A Blog and Novel by S. M. Duke. Writing discussion, genre fiction, reviews, tips, and more!
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For those who follow me here or on Medium direct, you’ll be pleased to know that I’ve put together a space for The Joy Factory content in the form of a Medium Publication. This will create a central designed space for all of the joyful content! It also means that following me there and my...
For those who follow me here or on Medium direct, you’ll be pleased to know that I’ve put together a space for The Joy Factory content in the form of a Medium Publication. This will create a central designed space for all of the joyful content! It also means that following me there and my personal Medium page will go a long way to supporting the content I create for this project.
Content will still show up here and on the Patreon page for The Joy Factory, but you’ll see a bit more thought going into their placement on Medium going forward.
Also in the works: a newsletter. More on that later.
So there you go. Go follow me on Medium. Support my stuffs!
If you’d asked me in 2019 whether musicals were “my thing,” I might have said something like “well, I do enjoy musicals from time to time, but I wouldn’t say I go out of my way to watch them.” If you’d asked me the same question by July 2020, the answer would have been something...
If you’d asked me in 2019 whether musicals were “my thing,” I might have said something like “well, I do enjoy musicals from time to time, but I wouldn’t say I go out of my way to watch them.”
If you’d asked me the same question by July 2020, the answer would have been something like “oh my sweet mother of god I absolutely love musicals they are keeping me from going mad.”
Throughout 2020, I consumed what to me was an absurd number of musicals for someone who had only dabbled in the genre previously. And the world was happy to oblige my desperate need for the joy a good musical can bring. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Show Must Go On YouTube channel joyfully screened some of Webber’s classics, including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Phantom of the Opera. Other music institutions also happily aired operas, symphonic performances, and even professional productions of Shakespeare and other plays. And Spotify’s music catalogue gave me even more to enjoy, from Gilbert & Sullivan to walls of EDM and symphonies I’ve never heard before. But it was the musicals that gave me an escape.
For months last year, I obsessed over the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman before dropping a chunk of change on the blu ray. While the film leaves much to be desired, the music that makes up its soundtrack held such a powerful sway over the early days of quarantine that I played the whole thing on repeat while going about my day, sometimes gleefully singing along with tears in my eyes. Songs like “This is Me” by the absolutely incredible Keala Settle, “Rewrite the Stars” with Zac Efron and Zendaya, or the absolute banger “From Now On” with Hugh Jackman. This led me down the rabbit hole of behind-the-scenes materials, wherein I discovered this riveting performance by Settle of “This is Me,” which effectively got the movie greenlit because of her devastating honesty and the palpable joy oozing from the others in the room, many musical giants. And after years and years of cruelty and hate rampaging through U.S. culture, I kept coming back to those immortal lines from “From Now On”:
From now on
These eyes will not be blinded by the lights
From now on
What’s waited ’til tomorrow starts tonight
Let this promise in me start
Like an anthem in my heart
From now on
And if those lyrics don’t speak to you, maybe the actual moment from the movie will, because I sure as hell lost it the first time I saw all that joy manifested in one place:
The Greatest Showman‘s songs seemed to speak to me — past me, now me, future me. And I just couldn’t get enough of it.
And when I’d played through those musicals, I found myself digging into the well of my favorites. Wicked, Urinetown, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, and even the original Cats. Singing along to those tunes made the days being alone in my apartment or playing Pokemon in my car brought an immense amount of joy. They made existing in seemingly endless quarantine without friends or family less horrible than it could have been. And they’re still doing that work now.
There seem to be two big reasons for the power of musicals to manifest an escape:
Musicals made 2020 bearable.
And musicals weren’t alone. When things go rough, the arts work gave themselves to us. They gave us plays and movies and art installations and documentaries and musicals and operas and symphonies and more. They gave us a lesson: that art matters, and we should ignore it at our own peril. We can’t survive without food or roofs or healthcare, but our souls need the release of great art — whatever that may be for each person. We don’t need much beyond those things. Survival and joy.
