What’s Love Got to Do With It? : What “Kingsman: The Secret Service” Did Right and “Jupiter Ascending” Did Wrong

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NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Kingsman: The Secret Service and Jupiter Ascending.

So, this blog is clearly less of a legitimate hobby and more of an occasional (very occasional) outlet for nerdy ideas. New Year’s Resolution: change that. I’ll shoot for…I don’t know, once a month. 12 by the end of the year, since I’m technically two months behind. We’ll see how that goes, since my attention span is, let’s say, not significant. Anyway…

I’ve seen two movies in theaters in the past month – Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Jupiter Ascending. Although the films are two different genres, spy flick and science fiction respectively, they share a certain amount in common. Both are directed by notable genre “name” directors – Kingsman by Matthew Vaughan, Jupiter Ascending by Andy and Lana Wachowski. Both contain unexpected and eclectic casts of award-winning actors. Both seem to have a similar 20-something nerd crowd for a target audience. Both have some genuinely stellar, if VASTLY dissimilar, costume and concept design. Even though neither the spy flick nor space opera genres are the type I usually seek out, I found myself pretty well entertained by both films. Not flicks I’d put in my top ten, but hardly wastes of my hard-earned cinema dollars.

However, as genre films go (and I’m defining it pretty loosely as films with fantastic elements – Kingsman might be a spy flick in the modern day with a distinct lack of alien races, but let’s be honest, it’s got its own brand of fantasy going on), the two departed in a significant way: Jupiter Ascending contained a romantic subplot, and Kingsman did not.

Now, I should note my feelings on romantic plots in general. I’m sick of them, frankly, and I’ve never been a huge fan. However, they don’t always bother me, and I’ve boiled it down to two criteria that fit my personal (personal being an operative word; this is solely Princess Prettypants’ opinion) feelings on how romantic subplots should occur. 1) It should contribute significantly to the plot; the plot would not be the same without it and would be unable to move forward. 2) It should contribute to the development of one or both characters involved.

Watching Kingsman: The Secret Service, there were a great many things I enjoyed. The performances by both the old hands and young newbies were well done. Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Firth in particular were both able to display their often underused handle on comic timing. Director Matthew Vaughan displayed the deft balance of action, humor, danger, and dashes of pathos I’ve come to expect and appreciate from him since seeing Stardust. The story, though suitably over the top, had enough real-world ties to make it terrifying to conceive. It all worked, and nothing I saw while watching jarred me out of that world. Except, and this is probably just a problem I had since I have such a hang-up about it, from the introduction of Roxy, the only real female candidate to become a Kingsman, I was waiting for a romance to develop between the title character, Eggsy, and Roxy.

The thing was, it never came. Here were two fit young British kids, a boy and girl, tossed together into the same realm, and there wasn’t even a hint of sexual tension. It pleased me very much, and it was a novelty. And you know what? The story didn’t miss it. There was no gaping void between the characters where a romance ought to have been. If it had been there, it wouldn’t have added a darn thing. It wasn’t important to the story or to the characters’ development insofar as the story dictated, and so, it wasn’t there. It would have been superfluous if it had been, and like Mark Twain told us all about writing, if it’s superfluous, it shouldn’t be there.

Conversely, Jupiter Ascending does have a romantic subplot between Mila Kunis’ and Channing Tatum’s characters, Jupiter and Caine. The story, which is a convoluted but conceptually interesting tale of alien abduction, reincarnation, the origin of humankind, and the responsibilities of oligarchy (if you read it rather generously, granted), does not need the love story to move forward. The romance is treated, at best, like an inexplicable MacGuffin to get Caine to rescue Jupiter, because the fate of an entire planet is apparently not enough motivation. It comes out of nowhere, so suddenly and ridiculously that Jupiter’s initial unrequited confession of love for Caine earned outright giggling from the audience. It was that absurd. In a movie full of alien royalty, excessively convenient methods of teleportation, a weirdly hammy and whispery Eddie Redmayne, and flying shoes that are a sort of combination of hoverboards and roller blades, the romance was the least believable element in it.

But most importantly, it did nothing for the story. Jupiter and Caine could have been friends and cohorts, and the story could have been written to have exactly the same arcs in plot and character development. Kingsman had no love story, and the story did not want for one. Jupiter Ascending had a romantic subplot, and the story not only didn’t need one, but it actually suffered for it.

This is not an unheard of problem in genre film. Sure, it’s all too common in any film, but think of non-genre films that contain romantic elements. Chances are that the plot directly revolves around those elements. Science fiction and fantasy tend to have stories that don’t revolve around romantic elements, but those elements are added in anyway, and it doesn’t always work. There’s this impression that the most important of all human interaction is in romantic love, but is Aragorn’s interaction with Arwen any less important to his character than his interaction with Frodo? Science fiction and fantasy don’t always need romance to work, and it doesn’t need romance shoehorned in in order to have valuable character interaction and growth. There are plenty of beautiful science fiction and fantasy romances out there. A movie like Stardust needs romance to work. Without the love story, other valuable parts of the plot fall away. But did The Dark Knight Rises need Bruce and Selina to fall in love in order for the bulk of the story to work? What did it really contribute? If one were to look at that script and, as Mark Twain said, “eschew surplusage”, would that element have been expendable? If love is expendable, then it isn’t being done right.

I’m not saying love should be kept out of the more speculative genres altogether. Far from it; when it works, it works. The problem comes in situations like Jupiter Ascending, when it is clearly unnecessary. The beauty of science fiction and fantasy is that it is self-contained, and it’s creative, and it can do much more and on a greater scale than realistic fiction. If the plot doesn’t need it, don’t put it there. If the characters don’t need it, don’t put it there. If it’s an expendable element, an afterthought, or a useless MacGuffin, don’t put it there. In some ways, it’s an insult to the genre, implying that there isn’t enough inherent in science fiction and fantasy to stand on its own without a love story as a crutch.

Kingsman: The Secret Service was a fabulous, fun film that was tightly written, every facet necessary to story, universe, and character. Jupiter Ascending demeaned the remarkable universe it created by allowing elements into it that did not serve it. It was like a decent cut of meat that had one piece of hard, chewy, unappetizing rind running through the middle that nobody asked for and nobody wanted, and it soured a lot of the really fine elements it did have.

