"Ender's Game" is a science-fiction adventure starring a very shrimpy, underfed Asa Butterfield as Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a young genius recruit to the International Fleet's Battle School, where Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford in crusty mode) has high hopes that Ender will prove to be the planet's savior against the Formics—also known, rather vulgarly, as the Buggers. Ender's co-trainees include Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld), Alai (Suraj Parthasarathy), Dink (Khylin Rhambo, quite possibly the coolest name in the world), and Bean (Aramis Knight—the other coolest name). Also participating in the war games are Viola Davis as Andrews, the movie's conscience; and Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham, the tattooed, part-Maori strategic genius who beat back the first alien invasion. The movie takes us through Ender's training in Battle School (one imposing-yet-kind drill instructor, Nonso Anozie's Sergeant Dap, makes a huge impression), his promotion to Command School, and his final fight against the Formics in a battle that incinerates their home planet. The punchline of the story is that Ender's final "game" isn't a combat simulation: it's the real thing, but he doesn't know this until after he's committed his genocide, at which point he reverts to being a child and becomes remorseful about what he has done.
There are crucial ways in which the film is both faithful to and unfaithful to the novel. (The movie was adapted for the screen by author Orson Scott Card himself, then finalized by Gavin Hood, who also directed.) As in the book, the movie shows that Ender, who has suffered both serious abuse at the hands of his older brother and prejudice from his peers for being an outsider and a third-born child, is a ruthless fighter whose exploits reveal the strategic way in which he thinks. For example, Ender mercilessly beats up a bully as a way to prevent future altercations (in the book, Ender accidentally kills that boy, as well as one or two others). He's the perfect blend of violence and calculation. By contrast, the movie doesn't do a very good job of depicting Ender's brilliance during training; if anything, the film is more of a Cliff's Notes summary of major events in the book, with little attempt to explore the book's deeper issues. The movie's special effects, while competently rendered, left me a bit cold: I've seen vicious mechanical swarms before in films like "The Matrix Revolutions" and even "Return of the Jedi." I've also seen spaceships flying in overly rigid, geometric formations before: remember "The Last Starfighter"? The battle scenes in "Ender's Game" feature plenty of activity, but no real intensity. Ender's sad dialogue with the last remaining queen-in-an-egg is compacted into a nearly wordless exchange with an adult queen, and the entire Demosthenes/Locke subplot (i.e., Ender's siblings playing political games on the Internet in an effort to place Peter in a position of power) is left out. All in all, the movie felt hasty and superficial. It was well-acted, with an earnest and competent cast, but it was bereft of substance.
ADDENDUM: my review of the novel Ender's Game is here.
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Monday, December 30, 2013
I just finished reading Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, a "parallel biography" of several defectors from North Korea. I'll be reviewing that book soon.
I also still need to review Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which I've read twice, now.
Stephen R. Donaldson's capstone to The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, his The Last Dark, is also waiting to be reviewed.
Tomorrow—Tuesday, December 31—I'll be trundling out to Gyeongsan City's Lotte Cinemas to see "Ender's Game," starring Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and some English runt with five names. Expect a review of that as well.
And, long promised, there's my upcoming review of "Oldboy." The Korean version, of course. Spike Lee's version was ripped to shreds by critics.
One of my former private students, Amy, a Korean girl living in America (this girl, in fact), emailed me a very nice update on her life. At one point late in the email, Amy wrote:
I want to live like youuuu I feel like you enjoyed your life a lot! As I listen your story I always wanted to live like you.
I almost blushed upon reading this. It had never occurred to me that another person might look upon my life with something like envy, or might view my life as a template for living his or her own life. I certainly haven't looked at my own life that way. In fact, just the other day, I was rather brutally self-critical. Up to now, I'd say I've viewed my life as more of a warning to others on how not to live than as a shining example of good and proper living.
Amy's email, and her obvious admiration, forced me to reassess my situation. So instead of doing the typical "year in review" at the close of the year, I'd like to take this time to do more of a "life in review," keeping in mind that all has not been doom and gloom over the course of my forty-four-plus years.
We'll start with the bad, which is easily encapsulated in the reply email that I sent to Amy. My reaction was a sort of knee-jerk modesty, a polite repudiation of the implications of Amy's sentiments. I wrote:
So... you want to live a life like mine, eh? Well, be careful! Don't make the same mistakes I've made. I've done some very stupid things. Probably the stupidest thing I've done is mismanage my finances. Learn to be smart with your money! When I was young and more idealistic, I thought that money wasn't important, and that people who always worried about money had screwed-up priorities. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Money is important because money means freedom.
Let's say that you want to go to Fiji for vacation. Wonderful! But how will you get there? You need to fly, of course, which means you need to buy plane tickets. Fiji is far away, so those tickets will be expensive. How long will you stay in Fiji? Two weeks? Then you need to pay for two weeks in a hotel, which probably won't be cheap. You also have to eat three meals a day for two weeks—how much will that cost? So if you want the freedom to say, "I'm gonna go to Fiji next week," then you have to have the money that gives you the freedom to make such plans. Money means freedom.
I still have no desire to become super-rich. I'm not that ambitious. But I do want to live comfortably, and right now, I still can't do that. If you're interested in science, that's good, because you might be able to make a lot of money by working in a scientific field. Of course, it depends on what kind of science you want to do. I have a friend who is an aeronautical engineer, and he makes a LOT of money. He has a Ph.D. in engineering, which means he had to work very hard to reach his position. But now, he's happily married and has two wonderful daughters. And he's rich! I'm happy for him. He didn't make the same financial mistakes I'd made.
So if you want to live a life like mine, OK, cool, but be careful not to make silly, time-wasting mistakes. I still have a lot of debt, which means I don't have much freedom. I just went to Seoul for a few days, but I'll be staying in Hayang-eup for Christmas and New Year's and most of my two-month vacation. I'd love to visit Europe again, to see my French and Swiss friends, but I won't be able to do that for a long while. Lack of freedom. See what I mean? Money is important.
Perhaps the stupidest thing I ever did happened in grad school, right as I was turning thirty. I had gotten the full scholarship to pursue my Master's degree—a scholarship that I'd had to compete for. Along with that scholarship, however, I also got the full suite of scholarship loans. Think: Sallie Mae, to which I still owe my soul. Very unwisely, I decided I would use my loan checks to pay my apartment's rent and other expenses while I studied for my M.A. so that I wouldn't have to work during that time. As I said: stupid. That decision, made in 1999 or 2000, effectively ruined my future and placed me under the enormous debt burden I have today. Whenever Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit starts harping on all those grad students saddled with all that debt, naming figures ranging from $50,000 to over $100,000, I understand perfectly: my own debt is still somewhere in the $70,000-$80,000 range, and will remain so unless and until I find lucrative work.
Since that time, I've had to learn how to live economically and dodge the worst effects of revolving debt. Somehow—and I congratulate myself on this—I've managed to deal with my debt in such a way as not to ruin my credit rating. I make an effort to be on time in paying all my bills. I avoid being too much of spendthrift. Sometimes, I admit, I've yielded to temptation, but because money is a ruthless numbers game, I've paid for my lapses. The best example I can think of is when I bought that lovely, amazing, 46-inch LG high-definition TV, back when I lived in Front Royal. I kept the TV for a couple months, then had to bring it back to Costco so that I could pay my rent (which, at the time, cost almost exactly as much as my TV).
To this day, I worry over the timing of my bill-paying. Some bills come due when I don't have enough money in the bank, so I have no choice but to go into the red when the auto-deduction occurs, then pay the $36 overdraft fee that follows. A day or so later, I'm finally able to fill my bank account with more cash, but by that time it's too late: I've already taken the $36 hit. On occasion, when I've been staring down the barrel of several overdraft fees, I've called my bank and begged for mercy. Always a humiliating experience. The bank is normally indulgent, and nullifies most or all of my overdrafts in such cases. Life since 1999 has been about dodging financial bullets and trying to eke out a more or less normal existence.
But I can't just credit myself with keeping my head above water. I've had help. There were many times I felt that I was running out of tricks, and some circumstance or some person intervened, just in the nick of time, to bail me out. Friends have stepped in with loans and outright donations, usually stipulating that I don't have to pay anything back within a given time frame. Work circumstances sometimes aligned themselves in such a way that I suddenly found myself earning more money—such as when, in my previous job, I was suddenly able to do extra "curriculum development" work to earn supplementary cash. The work paid a paltry $15 an hour, but that was better than nothing. I also reaped some benefits from the tutoring website I had created, snagging both Amy and her brother Sam. On top of that, I've been able to tutor my goddaughter in both geometry and French, allowing me to earn enough cash to pay back some personal debts to my two brothers, who both helped me out several times.
Despite all that help, though, the walls continued to close in. Eventually, coming to Korea seemed the only viable solution: for someone with my strange skill set, jobs in Korea pay more than do the same jobs in America, and such jobs are more plentiful in Korea. Had my life taken a different path—if, say, I had become a scientist myself—I would never have considered Korea as an option for work. But here I am, and this is probably the best of all possible worlds. Networking isn't something I do well, being an introvert, but my talents (such as they are) are more likely to be recognized here than they are in the States. Korea represents something of a financial last stand for me. Either I make it here, or I get flooded with debt and drown.