At least, that’s how I view it. What about you? Where did you find joy in 2020?
As Palpatine would say: long have I waited to discuss this film! A film reviled for its infamously confusing ending, its gleeful presentation of punk apes and other humanistic ape-eries, and its attempt to convince us that Mark Wahlberg earned his way onto an expensive Air Force ape research space station while still getting away...
As Palpatine would say: long have I waited to discuss this film! A film reviled for its infamously confusing ending, its gleeful presentation of punk apes and other humanistic ape-eries, and its attempt to convince us that Mark Wahlberg earned his way onto an expensive Air Force ape research space station while still getting away with calling apes monkeys every ten seconds. A film that shockingly made a decent chunk of change and almost got a sequel. It’s Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001)!
Call it a remake or a reboot or a reinterpretation, Planet of the Apes has rightly earned its place as one part visual marvel and one part disastrous narrative — beauty and terror fused into one glorious package. Its position in the Planet of the Apes oeuvre has, alas, earned it additional and unfavorable comparisons to its more successful and narratively compelling predecessor and successor. Have the twenty years since this film’s release helped its perception?
Before I get to that question, we should probably briefly discuss the film itself. Directed by Tim Burton, it stars Mark Wahlberg as Captain Leo Davidson alongside a pretty stellar cast of ape actors. Davidson works for the U.S. Air Force on a research space station called the Oberon. There, he helps train genetically-modified apes to pilot pods to study phenomenon in space. Why not use drones and the like? The movie doesn’t bother to answer that question. Meanwhile, a massive electromagnetic storm stolen straight out of Star Trek shows up, and Davidson’s favorite chimp, Pericles, is lost in its delicious clouds; being an animal-loving sap, Davidson rushes to rescue his chimp friend and is sucked through a space vortex some thousands of years in the future and crash lands on a planet ruled by, you guessed it, ape people! In his attempts to find his way back to the Oberon, Davidson inadvertently causes an ape-human civil war, attracts the wrath of chimp-man Thade (Tim Roth) and his trusty gorilla-man companion Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), and gets caught in a love triangle with human Daena (Estella Warren) and chimp-lady Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), the latter of whom happens to be a human rights activist who is like 75% into abolition because that’s the allegory we’re going for here.
The main plot is not terribly difficult to follow. The central mystery here concerns how the ape people got to be walking and talking ape people and what happened to the Oberon — each tied to the other. This forms the basis of ape religion, as they worship a deity called Semos, the first ape to found ape society. The ape people think he’ll return like Jesus and end the struggle ape society suffers. who they think will return like Jesus (or, if we take the anagram of the name seriously: Moses).
The execution of that story, however, is a mixed bag. No doubt, the visual portrayal of ape society is astonishingly detailed, from the clothing and armor they wear to the set design and political structure. Even the makeup design supports the characters beneath them. Paul Giamatti’s weaselly slave salesman, Limbo, is lanky, hunched, and toothy, speaking to the slimy salesperson he’s meant to be. Meanwhile, Tim Roth’s imposing — and, frankly, incredible performance as — General Thade looks like the seething rage trapped within; his body almost twists with the hatred he tries to hide, especially before Ari, whom he wishes to possess.
Clearly, Burton and his team tried to think through the world as it might be after a cataclysmic break between humanity and their genetically-modified ape creations. This makes for some obviously allegorical discussions between the militaristic Thade, the weak semi-abolitionist Senator Sandar (David Warner), and the “well we tried” Senator Nado (Glenn Sadix). It also makes for some genuinely hilarious moments, such as the image of the teenage punks straight out of Ape Grease — ridiculous, sure, but also pretty funny. If there’s an argument for this film, it’s that it is visually striking in a way so few films are. This feels like a world with real people. It’s not an artificial space as so many films in the last ten years have created — I’m looking at you, Jurassic World.