That said, I’d love to have a pair of the hoverboard roller blades. They looked badass.

Sweet Sassy Molassy: “Vampire Academy” Review

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So, it’s been a while, guys. Over a month in fact. I’ve been slacking. To be perfectly fair, post ideas have scampered across my mind on occasion, only to be defeated by something more important, like starting/paying for school or dramatically less important, like binge-watching Netflix until it does that thing where it asks if I’m okay and if they should send help. But no more! I am turning over a new leaf! And by “leaf” I mean “frozen tree branch”, since I have forgotten what leaves look like. (Totally Unrelated Fun Fact: “Turning over a new leaf” refers not to plant-life, but to pages of a book, literally “turning the page” in one’s personal story. Believe it or not, I was in high school before I found this out. English language, ladies and gentlemen.)

On that note: Vampire Academy. It is at least 68% against my nature to have shown any interest in this. My brief obsession with vampire ended in a four-year fit in which I wrote and published a (not terribly impressive) novel about vampires in response to the baffling “Twilight” phenomenon. After that, it promptly fizzled. My lukewarm reception to high school movies fizzled somewhere during the time I was in actual high school and nobody came along to turn me into Rachel Leigh Cook. Between the two, a high school vampire movie should sound like the blandest thing from Blandville. What did attract me, however, were two things, and they’re both named Waters. Vampire Academy is directed by Mark Waters (notably having directed Mean Girls and The Spiderwick Chronicles, less notably Mr. Popper’s Penguins), who blew us all away with his brutal lampooning of bitchy high school girl culture AND reminded us that Lindsay Lohan had really nice boobs. The screenplay is the work of big brother Daniel Waters (notable for Heathers and Batman Returns, less notable for Hudson Hawk), who wrote one of the best dark comedies the grand ole 80s had to offer. So let me rephrase that: the director of Mean Girls and the writer of Heathers got together for a film about high school girls and vampires. You can see the appeal, and if you don’t, you probably were never a 16-year-old girl, to which I can only say, you lucky bitch.

I did expect the movie to be entertaining at the very least, and corny at the very worst, but in fact it reached for a higher bar than I expected. The second-to-lowest bar of entertainment is something which makes you interested in what has happened in the present moment you are watching/reading/hearing it. (The lowest, if you’re wondering, is the stuff you reserve exclusively for background noise while you do your homework or write blog posts.) Vampire Academy made me at many, many points care about what was GOING to happen, actively making me want to continue watching. This is more rare than it seems. How many times do you flip on the TV and turn it off at some point to go eat dinner and don’t particularly care that you missed the end of the episode? This was a case where I wanted to see the end – or at least the next 20 minutes.

The story centers around two girls, one a vampire (Moroi, if you want to be specific, but it’s the same idea) and the other a Dhampir, a half-vampire I think since it was a little vague on this concept, who is born and trained to protect the Moroi. The story begins with them on the run and being dragged back to the place they’d run from…school. The Vampire Academy in question, real name St. Vladimir’s. Not making this up. The Moroi, besides being bloodsuckers and generally benign people, are also trained in magic, with each individual stating a variety of magic to work and continue training in: either earth, air, fire or water. Kind of like Benders who drink blood from willing participants in a “cafeteria” that looks upsettingly like a communal hospital room. Still not making it up. The bad vampires in the story are the Strigoi, and they are something more like the traditional scary vampire, big fangs and red eyes and all. Moroi Princess Vasilissa Dragomir (I know) seems to be stalked by some malicious someone or other, while her novice Guardian, Dhampir Rose Hathaway, must solve the mystery and keep her from going nuts and hypnotizing the entire school into thinking she’s cool and pretty.

It’s admittedly a weird, convoluted plot, made more obvious by trying to explain what the hell was going on after the fact. Part of my interest in seeing it was that I have never read the books it was based on, and since that’s unusual for me, I was curious to see how coherent it would turn out to be without that background knowledge. The answer is, kind of coherent but difficult to dissect. The plot is ore complex than it is allowed to be, making general sense but having the feeling of perhaps one or three too many extra components bogging it down. There was a general feeling of extra fat, like there should have been some way to streamline the thing. I do understand it, however. It combined a bunch of mythology and characters and subplots and STILL had to make it accessible for the audience members (i.e. me) who were unfamiliar with the YA books. It’s a lot easier to fit exposition on a page than on  screen, I believe, and this is a big place where the movie fell short. Trying to balance narrative and exposition and still keep things moving along resulted in a bit of a tangle. It could certainly have been a big, gloppy mess, however, and NOT have had its saving graces, of which there were several.

The casting of relative unknowns, as far as mainstream film is concerned, was a big help. There was never a sense that any one performer was being treated differently than the rest, and the performances were generally pretty understated, which worked nicely with the relatively relaxed, conversational script (something it’s worth noting that Daniel Waters is good at, along with quippy one-liners). The one exception is the laughably hammy Joely Richardson as Moroi Queen Tatiana, who swallows the scenery whole and everyone in it, to hilarious affect – made more hilarious when SPOILER ALERT Lissa shuts her DOWN in a scene toward the end. It’s not clear whether the hilarity is intentional, though, and perhaps I’m biased in my dislike of Joely Richardson in general when I say that I doubt it. Zoey Deutch is refreshingly snarky and takes some serious names in the kicking ass department, but her performance is so toned down that at times, it almost seems she’s improvising, as though somebody took her off the street, stuck her in a room, and told her to have a chat with all these people wearing funny coats. (A vampire flick is not a vampire flick without a costume designer who REALLY likes cool jackets. The costume design was actually a place I thought was lacking. I don’t care if it’s a school for vampires or not, NO school board approves uniform skirts that short. However, I doubt it’s all that objectionable unless you’re like me and notice what kinds of socks people are wearing.)