I've made other mistakes and have other regrets—about women, about things I've said and done, about what kind of a son I was to my mother—but none of those things has affected my life in quite the way my fiscal imprudence has. So instead of dwelling further on my other mistakes, I'd like to shift the focus, now, to the elements in my life that might inspire a teenage girl to admire the path I've taken.
What have I done right? Well... I don't drink, I don't smoke or do drugs, and I don't fuck around, for starters. That last item probably has more to do with my introversion than with any virtuous inclinations. I'm pretty sure, though, that that's not what Amy's thinking of when she looks at how I've lived. No: what Amy's thinking of is the places I've been, the people I know, and the ways in which I've applied myself.
Places I've Been
Because my father was an airline employee, our family had the opportunity to travel. I haven't traveled as much as some people, but I've been to more places than many other people have. For all of my life, my family has been based in northern Virginia. Both of my brothers still live in Alexandria. NoVA has served as our roots, our anchor. My father worked for Northwest Airlines at National Airport, not a long drive from home. One of the perks of his job was discount air travel. I didn't find out until much later that United Airlines offers its employees free air travel (without Northwest's stupid requirement that the kids dress up when flying), but to our family, discount air travel was a treat: back in the 1980s, we could go to Korea for $50 per person, and domestic air travel cost us almost nothing. So, during my childhood, we visited relatives in Texas and California with some frequency; I quickly got used to riding in planes. Later on, when I was a high-schooler, I was able to fly discount to Korea and France. In France, I spent a month with a host family, the Ducoulombiers, whom I would eventually come to view as part of my own family. That was 1986.
In college, in 1988, I drove with my family across Germany and France, going from Frankfurt to Nantes, and I served as the interpreter between my French family and my American family. That was a headache-inducing experience; I'd never played the interpreter in a fast-moving conversation before. As a junior, I studied in Switzerland for nearly a whole calendar year, staying with a Swiss host family; while on break between semesters in Europe, I visited Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and England. I was in Switzerland in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. In fact, I visited Berlin, with classmates, exactly one week after the Wall officially fell. I was in France for Christmas that same year when the Romanians rose up, captured their dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, put him up against a wall along with his wife, and gunned him down. With my French family, I watched the news footage, astounded, as Romania dragged itself into a new era. I hiked all over Switzerland and practiced pullups during that 1989-1990 school year; I lost a ton of weight, which I gained back upon my return to the States. My Northwest Airlines travel benefits would cease sometime in my mid-twenties, but I think my brother David and I were able to fly to western Europe, Eurailpasses in hand, for cheap. David and I visited France, Switzerland (where we encountered the infamous Götteron dwarf), Holland, Denmark, and Sweden.
I didn't go abroad again until 1993, when I spent two weeks in Korea with some cousins in Seoul. I was a high-school French teacher in Arlington, Virginia, at the time. The following year, I went to Korea to work, and worked in Seoul from 1994 to 1996. I came back to the States and lost my direction for a bit before deciding, in 1999, to go to graduate school—religious studies at the Catholic University of America in DC. In 2000, while still in grad school, I visited Korea again, trekking down to Haein-sa, a famous Zen temple. I stayed at the temple for three days and spoke with several monks; this reinforced my keen interest in Buddhism. I graduated with a Master's degree in 2002, and later that year, I was back in Korea again. I worked privately until 2004, laboring under my enormous debt burden, and joined a hagwon called EC that year, where I made a few friends. Having had enough of EC's nonsense after seven months of bullshit (crazy boss, nightmare schedule), I jumped ship and became an English instructor at Sookmyung Women's University, my mother's uni, in 2005. I taught there until 2008, and those were the best three years of my working life. Everything about university life was better: better hours, better pay, better vacations.
In 2008, though, I had a hankering to try something different: a walk across America. So I finished up my contract with Sookmyung in April of 2008, came home, trained, and began my trek. Three months, 600 miles, and one knee injury later, I called it a day: I didn't want to cripple myself. I had walked from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, to Blaine, Washington; from Blaine, I had followed the I-5 corridor down through Seattle, Olympia, and Centralia, all the way to Portland, Oregon. From Portland, I struck east along the south side of the Columbia River, passing through Cascade Locks and The Dalles, and eventually hitting Umatilla. After that, I curved back northeast until I reached Walla Walla, Washington—city of the onion, valley of the grape. I met so many interesting people along the way: Sikhs, Seventh Day Adventists, Zen Buddhists, Unitarians, Episcopalians, communal Methodist-socialists, conservative biker "home church" Christians, and hardcore atheists. I still have quite a few recorded conversations about religion that I'd like to transcribe and maybe put into another book like Water from a Skull. I'd love to complete the walk someday, too—although this time I'd be smarter in my planning and prep.
I stayed with my folks from September 2008 until April 2009, hoping to return to my walk that spring. But I couldn't restart the journey: my mother had developed brain cancer, and that banished all thoughts of returning to my personal quest. For the next nine months, I was there for my mother during her sad, inexorable decline. She died on January 6, 2010, and for a while, my life became unmoored. I moved to Front Royal, Virginia, later that year, having secured employment with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) as a TOEFL essay rater. Work was sporadic and didn't pay very well; my bills were even higher, now that I had spent two years not working at all. The following year, 2011, I switched over to YB and began working as a tutor for kids ranging from grade school to grad school. The work was much steadier at YB, and there was an added therapeutic benefit: after Mom's death, it was important for me to reconnect with the human race, and working with these kids—even the difficult ones—proved very helpful in that respect.
But as I noted above, even employment at YB wasn't enough to get me back on my feet, financially speaking. So I moved back to Korea this past August and have been working as a university prof. The pay isn't stellar, but it's enough to allow me to wire money home to keep paying my monthly bills. I've also been paying down some of those personal loans, and once I start working with KMA this coming February, I can begin paying more bills and debts down even faster. There's also the chance that I might change professions this September and become a staff writer for nearly $60,000 a year. 2014 is already looking much more positive than 2013 did.
People I Know
I told Amy and her brother Sam many stories about my friends. I have only a small cluster of very good, very close friends; the word friend isn't one I use lightly. True friends aren't the fair-weather type: they don't just hang out. They share your burdens; they know your secrets; they're familiar with your loves and hates. I'm proud to have the friends I have—people like Mike, Dr. Steve, Dave, Tom, Charles, Jang-woong, Bill, and others.
But I'm also proud of the friendly acquaintances I have, too. These aren't friends in the deep sense, but they're people with whom I'm on good terms. Some, like Jean-Pierre the baker, based at the Cordon Bleu on Sookmyung's campus, are guaranteed to thrust a freshly baked baguette into my hands every time I come around for a visit. Others will reach out with an unexpected, undeserved loan whenever I whine on the blog about my finances. Still others will faithfully comment on some or many of my blog posts. It's reassuring to be surrounded by such good people.
Ways I've Applied Myself
By nature, I'm a thinker, but more abstractly, I'm given to self-expression. It's hard to shut me up, despite my introversion. Maybe that's why I write, and why I draw, and why I like theater as much as I do. This blog, which is all about self-expression, will probably be the largest monument to me after I die. At this point, more than a decade after it came into existence, the blog contains enough of me for readers to figure out my predominant moods and attitudes and convictions. It's a confessional journal—uncomfortably so, sometimes. It's even gotten me into some trouble recently... but I can't talk about that. It's allowed me to continue practicing French: I've translated several French-language articles into English, and have written entire entries in French (like this one). It's allowed me to show off my mediocre brush art and cartoons and Photoshop work. It's kept me on my toes whenever I've written something controversial; readers have chimed in with disagreements. It's kept me honest whenever I've said something factually incorrect; readers sometimes swoop in to set me straight.
Not many people read this blog, but that doesn't matter: the people who do read it are very faithful, and faithfulness matters more to me than popularity. At least there are some witnesses, out there, to the various ways in which I try to apply my skills and talents.
So all in all, it's been a weird life, a difficult life, but also a good life. I've traveled and lived in an assortment of far-flung places. I've been exposed to different cultures, both while abroad and at home. There's so much that I've done wrong, but there are some things I've gotten right. Especially in recent years, I've begun to understand what it means to take the reins and be responsible for my own future; it's easy and convenient, I think, to pretend that my life is more the result of happenstance than it is of choices that I've made along the way. I forge my future. I always have.
If Amy wants to live a life like mine, I do sincerely hope she avoids my mistakes. I hope she has a chance to travel, to be exposed to many different cultures, to experience all that this big world has to offer. I hope she learns a third language—maybe even a fourth or a fifth, if she's willing and able. I hope she learns about new foods, new dances, new ways to reckon the passage of the seasons. I hope she grows up and becomes a truly worldly woman—not in the bad sense, but in the sense that she feels, as the French would say, bien dans sa peau: comfortable in her own skin, no matter where she might find herself. I hope she can look back decades from now and say, "Yes; this has been a good life."
And I wish the same for myself.
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Saturday, December 28, 2013
Someone took the "Kung Fu Panda" concept and amped it up for World of Warcraft. I saw the following frightening image in the stairwell of a building containing a PC-bang:
The Korean at the top of the poster repeats the English title: "World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria." The writing at the bottom of the poster says, roughly, "The secret of the lost continent is revealed!"
