Considering John O’Brien

The author of Leaving Las Vegas pretty well fit the cliche of the alcoholic writer. He embodied it so well, in fact, that it killed him.

O’Brien had been a hardcore alcoholic for much of his life. His sister, Erin O’Brien, said of his drinking: “John’s drinking problem started as soon as his drinking started. By the time he was 20, he was taking a clandestine flask to work. By the time he was 26, he was chugging vodka directly from the bottle at morning’s first light in order to stave off the shakes.”

In popular culture, it is often written that Leaving Las Vegas was the author’s suicide note, perhaps to try and make something ugly a tad bit prettier. His sister takes exception to that. “That story was the fantasy version of John’s exit,” says Erin, “The man who goes to Vegas and fades away in his sleep with a beautiful woman at his side? John’s death was nothing like that.”

Erin O’Brien has spent many years being the keeper of her brother legacy. “John was profoundly misunderstood by most people,” she told me. “There has been very little intelligent commentary out there on him and his work.”

This is relevant not just because Leaving Las Vegas is a masterpiece of prose style, albeit one that has drifted off the cultural radar in the last 20 years (virtually everything does, and if I can discover the novel 20 years later, there’s no reason anyone else can’t), but because of the promise destroyed. O’Brien had the talent to become a major American author, perhaps the best of his generation. Instead, he became the embodiment of what became his magnum opus by default. The true artist should always be larger than his work, not bound by it.

Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Space Opera

If you define fantasy as “a story that cannot occur in the real world”, as this web site does, then you can include sci-fi in that, as sci-fi takes places in worlds unseen and with technology uninvented, and any technology sufficiently advanced functions more or less like magic in the minds of many people.

But I’m not quite sure about that.

There’s definitely a link between sci-fi and fantasy, as both tend to be adventure stories. But Fantasy is by definition “unreal”, while sci-fi is “could be real”. Technology can seem magical, but it isn’t magic.

Which is why people tend to say “Sci-Fi and Fantasy” rather than just “Fantasy”. Related, but not a subset of. Because you can mix them, and the result is known as “Space Opera”.

Or is it? Here’s Tor.com working themselves into a later on the virtues of Space Opera, but holding off on really defining it (or refuting the statement that it’s Fantasy in Space). They talk about color and style, and poetry, but that seems to me a question of style, which is not really ontological.

To me, Space Opera means that there are elements of the universe that rely on speculative technology, space travel, and other Future Tropes, and also elements of the magical and supernatural. Star Wars is the most commonly known expression of this, but I think Dune qualifies even more, because with Dune the mystical/supernatural stands apart, plot-wise, from the tech. The Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilaxu are the institutional expressions of the cleavage.

What’s operatic in Dune is the struggle of Paul to understand himself, as well as the struggle against the Emperor and the Harkonnens. The remainder of the novels deal with the consequences of that struggle through the generations, as the metaphysical singularity represented by Paul is worked through by his son, Leto II, the God-Emperor.

The spice is real, and has a life-cycle, but it’s no less magic for all of that. It enables a mind to fold space and time, to see without seeing. The Worm is God.

If you keep the spice and lose the space travel, you have a struggle amid houses for dominance of the magic thing, which will play out much like A Song of Ice and Fire. If you keep the space travel, and lose the Spice, you have a sci-fi story about assassins and feudal regimes, with human enemies instead of aliens. The elements of each make make the other greater, while remaining distinct.

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And Now, More Mindlessly Speculative Guff about Star Wars

First, the rumor mill: reshoots, secret cameos, six different endings, a bunch of “sources say” folderol. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. There’s really no way to know. Even after the movie’s out, we don’t get a lot of facts about what actually goes on in a movie shoot. Until the last Blu-Ray sale, no one wants to go on record.

Also, I’m kinda tired of the idea that it was The Last Jedi that broke Star Wars, as if the last 20 years hadn’t happened. This franchise has been coming apart at the seams for a while.

And honestly, the whole point of doing movies is to re-shoot them if you can. This is especially true of large corporate popcorn movies. Everyone with a stake gets to put their 2 cents in. It’s not inherently bad that they’re trying to please as many of the fans as they can.

Still, not a good look.

Then we’ve got completely speculative horse-puckeys about what can even be done with the story at this point:

This sounded terrifyingly plausible to me, but that doesn’t mean it’s what’s happening. My instinct says that Skywalker is going to be blandly competent and mildly forgettable. But again, this could also be wrong. Every thought and process we have about this right now is locked into essentially the same place it was in the Prequel era – Please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please don’t suck.