What I liked most was that it combined all the things about a movie like this that I expected – teenagers, angst, bitchy girlfriends of personality-less ex-boyfriends, a prom, and of course, quippy one-liners – but it didn’t shy away from the things that make vampire movies good, either. There was blood. There was the aforementioned ass-kicking. There were weird CGI wolves with colors-changing eyes. There were unexpected villains and sexual tension. There was Gabriel Byrne in old-age make-up, which isn’t a vampire flick staple but could be if filmmakers had a little more imagination. If your prime motivation for seeing a teenage girl high school vampire movie is to be entertained, you’re probably going to have a pretty decent time. It’s not perfect. It’s not even a little bit perfect. Nobody is going to win any awards here. But luckily for the movie, the good parts – the entertainment part of the deal – outweighs the bad. If you’ve been depressed about the lack of body count in high school movies and there are only so many times you can watch Jawbreaker (where, it should be noted, only one person dies as opposed to >15, which is where I lost count), then the likelihood that you’ll enjoy Vampire Academy are pretty high. My suggestion? Grab some cheerful, like-minded friends, sneak some Ben & Jerry’s in your backpack, and spend an evening together enjoying a fun, bloody, and surprisingly self-aware teenage girl high school vampire movie.

Also, can we talk about the pop/dance cover of the classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” that plays during the credits? Because it is AWESOME.

To End in Fire: “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” Review

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CAUTION: There are spoilers ahead, although honestly, there shouldn’t be much that will ruin things for you seeing as the book is 75 years old or so.

So, I saw “The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug” last week, although the length of time between seeing it and writing its review has nothing to do with the movie – only with my time management and personal discipline. But now, here I am in Pret a Manger with a pulled pork wrap and a coffee the size of my head, so let’s get this DONE. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Or rather, the epic, the acceptable, and the tentatively questionable.

First of all, let’s get one thing perfectly straight: this shit is long. The movie, that is. It is LONG, it is a whole bunch of long, and if you sneak in Starbucks like I did, gods help you and your poor bladder. I’ll have you know, I sat through all 2 hours and 41 minutes (an even three by the time the weirdly inappropriate previews were over) without getting up once. I will say this about Peter Jackson and his extravagant running times, I don’t get bored. Now, with Christopher Nolan, I might get bored partway through and just want things to pick up so I can get interested again, but in the case of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, I am never bored. The pacing of the sequel was much improved from the first even then, and when I wasn’t actively perched on the edge of my seat, I was settled comfortably back and enjoying the ride. In order for the length to be what it is, of course the book’s storyline (which is very linear, and even a bit thin in places) has been padded. It just isn’t as much as you’d think, or even as much as people seem keen on griping about. At least, I didn’t have a problem with it. As in the first movie, certain events in the book that were written a bit hastily or only occupy a few pages at most were given their full deserved attention. The spider scene in “DoS” is a notable example. Performed very closely to what appears in the book, it is thoroughly enjoyable to see on screen, when we can linger in every bone-chilling moment. The spiders themselves are uniquely creepy, and clearly modeled to be an identifiable variety, making them unnervingly familiar. What struck me most about this scene, however, is that SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER whereas in the book, Bilbo can understand the spiders speaking whether he is wearing the Ring or not, in the film, he can only understand their speech when he has the Ring on his finger. This dovetails beautifully with a moment in the book Return of the King when Sam Gamgee can suddenly understand the Orcs language when he is wearing the Ring. Although this quality of the Ring was only barely noted in the “Lord of the Rings” films, it’s a pleasant surprise to see it used so well hear.

In general, that wound up being a lot of my feeling about the things in the movie that were added or expanded. Peter Jackson and Co. had obviously done their homework. In the book, I recall being perplexed and annoyed when Gandalf swanned off for a huge chunk of the story, doing goodness-knew-what and barely said a word about it when he returned. In the film/s, that is shown and explained to great effect. The changes made in the case of Gandalf and the Necromancer are a help, not a hindrance. They are there for clarification. Frankly, I feel that if The Hobbit, as a novel, were adapted more straight-forwardly, it would be lacking. After all, it is essentially a children’s novel. Going from the world and tone established in the Lord of the Rings films to the kind of thing that The Hobbit might naturally want to be would be like watching the Harry Potter series backwards, starting with David Yates and ending with Chris Columbus. It would be an anti-climax, and appealing to an audience it didn’t begin with. Providing only the bulk, action, characterization, and expansion of world than The Hobbit asks for would do the film, as a separate entity, a disservice.

Speaking of characterization, let’s talk about that for a minute. I am going to say two things that may lose me readers at this point in the post. 1: Tolkien is not a strong character writer. 2: The character addition of Tauriel is not the end of the world.

If I still have you here, let me explain myself. First of all, in The Hobbit, or even The Lord of the Rings, the presence of legitimate character arcs are all but invisible. Bilbo gets some decent character development, Frodo does as well, along with Sam, Merry, and Pippin. Gimli and Legolas have some minor horizontal development as well, and no, that is not a gay joke. Basically the hobbits are the only people who change with any significance throughout any of the books, and they all have the same arc – provincial, simple folk who go out into the big wide world and find that it is greater and lovelier and scarier and worse than they ever dreamed. Tolkien was not a traditional novelist; his focus was milieu, not character. The sacrifice of character development is a natural consequence of a cast of thousands. For what he was doing, this is fine. But this does not – DOES NOT – work on film. Film is a different medium from literature. In order to keep going, keep watching, we need more from the characters we are watching. Namely, we need to want to watch them. In The Hobbit the Dwarves, with the tentative exception of Thorin, are a faceless rabble possessing the bare minimum required to be a legitimate character: names, vague appearances, and occasional bits of dialogue indistinguishable from one another’s. In the film, they have personalities, because they have to. They walk differently, fight differently, speak differently, and this individual identification makes us care about them. This is one thing the films do better than the books. By DoS, each of the Dwarves is distinguishable from one another. The audience watches, knows who they’re watching, and therefore cares about them. Every bit of added dialogue or action that was not in the book but contributes toward that end is valuable and necessary.