I'm sorry, but "Pandaria" sounds too much like "panda diarrhea" to me.
Friday, December 27, 2013
[SPOILER WARNING! Don't read this post unless you've seen the new "Hobbit" movie!]
I mentioned, in my review of "The Desolation of Smaug," that I had found the battle between the dwarves and Smaug in the caverns of Erebor confusing. What boggled my mind most was Thorin's apparent strategy: lure Smaug into the great thronehall, the Hall of Kings, and bury Smaug under a deluge of molten gold. As strategies go, this didn't strike me as particularly wise or workable, but it's apparently what Thorin was going for. I wrote:
How exactly does one fight a massive, talking, evil-tempered dragon? The dwarves know their way around Erebor, and elect to lead the dragon into the furnace-chamber, where the forges are. Smaug is goaded into re-lighting the forges, which allows the dwarves to melt metal and send it sluicing toward the dragon. It's not a very good tactic, as tactics go; the dragon's movements are unpredictable, and Erebor's immense interior gives Smaug the chance to move about freely. It's the final part of the battle, though, that truly confuses me. The dwarves lead Smaug into the main thronehall. Together, they tug on the chains attached to a huge stone structure, which turns out to be the cover for an enormous, solid-gold statue of a dwarf—probably a famous ruler. The stones covering the golden statue fall away; Smaug, for whatever reason, turns around and watches the statue as it's revealed, then is mesmerized by the sheer amount of gold it must contain. As if on cue, the statue suddenly liquefies, pouring itself onto the floor of the thronehall and covering Smaug, seemingly burying him. Smaug is not so easily defeated, though, and only moments later he emerges from the golden muck, a beautiful aureate version of himself. He drags himself out of the mountain, flapping his wings and managing to gain enough altitude to shake himself free of all the liquid gold. He then makes his way to Lake-town to exact his revenge on the people who helped the dwarves, rumbling, "I am fire! I am death!" Bilbo, watching Smaug depart, asks faintly, "What have we done?" The battle with the dragon was visually splendid, but that bit with the golden statue failed to make any sense to me. How did the dwarves get the statue to melt so suddenly? How, in the midst of all that chaos, did they time the statue's melting so perfectly? What was that statue doing, sitting so close to the furnaces, if it could melt so easily? And gold is a soft metal: wouldn't a statue of pure gold collapse under its own weight? None of this made any sense to me. Perhaps a nerd's explanation in defense of this scene might involve dwarvish enchantments on the statue, keeping it solid until the sheer heat from the furnaces broke through the magic, releasing a torrent of gold into the thronehall. But no mention was made of any enchantments, so the battle scene played out somewhat nonsensically. That, by the way, is my only major complaint about the film. It's too bad this problem appears so close to the end.
Charles read my review after writing his own, and emailed me the following response:
I just read your review, and I see that you were confused about what was going on in that scene, especially when it came to the statue. What happened there was this: Smaug's fire lit the forges, which melted down the gold that had solidified in the furnaces (even though it didn't look at all like gold, and instead looked like maybe steel with a lot of impurities on the surface). Then I think it was Bilbo who pulled a lever that released all the gold into the system of troughs. This is when Thorin grabbed the shield and body surfed the river of gold (and yes, I agree, he should have been severely burned). Remember at the end, when the river of gold runs over a ledge and cascades down into a hole? This is the point where Thorin jumps off the shield and lands on top of a pile of rock. That pile of rock is actually a mold into which the gold is being poured to create the statue. When Thorin orders the dwarves to release the bonds, they pull apart the mold, leaving the mostly molten statue still standing there. When the incredible heat of the molten gold melts the outer part that had solidified, the whole statue melts.
So that's what happened. It's still ridiculous, of course, but mainly because there is no way the statue should have been able to support itself for as long as it did. I've thought about it some more, though, and I suppose there is technically a way that this might have worked: there could have been a hollow and relatively thin-skinned statue inside of the mold already, and the molten gold was poured into that. Thus the statue would have remained standing until the heat of the molten gold overcame the structural integrity of the original statue. That's reaching quite a bit, though, because how exactly would they have built a hollow statue inside the mold? Or would they have made the statue first and then put the rocks around it (but if so, why?). I suspect that what we were supposed to believe is that the molten gold that came into contact with the rock mold solidified, leaving a molten core, and then collapsed. Perhaps there was a bit of cinematic time-stretching going on, and the statue only stood for a split-second before collapsing. It still seems rather unlikely to me, though, because I don't think the brief time that the gold was in the mold was long enough for even a surface layer to solidify--the rocks would have heated up quickly and reached equilibrium with the gold. Anyway, we're now at the quibbling stage, but that should at least help clear up the confusion.
I just re-watched "The Desolation of Smaug," and I specifically watched for (1) whether Thorin was, in fact, "body-surfing" on a river of gold (he was in a wheelbarrow when he did it—Barrow-rider!); and (2) whether all the molten gold was being poured into that great stone mold, i.e., the golden statue wasn't something pre-made that had been heated to the melting point by the furnaces. Charles is correct: Thorin's little surfing excursion does take place on a river of gold, and all the gold from all the cisterns atop all the furnaces is made to melt and to flow into the giant stone mold of the dwarf king. The mold is yanked open when Smaug is tempted into the thronehall, and the statue, which is basically molten gold that has temporarily held its shape, collapses and washes over the dragon.
There are a few things to note about Thorin's plan. First, it relied on the dwarves' being able to goad Smaug into the thronehall. Smaug, for all his intelligence, shares with Khan Noonien Singh (actor Benedict Cumberbatch played Khan in "Star Trek Into Darkness" and was also the voice of Smaug in "Desolation") a certain hubris, which makes him easy to manipulate. Thorin taunts Smaug at several points, calling him "fat" and a "witless worm." The dwarves split up to increase their chances of survival, and separately yet collectively lead Smaug into the Hall of Kings. Second, the mold had been placed in the thronehall for a totally other purpose: to establish the golden statue as a tribute to Erebor's ruler, or as a tribute to rulers past. Thorin must have remembered that this was the case. Third, because gold is a soft metal, no statue that huge could possibly have stood on its own for long, even after cooling down, had it been made of pure gold. This means that the gold in the cisterns above the furnaces had to be an alloy.
What this implies, in terms of physics and chemistry, I don't know; I'm not a scientist. Can a gold alloy harden so fast, once poured into a mold, that it'll retain its shape for at least a few seconds if the mold is removed? Or were we, the audience, witnessing yet another cringe-inducing example of what I like to call "Hollywood physics" (see here and here)? Perhaps it doesn't matter: Thorin's plan was for the gold to wash over Smaug, which means that Thorin himself may have expected the molten metal to slump instantly. The fact that the golden statue kept its shape for a moment was also what caused Smaug to stop and stare: Tolkien's dragons are fascinated by anything gold, and that statue represented a prodigious achievement. Was Thorin gambling on the statue's retaining its shape long enough to give the dragon pause?
I'm still not convinced that Thorin's plan was a good one. Perhaps it was the best that he could do, given the circumstances, and given his refusal to die cowering like the last of his people inside Erebor. But there seemed to be something awfully contrived and Rube Goldbergian about Thorin's attempt to bury Smaug under molten gold. Think about it: how long would it take for the stone mold to fill with molten gold? And how long would it take to coax Smaug from the furnaces into the Hall of Kings? The dwarves, with their deep knowledge of stone- and metal-lore, doubtless knew, down to the second, how long the mold would take to fill, but there was no guarantee that they would be able to entice Smaug into the thronehall within that time frame. That, for me, is the central implausibility with Thorin's plan. And because this is a problem with story logic, it erodes suspension of disbelief.*
It's a shame the dwarves didn't have some sort of bomb. They did fashion something like grenades, which they cast down upon Smaug to annoy him and to draw him toward the Hall of Kings, but nothing on the order of the magical bomb we see in "Dragonslayer": the resurrected wizard Ulrich himself, whose life-force is tied to Galen's amulet. Ulrich allows himself to be carried off by Vermithrax; Galen smashes the amulet when it begins to glow brightly; Ulrich explodes in a fireball of unleashed magical potency, and the dragon is felled in mid-flight. If only the Arkenstone could have been made to explode, eh?
*Note, too, that the Hall of Kings was cavernous enough for Smaug to flap his wings and hover above the molten gold. He should have been led to a smaller chamber. The only problem with that plan is that the huge golden statue wasn't in a smaller chamber. Thorin couldn't guarantee that Smaug wouldn't hover. He also couldn't guarantee that Smaug wouldn't leap backward to avoid the onrush of gold and burst out of the hall, into the open air—as he eventually did.
Thursday, December 26, 2013
I was told that the student evaluations of the teachers would be out by the 26th, and I received an email this morning confirming that. Very late in the day, I lumber-waddled over to campus to log in to the university website and access those evals. I can't do this from home yet, because I haven't bothered to acquire the "electronic certificate" that, once uploaded to my desktop and laptop, would allow me to log in to the DCU website as a professor to access sensitive data. Given the frog-in-a-well nature of Korean cyberspace, I can use only Internet Explorer to log in to the DCU website. (Many, if not most, Korean websites are either accessible only through IE, or function best only through IE. Korea may be the most-wired nation on earth, but it's also got one of the most antiquated, hard-to-use, hacker-vulnerable Web protocols out there. Chrome? Firefox? What're those?)
