Beowulf on the big screen

Mr. Ray Winstone. No, not really.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching some movies loosely (very loosely) based on the Old English poem Beowulf. I’m not sure what the attraction for filmmakers is, since despite having lots of classic fantasy elements (a powerful hero, a witch, a monster), the story is kind of bare bones. As a result, these movies indulge in a lot of freestyle reinterpretation. Some of it works, some doesn’t.

Despite its reputation as a box office bomb, which may not be wholly deserved, The 13th Warrior (1999) is actually pretty good. Beowulf & Grendel (2005) only has a few moments set amidst some nice scenery. Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf (2007) has dated so badly in only ten years that it’s unwatchable.


Movies of the Year 2018

Over at Alex on Film I’ve posted my picks in various categories for the best (and worst) in 2018 movies. What makes my year-end wrap-up different from other end-of-the-year lists is the fact that I only saw thirteen new (that is, released in 2018) movies in 2018. So I didn’t have a lot to choose from! That made things a bit difficult, But if nothing else, the nominees aren’t all the usual suspects.

Books of the Year 2018

Whenever I see an end-of-year list of best books (or movies, or songs, or whatever) I always think about how small a sample size any individual list-maker can hope to draw on. I read a fair number of new releases every year, but even so my own list of the best has to be drawn from a pretty narrow number of choices. That said, here are my favourite books of 2018 in three categories.

Best fiction: This is where I really fell down this year. I didn’t read that many new novels and short story collections in 2018. But of those I read I liked Iain Reid’s Foe the best. It’s a page-turner that forces you to reflect on what makes us what we are.






Best non-fiction: Looking over all of the non-fiction books I read this past year it’s amazing how dominated the list was by Trump. So just to be different, I’ll say Adam Zamoyski’s Napoleon. It’s a good read and does an admirable job of summing up a complex man’s incredible life in a single volume.





Best SF: There were a lot of choices here – even leaving out Foe, which was an SF novel too. On my short list I’d have The Body Library by Jeff Noon (not really SF, but weird), 84K by Claire North, and The Razor by J. Barton Mitchell. But I think I’ll vote for The Robots of Gotham by Todd McAulty. It’s an epic SF robot opera set in a remarkable new world where humans and independent machines are fighting to get along. Great stuff.

A star is born

Some people — percentage-wise not very many, but some — make money off of their YouTube channels. A very few become rich. According to Forbes magazine the highest earner is 7-year-old Ryan, the star or “host” of Ryan ToysReview. In the past year he generated over $20 million in income, which was up 100% from last year (the site has only been existence since 2015).

This is yet another of those things that make me feel horribly out of touch. I get that if, by whatever strange alchemy, you become a YouTube star or celebrity you can make a lot of money through ad revenue and selling merchandise. I understand that this mainly happens through the channels of people who play video games. I don’t play video games, but I know that many people do. I also accept that some people — if I can say it without sounding judgmental, mainly lonely people — will sit and watch someone else play a video game and just talk for hours.

I get all that. I don’t get the success of Ryan’s channel. I watched as much as I could of one episode and saw that it was mainly being presented by Ryan’s parents, with Ryan appearing to be little more than a prop being played with like one of the toys (upon reading about this phenomenon some more I discovered that Ryan has, in fact, been turned into an action figure being sold at Walmart for $9 each). His mother does most of the talking on the videos and her voice is excruciating. The production and presentation are crude. They really are awful in every way. But even if it had been well done, or if I was missing something, I still don’t understand how something like this can appeal to so many people or influence sales so much. Who watches it? Kids? Parents? Just people who want to enjoy the thrill of rampant consumerism (“unboxing”) daily? Apparently the “reviews” eschew any kind of evaluation or analysis of the toys in question but just offer up moments of sheer enjoyment.

Is this the end of the world as know it? Probably not. It’s not really that different from the story of any child star in years gone by. And I guess there is a universal appeal to voyeuristically and vicariously experiencing a child’s joy, however artificially stage managed it may be. Not to mention the fact that with daily updates, even given the simplicity of the videos the family is obviously putting a lot of time and effort into this project. There’s something about this story though, and more broadly about the Internet economy, that strikes me as both profoundly weird and probably unhealthy. If nothing else, such success stories guarantee an endless stream of imitators, just as Ryan’s channel was cloned from other unboxing sites. I wonder how much of this is just a fad, like viral fame itself, and how much of it is a real glimpse of things to come.

Who ya gonna call?

I always wondered how she’d manage with a flat screen.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching a bunch of horror movies that fit into what I call the Ghostbusters paradigm, where a team of specialists equipped with all the latest toys investigate weird goings-on. I believe the genre started with the BBC film The Stone Tape, and it’s had a long and varied history. Of course, this being the movie business science is always shown to be inadequate when it comes to combating the forces of evil. Just as religion also usually fails. Anyway, here’s the line-up of movies I looked at.

The Stone Tape (1972)
The Entity (1982)
Poltergeist (1982)
Ghostbusters (1984)
Prince of Darkness (1987)
1408 (2007)
The Conjuring (2013)
Ghostbusters (2016)
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
Rings (2017)

Thinning out the stacks

I was recently asked to write an essay that would look at some current trends in literary criticism. In order to provide some background I wanted to talk a bit about earlier books like Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading and Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn. I have copies of both but since they’re buried away in boxes in my basement (I’m a slow mover), I thought I’d just walk over to the university library and check them out.

No luck. Neither book was available in the holdings of the university library, or any of the other university libraries that are part of the same library system. ABC of Reading was listed as being there but it wasn’t, while The Well Wrought Urn (available only in a single copy) was reported as missing.

What gives? These are two very well known, seminal books of literary criticism: the first a keynote of modernism and the other the signature work of the New Criticism. I was so sure the catalogue listings were wrong that I even went into the stacks to double check, but neither was there. Nor were they available in the city library system.

This would be weird enough, but just a month ago I’d had a similiar experience when looking for a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Again, this is a landmark work and very well known. It was just recently republished as part of the Library of America series. And yet trying to find a copy in the university and city library systems I came up empty. They didn’t have a single copy available. And again the stacks were bare.

I don’t offer this experience as evidence that it’s the end of the world as we know it, but I do think it suggests how much is changing. Obviously libraries are being transformed into something more than just warehouses for books, but they do still have stacks and holdings. With gaps this wide starting to show up though I’m not sure how valuable a resource they’re going to be for much longer.