Which brings us to Tauriel, and by extension, Legolas. Tauriel the elf was not in the book. In fact, there is not a single solitary female presence in the book, excepting perhaps a troll. I don’t agree with everything Tauriel was involved in, am minorly ambivalent about Legolas’ presence, and may or may not have some serious problems with SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER the Legolas/Tauriel/Kili love triangle. I have not decided yet and will let you know. However, I understand why they did it. The Lord of the Rings series as a whole is a Bechdel test nightmare, and adding a single female character does not fix that, but as a female, I’m not sure how I would feel about watching 9 hours of Middle Earth knowing that apparently people like me (i.e. people with vaginas) do not have a place there. For younger women and girls, I’m sure there would be similar feeling and with bigger effect. It’s a sappy cop-out of an excuse, but it’s true. Seeing at least ONE woman, and a pretty cool one at that, present in that world was a comfort. The addition of Legolas, also not in the book, should not surprise anybody. We know he’s a fan favorite, we know he’s from Mirkwood, and we know Mirkwood plays a role in the journey. Obviously there is going to be some Legolas action in there. What WAS a bit of a surprise was his characterization as…well, kind of a dick. Kind of a lot. It takes some balls to take one of the most popular characters and most successful performers of the original trilogy, put him in the new one, and make him a blatant asshole. Anyway, back to my original point (I always get there eventually), Legolas and Tauriel do not take away from the story. Do they necessarily add anything? No, not really, except some fancy Elven arrow-slinging. Do I mind it? Personally, no. They were entertaining and intriguing, and even though the love triangle business was a little eyeroll worthy, they did add something. It’s a reminder, I feel, that in everything that happens in Middle Earth, the Elves are there, trying and failing miserably to keep themselves apart from the rest of Middle Earth’s incessant drama. Peter Jackson knew exactly what he was doing adding them in. Is any fantasy fan going to sit there and go, “No, no more Elves fighting and running and being aloof and cool, no more of that, take them away,”? Book purists might. Book purists have. Once again, though, film. Different medium, different requirements. I guarantee that if you were to watch the movie with only the book-relavent Elf bits in, you would start to miss them.

I reserve judgement for the love triangle for now. Just know that it’s there, and I feel weird about it. I mean, on one hand, Legolas is a douchebag with a douchebaggier dad (seriously, Thranduil is a jerk), and Kili is the most charming Dwarf you have ever seen in your goddamn life, and you sort of want poor underdog Tauriel to fall for him… On the other hand, Elves and Dwarves are mortal enemies, so there’s that. It’s sort of cute, sort of perplexing, and sort of unnecessary but also sort of not. Without it, the Elves wouldn’t go to Laketown at all. Tauriel only goes because Kili is adorable and she wants to help him continue living so he can keep being adorable, and Legolas only goes because he has a hard-on for Tauriel. Without Kili flirting with the pretty Elf-lady, that entire plotline falls to bits. Weird, questionable, but ultimately able to be dealt with if you’re a reasonable sort of person. Tolkien probably wouldn’t have liked it, I will say that.

The single thing I took away from DoS was this. If you see it for no other reason, see it for this: three hours of sheer production design porn. Honestly, I thought Thor 2 was going to take the cake for me design-wise this year, but I was so freaking MISTAKEN. Maybe I’m just a nerd and notice this kind of thing, but one thing I loved about this particular installment in the Middle Earth films was the closer look at the everyday lives of the Elves and Dwarves, otherwise the most inscrutable races. We see a bit of the living quarters in Rivendell, but really, that’s it. The only people’s houses we see are the Hobbits’, and only one of them. Mirkwood, besides being a work of Art Nouveau-inspired orgasmically lovely art, also offers a glimpse into, say, how Elves get in and out of town. What Elves’ wine cellars look like. What Elves look like when they’re passed out drunk. The little things, you know. Erebor is likewise a fabulous set design, and the Rube-Goldbergesque setup of their mining shafts is nothing short of brilliant. Seeing so much of the Dwarven city, imagining it as a once-bustling hub of Dwarven activity, makes seeing SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER the chamber of cruelly starved and mummified Dwarf corpses all the more striking. You see those bodies after seeing their home, and it makes them that much more real as a people. Mirkwood, both the actual woods part and the Elven twisty-tree habitrail, looked in felt like real environments. The Elven bits of Mirkwood were a stunning combination of previous Lothlorien and Rivendell designs with some unique qualities, but altogether somehow darker, more mysterious. By the time the company reaches Laketown, I was already sold on the production quality, but then they went a full step further. It is like nothing I had ever seen, like a twisted, depressing combination of Venice and a medieval English hamlet. The level of detail in the dressing was astounding. I wanted to watch the Laketown scenes over and over, just so I could see everything.

In all, I enjoyed the movie. There wasn’t really a single moment that stuck out to me in which I thought, “Wow, that was pretty lame.” It was not lame. It was epic in its best moments, and only mildly tedious at its very worst. Overall I didn’t mind the length, because I did not feel I was being cheated with an hour of senseless padding. I was consistently entertained, and that’s hard to do for that long. I watch a lot of TV, okay? I am a child of the new Millenium, my attention span is not that long. That it held me in so fixed a place of entertainment, amusement, and anxiety is a feat in itself.

You may have noticed I have not said a single, solitary word about Smaug. I mean, the movie is “The Desolation of Smaug”, I should bring him up at some point, right?

I’ll say this, and this only: He. Was. AWESOME. I’m choosing deliberately to say nothing more. Seriously, go see it yourself. He will blow you away.

Friggin’ Angels: The Angelic Figure in Film

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Don’t get me started on angels. Really. They’re my single favorite mythological entity, and I could talk about how cool they are for hours. Angels are nearly universal, appearing in cultures across the world in forms from the traditional wing-and-halo variety found in Christianity, to Hindu apsaras and devas, to the kachinas in certain North American native cultures. An angelic being in mythology is a creature suspended between the realms of the gods and that of the humans – lesser than the Creator, but far greater in power and substance than Man. The concept is so universal, so widespread, so familiar, that it’s really no surprise that with new artistic media in the 20th century came new representations of angels.

Angels have always been a common theme in Western art, and their appearance and function has varied wildly. The very earliest depictions of angels in ancient Mesopotamia vacillated between the beastly – creatures that were part man and part lion, eagle, or even bull – and the simply odd – humanoid creatures with massive, staring eyes. As Christianity’s grip on post-Middle Age Europe tightened, we began to see newer, lovelier depictions. Angels, generally painted or sculpted for church commissions, stopped being terrifying monsters and began to be portrayed as the preternaturally lovely, winged, and occasionally androgynous human-like angels we recognize most widely today. The androgynous factor began to taper off in Victorian academic art, mostly because there was nothing that Victorian academics liked to paint more than the female nude. An awful lot of that type of Romantic-period art features classical religious and often pagan mythological imagery which was simply a backdrop to justify the abundance of naked ladies.