Once I got to my office, I saw that The Big Move had already begun, and all the computers had been unplugged and disassembled, with most of our work stations' components boxed up (mice, keyboards, desk phones). The CPUs and monitors still sat on our desks, but they were effectively useless. In an enterprising mood, I reopened some of the boxes and tried to put my computer back together, so impatient was I to see my student evals. Alas, no dice: I put the entire computer together—monitor, mouse, keyboard, CPU—and discovered that the LAN had been shut down. Defeated, I packed everything back up. I'll just have to return to the office tomorrow to get the e-certificate and access the data from either my laptop (if I remember to take it to campus with me) or my desktop.
At least I got my daily 30-minute walk in.
Later this evening, I'm heading out to re-watch "The Desolation of Smaug." Charles emailed me a possible explanation for the gold-statue confusion (see my review); I need to see whether it all makes more sense on a second viewing.
The following twenty-one images are of the pube-infested yeogwan that I stayed in for three nights during my recent trip to Seoul. Hover your cursor over each image to read its caption. Click the image to magnify it.
I sincerely regret not having taken any close-up "macro" shots of all the pubes on the bedding. That truly was a horror show. I also regret not having brought along a lint roller and Lysol.
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
My French brother Dominique sends me pics of his kids for Christmas.
Below: Augustin (a.k.a. Auguste, Gus), the tall one, with little bro Timothé (Tim).
Next: Elder daughter Joséphine (Jo, Jojo), and little sis Héloïse (Hélo, Lolo)—
Regarding my dilemma, Dominique writes:
Pas toujours facile en effet d'avoir le bon équilibre entre l'argent et le bien-être.
Not always easy, in fact, to strike the right balance between money and well-being.
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Let's say you've been offered work at a firm that will pay you more than twice what you're making right now. It's a rather corporate place, which means you'll be losing all the wonderful perks that come with teaching at a Korean university, such as 4-month vacations and a 12-hour-per-week teaching schedule (only 4 days a week). It also means you'll be subjected to constant deadline pressure, and since the job involves being creative, you'll always have to be "on." No bad-hair days allowed.
You've worked in the corporate world before, and have found it confining, stultifying, and possibly conducive to insanity. Spending eight hours a day in a cubicle, mired in a morass of office politics (not that your current job is free of office politics, mind you), isn't an appetizing proposition. It's the antithesis of teaching. In the corporate world, you get only ten work days of vacation, plus national holidays, per the standard corporate package. Not enough time for a lengthy trip around Europe or the States.
But there are two things about this job offer that make it compelling. First, there's the pay. Compared to the sort of meager salary you've been used to receiving for most of your life, a salary that, up to now, hasn't allowed you to do much more than live in barely minimal comfort for a first-worlder, this quantum leap to a whole new income bracket—almost $60,000 a year—opens up a universe of possibilities, rapid debt repayment foremost among them. You've been looking for a golden solution to your income woes, and now, with this job offer, it's as if Heaven itself has come down and said, "Dude. You'd be an idiot not to accept this position." Second, there's the creativity that this job requires. Unlike your previous stints in the corporate world, you wouldn't be engaged in boring bullshit like data entry, memo-writing, pointless online research, or admin-related gopher work. You'd be part of a team of motivated individuals in the education industry, banging out material—stories and essays—that will be consumed by young students. This wouldn't be the same humdrum, cubicle-bound routine that you remember.
As for deadline pressure: you've written for deadlines before, and even when you're not being paid to write, you write all the damn time, and you're not bad at it. The gentleman offering you this job made clear that he recognizes your talent and wants to pay you to do what you do well. Not many people in this sad world have the chance to work at a job where they do something they like doing.
But a little serpent of fear and pessimism has wound itself around your amygdala, and it whispers that, while you might be doing something you like for now, you'll come to hate it later. All those deadlines... all that corporatism... the whole formulaic, assembly-line aspect of putting a book together... eventually, it'll become too much for you, and you'll go nuts, because no matter how much you're being paid and no matter how creative you get to be, you're still just a prole in a cubicle, one of Doug Coupland's corporate serfs inside a veal-fattening pen.*
Even as the amygdala-serpent is whispering, though, the angel swimming around inside your cerebral cortex is reassuring you that, if it's insanity you're worried about, you don't have to stay with this job until you're old and gray. Just work at it for a few years, the angel chirps. See how it goes. You never know—you might actually like this sort of work.
So as you ponder this job offer and the trajectory of your life, you realize you're nearing fifty and have little to show for all your effort up to now. You're deep in debt, you're still single (which may be a blessing: when debt saddles a marriage, it's not going to be a happy marriage), you still haven't written the Great American Novel, and your options are inexorably narrowing. Of all the things that worry you most right now, it's the debt that consumes your consciousness. You don't like being beholden to anyone, whether it be a friend or a faceless corporate entity. You want to get rid of this monster on your back, and with no other viable options coming your way, it really does seem stupid not to accept this job offer.
It comes down to a stark choice, then: money or sanity. In reality, the choice isn't so clear-cut: money would alleviate your debt, which could potentially work wonders on your sanity. You'd no longer have to labor under that cloud of insecurity. But there's the confining cubicle thing, and the stultifying corporate thing, and that's not going away just because you're quickly paying down your debt.
So you promise yourself that you'll chew this over, that you'll contact the gentleman who made the kind offer and pepper him with questions about the specifics of the job. Then, after a lot more serious cogitation, you'll make your decision. May it be a wise one.
*Coupland, a Canadian, wrote the now semi-classic Generation X, a story about people in my age group.
Monday, December 23, 2013
Batman—Bruce Wayne—lost his parents in Crime Alley. That's where it all started for him. For me, my teaching career in the Land of the Morning Calm began here, in the grungy alley pictured below:
I used to live in this alley from about June 1994 to June 1995. I worked at a hagwon, a cram school, called the Korea Foreign Language Institute, which was right across the street, literally a 60-second walk away. The yeogwan in this alley used to be called Jongno On-cheon Yeogwan: Jongno Hot Spring Inn. I rented a room there, as if the love hotel were an apartment building, for W400,000 a month. The room was small; it initially had a huge bed in it, which I finally asked the manager to have removed. I set up a humble computer desk, bought some space-saving mesh racks on which to hang clothing and other items, and got some cheap bookshelves, which I didn't end up filling. 1994 was pre-Internet for me; I had a computer, but it wasn't hooked up to any World Wide Web. My buddies Tom and John would visit on occasion; John liked some of my computer games, and one time he came over for a marathon gaming session when he was pissed off at a girl he had broken up with. "Fuck... women," John said bitterly that night, over and over. I wonder whether he still remembers that incident.
The next two pictures are of the yeogwan itself, now rechristened Hotel JR, which I suppose could be read as either "Hotel J.R." or "Hotel Junior." The place has gotten a new façade as well as an incongruous electronic marquee. See below:
The new entrance to my old place:
My yeogwan, back then, was pretty nasty. The walls were thin, so I could clearly hear drunken arguments, fights, and sloppy, desperate sex every night. Disgusting brown or black water would occasionally shoot out of the bathtub faucet and the bathroom sink, so I learned never to trust the pipes. The air in the 1990s-era Jongno district was so full of pollution, mainly bus exhaust, that my boogers always looked like charcoal. Christ only knows what sorts of carcinogens I was breathing in on a daily basis. The alley was often mined with pizza-sized vomit splatters, which became breakfast for the morning pigeons that would pick through the vomit for the chunks of ramyeon. And the roaches... Sweet Jesus, the roaches. The roaches that came into my room were so huge and heavy that I could hear their feet tick-tick-ticking as they crawled across my rubberized floor at night. They often crawled into my room through the wall-mounted air conditioner.
I wonder whether Hotel JR has cleaned up its act. I wonder how roach-free the place is, and how nice the facilities have become. As I stood in front of the yeogwan's new façade this past Sunday, I found myself temporarily transported back to 1990s Seoul, back before cell phones, when beepers (bbibbi in Korean) ruled the day. That alley holds many ghosts.
Sunday, December 22, 2013
Saturday, December 21, 2013
I visited KMA in Yeouido and spoke with Patrick B. about the work I'll be doing for his company. Upshot: I'll be designing two curricula, one on persuasive business writing and one on performing online research, and will likely be teaching from the programs I design. These will be 7-hour workshops/seminars—complete courses in themselves, from stem to stern. Courses will start in February, if not sooner (I've been told that, the sooner I turn the course outlines in, the sooner KMA can advertise the programs and I can start teaching).
My buddy Tom met with me after my KMA appointment; he and I tripped over to the large, impressive, and very American-looking IFC Mall in Yeouido, after which we dipped into a local E-Mart, then proceeded to Jongno, where we dined on some of the best grilled pork I've ever had—this at a restaurant only a few meters away from Pho Mein.
It was good to speak with Patrick, who is a stand-up guy, and to chill with Tom one last time before I head back south to tiny Hayang. Tomorrow, before I leave, I have one more mission: to raid the local Krispy Kreme and buy myself a dozen lovely doughnuts to take back with me and consume over the next few days.
Au revoir, Séoul!
