rather childish.
    Incidentally, I did write a Sauron-based short fic that is in his POV, about the critical moment where he was given the chance to redeem himself but didn’t. Silmarillion kind of glossed over the whole thing, so I wrote up something to fill in the blanks. It’s old and probably not my best now, but if you want a look at what I was going for: http://community.livejournal.com/lotr_fiction/80293.html
    In regards to EMPIRE, I was very very into it at first, but then it all went to hell at the ending. EMPIRE kind of put me off in regard to male fantasies–they usually end badly, which is odd for a fantasy. The only reason I can figure is because the fantasies are usually so…destructive and evil in nature. Like WANTED (which had a somewhat happy ending in a “bad guy gets to kill and rape forevermore” kind of way). Perhaps male fantasies end so crappily because deep down the man knows better than to indulge the fantasy as a good thing, but it’s all still really icky and not so fun when you think about it seriously.

  • inge

    Someone, on Tolkien: fighting tooth and nail to preserve the old order against the creeping evil of industrialism and failing…
    Until I read “The Road To Wigan Pier” and found how close Orwell’s description of the coal mining areas resembles Tolkien’s of the desolation at the gates of Mordor, I didn’t realize that Tolkien wasn’t using hyperbole…
    Generally: Non-European fantasy suggestions: Liz Williams (she’s all over the map), Gaiman’s “Anansi Boys”. Borderline (Eastern Europe): Steven Brust’s “Brokedown Palace”
    Fraser: It’s standard for fantasies, historical novels, swashbuckler films see the solution to tyranny as putting the Right King on the throne rather than dispensing with monarchy completely
    Can we make a rec list for revolutionary fantasy?
    interloper, re Lord of the Rings from Sauron’s POV, Banewreaker: I have been thinking of that one, though I haven’t read it. Is it any good? (Kind of stupid question, I know…)
    Jessica: Sometimes I feel like the only human being in the world who didn’t like Wicked.
    I got about 70 pages in and then the eight deadly words killed it. I have no idea if it was the fault of the book, or if it is just a bad idea to read fanfic when one is unfamiliar with canon.
    Caravelle: But Somalian pirates have no influence on global warming!
    Izzy, re: AWE: I don’t know what it is with filmmakers and slow-mo explosions these days. Waste of screen time. What I liked about AWE was that there were so many characters with some many incompatible goals that some of them just had to fail, and it was a lot more suspenseful than the outcome of CotBP (Hero gets the girl, rival stands nobly aside, trickster goes free, bad guy get killed). Also I liked that none of the heroes got what they desired most, so that uncertainty actually went somewhere.
    Brad: The audience for comics has been skewing older for some time, leading to more blood, guts, sex, and social comment.
    I had the impression that the shift mostly happend around 1990, following the weakening of the Comics Code in the 80s.

  • inge

    Stupid paging.
    AngmarBucket: I don’t think Sauron had good intentions at all,
    One could write Sauron (or better, Melkor) the way Milton wrote Satan, I guess. Add a little romanticism, and you have a tragic hero.

  • hf

    That guy who founded the Temple of Set wrote something he called Morlindalë, which Google places at http://www.xeper.org/maquino/nm/Morlindale.pdf

  • interloper

    Banewreaker: …Is it any good?
    It isn’t my absolute favorite thing ever, but I’d hate to mention it without warning people off if I didn’t think it was worth a look.
    One could write Sauron (or better, Melkor) the way Milton wrote Satan, I guess. Add a little romanticism, and you have a tragic hero.
    That’s actually a pretty good capsule description of the Carey books. Since she created her own cosmology, her Dark Lord gets to be even more sympathetic: he isn’t trying to usurp the ruling god, but only wants to be left alone. It’s the other, supposedly good, deities (his siblings– he isn’t a rebellious created being either) that are prosecuting a centuries-long war against him over a philosophical disagreement about how he should manifest his powers in the world. (He’s the wounded, outcast God of Sex, basically.)
    (Hah– I’m so glad I always preview. On my first italics tag, I put the close tag in first the way I always do, but I forgot to put the slash in it…)

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Another good, decidedly non-standard fantasy series I’d recommend is Tanith Lee’s Tales from the Flat Earth. They have more in common with Greek or Norse myth (with powerful beings who are mostly bastards most of the time) than anything Tolkien ever wrote.

  • Izzy

    …Jesus, does Carey ever write *anything* where the cosmology doesn’t feature the wounded, outcast god of sex? I mean, I’m as big a fan of the GoS as the next liberal slut, and I rather liked the Kushiel’s Codpiece series (more for the world than for the characters, at least in the first trilogy) but the woman is starting to seem rather like one of those “oh pity and fear me for nobody understands my dark dark bdsm nature” chicks I knew in college, and…sweetie? Every fucking sophomore girl has a dog collar and a copy of “Beauty’s Awakening”; you are not fighting the man with your edgy edginess; go away, you make me tired.
    Jeff: Hee! Thanks.
    inge: Yeah, that was pretty cool. And unexpected from Disney, which doesn’t generally skew as much toward the bittersweet.

  • inge

    Izzy: Jesus, does Carey ever write *anything* where the cosmology doesn’t feature the wounded, outcast god of sex?
    Now I want to read something about a wounded, outcast Sun god. Fantasy tropes would have come full circle with that. For a short story a god of war might work better.
    but the woman is starting to seem rather like one of those “oh pity and fear me for nobody understands my dark dark bdsm nature” chicks
    Fun thing is, most people understand OK, but the guy she has a crush on is the one that is religiously forbidden from doing so. I really loved the antiquity/renaissance crossover of the world, though.