As art changed, so did the subject matter, and the veritable boom of Venuses, fairies, and angels so prevalent in Victorian art almost disappeared as artists began to express themselves differently. Realism, or at least realistic subjects, became the vogue, along with the patently non-academic ways of portraying them. With film, however, religion and myth were once again intriguing, proving that our natural fascination with the mysterious and fantastic never really went away. Angels and angelic figures have been a staple of film for decades, but they haven’t always been portrayed in the same lights.

Here is a quick link for you. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_about_angels Go ahead, take a look. I’ll wait. Done? Notice anything interesting? Granted this is a somewhat incomplete list, but there are almost no films with an angelic subject between the 1940s and the 1980s. In fact, there are four on this list, and one of them (The Trouble with Angels in 1966, starring Hayley Williams in what was probably the naughtiest role of her childhood career) doesn’t involve actual angels at all. The 50s, 60s, and 70s were big B-movie eras that didn’t usher in big-time flicks until the mid-to-late 70s, but still – 3 movies in thirty years? It seems that for some reason, the relative abundance of movies featuring angels in the 40s (7 movies in only 10 years) abruptly ended with the Atomic Age. I can’t say why. I don’t even have any real theories, to be honest. Perhaps the schmaltzy kind of angels featured in those 40s films stopped appealing to audiences who were becoming accustomed to bigger, tougher films. After all, this is the period when science-fiction and gorefest horror and nuclear scare movies, usually F-grade productions on shoestring budgets, had its first heyday. Maybe the perceived sappiness of angels didn’t fit into the public mindset of that time – or at least in the mindset of the people who were going to see movies. This theory, for what its worth, might explain what happened next.

Look at that list again and you’ll see that all of a sudden, angels reappear in the 1980s, and with great aplomb. The 80s and 90s have their personal share of the kinds of angels you see in the older 1940s movies – the average joes with wings, guys (because they are almost always male) who want to do the right thing and have little trouble blending into human life, be it as a guardian angel or somebody’s right-hand man or a heavenly deus ex machina. Those tend to be the movies that explore the sweet, humanesque side of the Heavenly Host. Think Angels in the Outfield. But amidst those exceptions, the majority of angels in 80s-90s film are tougher, grittier, darker. We start to see a new side to these creatures, and it’s actually a side that’s more accurate to the Scriptures they tend to be based on. After all, biblical angels are soldiers. They’re fighters. Humans tremble before them, and it ain’t because it’s chilly outside. These suckers are supposed to be scary, and beginning in the 80s, we start to see more of that. In the 90s, that perception explodes. The Avenging Angel trope starts to reign supreme. The Angels that appear in The Crow and the Prophecy series, even when just, well-meaning beings, are things to be threatened by. We start to see more fallen and dark angels and the devil ceases to be a punchline. In the 2000s, the sweet, humble angel has all but disappeared. He (because they are still almost always male by this point) has become a warrior, and he is frequently not very nice even when saving the world. Perhaps he even has to save the world from his own kind. Constantine depicts the appropriately androgynous archangel Gabriel as a misguided servant of God who nearly releases the son of the Devil. Legion depicts archangel Michael as a battle-scarred soldier. The excessively saccharine Touched by an Angel is replaced on television by Supernatural, which in its fourth season unleashes a veritable army of angels capable of (and often guilty of) incredible destruction and who very rarely smile.

What does it say about us that we have begun to envision angels, so long considered to be our guardians and protectors, as these war-like humanoid monsters? Are they a reflection of a world obsessed with its own gritty realities? Are they a reflection of a people who feel humankind itself has become more dangerous and unpredictable? Are they simply a result of new biblical interpretation and interest? The difference between Clarence of It’s a Wonderful Life and Gabriel of the Prophecy series is staggering, so much so that one can hardly imagine they are one and the same beast. Whatever the reason for their evolution, they don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Personally I’m okay with that. Bring on the angelic wars. My popcorn and I are ready.

Epic Hero Spotlight: Harry Potter and the Hero of a Thousand Faces

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In 1949, mythologist (apparently this is an actual title) Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he outlines his theory of the “monomyth,” the concept of a certain structure which is found in a variety of epic narratives depicting heroic journeys all over the world. In working all this out, Campbell worked with heroes from ancient mythology (Prometheus, Hercules), literature (Beowulf), and religion (Moses, Christ, Buddha). However, Campbell’s monomyth persisted well past the writing of Thousand Faces and into a deeply satisfying amount of pop culture. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games (arguably) all contain examples of the Epic Hero mold. My very favorite? So favorite I wrote essays about him? Three times? For three different classes?

Harry Potter.

PLEASE NOTE that if you have, in fact, spent the last decade or so under a rock, there are spoilers ahead!

Now, the monomyth as Campbell drew it up has several pieces of specific criteria – the various steps a Hero is required to go through in his journey to be considered genuinely Epic. A certain amount of leeway is given; basically if you hit more than half of these pieces of criteria, you’re in the clear. There are a few different lists that adapt Campbell’s original, but the Big Bad List, Campbell’s very own, outlines seventeen separate pieces of criteria. Seventeen is kind of a lot, yeah, but hey, Harry’s got seven books, right? So let’s see how many we can tick off.

 In order to be really, truly, and properly Epic, a Hero must:

1: Be Called to Adventure. Well, duh. “You’re a wizard, Harry.” That line alone is probably one of the most famous calls to adventure in history. It is in this moment that Harry has his identity revealed to him and begins his journey into the Wizarding World. In only four words, too. That’s pretty impressive, you have to admit. Frodo needed all kinds of convincing before he finally got to it and did his thing.

2: Refuse the Call. Harry doesn’t do this EXACTLY, but he spends a good portion of the first book in disbelief and subtle denial. He goes to sleep after that first visit from Hagrid convinced that he’s going to wake up having dreamt the whole thing. He doesn’t refuse it, exactly, but it does take a little time for him to accept it. (Incidentally, the Refusal as a criteria refers specifically to the Hero’s return to his mundane familiar life between receiving the Call and actually beginning the journey. Although he doesn’t quite perform the refusal, Harry does the return to familiarity in the books. After his trip to Diagon Alley, he returns to Privet Drive for another month before beginning his “journey” in earnest.)