Friday, December 20, 2013
The middle finger on my left hand is bleeding as I type this. I had noticed a tiny flap of skin sticking out just below the fingernail, and I unwisely ripped the strip away with my teeth. Hence the bleeding. I reckon it'll stop soon.
But a bloody finger won't stop me from writing a quick entry on my time in Itaewon today. The temperature never got above freezing, but it was a bright, beautiful afternoon when I arrived at Itaewon's famous Hamilton Hotel, a hallowed meeting spot for most Seoulite expats.
My first meeting was an appointment with Mr. M, a gentleman who wears many hats, has lived in Korea for 30 years, and speaks nearly perfect Korean. Like Robert Koehler, Mr. M likes wearing hanbok (traditional Korean clothing; see Robert here). I thought he would have been cold in just a hanbok, but Mr. M seemed just fine. He had summoned me to this appointment along with a Korean artist because he had some book projects he wanted to talk about with us: I was to be the writer; Mr. Kim, the artist (see his website here), was to be the illustrator. We went to one of Mr. M's favorite Mexican restaurants (which appeared to be run by Caribbeans). It quickly became apparent that Mr. Kim and I would not be working on the same projects: Mr. M wanted me for one project and Mr. Kim for another. For what it's worth, both projects sounded interesting. (Mr. M and I have worked together on a book project before; I'd like to thank the person who first put me in touch with Mr. M, but that party prefers to remain nameless.)
We moved our conversation from the Mexican restaurant to a nearby coffee shop, of which the Itaewon district has many. As we walked along the crowded sidewalk, I noted the preponderance of older, graying white guys wearing leather bomber jackets in a sad attempt at recapturing their youth. These fellows are everywhere in Itaewon; I wonder how aware they are that they're members of the same pathetic club. Our little group settled into the coffee place; I ordered a hot chocolate since I don't drink coffee; the other two gentlemen ordered coffees. Talk was partly about business, partly about personal matters. I showed Mr. Kim, the artist, some pics of my Dalma-do artwork and other brush art; he was appreciative if not exactly enthralled by what he saw. Mr. M talked about skiing (which he doesn't do anymore after a bad incident on a certain slope) and palmistry, one of many Korean cultural quirks he seemed to have picked up after three decades in country. The meeting ended amicably; we all exchanged contact information; Mr. Kim promised to email me later. It's a shame that he and I won't be working together on a project, but such is life.
By the time we finished, it was around 4:15PM. We had spent about two hours together. I moved over to the local Starbucks; my buddy Tom had texted to say that he would be waiting there for me. I was supposed to meet my friends at 6:15PM for dinner, but Tom, his wife, and their child were in Itaewon for reasons of their own, and they had nothing to do until dinner. So I went up to the second floor of Starbucks and sat with Tom and his wife, a lovely Filipina, and their baby son, who was asleep—with a coat over his head—when I arrived.
A little before 6PM, Charles and Hyunjin announced their arrival. They were already at Wang Thai, the resto that Charles had been good enough to reserve for dinner (Thai food had originally been my friend Seungmin's suggestion). I made my way over to Wang Thai with Tom and his family, then went back to the Hamilton Hotel to await Seungmin's arrival. It turned out that she was already at the hotel, so it was a simple matter of collecting her and walking to the restaurant. She chose to walk through the freezing weather without her coat. I commented on this, and she laughed.
Charles's reservation had been for seven people, which was apparently enough to gain us a private room. Feeling very rich and exclusive, I sat down at the table, and after some negotiation we figured out how we were going to order. The appetizer was a chicken satay. The soup was a sweet-and-spicy tom yum. The main courses included a shrimp-and-vegetable curry, spicy beef, Thai pork, pad thai, and a chicken/pineapple rice dish that I had never tried before. Everything was delicious. Toward the end of dinner, Seungmin brought out some gifts for the assembled crowd: homemade scented candles. I brought out the modest gifts I had bought during my quick shopping spree in Insa-dong. Charles muttered something about not knowing this was going to be a gift exchange; Tom, for his part, looked blissfully unrepentant about not having brought gifts for the group. To his credit, he ended up covering the dinner cost for me and Seungmin.
All too soon, dinner was over. It was good to have had the chance to sit and eat with my friends, and in Seoul, no less. This was something I hadn't been able to do since returning to Korea in August, and I'm not sure when I'll be able to afford to do this again.
Tomorrow: a meeting with Patrick B. to discuss my upcoming work with KMA. Come to think of it, if KMA wants me to teach a couple times a month for them, I may end up coming to Seoul quite often.
Ah, yes: some time ago, my finger must have finally stopped bleeding.
Boy, I really know how to pick 'em.
I'm typing this entry on my laptop via a Wi-Fi connection siphoned from... somewhere. I'm in a yeogwan, a type of inn or motel, but it's got to be one of the shittiest yeogwans I've ever visited. It's called Mi Jeong Yeogwan, and it's in downtown Seoul, just a hundred or so meters away from Jongno 3-ga Station. It appears to be run by two older women whose main function is casting suspicious looks at foreign guests. They led me up to my room and showed me into it. I had to go back later to ask for a key, which hadn't been given to me upon payment.
Ah, my room. My room is fucking filthy. The toilet has shit-speckles in it. There's barely enough toilet paper on the roll to last two nights, and I'm here for three. My bed linens are full of hairs—long, short, and suspiciously helical. The electric sockets at the end of the extension cords are covered in a quarter-inch of dust. There are mysterious spatters—blood or feces, I'm not sure—on the wallpaper. The metal door makes this place feel like a converted prison. But I had already paid for my room; it was too late to complain, and this ain't America, where you can expect a modicum of customer service. So I sit upon the pube-infested mattress and type this missive. God knows what diseases I'm absorbing through my ass.
In downtown Seoul, getting a room for under W30,000 is pretty cheap, but the market rule applies: You Get What You Pay For. I had, at first, gone to the love hotel next door to this inn, but that place's rates were exorbitant: W50,000 a night for weekdays, increasing to W70,000 and W80,000 a night on weekends. My current digs are costing me W85,000 for three nights.
So I'll put up with the filth, and ponder the fact that I'm not rich enough to afford decent accommodations. Not yet, anyway.
The ride up to Seoul was quicker than expected. I took the local train from Hayang to East Daegu Station, then hopped aboard the KTX bullet train for the two-hour trip to Seoul. I think I slept most of the way; maybe I snored. My day had been fairly stressful; Miss Distraught had come into my office to plead her case; she predictably wept and wept in an attempt to gain my sympathy, standing at my work station and refusing to leave despite my thirty-six attempts to tell her to go. I was tempted to drag her out of the office by brute force, but I knew that that wouldn't do. Part of me thinks the girl is a mite crazy. It wouldn't be hard to imagine her hanging on to my ankles, allowing herself to be dragged and wailing the entire time, while I'm trying to walk down the hallway.
The high point of my evening, after my arrival in Seoul, was where I had dinner: it was a place called Pho Mein, a Vietnamese-style restaurant with a fairly American "basement chic" ambience (think: sleek lighting, painted-over brick walls, and super-modern furniture). Instead of ordering the pho, I had cashew chicken and an assortment of spring rolls and dumplings with spicy sweet-and-sour dipping sauce and sweet peanut sauce. The whole thing was expensive at W28,000 (about $25), but the portions weren't skimpy and the quality was quite good. If I could afford to, I'd go there again.
Oh, yes: Seoul is cold. Much colder than Hayang. So I was right: the Daegu region does retain its warmth, even in the winter. Good thing I brought my thick coat.
So—from a stressful day at the office to... the inn of pubes. Nice transition. Still, it's good to be back in Seoul, even if the place has already bled my wallet dry (I did, in fact, do a bit of Christmas shopping). For Friday: I've got a 1PM appointment in Itaewon, then a 6:15PM meet-up with friends for a 6:30PM dinner at a Thai restaurant called Wang Thai—also in Itaewon. On Saturday, I meet up with my KMA contact in Yeouido, and we'll talk turkey. I'm happy to report that my university has given its consent to my working with KMA, so the whole thing is very above-board.
And that's why I'm in Seoul: partly for business, partly for pleasure. If all goes well, 2014 will be a much more lucrative year for this ugly bastard.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
This (Thursday) afternoon, I'm taking the train up to Seoul, and I'll be there until Sunday. Will be meeting some friends and taking care of other business while I'm in town. Ought to be fun. Alas, from about 1PM to 5PM today, I'll be in the office, listening to students' whingeing. Some of it is going to be tearful; Miss Distraught will be making one final attempt to change my cold, cold heart, and it's not going to work. She's going to suffer the consequences of her actions, and if that means the loss of certain financial benefits for her, so be it.
I'm not sure I'll know what to do with myself during my free time up in Seoul. Shop? Heh—I'm poor. What can I possibly shop for? I had thought about bringing up my Droid X, so as to get it repaired at a decent electronics shop, but that's not going to happen: money again. Perhaps I'll just wander. The Cheonggyae Stream is a good spot for flâneurs.
So the plan is to arrive in Seoul Thursday night (I've bought my train tickets), go to a lunch appointment and a dinner appointment on Friday, both in Itaewon, meet someone in Yeouido on Saturday, then... what? I'll be free until Sunday afternoon. Perhaps I'll catch a movie while in town. Maybe "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."