Because, Solo aside, they haven’t done anything to expand the universe (Solo was a good movie. It didn’t deserve its fate). It’s the same blues-vs-reds that it was before, only now it’s done with different sensibilities and feels about 20% as fresh. And maybe that’s because we’re all too wrapped up in it as fans. Fandom is inherently obsessive and perspective-warping. Turning enjoyment into devotion messes up the relationship between art and audience.

The question is, when Lucasfilm busted its ankles to profit from that devotion, and still does, do they not bear some responsibility for that skewed relationship? Especially when they feel no obligation to the art as anything other than a bland corporate product? It’s hard to find much sympathy for an organization that refuses to manage basic continuity in what’s supposed to be an ongoing story.

But again, nobody knows. And my attitude has become so clinical and noncommittal towards this, that I’m beginning to ask myself if I even care.

Merry Podcasting

I find it interesting how “podcast” has evolved from “micro-radio show on your iPhone” to “people talking into a microphone on YouTube”.

Now this is a satrical podcast, but what it’s satirizing is very real. There are in fact, entire YouTube channels that exist for 30-year-olds to talk like children about popcorn movies under the guise of “nerd culture”. I know I shouldn’t talk, because I’m about to launch a podcast similar in scope, but I’m not a shill for Disney. I’m interested in the art form.

The podcast will be called Shallow & Pedantic, and while it’s aimed at discussing literature, film, and other things aesthetic, our approach is critical, analytical, not Go Out and See The New Thing.

This doesn’t mean Thumbs Down/Thumbs Up is going anywhere. I’ll continue to record episode for it, because I genuinely like it. I haven’t been as committed to creating new episodes as I want, because writing episodes is never as small an undertaking as I want it to be. But with the new school year comes a new focus, and a new commitment to making new content. So on we go.

TV is Contrary to Good Storytelling

Unless the story is already told…

Holt McCallany makes a strong point: most TV is writer/producer-driven. You gotta grind out the script, then grind out the shoot. Rehearsal is a minimum and re-shoots are not a thing.

How then, to square this with my disappointment with the new season, which felt exactly like a selection of tropes?

The problem is repetition. Successful TV shows by definition are supposed to keep going, but if a story is getting told well, characters and arcs should already be resolved. So we have to recreate arcs, build cliffhangers, and in general drag the thing out, because that’s where the money is.

Even Director-driven shows feel the need to do add character builds. Fifty-minute running times don’t write themselves.

The Flop Sweat is Real: Hollywood’s Death March Continues

They’re gonna do a Fourth Matrix movie.

I predict it sucks so hard, it makes Revolutions look good.

Now that’s an easy prediction to make, because if I’m wrong, I’ll have something mildly decent to watch whenever it shows upon Amazon Prime. But odd are I’m right, because…

  1. No one cares about this series. It’s just a name that will put enough fanboys in the seats domestically and probably sell well in China. It’s going to be The Matrix Awakens, softly re-booting the story for nostalgia purposes. Story will be the last thing on anyone’s mind.
  2. The original series was a mess, but at least it finished. There’s nothing more to say or do in this universe. They danced around with a basic Messianic premise, loaded it up with Cyberpunk imagery and garbage sub-Baudrillard post-modernism, and tried to conflate confusion with depth. Going back to it will not accomplish anything of value.
  3. The Wachowskis are bad filmmakers. They had one good movie, tainted by its garbage sequels. Everything else they’ve done has been mediocre to astonishingly bad (Jupiter Ascending, anyone?). Compare them to the Cohen brothers, I dare you.

In short, there’s no reason to expect anything from this microwaved movie. Anyone who pays good money to see it in the theater is a sucker, and they will deserve the anger headaches that follow. Stop lining up for this swill.

Woody Allen is Still Making Movies

Woody Allen’s ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ to Open Deauville Film Festival

Woody Allen’s ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ to Open Deauville Film Festival
— Read on variety.com/2019/film/global/woody-allens-a-rainy-day-in-new-york-deauville-film-festival-1203309106/

I’ve tried to like Woody Allen movies, but I can’t, because they usually involve having to like Woody Allen. And I have never managed to pull that off. Woody Allen is what happens when someone takes Mel Brooks, removes all the jokes, and makes him read Freud and Sartre, and convinces him that shoving a young blonde in there somewhere will dredge up the appropriate level of pathos. His career is a testament to the mythos of New York as a Mecca of culture. No matter how many times he turned in the same snit of schlemielery in a different garb, you could always count on someone among the literati to nod approvingly at it.

And even #MeToo couldn’t take the old twerp out. How lame.