But the care taken in devising the visual and physical formation of the world of Planet of the Apes clearly fell short in the narrative department. The most infamous example of this is the cliffhanger / surprise ending laughingly referred to as the Ape Lincoln moment. While much of the film indulges in quirky transfers of our human culture to an ape culture, the concluding merger of a U.S. narrative about Lincoln’s role in ending slavery with an allegory of that same struggle involving ape people is, to be blunt, almost insulting. The entirety of the mainline narrative of the film is a loose allegory of the abolition movement ended by the arrival of Pericles, whose immediately love of Davidson shocks the ape and human worlds alike into realizing that maybe the line of Semos, of which Thade is a descendant, is actually toxic and destructive. It’s a crude allegory, to be sure, but one that on its own works well enough even if you’d rather see more time spent unpacking it. But the Ape Lincoln disrupts that allegory by simply translating Lincoln, the mythical anti-slavery figure, into a presumably pro-segregationist descendant of slave holders and genociders — he shares a striking resemblance to Thade, after all.
Additionally, one has to wonder just where they hoped to go with all of this. The film is full of timey wimey nonsense, sure, but jumping forward a thousand or so years to a future in which Thade’s brutal rejection of human rights or collaboration begs more questions about “how” than the film seems interested to answer. That critical failing leaves the concluding battle — another visual spectacle, as apes are shown jumping all about in attack on a ragtag army of humans — somewhat pointless. If the lesson everyone is meant to learn is “humans and apes can live together in harmony” — a simple and poorly explored message — then shoving us into a world where the exact opposite has become true seems less a thoughtful twist than a kind of narrative cowardice to commit. In this sense, we’re honestly lucky that we can enjoy the visual wonders of Burton’s vision rather than see this story continued in a film that would undoubtedly feel like more horror.
So to turn back to that fateful question: Have the twenty years since this film’s release helped its perception?
For me, the answer is “yes, with caveats.” This is the part where I admit that I never hated this movie. In fact, I spent one glorious summer re-watching this film on DVD, though partly to listen to Danny Elfman’s incredible soundtrack and to watch the behind-the-scenes materials. To me, the visual splendor of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes deserves far more recognition that the film has received in the twenty years since its release. The BAFTA, Saturn, and Academy Award nominations don’t do it justice.
There’s also something else here to appreciate: time. No, I don’t mean the film’s odd and nonsensical time warps. I mean the time we’ve had to sit on this film while it was usurped by a more successful franchise. Planet of the Apes was meant to have a sequel, and its modest financial success virtually dictated it would get one, but the absence of a true successor reduces the space allotted to considerations of the film’s most reviled component: its conclusion. Because we don’t get to see this brought to life, there’s more room for the enjoyment of its better qualities.
For that reason, I’ll continue to find this movie a lot of fun even if I think aspects of its story leave a sour taste. I’ll never get tired of watching Tim Roth seethe as a grizzled general chimp or hearing Michael Clarke Duncan’s booming voice behind a gorilla face. There is so much to love here even as we recognize what ultimately doesn’t work.
And you know what? I think that’s OK.
2020 is over. It’s dead. Time killed it. Thank the maker. Bye bye, 2020. Go die in a fire. Now that 2021 is here, it’s time for that magic tradition that many folks following: declaring New Year’s resolutions! I’ve declared these in the past, but there have also been years where I felt disinclined to...
2020 is over. It’s dead. Time killed it. Thank the maker. Bye bye, 2020. Go die in a fire.
Now that 2021 is here, it’s time for that magic tradition that many folks following: declaring New Year’s resolutions! I’ve declared these in the past, but there have also been years where I felt disinclined to do much of anything about the new year. But 2020 was an absolutely horrific year for a lot of people, and it exposed a lot of the activities and behaviors that don’t, for me, make life particularly excited. While I can’t control a lot of the miserable activities happening around me, I can make changes (or continue existing changes) that will make life less stressful, more purposeful, and more joyful.