At 5PM on Sunday, I head back to humble Hayang. I won't be on vacation quite yet: we profs have one more obligation before Christmas—something called "Final Button Day." It sounds like an award ceremony for Mouseketeers at the end of their tenure, but Final Button Day actually refers to the locking-in of our posted grades. The idea is that, from now until that day, students can call their professors, weep, gnash their teeth, beg, sit, stay, roll over, heel, and do whatever else they think will persuade the profs to change their grades. But once that begging period is over, and once the changes (if any) have been made, along comes Final Button Day, and all the grades will be locked in permanently. It's a shame this has to happen on Christmas Eve; we're required to be physically in the office to click the lock-in button (although one of our number has apparently figured out how to click the button remotely) on that day. But it's only a small chore, one little click, so I'm not chafing that much.
After that: vacation for nearly two months! We're not back in action until late February. As I mentioned before, it may be that I'll be working during vacation; I know for a fact that I'll have to prepare an entire curriculum for the pronunciation course I'll be teaching, and I've got other projects lined up as well. I stare at my fat ass and realize there's no West for the reary.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Barely an hour after posting my grades, I got two text messages from students—one distraught, the other disgruntled. The distraught student had received an "F"; the disgruntled one had thought he deserved a "B," but had instead received a "C." I don't have my grade file with me; I'd need to go back to the office to see why these students got the grades they got. In the distraught student's case, it was because her semester was a long parade of "D"s and "F"s, culminating in "F"s for two major tests. I told the disgruntled student to text me again tomorrow. I gave the distraught student evidence of her performance from an incomplete spreadsheet that I had on my laptop.
I expect more shrill text messages to come throughout the rest of today, but unless I've made a bonehead mistake somewhere, it's highly doubtful that I'll be changing grades for anyone.
And that, as Forrest Gump said, is all I have to say about that.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
What—you expect a blog post today, after I'd crapped out that monster-sized review yesterday? You're outta yer mind. Come back tomorrow. I'll have something for you then. Better yet: go see "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" so you can actually read my review, spoilers and all.
Monday, December 16, 2013
[Warning: here be spoilers.]
PART I: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
[For a thorough review from a somewhat different perspective, please read my friend Charles's review of "Unexpected Journey" here, if you haven't already done so.]
Like most folks, I had my doubts about Peter Jackson's cinematic approach to JRR Tolkien's children's novel, The Hobbit. Jackson had taken quite a few liberties with the plot of Lord of the Rings, but his filmic trilogy was, at the same time, a respectful homage to Tolkien's work, capturing the brave spirit and lofty nobility of the novels, and leaving most of their major themes and basic conflicts intact. Hearing that Jackson had decided to turn Tolkien's The Hobbit into yet another nine-hour trilogy, I felt a mixture of disappointment and disgust. I knew that the only way to accomplish such a thing would be to add in a mountain of extra(neous) material, and I felt that Jackson was just grubbing for more cash by stretching the modest story out into three-film length.
So I went into my viewing of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (which I saw via iTunes) with no small amount of skepticism and trepidation. In the end, I came away from the experience with deeply mixed feelings. If I had to rate the movie on a 10-point scale, I'd give it a 6—just this side of positive.
Prequels are strange things, especially when they're made ten years after the trilogy that preceded them. It was a bit depressing to see how most of the actors from Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" had aged. Elijah Wood (whose character, Frodo, really had no business being in "The Hobbit") was no longer quite so lithe and spry; Ian Holm's Bilbo was significantly slower and somewhat hesitant of speech; Ian McKellen's Gandalf, despite retaining his commanding voice and stage presence, had developed—for lack of a better term—eye jowls. The great Christopher Lee, as Saruman, also seemed to lack the force he had possessed in the first trilogy. By contrast, Hugo Weaving's Elrond was positively creepy in his agelessness. I was reminded of actor Keir Dullea, who reprised the role of David Bowman for "2010: The Year We Make Contact" in 1984, sixteen years after he had played Bowman in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Dullea seemed not to have aged a day. Weaving was just as uncanny—perhaps more so, given how the rest of the cast of "The Hobbit" had aged around him.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" begins with a flashback to the days of glory of the dwarves, whose Kingdom Under the Mountain lay under Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, in that era.* Jackson's film captures the grandeur of Erebor's vaulted spaces—the awesome veins of gold that ran up and down the mountain's interior, the care and competence with which the dwarves fashioned their treasures. Then the dragon, Smaug, appeared out of nowhere and destroyed both Erebor's kingdom and the nearby city of Dale. The dwarves were left homeless; their king, Thrain, lost the Arkenstone, a gem that signified his authority to rule. The flashback narration tells us that Thrain's obsession with Erebor's hoard of treasure had become a sickness—a foreshadowing of the corrupting influence of the One Ring of Power. Thus is the basic conflict established: the homeless dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), must oust the dragon and reclaim their kingdom. The plot then switches to the present, and we meet a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who is recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to accompany a party of thirteen dwarves on their quest to reconquer Erebor. Bilbo has been singled out by Gandalf for his stealth and cleverness—hobbits are naturally stealthy, and Bilbo's ancestors on his mother's side were of a more adventurous stripe than were more typical Hobbiton hobbits. Many adventures ensue; the party encounters both Azog the orc (barely mentioned in the novel but a major antagonist in the film) and Radagast the Brown, a fellow wizard and friend of Gandalf who lives in seclusion in the forest. The company also runs into a trio of trolls; they meet (and somehow survive) stone giants in the midst of "a thunder battle," and they manage to fight their way out of the clutches of the Great Goblin and his legions of cave goblins. Bilbo, lost in the caverns, discovers the One Ring of Power and has his famous encounter with Gollum. As in the novel, he and Gollum play the riddle game to see whether Gollum will get to eat Bilbo for dinner.
That encounter, for me, was the highlight of the movie. First, the scene belonged there, because it was actually in the novel. Second, Jackson did an excellent job of visualizing the scene in the way I imagined it happening. Although some of the riddles from the book were left out, I thoroughly enjoyed the way the encounter was staged: it was done as if we were watching a two-man, minimalist play, sort of a cannibalistic "Waiting for Godot," and I'm all about the minimalism. Gollum is a metaphor for attachment: his withered, grasping, skeletal form is the result of long years of possessiveness and unrequited desire; he has kept and guarded the Ring for decades, but what benefits has it accorded him aside from the satisfaction of having it? Ever hungry, Gollum does his best to out-riddle the fat, delicious Bilbo, but in the end, Bilbo cheats by asking Gollum what he has in his own (Bilbo's own) pocket. Gollum, with his instinctive cunning, correctly guesses that Bilbo now possesses the Precious—the Ring that Gollum had just lost. Yes... I enjoyed this scene.
I also enjoyed Jackson's portrayal of the stone giants, who appear in the novel as something of an adventitious hierophany—a disruptive occurrence of explosive cosmic power serving no apparent purpose. Remember the rock-creature from "Galaxy Quest"? Jackson's stone giants are the rock-creature's steroid-freak cousins. Imagine Iron Mike Tyson—but imagine him the size of a mountain and made of boulders. Now imagine several of these mountain-sized Mike Tysons engaged in an Irish brawl. The scene in the movie, like the scene in the book, was utterly random, and the reader/viewer is left scratching his head. The only lesson one can derive from the experience is that there are forces out there that are unimaginably potent. Nature (or supernature) is not to be trifled with. It could also be that Tolkien was slipping in an etiological fairy tale: an explanation of where thunder really comes from.
The Gollum scene and the stone-giant scene were a joy to witness, but the extra-canonical material was difficult to see past. Jackson's "Hobbit" frequently felt more like a critique of Tolkien than a tribute to him. It was almost as if Jackson (or his fellow scriptwriters, including Mexican titan Guillermo del Toro) had read The Hobbit and decided that the story needed more action here, more parallel subplots there. That, I think, is my fundamental problem with Jackson's version of the story. Azog? Barely figures in the novel's plot. Saruman? Nowhere to be found in Tolkien's pages. Radagast the Brown? Like Azog, barely mentioned. Galadriel? As with Saruman, she never appears in the novel.
It is, perhaps, the figure of Radagast the Brown who causes the most problems for me. You see, I like Radagast, but the entire Radagast subplot felt like a dangerous digression from the primary story, i.e., Bilbo and Company's quest to regain Erebor. Jackson spends a lot of time introducing us to Radagast, a fact that made me think the wizard would figure prominently over the entire trilogy (not so, it turns out). Radagast (played by the delightful Sylvester McCoy) strikes me as a sort of Saint Francis, living in deep communion with nature. He's smart, energetic, and surprisingly powerful for a dotty old man—qualities I'd also associate with Taoist mountain sages. The forest speaks to him; he reads the world's tidings through the ground, the trees, the weather, and the wildlife. Although he may seem skittish and scatterbrained, evidence of his power comes when we see him defeat a proto-Nazgûl in physical combat. Radagast is obviously not someone to take lightly; Saruman, who despises Radagast for his filthy-looking teeth and his fondness for magic mushrooms, sorely underestimates the wizard's greatness. We viewers, too, are tempted to dismiss Radagast because his dirty scalp is covered in bird droppings, and because he has the capacity to freak himself out.