3: Acquire Supernatural Aid. This refers to a guide or mentor with supernatural power (think Merlin), or it can refer to a magical talisman that provides the Hero with consistent aid. Harry gets both these things, and in goddamn ABUNDANCE. For one thing, he attends a school staffed entirely by magical mentors. For another, in the very beginning he acquires his wand, the single most important tool for the remainder of his journey from there on out. If we’re being strict on the order of operations here, the wand is obviously the aid Campbell had in mind. However, the magical mentors (in the form of Hogwarts professors) bit is perfectly valid.

4: Cross the First Threshold. This is the point at which the hero leaves his known world behind. It doesn’t necessarily mean a physical threshold, like the Narnian wardrobe, but in Harry’s case, he actually has two possibilities once again. The magical gateway between the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley – or even the Leaky Cauldron itself – serves as a literal barrier between the Muggle and Wizarding worlds. Harry must cross that barrier in order to enter the world he’ll ultimately become a part of. A better one though, at least in my opinion, is Platform 9 ¾. For one thing, it’s truly iconic moment, and the epitomous gateway in the minds of most fans. For another, it occurs neatly AFTER steps 1, 2, and 3, and therefore truly begins Harry’s journey.

5: Enter the “Belly of the Whale”. Okay…here’s where it starts to get complicated. Steps 1-4 are pretty basic, recognizable things. You can apply them to almost any piece of genre fiction. From here on in, the steps are in a suggested and basically sensible but non-concrete order. They can (and do) get switched around some. The “belly of the whale” is the last in the five steps of departure, the transition of the Hero from his familiar life to his ultimate journey, and it’s easily the most…well, weird. It’s symbolic of rebirth, and it doesn’t represent a physical occurrence so much as a spiritual one. The Hero is transformed in some, generally intangible, way, and he begins to identify not as his former (or Muggle) self but as his new (Wizarding) self. He is totally and irrevocably immersed in his new world. I consider this point to be Harry’s ordeal with the Sorting Hat. It’s a tradition specific to the Wizarding World; it’s totally unfamiliar to someone still reliant on a Muggle consciousness. It combines multiple levels of unfamiliarity in magic, unknown knowledge, and unfamiliar ritual. Furthermore, it sees Harry sorted into Gryffindor House, giving him a place to call home and a new identity. He has now, in many ways, cut every possible tie available to an 11-year-old with the world he came from.

6: Begin the Road of Trials. I’m not going to go into this much in depth, because it’s such a basic concept that anyone reading could probably fill in the blanks for me. (Which defeats the purpose of writing anything, one could say, but that’s beside the point.) The main reason I won’t go into it much is because the concept is pretty non-specific. The classics have Hercules and his labors, or Odysseus and his steady stream of screw-ups that keep him from getting home. Harry Potter, being both modern novels and a 7 book series, don’t really work that way. He has a steady and growing set of trials from book to book, leading up to a great big heaping trial that occupies most of book 6 and all of book 7. However, he does pay a nice homage to the classic list-of-bad-things type of trials in the first book. In order to acquire the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s stone, he has to put a three-headed dog to sleep; defeat a man-crushing plant; catch a flying key; play a potentially lethal game of chess; avoid drinking poison using a riddle; and get a rock out of a mirror without touching anything. The ancient Greeks and Romans would have been all over this. Likewise each of the tasks in the Triwizard Tournament, a more extended and literal Road of Trials. (One could argue that Harry only does about half of all these on his own, but the monomyth theory assumes that the hero is a) male and b) at the very least, post-pubescent. At these points, Harry is only one of these things.)

7: Meet with the Goddess. The Goddess in the journey of the Hero is a complicated figure. She can be representative of one of two things: a figure of motherhood and protection, or a figure of true and/or pure love. Here, again, we have two possibilities, one a little bit stronger than the other. Hermione, it could be said, is representative of the Goddess figure. The Goddess is often tasked with granting the Hero some kind of particular aid or protection, and J.K. Rowling has admitted herself that Hermione makes an excellent human deus ex machina. She, perhaps more than any other character, is responsible for giving Harry knowledge he would not otherwise know how to find and for watching over him to make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid. Perhaps even more compelling, however, is the idea that Professor Dumbledore fulfills the Goddess role in Harry’s journey. The Goddess is implied to be a figure of immense power, much greater than the Hero’s, and of extreme compassion. Dumbledore fits both of these characteristics. He also serves as both a protector of Harry, a father figure, and a guide leading him step-by-step through his destined purpose. He is in many ways the grand overseer of Harry’s life, though Harry dosn’t learn just how involved he has been until the very end. This interpretation of the Goddess meeting is relatively modern and more abstracted than Campbell envisioned it. His interpretation was intended to be referred to the presence of romantic and courtly love in the life of a the Hero, and considered to be one of the greatest goals of the Epic journey. However, as we’ve mentioned, Harry spends most of his time in the series as a child or young adolescent. Love – at least of the romantic kind – is not a central issue. The love of friends and family is extremely important, but romance? It makes the odd appearance, but it’s really not that important to the development of his journey. Which brings us to the next point…

8: Meet with the Temptress. Like the Goddess figure, the Temptress is an abstract concept which Campbell posited is generally represented by a female figure. Again, Campbell refers to her with similar specificity as the Goddess, but instead of being representative of pure and courtly love, the Temptress is representative of lust and temptation. Also like the Goddess, this concept has been modernized into something more abstract. In the abstract interpretation, the Temptress is less of a physical, lustful being and more of a representation of the Hero’s flaws – the material or spiritual things in his life which might deter him from his greater purpose. If we’re to look at it in this sense, than the Temptress figure in Harry’s life (again represented by a male) is his godfather, Sirius Black. Although loving, well-meaning, and a pivotal father figure, Sirius serves as a significant and sometimes dangerous distraction. His offer in Prisoner of Azkaban for Harry to leave his relatives and live with him should he be exonerated from his crimes (note: he is not) is certainly tempting. We only find out much later in the books that this would have been disastrous, since his living with his Muggle relatives was a protection against Voldemort. It also distracts Harry from the matters at hand, and he quickly loses control of the situation. It’s also a vision of Sirius being tortured in Order of the Phoenix that brings Harry to the Department of Mysteries, only to discover that he was fooled. This leads to a chain of events resulting in Sirius’ death, which distracts Harry further in Half-Blood Prince, this time with grief. Meetings with or issues connecting to Sirius Black consistently lead to troubles which make Harry’s journey more difficult. Although Sirius cares very much for Harry and has no malicious intent regarding him, he serves to play an unintentionally sinister role in his godson’s life.