That’s why I’ve decided that 2021 is going to be the Year of Deliberately Manifesting Joy, continuing the mission I began in November 2020 with The Joy Factory and extending those actions across the spectrum of my life as much as possible. So what does that mean in New Year’s Resolutions terms?
That’s it! Most of this will be pretty easy to do because I’m already doing it. Some of it will be a challenge I need to put myself through for my own benefit. And some of it are just things I really want to do.
Now the big question: What changes are you making in 2021? Tell me about your path to getting a fresh start!
I’ve never read a Christmas novel for adults before. In fact, I never considered reading one until I got bored in my local Target and decided to give one a try for the hell of it. And then I spent about a week reading and livetweeting the experience. If you were to ask me why...
I’ve never read a Christmas novel for adults before. In fact, I never considered reading one until I got bored in my local Target and decided to give one a try for the hell of it. And then I spent about a week reading and livetweeting the experience.
If you were to ask me why it has taken this long to actually read a book like Jenny Colgan’s Christmas at the Island Hotel, I might have given you the “it’s not my thing” excuse. In many ways, that’s technically true, but given my love of certain types of Christmas movies, it would be technically wrong, too. So the question remains: What did I think of Christmas at the Island Hotel, and did it change my mind about Christmas novels?
Christmas at the Island Hotel is apparently the fourth book in Jenny Colgan’s Summer Seaside Kitchen series. Though previous volumes likely help add depth to the narrative in this newest book, they’re not strictly necessary, and, indeed, Christmas at the Island Hotel mostly holds its own. It follows the residents of Mure, a fictional version of one of the Shetland Islands roughly halfway between Scotland and Norway. The main narrative concerns the forthcoming Christmas opening of the Rock, the dreamchild of the late Colton left to the management of his widowed husband, Fintan. Emotionally devastated by Colton’s death, Fintan struggles to put the pieces together until Flora, his sister on maternity leave, steps in to help. Set alongside this is Konstantin Jr., the banished son of a wealthy Norwegian aristocrat who is sent to Mure in order to “grow up.” Ashamed, he hides his identity and accepts a job at Rock, where he is beset upon by the new French chef, Gaspard, and Isla, a local girl who thinks him effectively useless. As Christmas nears, this ragtag group gets caught in various shenanigans, including social media disasters, tabloid journalists, personal gripes with other locals, a precocious 5-year-old’s hefty demands, and much more. Also: there’s Saif, a Syrian refugee and the island’s doctor, who feels guilty about his affair with Lorna, a school teacher, because his wife may still be alive…somewhere.
If one were to use this book as an example of a Christmas novel, you’d be inclined to assume several things:
Of course, no single book can represent a whole genre. Still, as a Christmas novel, Christmas at the Island Hotel offers a sold starting point to the genre. But it is also a flawed novel that feels, at times, bloated by lackluster ambition. Perhaps its most obvious flaw is its reliance on far too many characters and plotlines, most of which I didn’t even mention in the synopsis. Colgan doesn’t just pack the novel with characters and stories: she overloads it. At times, this can make for amusing moments as Flora and Fintan try to control the narrative about the hotel in a town full of gossip; at other times, however, it made me wonder what this story could have been if it had been more focused.
No character is a more obvious example of this problem than Saif. Much of the novel is intentionally comedic; it is full of caricatures and larger-than-life small town folk who deal with real issues but are ultimately there to get a giggle out of us. We’re meant to laugh at the precocious Agot, who commands attention at every turn as she attempts to ice skate in puddles and asserts herself aggressively. Saif, however, is not a comedic figure. His story is one of loss and pain, and much of this novel ignores the seriousness of his effort to determine if his wife is alive while raising his children in a foreign land. We get glimpses of the story Colgan might have told, but those glimpses don’t do service to a character who demands greater development. After all, how am I to feel about Saif when he’s placed alongside scenes of dogs rampaging through a meal service or Agot says something witty or fascinating for a girl of her age? Christmas at the Island Hotel wants to be a story about all the quirky characters in a town, but that ultimately sacrifices characters like Saif who deserve to have their stories really told. Rather than explore Saif’s struggles with adapting to a new life, the immigrant story, and the pain of loss, the book rushes to a conclusion, wiping away what I consider to be dramatically serious issues with a couple of poems.