So Radagast was a compelling character for me. I automatically rooted for him. He was a different expression of Maiar power from Gandalf, but equally significant. He had, in fact, just a hint of Tom Bombadil in him: like Bombadil, Radagast was a cosmic figure with parochial interests; his focus was mainly the forest. Unlike Bombadil, however, Radagast worried about the larger picture. But Radagast's presence in Jackson's version of the story felt, once again, like a critique of Tolkien. Tolkien's original narrative was relentlessly linear; there was nothing zigzaggily postmodernist about it. Jackson, perhaps taking his cue from George Lucas's tripartite story structure in "Return of the Jedi" (space battle, forest battle, lightsaber battle), made "The Hobbit" into a story with multiple subplots. Radagast was emblematic of this move, and while I liked his character very much, his existence nagged me.
In the end, though, I found Jackson's "The Hobbit" watchable. The acting was great, the cinematography was up to Jackson's usual par, and the plot moved along at an entertaining clip. It was a delight to see Barry Humphries—a.k.a. Dame Edna—as the hilarious Great Goblin, whose death was as far from Shakespearean as it was possible to go. Despite the many dwarves in the cast, each dwarf managed to have a distinct personality. Still, by the end of the film, I had no clear idea of what Jackson was trying to accomplish. Had he decided to take liberties with the story, but in a way that was still somehow loyal to the spirit of Tolkien's narrative, as he had done in tackling The Lord of the Rings? Or had he decided to go his own way, and to impart his own pronounced "Jacksonic" spin on the text? Should I or shouldn't I view Jackson's "Hobbit" as a stand-alone work of art—a work that owes an indefinite something to its source material, but which has nevertheless been fashioned more in the spirit of a TV reboot like the 2003 "Battlestar Galactica" miniseries?
PART II: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"
The second film in the series, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," helped me figure out Jackson's intentions. I now know that, unlike with "Lord of the Rings," Jackson has decided to strike out on his own. He has taken fuller ownership of Tolkien's tale; far from creating a homage or tribute to Tolkien's narrative, Jackson is out-and-out creating his own version of the story. While I hesitate to call Jackson's project a reboot, I'd submit that his work is edging very close to reboot territory. The evidence: continued use of flashbacks, non-canonical events, the inclusion of extra-canonical characters and, most daring of all, the blatant fabrication of one principal character (Tauriel the Silvan [sic] Elf—more on her and her subplot later) found nowhere in the Tolkien oeuvre.
A quick summary of events, then: "Smaug" doesn't immediately pick up where the previous film left off. The plot begins with a flashback to Gandalf and Thorin at the Prancing Pony in Bree, one year ago, before cutting back to the party in the present time, now running away from Azog's orc pack toward the house of Beorn the "skin-changer." We're with Beorn only briefly before we move on to the perilous journey through Mirkwood, a darkly enchanted forest that lives up to its name as it casts glamours and illusions among the company. Our heroes encounter the awful spiders that had been hinted at in the first movie ("Some kind of spawn of Ungoliant, or I'm not a wizard!" spits Radagast the Brown in that film), and are, as in the book, captured by the Wood Elves. Among the Wood Elves, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is the son of Thranduil, the Elvenking (Lee Pace). At this point in history, Legolas has no love of dwarves. Kili, meanwhile, falls in love with Legolas's lieutenant, Tauriel. While he is held captive, Kili and Tauriel form a sweet bond that has the potential to grow into true love. This is a rather major subplot in the movie, and is nowhere to be found in the novel. With Bilbo's help, the dwarves escape. Jackson's version of the "Barrels out of Bond" sequence is quite exciting, as the dwarves and Bilbo ride the river while under attack by orcs (Azog and his pack again) and pursued by their elven captors, who deal expeditiously with the orcs. Then comes the journey into Lake-town, in which the dwarves and Bilbo are smuggled into town by Bard. The Master of the town, craving a portion of Erebor's hoard (Thorin promises to share his kingdom's wealth with the town), supplies the company with the provisions and weapons they'll need to retake the mountain. Gandalf, meanwhile, visits Dol Guldur, the apparently abandoned fortress, to learn more about the Necromancer who has taken up residence there. He makes a horrifying discovery, engages in a titanic magical battle, and ends up imprisoned. The final phase of the movie is about the party's subterranean adventure: the adventurers find and open the Lonely Mountain's hidden magical door; they send Bilbo in to find the Arkenstone; Bilbo encounters Smaug and engages in a cat-and-mouse dialogue with the dragon. There's a pitched, chaotic battle as the dwarves attempt to kill Smaug, which ends in one of the most beautiful scenes in the whole of Jackson's Middle-Earth opus as we see Smaug emerge from the mountain, covered in molten gold.
So "Smaug" ends with Gandalf in thrall, a bit like Han Solo at the end of "The Empire Strikes Back." In fact, the cliffhanger nature of "Smaug" felt very "Empire"-y. Despite the disappointment that came with such an abrupt ending, I felt that this movie was head and shoulders above the first one, quite possibly because, once I had understood Jackson's true agenda, I made a firm decision just to roll with it. Jackson's "Hobbit" movies are meant to be a stand-alone work; there's little reason to compare them to the novel. From the beginning, Jackson elected to turn a short novel into a nine-hour epic, which meant that he was fundamentally reinterpreting Tolkien for the big screen. This wasn't entirely clear to me after one film, but it's been made manifestly clear after two. Jackson has permitted himself some liberties that a Tolkien purist could describe only as egregious. Tauriel, and her relationship with Kili the dwarf, is a huge case in point.
According to Wikipedia, Tauriel is purely the brainchild of Peter Jackson and screenwriter Fran Walsh. Although the filmmakers have been at pains, in the past, to say that any extra-textual material does in fact come from legitimate Tolkienian canon (appendices, The Silmarillion, Lost Tales, etc.), the creation of Tauriel involves a bit of hermeneutical chutzpah: Tauriel, Jackson and Walsh imply, is a character that Tolkien would have included had he thought to do so. As I noted in my review of the previous film, above, this thinking feels more like a critique of Tolkien than anything else, but given what I now know of Jackson's intentions, I'm inclined to let Jackson critique all he wants. As played by Evangeline Lilly, Tauriel is a bit of a rebel among her elven kin. Unlike the Elvenking, Thranduil, she sees the Elves occupying the same cosmos as all other living creatures; the Elves can't wall themselves off from the world's problems because they're part of that world. Thranduil has a soft spot for Tauriel, whom he may view almost as a niece or a daughter. He cautions her not to lead Legolas on, but there's little chance of that, as Tauriel finds herself instead charmed by Kili the dwarf, with whom she even engages, at one point, in humorous sexual repartee. (Kili, behind bars, asks why he hasn't been more closely inspected, because one never knows whether "something" might be "down my trousers." Tauriel tartly replies, "Or maybe nothing." A dick joke!) Kili, for his part, fell in love with Tauriel the moment he watched her expertly and gracefully slay a large spider in Mirkwood.
During the escape from the Elvenking's prison, Kili is shot by a Morgul arrow. When Tauriel learns of this from a captured orc, she goes alone in search of the orc pack pursuing the dwarves, determined to hunt the creatures down herself. Legolas, driven by his own desires and ignoring the dictates of his father, follows Tauriel and ends up helping her. The two Elves track the orcs to Lake-town and dispatch most of them with cold, balletic efficiency. While in Lake-town, Tauriel takes the athelas (a.k.a. kingsfoil) found by Bofur to help bring the injured Kili back from the brink. In experiencing Elvish medicine, Kili has the same otherworldly vision that Frodo had (will have?) when Arwen treated (will treat?) his Morgul stab wound: Kili sees Tauriel as if she simultaneously inhabited both the normal earth and a luminous realm. This scene was one of many paralleling Jackson's work in "Lord of the Rings."
Like Radagast in the first film, Tauriel is brusquely inserted into the second film's plot, immediately generating her own potentially distracting subplot. But as I wrote earlier, I no longer care. Peter Jackson has resolved to interpret Tolkien's The Hobbit as he sees fit, and this series of movies, like it or not, is a Middle-Earth-sized middle finger to Tolkien purists and loyalists.**
A comment on Elves: Jackson, riffing off Tolkien, portrays the Elves as possibly enlightened beings with heightened perceptions and longer sight into the future than most normal beings are blessed with. The ability to inhabit multiple worlds could be seen as a function of that enlightenment; it's certainly a familiar trope in Buddhism, a tradition in which buddhas and bodhisattvas simultaneously exist in multiple worlds, each world a celestial or infernal analogue of this terrestrial one. Jackson's Elves are also portrayed as ruthless, efficient terminators, calling to mind nothing so much as the stoic samurai in the novels of James Clavell, unsentimentally sending their opponents "to the Void" if the situation demands it. Tauriel herself, according to Evangeline Lilly, is "a killing machine." Legolas, meanwhile, is his usual proficient self. I lost count of how many orcs he killed.
