January 26, 2009

Prince Caspian

In purely cinematic terms, Prince Caspian is better than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I liked it more as a movie. Aside from too little Tilda Swinton, the characters and the conflicts are more interesting and "authentic." And yet it all adds up to utter nonsense.

Paradoxically its superior quality makes this clearer. I've read the Narnia books many times, but watching Prince Caspian it fully registered what about C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series specifically Philip Pullman finds so annoying: Lewis cheats like crazy.

The first big cheat in Prince Caspian is Lucy's insistence that she's seen Aslan, and that means they should do X instead of Y. We believe Lucy because she's a cute kid and was right the last time. Plus she's the protagonist and she's really, really sure of herself.

Outside the fanciful Y/A universe, this is a dreadful rule of thumb when it comes to taking advice from anybody, especially children. Bright lines are drawn between "adulthood" and "childhood" because (among other reasons) the judgment of children is so bad.

A passionate insistence isn't a substitution for the facts. Neither is it the equivalent of "faith." Else we should follow after every self-assured ideological zealot that comes down the pike.

Back in the real world, religions (and organizations in general) come up with various ways around this problem. For example: official spokespersons. If Lucy was the "designated person who talks to Aslan" (i.e., a prophet), that would have changed the equation considerably.

It's a classic "appeal to authority" either way, but at least the chain of attribution would remain clear. Nobody in Prince Caspian can decide who the heck is in charge. No wonder they resort to magic when they screw up massively and their backs are up against the wall.

Which makes this magic business the even bigger cheat, and the more invidious one.

All fantasy and science fiction cheats. Rather than "Once upon a time," such stories should begin, "Assuming that the standard laws of physics don't apply and the second law of thermodynamics can be violated at will." (Literary fiction cheats too, except about human nature.)

But we accept these hand-waves as a matter of course. We are willing to suspend our disbelief and consume a simile of reality as long as we're not expected to treat it as an actual reflection of reality. That's why it's called make believe.

More importantly, we accept these inventions on the condition that they conform to the internal logic of the story. But Lewis relies instead on a context outside the narrative. He exploits external connections between fairy tales and Christianity to connect the dots.

Calling it "deep magic" is another way of saying "Just because." This is not only a Narnia problem. When it comes to the Christ figures in all his books, Lewis punts. Seriously, what exactly does Aslan do in Prince Caspian other than show up at the last minute like an M1A1 battle tank?

I can't help thinking of the scene in Red Dwarf where Kryten invades a Jane Austen virtual reality simulator in a tank because the crew blew off the lobster dinner he'd been slaving over all day. One of the funniest things I've ever seen. But, really, this isn't much different.

Anyway, being generally short on battle tanks, I can imagine the faithful resorting to all sorts of cargo cults to get Aslan to reliably show up when the chips are down. Based on Prince Caspian, I guess it comes down to trusting in unknown forces and taking an intellectual swan dive off a cliff.

Oh, and getting a whole lot of people pointlessly killed first.

But if I wanted New Agey, self-actualizing claptrap, hey, give me Richard (Jonathan Livingston Seagull) Bach. The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, set himself the task of reconciling an upstart Jewish sect with the cosmology of the Greco-Roman-Egyptian universe (Acts 17:23 NIV):

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

The end result was modern Christianity. But what we've lost since then is that original cosmology, the known and unknown gods that ruled Paul's world. The gods of the Old Testament and The Aeneid, full of parts and passions. Gods that could be argued and wrestled with.

Mormon Gods, in other words. At least before Mormonism got embarrassed of them.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
1/26/2009 10:25 AM   
Methinks you're taking it all a little too seriously. Besides, it's better than the messes of movies The Golden Compass (talk about deus ex machina) and Lord of the Rings trilogy (with the endless endings.)

Pulling back a little; people dying pointlessly is a big part of an awful lot of movies. The weirdest moment is realizing how often the hero actually caused the problem to begin with. (That's one of the problems of the Bourne movies I deliberately choose to ignore--he's causing an awful lot of collateral damage in a crusade to feel better about himself. Dark Knight is an even more vivid example, but I didn't like it, so I make no attempt to find an out.)
# posted by Blogger Eugene
1/26/2009 12:06 PM   
What it takes to suspend disbelief is obviously subjective. I enjoyed Independence Day because I could separate the story structure from the silly plot devices used to drive it forward (as my brother quips, "You could no more upload a computer virus to an alien spacecraft than you could upload a ham sandwich").

But while I can invent solutions to the technical problems in Independence Day ("finding an out," as Joe puts it), I can't explain the Joker's behavior in The Dark Knight unless it's stipulated that he's capable of mind control and can see the future. Because such superpowers are not presumed, the movie failed for me.

The same way I could turn my brain off to the idiocies in The Matrix, but the sheer amount of additional stupidity required to suspend disbelief wrecks the sequels. Because I can't separate Christian apologetics from Narnia, I couldn't keep from grasping for theological "logic" in Prince Caspian. And failed to find it.
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
1/27/2009 6:25 PM   
I think seeing Lucy in literal terms (she's a kid; she isn't an appointed official) kind of misses the point. The Pevensies are never treated like kids in the book, and the movie does a fairly good job of not treating them like kids either (although I intend to argue in my review--it's coming!--that the movie is basically a coming of age story for Peter).

Likewise, despite the great Godfather-type subplot, Prince Caspian's plot isn't really about war and/or government. I think Lewis was experimenting, in the book at least, with the idea of history: that dead and gone heroes have become legends, the legends have been buried, old foes have become friends, and everything that was once known is now a memory. This is something Tolkien presents as a given in his Middle Earth landscape. C.S. Lewis appears fascinated by this idea from a purely historiographical point of view. And I think the movie folks showed appreciation of that aspect of the book. Prince Caspian claiming his proper inheritance isn't about "How to Overcome Usurpers in Six Easy Steps" any more than the Pevensies' travel to Aslan's How is "How to Be Boy and Girlscouts in Dangerous Woods." Rather, their experiences are about uncovering what was lost and believing in what has become unbelievable.

