Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Whiffling Around Style

 I'm a copious reader, and I'm not above shame at the amount of books I hauled out of the library when I told the kids it was only going to be a quick trip to drop stuff off, but even I have my limits. I sat down with one of the books I was most interested to read, a memoir about renovating an old house, right up my alley, something I pulled off the shelf because the cover was interesting. Alas, it was lushly overwritten, of the variety of prose that leaves no metaphor unturned. I ended up skimming through the wads of writing program prose, trying to track down the storyline -- did the couple manage to fix up this old pile without going bankrupt or getting divorced? (I'll spare you the suspense: yes, the book ended happily with the whole family under an intact roof.) And I was reminded of the time Darwin read something I'd been laboring over for too long, and remarked, "Well, I can tell you've been crafting your sentences." 

Style seems to flow effortlessly for some writers, and it's a joy when it is unlabored, but most of the time there is a virtue to just telling the story. That is why people keep reading: to find out what happens next. If style gets in the way of what happens next, it must give way. Sometimes style is what happens next, as in Dorothy Sayers's delightful digression -- if digression it is -- of a proposed advertising campaign for cigarettes envisioned to its encompassing end, which briefly pauses the plot in Murder Must Advertise:

It was in that moment, and while Chief-Inspector Parker was arguing over the line with the office telephonist, that Mr. Death Bredon conceived that magnificent idea that everybody remembers and talks about today—the scheme that achieved renown as “Whiffling Round Britain”—the scheme that sent up the sales of Whifflets by five hundred per cent in three months and brought so much prosperity to British Hotel-keepers and Road and Rail Transport. It is not necessary to go into details. You have probably Whiffled yourself. You recollect how it was done. You collected coupons for everything—railway fares, charabancs, hotel-bills, theatre-tickets—every imaginable item in a holiday programme. When you had collected enough to cover the period of time you wished to spend in travelling, you took your coupons with you (no sending up to Whifflets, nothing to post or fill in) and started on your tour. At the railway station you presented coupons entitling you to so many miles of first-class travel and received your ticket to the selected town. You sought your hotel (practically all the hotels in Britain fell eagerly in with the scheme) and there presented coupons entitling you to so many nights' board and lodging on special Whifflet terms. For your charabanc outings, your sea-bathing, your amusements, you paid in Whifflet coupons. It was all exceedingly simple and trouble-free. And it made for that happy gregariousness which is the joy of the travelling middle-class. When you asked for your packet of Whifflets in the bar, your next-door neighbour was almost sure to ask, “Are you Whiffling too?” Whiffling parties arranged to Whiffle together, and exchanged Whifflet coupons on the spot. The great Whifflers' Club practically founded itself, and Whifflers who had formed attachments while Whiffling in company, secured special Whifflet coupons entitling them to a Whifflet wedding with a Whifflet cake and their photographs in the papers. When this had happened several times, arrangements were made by which Whiffler couples could collect for a Whifflet house, whose Whifflet furniture included a handsome presentation smoking cabinet, free from advertising matter and crammed with unnecessary gadgets. After this, it was only a step to a Whifflet Baby. In fact, the Whifflet Campaign is and remains the outstanding example of Thinking Big in Advertising. The only thing that you cannot get by Whiffling is a coffin; it is not admitted that any Whiffler could ever require such an article.

Here Sayers's style is on display mainly through a concept drawn out to its ridiculous conclusion. Her prose is clean and understated, which allows the passive voice of the last sentence to have its full impact.

Many of us write to figure out what we're trying to say. Excessive style can be a crutch to the struggling writer. It's a stumbling block to the struggling reader, who just wants to know if what the author is saying is worth the effort of reading. Don't make readers go stumbling about to find your point, dear authors; if we want a smokescreen, we'll buy our own Whifflets.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Glorious Pedantry on the Siege of Minas Tirith

It is probably no surprise to those who know me that Russia's invasion of Ukraine set me off on a good deal of reading.  Among the online writers I found is Bret Devereaux whose blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry focuses primarily on military history, but who naturally has a couple of good recent posts dealing with topics relevant to the war in Ukraine.  

However, Devereaux also posts on fannish topics at times, and thus I stumbled across a six part series he did analyzing the Siege of Minas Tirith (in the movies and then contrasting those with the books) from a military history point of view.  It's pretty glorious, if like me you can enjoy someone taking careful pedantry to a topic which maybe doesn't entirely deserve it but is still worth the read.  

So, for instance, we get an analysis of whether the sixty mile distance from Minas Morgul to Minas Tirith is a reasonable distance for the Witch King to attempt to lead an army through without visible supply train; a comparison of the defensive fortifications of Minas Tirith in the movie vs the book; an assessment of whether the beacons could work as a message system; and an analysis of movie-Faramir's tactics in Osgiliath as compared to those of book-Faramir, and that's before the host of Mordor even reaches the city.

As a side note, he also has a side post dealing with the trope (which drives me nuts in the LotR movies) of cities which are surrounded by exactly no townland or farmland.  This conveniently allows for seeing the armies of Morder neatly laid out in formations which have no battlefield purpose, but it is unclear how the city feeds itself.  (In the book, of course, it's specifically described how the Pelennor Fields are covered with farms.)  