  • Izzy

    Hee–I meant more Carey herself than Phedre, but yeah.
    My reaction to the first trilogy, and especially the first two books, was very much “this is an awesome world so STOP talking about your ANGSTY DOOMED SPECIAL LOVE OF SPECIALNESS and let me enjoy that, dammit, because I really do not care about the aforementioned ANGSTY DOOMED BLAH BLAH BLAH”. Imriel is better, because he actually has a reason for his angst that isn’t “nobody understands how I am both blessed and cursed to feel pain as pleasure oh WOE”.

  • Nenya

    From way up in the comment thread:
    lonespark: Izzy, now you’ve got me wracking my brain for any Ioreth-fic I’ve seen.
    Without Hope: Eight Days in Gondor Regional Medical Center by Philosopher AT Large (who comments here occasionally as bellatrys) has an OC female healer in Gondor during the seige. It is really quite good IMHO, except that it stops after four chapters and was obviously intended to go longer.
    What everyone else has said about LOTR (Aragorn, Faramir, Eowyn, Arwen) and Star Trek. Also I LOL’d for reals at the idea of tang!Founders in anime!!
    Wicked: I liked it at first, but yeah, WAYYY too much bleakness. Same with Son of a Witch, the sequel. I liked some of the worldbuilding, and the idea that Elphaba was actually a civil rights activist, and some of the stuff about her sister, but then it kind of fizzled at the end. The real world has too much bleakness and proud energetic people losing their spark because of the ravages of time and depression–why would I want that in my fantasy?
    (That the person who lent it to me *is* depressed may explain why she liked it so much, though. Hmm. Would be interesting to see the musical, and see if I liked it any better.)

  • http://mikailborg.livejournal.com/ MikhailBorg

    One could write Sauron (or better, Melkor) the way Milton wrote Satan, I guess. Add a little romanticism, and you have a tragic hero.
    You could also write Mr. Spock as a happy-go-lucky rogue with a disarming grin and a beer for anyone with a problem. Of course, that would make no sense, but then neither would making Sauron noble and misunderstood.
    Really, he’s barely in the books anyway. Despite the title, the novels aren’t about Sauron, they’re about how the Free Peoples deal with what he’s done to their world. I am really not getting how discovering that he was always teased mercifully by the other Maiar, and that he never got the medication that would have cured his social anxiety disorder, would improve the story any. Sometimes, evil is just evil. Happens in the real world that way, too.

  • http://mikailborg.livejournal.com/ MikhailBorg

    i meant “mercilessly”, of course. Sorry, I got about three hours of sleep last night.

  • inge

    Nenya: thanks for the link, I cannot believe I missed that story until now.
    MikhailBorg: Writing Spock as Scotty might be more original than a Silm/Bible fanfic meta crossover, but less interesting…

  • Izzy

    Nenya: Ooh, I’ll have to have a look. Thanks!
    And I hear you on the “I can get sucky things in RL–why would I want them in fantasy?” deal. So much. I read for *fun*. While I try to be open to the possible fun of new and different stuff, I did *plenty* of the “tedious or depressing but Improving books” in college, and…y’know, got my paper and I was free, to quote the Indigo Girls. Now? If it’s not fun, I don’t see why I should bother.
    (Which is not to say that it’s invalid or wrong to read for other reasons, or that the depressing stuff isn’t fun for some people. Standard disclaimer here.)
    (Honestly, I think I’m still owed some sort of karma for slogging through Catcher in the Rye back in high school. Upper-class white teenage boys whining about how their lives are so hard and saying that anyone functional is “phony”…spare me.)
    Mikhail: I agree with you. And yet now I hate you, because a horrible horrible “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” filk is trying to write itself in my head, and I can’t think of an epithet for Sauron that scans. “Sauron the One-Eyed Maiar”?

  • Jeff

    I think I’m still owed some sort of karma for slogging through Catcher in the Rye back in high school. Upper-class white teenage boys whining about how their lives are so hard and saying that anyone functional is “phony”.
    I got the impression that the Caulfields were upper-middle class at best. Other than that, yeah to 5th power.

  • hapax

    … Had a huge and fiery Eye
    And if you caught his notice
    Pretty soon your brain would fry…

  • hapax

    Not so much Catcher, but I’ll confess to toting about Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey during my youth, with underlined passages and notes in the margin saying, “How true. How true!”
    I got better. (But I still own great love (and squalor) for Esme.)

  • Brad

    I’ll confess to toting about Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey during my youth, with underlined passages and notes in the margin saying, “How true. How true!”
    You Whore of Mensa, you!

  • Rhie

    one of them is now an accomplished blogger and the other survives as a “Celebreality” relic on VH-1. Only one of the four has gone on to a solid career as a capable adult actor.
    i know this is nitpicking, and late, but that’s not quite fair. “the blogger” has also written several books, had a continuing role it a top tv series, has a working actor’s career list (check out his imdb page), has regular invitations to speak at well-known conventions and has a small but growing and very loyal following among the geek crowd.
    As you can see, i knew exactly who you meant without much description. I also felt it was important to correct you more than a year after the fact. i would be very surprised if i were the only one who did so. someone doesn’t have to end up an a-lister to be a capable adult actor. he makes a living with his creative talents of all kinds and he enjoys his work. i would call that a successful career.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Pelikan/100000903137143 Jonathan Pelikan

    Jesus. It’s scary how well Cameron here fits as Buck. That quote about ‘top of the ladder’ sounds like Buck giving his ‘personal testomony’ and stuff.

    Well, I’ve ended up imagining everybody in LB as their movie counterparts now whenever I read your posts, which I suppose happens with a lot of franchises. (I was very impressed with how much the Harry Potter movies looked like what I imagined they would, though.)


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