I admit that the movie seems to hover between metaphor and literalism and that the (literal) deus ex machina of the movie, more than that of the book, bothered me the first time around. However, like Joe, I consider both the war scenes and the deus ex machina of Caspian substantially more palatable than those of Return of the King. Peter and Caspian et al. have to make choices and their choices have definite outcomes. All Aragorn has to do is be brave, and the ghosts fix everything. And hooray for him! But his bravery doesn't have the bitter personal outcomes of Peter's choices. Everybody is Frodo in Prince Caspian.

See the battles in Prince Caspian as something from the Book of Joshua, and the movie makes more sense. Besides, the real change or climax (in the movie and in the book) isn't Aslan showing up; it's the combat between Miraz and Peter and the wonderful, traitorous, underhanded skullduggery of Miraz's "supporters." (This is the part that the movie folks did a little too well, so the magic-fixes-everything resolution does seem a little out of place; still, I consider that the movie folks have made substantial improvements since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and they actually seem to like the series, which is a bonus.)

Having written the above, in my review, I will argue that all the battle stuff is secondary to the infighting between the testosterone-laden young men, so all the above may be kind of moot. The review is coming!

By the way, I will now reveal my truly pop-culture side and say I think The Aeneid is possibly one of the most boring poems ever written. The gods of the Ancient World may have been fascinating but that doesn't mean the writers made them fascinating.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
1/28/2009 3:15 PM   
Evolution and devolution do have their limits. I give a character arc 360 degrees. Once the yoyo completes its loop, something new had better happen or I'm out of there. This is why I so loathed the whole Ross/Rachel thing on Friends, and why even the best guy-centered romances like Ah! My Goddess drive me batty.

When it comes to the men-butting-heads business, two illustrative anime series are Gundam Wing and Angelic Layer. The former is about testosterone-poisoned teen guys fighting each other and blowing things up while completing their glorious mission. I know as a teenager I would have loved it. But it bored me to tears.

The latter is "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em" robots with cute marionettes (so nobody actually gets hurt). The real story is about the reconciliation between the protagonist and her mother, which is dragged out to an excruciating and baldly manipulative degree. As a teenager, I would have rolled my eyes at this one, but I enjoyed it a lot more.

As I noted, I did like Prince Caspian more than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and considerably more than LOTR (as far as I'm concerned, LOTR is the medieval version of Gundam Wing). The "discovered past" themes are the best parts (and also the best parts of anime series like Scrapped Princess and Eureka Seven).

I was able to enjoy The Matrix, despite that dumber-than-dirt battery business. As lame an explanation as it was, it was at least an explanation ("We'll fix it in post"). What annoyed me the most about Prince Caspian was that they didn't even try to explain what Aslan was doing there.
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
1/28/2009 7:44 PM   
I agree that the parts with Aslan are kind of "and then . . . Aslan showed up" although it bothered me less the second time around since I think I was more prepared for it. In the book, Aslan and Lucy and Susan have their own separate adventure which dovetails with the end of the combat. Truth to tell, though, I was kind of glad the movie folks skipped it. For one thing, I find Susan as a bow-toting Amazon much more interesting than Susan as hanger-on to Lucy. (I also think that centering The Last Battle on Susan's implied internal conflict would be a great idea--if they ever do that book as a movie, which is unlikely: great visuals though.)

I wonder if the movie folks had the same problem with Aslan in Caspian that Shyamalan had with The Village. There's this whole interesting problem of free-will and the universe-imposed or self-imposed limitations of deity, not to mention of communities, and gosh, it's interesting, but well, folks, we don't just have the time, and besides, we've got this battle to fight, so so much for that theological problem.

Which, for a 2-hour family adventure movie is kind of inevitable. The Matrix had Hugo Weaving doing his great (and well-written) diatribes which gave context to everything. But a family adventure movie is either going to produce a lot of platitudes or ignore the problem. I confess, if those are my only choices, to preferring the latter option to the former.

I think the movie folks were also hampered, theology wise, by Lewis' intense interest in the personal: in what people do when God isn't watching, so to speak. I happen to love his science-fiction series, but his science-fiction theology gets downright confusing--in the Russian-novel-with-a-million-characters-who-go-by-a-million-different-names sense. He is so much better at talking about how people live when they are trying to be good--mere Christianity--or when they are slowly going bad than talking about what it's all suppose to mean. After all, he created Eustace (something to look forward to in the next movie)! Lewis is much better, in other words, at the personal God stuff than the generalized God stuff, which is, I suppose, what you meant by gods that can be "argued and wrestled with." Lucy becomes his touchstone because for her God is so very palpable. The original conversation between Lucy and Aslan when she goes looking for Him in the woods is a great example of personal testimony and Job-like man-deity contact. At that moment, it's all about Lucy and Aslan.

Technically, Lewis didn't believe in a corporal God, but he sure acted like he did!
# posted by Blogger Eugene
1/29/2009 10:04 AM   
Susan does turn out to be refreshingly assertive. I was all ready for her to stay behind with Caspian at the end, since Lewis wrote her out of the story anyway. Though it sort of proves Philip Pullman's original point that Susan "might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she'd been allowed to."
# posted by Blogger Joe
1/29/2009 8:58 PM   
Bah, Susan never would have been an interesting character. Neither would Peter ultimately. They're just boring teenagers. I've actually always been partial to Jill for reasons I can't remember right now.