9: Atone with the Father. The Father figure is another classic archetype, in this case referring to a power in the Hero’s life which he both defers to and is somehow at odds with. Atonement requires that the Hero confront the Father figure and somehow begin to understand it and come to terms with its place in his life. It’s one of the most important moments in the journey of any Epic Hero – the confrontation with a symbolic past, trauma, or regret. Probably because Harry’s story is somewhat non-linear – it contains multiple “journeys” leading up to a great final one – he performs this step multiple times. He confronts the mystery of his past, his survival in the face of death, and the loss of his parents in the first book. In the third, he discovers that the godfather he didn’t know he had is a convicted murderer, and later in the book discovers further that in fact, he was innocent, and a decent, loving man. In the seventh book, he is given cause to doubt the sincerity and virtue of Dumbledore, only to have it reaffirmed to him later on. Finally, Voldemort, who in some ways is the most literal of the “fathers” in Harry’s life, is found to have attached a piece of his own soul to Harry’s, forcing Harry to both accept that his greatest enemy is a part of him and to reject it with a direct confrontation with him. In a way, in defeating the most powerful, most influential, and most destructive force in his life, Harry must call upon the strength of the myriad of lost Fathers and influencing forces to do so. He uses the figure of one (or many) Father/s in order to confront and atone with another.

10: Experience an Apotheosis. This is one step that Harry completes pretty literally. Apotheosis, by definition, is the elevation of a person to a god-like status. In monomythic terms, it refers more basically to a Hero’s death (literal or figurative) and resurrection, or restoration, to a more complete and enlightened self. Harry, in a nutshell, does just that. He dies. He really, truly dies, although he is held in a kind of stasis which allows him to make the choice to proceed into the afterlife or to return to his physical self. When he makes the choice to return, the piece of Voldemort’s soul that was inside of him is destroyed. He returns to his own world a more whole being in the sense that he no longer has this parasitic darkness latched onto him.

11: Acquire the Ultimate Boon. Like the Atonement with the Father, this is another step that Harry performs several seperate times, simply because he has several seperate adventures or quests. In a way, each book contains its own boon in the way that almost every book contains its own confrontation and atonement. It’s just part of the structure of the stories. The greatest, most ultimate boon in the overarching context of the story is, of course, the quest for the Horcruxes. However, each book contains its own quest within the larger context. The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s stone, the Chamber of Secrets, the Triwizard Trophy, the prophecy in the Department of Mysteries, and each of the Horcruxes in the last two books are all legitimate boons or talismans. It is the object acquired at the end of the quest. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is unique in that there is no single tangible object which is the purpose of their quest. In this case, the sought-after boon is information and clarity.

12: Magic Flight/Be Rescued from Without. I combine these two because they’re very similar. In a nutshell, the Hero must be saved. He has to return. In some spurt of magic, fate, luck, or deus ex machina, the Hero is pulled from his most dire spot at the end of his journey. Harry experiences this most literally in books 2, 3, and 4 – respectively, Fawkes’ flight from the Chamber of Secrets; Buckbeak’s flight through the Hogwarts grounds to save Sirius Black; and the Triwizard Cup portkey. (Please note that although two of these involve literal flight, actually flying is not required. As long as it’s a random occurrence that pulls the Hero out of a sticky spot so you don’t have to watch an entire journey back, it’s a Magic Flight. Imagine if you had to read Sam and Frodo’s entire walk BACK to the Shire? You’d go nuts. They’d die first, actually, but really, nobody wants to read all that. So, storytellers invented the cop-out.)

13: Refuse to Return. Having completed Phase Two, the Initiation, the Hero typically has difficulty returning the way things were. Harry, being a minor and under official guardianship of his relatives outside the Wizarding World, is incapable of actually refusing. He has to go home at the end of each book, whether he likes it or not. However, he is frequently vocal about his regret at having to return to a place where he is not special, not able to be who he is in his new world.

14: Cross the Return Threshold. Essentially the inverse of Crossing the Threshold. The Hero has been, seen and conquered – now he has to proceed back. After the struggle or refusal, eventually, he must return. Part of the Hero’s journey is to cope with leaving the world he’s saved or been a part of and having to pass among the mundane. Harry does this each time he returns to the Muggle world. We don’t see much of him in the Muggle world after book four or so, but from what we do see, we know that it’s a struggle. It’s not clear how much of that is his difficult relatives or simply missing the Wizarding World.

15: Become Master of Two Worlds. Harry Potter inhabits a dual world from the very beginning. This step requires that the Hero become competent and comfortable in both worlds as well as move freely between both, and Harry has little trouble doing that. This may in fact be one of the few pieces of criteria in which Harry’s youth is a benefit rather than a complication. He adapts very easily from one world to another, having spent so much time in both. Interestingly, Mastery of Two Worlds is a specialized trait that not all Heroes necessarily have. The two most significant Epic Heroes that Campbell suggested mastered this trait? Christ and Buddha. Christ, Buddha, and Harry. It starts sounding like a supernatural boy band.

16: Experience the Freedom to Live. This is, I believe, the single most important feature of Harry’s personal heroic journey. The Freedom to Live, as Campbell describes it, is the ability for the hero, having completed the ultimate quest, to proceed through the remainder of his life without fear of death. This is absolutely seminal to Harry’s development. Voldemort, his greatest enemy, is defined by his fear of death, and his horrific attempts to avoid it. Harry only conquers his enemy when he is able to face death, as Rowling says, “Like an old friend”. As Voldemort is defined by his fear of death, Harry becomes defined by his lack thereof. He dies and is resurrected, but he goes into that death fully believing that it will be for good. He conquers Voldemort’s greatest fear before conquering even Voldemort himself. Of every step Harry takes, every piece of this epic journey of his, this is the single most important, the very crux of everything his life was meant to stand for. If this is the defining trait of the Epic Hero, then Harry Potter deserves every bit of his place in the great pantheon alongside Beowulf, Odysseus, and Frodo.