In a way, this novel suffers from being two different stories: it’s a serious story of immigrants and the refugee crisis on one side, and a heartfelt story of small town living with strong notes of comedy and eccentricity on the other. This latter story is handled with more care, though everything is rushed to the novel’s conclusion. The aforementioned dog rampage scene is actually quite hilarious, not least of all because watching the prickly Gaspard try to control the situation while an ill-behaved dog knocks over trays of food and drink is a masterful image. Colgan is at her strongest when she blends these comedic elements with the exploration of her character’s insecurities and doubts; she’s weakest when she tries to cover more serious notes that don’t lend well to comedy. When the novel settles into the former, it leads us naturally to places that, while predictable, mostly feel fulfilling.
That sense of fulfilling-ness is important here, and it is perhaps what best describes Christmas stories in general. The conclusion of Christmas at the Island Hotel certainly aims for emotional release. Multiple plotlines end precisely where you expect them to, but most of them feel appropriate and desirable, though unfortunately rushed and overly tidy. Colgan’s novel is, if anything, a book that aims towards happiness, even if that happiness is a little rugged, confused, locked away in a remote island community, or even not at all what you expected it to be (I’m looking at Konstantin Jr. here). These aren’t perfectly presented; indeed, some plotlines are almost dropped entirely. But the feeling is there. The magic is there. It might be mundane and everyday, but it’s still fun to experience. And that is, if anything, the key takeaway from my reading experience: it’s fun.
So would I read another Christmas novel? Yup. In fact, I think this is going to be a tradition for me going forward: every Christmas, I’ll pick a Christmas novel to read! There’s something delightful about the experience even if I felt the delivery in this case was uneven. Colgan’s novel is absurdly readable, and many of her characters really suck you in. That seems a good enough reason to give the Christmas novel genre a bit more attention going forward.
What about you? What Christmas novels have you read? What are your favorites?
Perhaps the most potent problem of our modern era is its obsession with nostalgia. In its least malignant form, nostalgia becomes an excessive love of art and fashion playfully removed from the socio-political conditions of its creation. In its most malignant form, nostalgia turns people into cult-like fascists who desire a return to a time...
Perhaps the most potent problem of our modern era is its obsession with nostalgia. In its least malignant form, nostalgia becomes an excessive love of art and fashion playfully removed from the socio-political conditions of its creation. In its most malignant form, nostalgia turns people into cult-like fascists who desire a return to a time that never really existed. Most nostalgia travelers rest somewhere between: fantasizing about going back to something that felt more familiar, even at the expense of the present. And then there’s Midnight in Paris (2011), which seems to relish in misery, imagination, and nostalgia at varying points and for varying purposes. What ultimately does the film say about nostalgia, then?
Midnight in Paris follows Gil (Owen Wilson), a Hollywood script doctor disgruntled by the artlessness of his work, who visits Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, all wealthy socialites. Utterly in love with the city and its Modernist past, Gil fantasizes about moving there to make an honest go at becoming a novelist, much to the chagrin of Inez, who cannot fathom a life outside of the United States. They eventually run into the horrifically pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife Carol (Nina Arianda) and are coaxed on several sightseeing trips. In frustration, Gil wanders Paris alone one night and mysteriously ends up in 1920s Paris, where he stumbles upon many of his favorite writers and artists and immerses himself in their world. And the more linked to the past, the more disconnected Gil becomes with his life in the present, even as new love blossoms and he comes to realize what his present is doing to him.