Here's an example of the discussion of formation for flavor:

The second oddity is the formation. Forming an army up in neat rectangles like this is difficult. It takes time, planning and effort. Some orc had to sit down, calculate the size of each unit and then tetris them all together. Which is strange, because I am not sure exactly what this formation was intended to accomplish. It doesn’t completely envelop the city, so it serves to advertise very clearly the intended point of contact (something most armies would want to conceal for as long as possible). And apart from the orcs in the front, all of these troops are formed up in range of enemy weapons with nothing to do.

This pre-assault period should actually be very busy. The paths the siege towers will take must be cleared and leveled (those towers have very little clearance and even a slight grade will tip them over – they need a path made for them). Earthwork cover for the approach on the gate should be set up, along with obstructions to prevent the army within the city from advancing out of it at an inopportune moment. In assaulting a fortified city with a large army, the spade is often the most important weapon. Even simply building a ramp right up the side of the enemy walls to enter the city was a common and successful tactic, if the assaulting army had enough labor to do it quickly enough.
Book Note: These issues are avoided in the book. We are directly told the orc army engages the city wall at all points (RotK 104-5, 111) and that many of the orcs are engaged in digging earthworks or setting up siege machines (RotK 105). The goal is to spread out Gondor’s defensive forces, weakening resistance at the gate, where the main blow (via Grond) was always going to fall.
Nor are these formations effective battle formations. Some of the lines look to be dozens of ranks deep and densely packed. That both prevents these blocks from moving around and through each other (a key component, for instance, of Roman battlefield tactics) or of these men moving on their own. If an open battle breaks out, only a small portion of this army can fight effectively – most of the orcs will be trapped with buddies in front and behind (of course lines of melee infantry were often quite deep, but not this deep – the standard depth for Romans was 6, Greek hoplites 8, Macedonian pikemen 16). This is simply not a good way to organize an army for a siege or a battle – and it’s also a difficult way to organize an army, so you are not likely to have done it by accident either.

But this style of assembly does have a historical precedent – just not a military one. Jackson is mimicking a very famous sequence from Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), a Nazi propaganda film. The scene, which shows the Nazis gathered for a political rally, was calculated to impress on the viewer the great and united strength of the Nazi party (paradoxically, Hitler’s party was, at that moment, fairly weak and divided – this is why he wanted the propaganda film in the first place – check out this brief treatment of the film’s deception and continuing relevance). Since then, this has become a standard visual trope for ‘large, powerful army of bad guys’ (and sometimes very awkwardly for assembled ‘good guys’ as in the medal-ceremony at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope) even though it isn’t a military formation per se (and in fact, the Nazis doing it in Triumph were not soldiers of the German army, the Wehrmacht, but members of the party – very few actual soldiers appear in Triumph of the Will).

 Definitely recommended for any Lord of the Rings fans who appreciate military history or a good solid pedantic post, or both.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Tech Week

Yesterday morning I found myself sitting at my dining room table, shoving aside scraps of velvet and silk lining and strips of custom-made bias tape so I could take a scalpel to Twelfth Night. It is Tech Week, and it is the time to face up to the fact that the show is too long, yea, even if we were fully-memorized professionals speaking at 1.5x normal speed. We are not fully-memorized professionals (though we're not far off, if I may brag on my actors), and we've had far fewer weeks to rehearse, six hours a week until now, than professionals who can be in the theater eight hours a day. I'm proud of my cast and their efforts, and it's my job now to cut away the dead weight so they can fly.

The first thing to go was the music. I worked hard on adaptations of the songs in the script, but they've always been superfluous, though fun. This is no time to succumb to the Sunk-Cost Fallacy. We shall sing them loudly at the cast party, maybe, or perhaps their main purpose was to give me experience for future shows. This wins us an easy five minutes of run time, and uncomplicates a few scenes.

Improving the pace of a show is not about cutting all slower scenes. Many of these are crucial for character development and for the tempo of the play. Rather, I look for areas that bog us down. Feste the Clown's lines are full of speeches like this -- stuff that was effortlessly funny to Shakespeare's audience, and means nothing to us any more. I kept a few notable examples of Feste's characteristic wordplay, and cut everything else, especially lines that we were still struggling with. Some conversations I trimmed down to their main thrust, keeping the first lines and cutting the excessive flowery stuff which had always weighed us down. I did not lose any of the famous quotes ("If music be the food of love", "In nature there's no blemish but the mind", "Some are born great..."), but let's face it: there's a lot in Shakespeare that's forgettable, unless uttered perhaps in the mellifluous tones of Patrick Stewart or Kenneth Branagh. If it was unmotivated verbal set dressing, out it went.

It was a painful process, but cathartic, I guess. And it was not as hard to implement at rehearsal as you might think at this late stage of the game. We simply stopped fighting with lines we had been banging our heads against since the beginning. The result is a funnier, faster-paced show with more comfortable actors. We're still not at 100%, but we're much more likely to get there by Friday night than we were before.

One more element that will gain us some peace of mind and help the show keep moving: a prompter. At least one character will be walking the stage during performance with a book, and that is perfectly fine with me. But many of us might need a boost during the show. Having the safety net of a prompter allows us to take risks and go bigger than we could if we were still clutching to the lifeline of uncertain memory. I want a show that is emotionally truthful, not technically, desperately line-perfect. 

I also want sleep, but that will come after this weekend. Until then, Illyria!