Have any other comments or ideas? Agreements or disagreements? Admonishment for writing a post this long? Post below! 😀

I Love You, Man: The Renaissance of the Platonic Male Relationship

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There are two well-received shows based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle currently in the mainstream: Elementary on CBS and Sherlock on BBC. Sherlock is, personally, one of my favorite shows, so I’m not going to sit here and deny a slight bias, but I have never watched Elementary, and here’s why: Watson was cast as a lady.

Now I am all for kicking gender normativity in the butt in any kind of media. Every little bit help, and I’m sure Elementary is a perfectly entertaining show and I’m sure Lucy Liu makes for a very entertaining Watson. However, part of what makes Sherlock so fascinating for me is the relationship between the two main characters. There are other interesting male/male relationships in the show, but Sherlock and Watson’s relationship is the hub on which the show turns. It’s historically been very rare that a deep, emotional, platonic relationship between two men has been the central focus of a TV show. That’s not to say male friendships haven’t appeared on television. Seinfeld is the first example to come to mind (probably because I love the show to tiny bits). The four-way Jerry/George/Kramer/Elaine friendship is the most central element of the show. However, the nature of the show, being a sitcom, relies on sex, dating, and general everyday absurdity as a backdrop. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the development of those friendships. Jerry and George’s friendship does not change in any way from season one to season nine – and that’s okay. Because that isn’t what the show is about. Their friendship is not the most important thing, simply an essential element. How I Met Your Mother runs into this same thing. Ted, Marshall, and Barney are good friends, but their relationships do not change or develop and revolve mostly around the women in their lives (or in Ted’s case, the women constantly rotating in and OUT of his life, but that’s another conversation). We all know how hard it is for films and TV to pass the Bechdel test. (For anyone unfamiliar with it, the Bechdel test is passed when a piece of media features a prominent female character who converses with another prominent female character about something other than men. For most media, this is already one female character too many, but again…different conversation.) There IS a masculine equivalent to the Bechdel test, and it’s going to sound cheesy, but it requires that one male character converse genuinely with another male character about how one feels about the other.

This doesn’t happen. We know, being human beings and all, that men have opinions about one another, and that men are complex, emotional, feeling human beings. However, they are rarely portrayed that way. James Bond is a MAN and does not talk about his feelings. Superman doesn’t react emotionally (on film) to anyone but Lois Lane – that’s safe, of course, because she’s a woman. There’s this sense that masculine characters can’t behave emotionally in the presence of another masculine character, like they’re going to lose their street cred or something. This tends to resultsin a lack prominence of close platonic relationships between men in film and TV, because if you don’t allow them to talk about themselves or eachother and there aren’t enough women around to talk about, well, what the hell are they going to talk about? So, just leave it out, or stick it off to the side where it can’t do any harm.

However, one of the really wonderful things happening in film and television today is, those relationships are coming back, in full throttle. More than ever, we are seeing movies and tv shows that not only include these kinds of relationships between male characters, but we are even seeing shows whose structure depends on those relationships, which is the truly remarkable thing. Sherlock is a wonderful example. Sherlock and Watson are non-romantic but nonetheless depend on one another, support one another, express themselves to one another, and the show could not exist without all of that.

Harry Potter is an interesting example. Granted Harry, Ron, and Hermione are effectively children for the vast majority of the series, but Harry’s relationships -almost all of them non-romantic – with the people around him are crucial to the function of the story. Fantasy has always been good at this. Basically anything by J.R.R. Tolkien has an abundance of emotional platonic relationships between men, from Frodo and Gandalf, to Legolas and Gimli, to Merry and Pippin, to Frodo and Sam, to Bilbo and who-even-knows-how-many, even Frodo and Smeagol/Gollum. There are virtually no women in the stories and therefore virtually no romance. The story requires that they are open and trusting with one another, or everything would fall apart. We see this in the platonic love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu as well, all the way back in the Epic of Gilgamesh. For fantasy, this is not a new thing. It may even be the sharp upswing in interest in mainstream fantasy (we have to remember that once upon a time, this stuff was only for the minority collective of sci-fi nerds) that has facilitated this newfound respect for and interest in emotionally-based relationships between male characters.

The Big Daddy for me is Supernatural. (Give me a moment squeal. I love this show so freaking much. Okay, I’m done.) What makes it so fascinating and addictive and kind of a little bit perfect is the relationships. The relationship between brothers Sam and Dean is deeply emotional, even to a point of heartbreaking codependence, but never does the viewer start to fit either of them into the harmful “sissy” stereotype reinforced by so much media. Both are extremely masculine in a very classical sense – good-looking, denim-wearing, ass-kicking John Wayne warriors. When Dean cries for his brother, or when Sam is feeling guilty for doing stupid things, you don’t call them sissies. Fact is, sometimes men cry, and sometimes men get depression or anxiety or post-traumatic stress, and sometimes men need to get things off their chest. The difference between Sam and Dean and the rest of the pigeon-holed “real men” in the media is, they do it. Add to that the complexity of their relationships to their father, or to their surrogate father Bobby, or to the angel Castiel… The friendship between Castiel and Dean is unlike anything I had ever seen. When I first began watching the show, I had honestly never seen men and male relationships portrayed with such depth, and it was stunning to watch. They have complexity, and they develop over time.

Here’s hoping this trend keeps up. Everybody knows how the media harmfully distorts and manipulates its images of women. A lot of people are talking about it, as well they should. However, men face a similar issue of harmful stereotyping in the tough guy image, and it locks our men and boys into a closet of their own anxieties that they fear letting out. Any step toward making anything in the world even a little better is a good one. For now let’s hear it for Frodo and Sam, Harry and Ron, House and Wilson, Kirk and Spock, Sam and Dean Winchester, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

If anyone has any other thoughts, input, examples, aaaanything, feel free to add on! 🙂

Lorem Ipsum

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