For the most part, Midnight in Paris is a bewildering film. A central problem with the way Midnight in Paris frames its exploration of nostalgia is its confusion about what that message should be. If we use the first thirty minutes — comprising the film’s central “realism” section — we’re left to assume that nostalgia is romantic, beautiful, and wonderful. Yet, Inez’s protestations about Gil’s delights in fantasy about living in Paris — with rain, because he loves the rain and she very much does not — along with her parents’ revulsion at Paris, its people, its food, its very existence all paint a dreary picture for Gil’s life. I’d be remiss not to mention that I also found nearly every character in these opening 30 minutes utterly unlikable figures: Gil for his endless lyrical waxing about the past and everyone else for their pretentions and cruelties so potent it’s a wonder the film didn’t melt.
Once we leave these opening minutes behind, we’re granted what I can only describe as Woody Allen’s love letter to the 1920s. Caricatures abound as the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and more show up in the story. Naturally, all but Hemingway take a liking to Gil. His forays into the past are playful, vibrant, and nearly everything Gil could ever want. Even his eventual relationship with Adriana (Marion Cotillard) is passionate and romantic despite Gil’s clear wish to violate his relationship with Inez. Here, the message is clear: the past is actually wondrous and beautiful even if it’s not perfect, and this is where an artist like Gil might thrive. This is also the central conceit of time travel in Allen’s vision: midnight in Paris takes you back to the time you most fantasize about.
By the time the film starts to backtrack on these ideas, it’s almost too late. Adriana’s preferences for an even earlier time before, Gil reminds us, antibiotics is meant, I suppose, to say something potent about not living in the past. But given that Gil’s final act at the end of the film is to break up with Inez and move to Paris to be with the delightful Gabrielle, a French nostalgia shop owner (much like the character in Gil’s novel), that message loses steam fast. Even the horrifically pedantic Paul tries to tell us the message when he explains the meaning of “nostalgia”:
Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – its a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.
Yet this idea applies to almost nobody in the film except Adriana. Gil isn’t in denial; indeed, he doesn’t even flinch when he reminds us that Adriana’s love of the Renaissance is both just a thing everyone does (we all have our own past golden age) and untenable. Nostalgia doesn’t solve the problem of the dullness that arises from the present . And yet the film’s only offering for a solution to either side of this is simply “live in the moment.” And that, as most of us know, is a message that only applies to those with means. Most of us can’t simply pick up and move to Paris, no matter how much we dream.
Really, Midnight in Paris feels more like Allen’s obsession with Paris as a temporal palimpsest. The film is almost infatuated with the history of that city and the way that history is painted upon its streets and buildings. Gil is our conduit to this vision, but he is also our reminder that there are three worlds relying on the misery of the real, nostalgia, or present-ness. The real present — not Gil’s new fantasy world — is devoid of imagination and miserable. It’s cruel and accusatory, judgmental and without vision. The nostalgic world is bright and vibrant, confusing and hospitable, but it is also painful and unattainable. Meanwhile, the present-ness of Gil’s newfound world is, at least for the wealthy, grounded and connected, full of life and possibility and not afraid of the past or the future.
These three worlds are the real takeaway here. Midnight in Paris is a difficult nut in large part because it is overly infatuated with its caricatures and doesn’t want to settle into a focused message. Yet, it is a reminder that there is value in nostalgia even if we’re not meant to overly indulge. Nostalgia is an escape from the misery of the real, one that can be a trap, as it is for Adriana, but also a gateway into something better. While I don’t think Midnight in Paris explores these ideas with the depth necessary to make them stick — and that largely because I think Allen is overly and tiringly interested in the amusement of his caricatures — they’re still there in kernels of thought. Kernels, alas, don’t really help us with the misery of nostalgia of our present, which has continued to build into a malignant cancer rubbing its sticky body upon everything. On this, you’re probably better off with Back to the Future (1985).
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