As a fight-choreography junkie, I appreciated the fight scenes in "Smaug" more than I did the ones in "Unexpected Journey"—especially the Elf-versus-orc fight during the "Barrels out of Bond" sequence. In the previous film, especially in the goblin-cave scene, the fights were cartoonishly silly (the goblins were little more than bowling pins) and not motivated by much emotion, except for the dwarves' obvious desire for escape. In "Smaug," however, the fights are generally more serious in tone, barring the occasional humorous orc death. However enlightened they might be, the Elves obviously hate the orcs, and this hatred is telegraphed in the fight choreography. Tolkien himself might have been shocked by the sheer number of casual beheadings and impalements that take place in this film—a film that was, I should remind you, based on a novel meant for children.
There was another type of fight, though, that caught my attention, mainly because I was sitting in a theater with a Korean audience. This was the fight between Gandalf—who has entered Dol Guldur knowing full well that the place is a trap—and the partially regenerated, yet already extremely powerful, Sauron. (The utterance of Sauron's name in the context of "The Hobbit" is yet another Jacksonian heresy, but Gandalf explicitly calls out that name as he's being defeated.) The fight must have looked uncannily familiar to Korean eyes: it was essentially a battle of ki, of fundamental energy. Gandalf is one of the Maiar, something like a minor deity incarnated, in his case, as an old man. Sauron is also Maiar, originally a lieutenant of the dark being Morgoth/Melkor, who rebelled against the creator, Eru. The contest that takes place in Dol Guldur, then, should be understood not as a conflict of mere physical forces, but as a combat between cosmic principles. I enjoyed Jackson's portrayal of Sauron in this film: disembodied, yet hinting at a body—smoky, seemingly ephemeral, yet full of black, demonic hate. Gandalf, embodied and shackled with mortal limits, represents an exquisite contrast to Sauron; the battle, though brief, is epic. Koreans have seen this sort of confrontation before, probably thousands of times: ravening blasts of energy are the stock-in-trade of Korean and Japanese animé, in which powerful characters from Pikachu on down fling hurricanes and solar prominences of fire, death rays, and soul-lightning at each other.
There's one final fight on which I have to comment, and that would be the battle between the dwarves and Smaug inside the treasure-hoard and furnaces of Erebor. How exactly does one fight a massive, talking, evil-tempered dragon? The dwarves know their way around Erebor, and elect to lead the dragon into the furnace-chamber, where the forges are. Smaug is goaded into re-lighting the forges, which allows the dwarves to melt metal and send it sluicing toward the dragon. It's not a very good tactic, as tactics go; the dragon's movements are unpredictable, and Erebor's immense interior gives Smaug the chance to move about freely. It's the final part of the battle, though, that truly confuses me. The dwarves lead Smaug into the main thronehall. Together, they tug on the chains attached to a huge stone structure, which turns out to be the cover for an enormous, solid-gold statue of a dwarf—probably a famous ruler. The stones covering the golden statue fall away; Smaug, for whatever reason, turns around and watches the statue as it's revealed, then is mesmerized by the sheer amount of gold it must contain. As if on cue, the statue suddenly liquefies, pouring itself onto the floor of the thronehall and covering Smaug, seemingly burying him. Smaug is not so easily defeated, though, and only moments later he emerges from the golden muck, a beautiful aureate version of himself. He drags himself out of the mountain, flapping his wings and managing to gain enough altitude to shake himself free of all the liquid gold. He then makes his way to Lake-town to exact his revenge on the people who helped the dwarves, rumbling, "I am fire! I am death!" Bilbo, watching Smaug depart, asks faintly, "What have we done?" The battle with the dragon was visually splendid, but that bit with the golden statue failed to make any sense to me. How did the dwarves get the statue to melt so suddenly? How, in the midst of all that chaos, did they time the statue's melting so perfectly? What was that statue doing, sitting so close to the furnaces, if it could melt so easily? And gold is a soft metal: wouldn't a statue of pure gold collapse under its own weight? None of this made any sense to me. Perhaps a nerd's explanation in defense of this scene might involve dwarvish enchantments on the statue, keeping it solid until the sheer heat from the furnaces broke through the magic, releasing a torrent of gold into the thronehall. But no mention was made of any enchantments, so the battle scene played out somewhat nonsensically. That, by the way, is my only major complaint about the film. It's too bad this problem appears so close to the end.
Let's talk about Smaug a bit. The malign dragon was voiced by the sonorous Benedict Cumberbatch, fresh off his tour de force as a somewhat epicene version of Khan Noonien Singh in "Star Trek Into Darkness." As cinematic dragons go, Smaug looked magnificent, but it would be impossible to talk about Smaug without also mentioning one of Smaug's cousins, the most iconic of all big-screen dragons: Vermithrax Pejorative of the movie "Dragonslayer." As happened with Vermithrax in the 1981 "Dragonslayer," Smaug is shown to the audience in bits and pieces at first; we receive sinister hints of his awesome proportions long before the entire dragon comes into view. As conceived by the special-effects wizards of Peter Jackson's Weta workshop, Smaug has something of the tyrannosaur about him. When the dragon begins to rampage, as dragons are wont to do, he evokes both the T. rex attack from "Jurassic Park" and Vermithrax's attack on Galen Bradwarden in "Dragonslayer." As with a tyrannosaur, Smaug's jaw structure contains a bit of a natural, toothy grin ("My teeth are swords!" declares the dragon at one point); and the way Smaug breathes fire, spreads his wings threateningly, and crawls menacingly around Erebor's guts evokes Vermithrax. Smaug's chest glows in warning as he prepares to utter flame; this put me in mind of a different cinematic dragon: the beast from Robert Zemeckis's "Beowulf" that is Beowulf's cursed, half-demon son. That dragon, too, had relatively thin skin on its neck and upper chest, allowing us to see the buildup of flame within. All in all, Smaug was an impressive achievement, and the CGI that allowed the dragon to utter human speech was flawless: Smaug never looked silly when speaking. He was what Sean Connery's witty, articulate dragon from "Dragonheart" should have been.
Cumberbatch did stellar voice work, and the other cast members of "Smaug" deserve similar kudos. Everyone hit his or her marks perfectly. I was especially delighted to see the great Stephen Fry as the dissolute, gouty Master of Lake-town. The Weta special-effects team was its usual conscientious self; the cinematography was as gorgeous as we've come to expect from a large-scale Peter Jackson film; the music was typically sweeping in that inimitable Howard Shore way. I did feel, though, that Radagast was under-used this time around, and that the dwarves were harder to distinguish (except for the major ones, like Thorin and Balin and, in this film, Kili). The film's pace was intense and steady, and although Jackson has elected to perform major cosmetic surgery on Tolkien's novel, the story Jackson gives us isn't bad at all (look for a quick Jackson cameo right at the very beginning of the movie, in the Bree scene); the viewer simply needs to take the movie on its own terms, and let go of all purist/loyalist thoughts. In fact, this story is more engrossing than the one we got in the first "Hobbit" film. There were cries of disappointment in the theater when "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" ended on its cliffhanger note, but I took that to mean that the audience had become emotionally invested in the film. A good sign.
If I gave "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" a 6 out of 10, I'd have to give "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" an 8 out of 10. It was a much better, more tightly written film, despite the highly disappointing and somewhat nonsensical fight sequence at the end.*** True: it was also more obviously Peter Jackson's baby, less beholden to Tolkien this time around than the previous film was. But what can we do about that? My solution, while watching the movie, was just to roll with events. Tauriel? OK, she's in, and she's kinda cute, and that whole Tauriel/Kili subplot added a new, albeit mildly distracting, wrinkle to the plot. Gandalf's side trip to Dol Guldur? Sure, there's no titanic fight with Sauron in the novel, but it was a visual treat in the movie. By offering so many implicit and explicit references to "Lord of the Rings," Jackson is tying the new trilogy firmly to the previous one, making them into a single, enormous whole. In doing this, he risks losing the "children's story" dimension of Tolkien's little novel, but I'd say Jackson has long passed the point of no return in his choice to serve his own artistic vision and not create a second homage/tribute.
I do wonder, though, what this trilogy could have become with Guillermo del Toro at the helm, as originally planned. If you saw "Hellboy II," then you know that del Toro already has his own vision of what an elf is and is capable of. Jackson's Elves are a lot like Vulcans in the Star Trek series: at times intellectual, at times intensely passionate, and always phenomenally strong, agile, perceptive, and logical. Del Toro's elves are more gritty, less analytical, less serene and mystical, perhaps more vicious, perhaps more cruel, and certainly more elemental. What would a "deltorovian" spin on this trilogy have been like?
*In the movie version of the story, Bilbo's voiceover narration conflates Erebor (the name of the mountain) with the Kingdom Under the Mountain. As Bilbo tells it, Erebor is the Kingdom Under the Mountain.
**In Jackson's "The Two Towers," Aragorn falls over a cliff during a fight, generating another non-canonical tangent. Eowyn, who is enamored of Aragorn, does her share of hand-wringing as the fate of Aragorn is left uncertain. Some complainers disliked the Eowyn/Aragorn thread, but if you've read Tolkien's trilogy, then you know that Tolkien actually does spend time inside Eowyn's head, focusing both on her romantic feelings for Aragorn and her desire to be more than a "shield maiden" who hangs back from the main battle. Jackson did well to pick up on these themes, which served to make Aragorn's character more complex than he would otherwise have been.
***If you think you understand what went on in that fight scene, especially as regards the giant golden statue, please feel free to offer me a film-nerd explanation. I just don't get how the statue suddenly exploded into liquid, with no transitional phase.