An Opera Posessed

My last post left the story of JRR Tolkein immediately after his writing of his first bestseller; the rather charming, lighthearted, almost fairy story of a tale that was The Hobbit. This was a major success, and not just among the ‘children aged between 6 and 12’ demographic identified by young Rayner Unwin; adults lapped up Tolkein’s work too, and his publishers Allen & Unwin were positively rubbing their hands in glee. Naturally, they requested a sequel, a request to which Tolkein’s attitude appears to have been along the lines of ‘challenge accepted’.

Even holding down the rigours of another job, and even accounting for the phenomenal length of his finished product, the writing of a book is a process that takes a few months for a professional writer (Dame Barbara Cartland once released 25 books in the space of a year, but that’s another story), and perhaps a year or two for an amateur like Tolkein. He started writing the book in December 1937, and it was finally published 18 years later in 1955.

This was partly a reflection of the difficulties Tolkein had in publishing his work (more on that later), but this also reflects the measured, meticulous and very serious approach Tolkein took to his writing. He started his story from scratch, each time going in a completely different direction with an entirely different plot, at least three times. His first effort, for instance, was due to chronicle another adventure of his protagonist Bilbo from The Hobbit, making it a direct sequel in both a literal and spiritual sense. However, he then remembered about the ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains, won (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the creature Gollum, and the strange power it held; not just invisibility, as was Bilbo’s main use for it, but the hypnotic effect it had on Gollum (he even subsequently rewrote that scene for The Hobbit‘s second edition to emphasise that effect). He decided that the strange power of the ring was a more natural direction to follow, and so he wrote about that instead.

Progress was slow. Tolkein went months at a time without working on the book, making only occasional, sporadic yet highly focused bouts of progress. Huge amounts were cross-referenced or borrowed from his earlier writings concerning the mythology, history & background of Middle Earth, Tolkein constantly trying to make his mythic world feel and, in a sense, be as real as possible, but it was mainly due to the influence of his son Christopher, who Tolkein would send chapters to whilst he was away fighting the Second World War in his father’s native South Africa, that the book ever got finished at all. When it eventually did, Tolkein had been working the story of Bilbo’s son Frodo and his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power for over 12 years. His final work was over 1000 pages long, spread across six ‘books’, as well as being laden with appendices to explain & offer background information, and he called it The Lord of The Rings (in reference to his overarching antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron).

A similar story had, incidentally, been attempted once before; Der Ring des Nibelungen is an opera (well, four operas) written by German composer Richard Wagner during the 19th century, traditionally performed over the course of four consecutive nights (yeah, you have to be pretty committed to sit through all of that) and also known as ‘The Ring Cycle’- it’s where ‘Ride of The Valkyries’ comes from. The opera follows the story of a ring, made from the traditionally evil Rhinegold (gold panned from the Rhine river), and the trail of death, chaos and destruction it leaves in its wake between its forging & destruction. Many commentators have pointed out the close similarities between the two, and as a keen follower of Germanic mythology Tolkein certainly knew the story, but Tolkein rubbished any suggestion that he had borrowed from it, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”. You can probably work out my approximate personal opinion from the title of this post, although I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Even once his epic was finished, the problems weren’t over. Once finished, he quarrelled with Allen & Unwin over his desire to release LOTR in one volume, along with his still-incomplete Silmarillion (that he wasn’t allowed to may explain all the appendices). He then turned to Collins, but they claimed his book was in urgent need of an editor and a license to cut (my words, not theirs, I should add). Many other people have voiced this complaint since, but Tolkein refused and ordered Collins to publish by 1952. This they failed to do, so Tolkein wrote back to Allen & Unwin and eventually agreed to publish his book in three parts; The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King (a title Tolkein, incidentally, detested because it told you how the book ended).

Still, the book was out now, and the critics… weren’t that enthusiastic. Well, some of them were, certainly, but the book has always had its detractors among the world of literature, and that was most certainly the case during its inception. The New York Times criticised Tolkein’s academic approach, saying he had “formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself”, whilst others claimed it, and its characters in particular, lacked depth. Even Hugo Dyson, one of Tolkein’s close friends and a member of his own literary group, spent public readings of the book lying on a sofa shouting complaints along the lines of “Oh God, not another elf!”. Unlike The Hobbit, which had been a light-hearted children’s story in many ways, The Lord of The Rings was darker & more grown up, dealing with themes of death, power and evil and written in a far more adult style; this could be said to have exposed it to more serious critics and a harder gaze than its predecessor, causing some to be put off by it (a problem that wasn’t helped by the sheer size of the thing).

However, I personally am part of the other crowd, those who have voiced their opinions in nearly 500 five-star reviews on Amazon (although one should never read too much into such figures) and who agree with the likes of CS  Lewis, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times of the time that “Here is a book that will break your heart”, that it is “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and that “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them”. These are the people who have shown the truth in the review of the New York Herald Tribune: that Tolkein’s masterpiece was and is “destined to outlast our time”.

But… what exactly is it that makes Tolkein’s epic so special, such a fixture; why, even years after its publication as the first genuinely great work of fantasy, it is still widely regarded as the finest work the genre has ever produced? I could probably write an entire book just to try and answer that question (and several people probably have done), but to me it was because Tolkein understood, absolutely perfectly and fundamentally, exactly what he was trying to write. Many modern fantasy novels try to be uber-fantastical, or try to base themselves around an idea or a concept, in some way trying to find their own level of reality on which their world can exist, and they often find themselves in a sort of awkward middle ground, but Tolkein never suffered that problem because he knew that, quite simply, he was writing a myth, and he knew exactly how that was done. Terry Pratchett may have mastered comedic fantasy, George RR Martin may be the king of political-style fantasy, but only JRR Tolkein has, in recent times, been able to harness the awesome power of the first source of story; the legend, told around the campfire, of the hero and the villain, of the character defined by their virtues over their flaws, of the purest, rawest adventure in the pursuit of saving what is good and true in this world. These are the stories written to outlast the generations, and Tolkein’s mastery of them is, to me, the secret to his masterpiece.

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Copyright Quirks

This post is set to follow on from my earlier one on the subject of copyright law and its origins. However, just understanding the existence of copyright law does not necessarily premeditate the understanding of the various complications, quirks and intricacies that get people quite so angry about it- so today I want to explore a few of these features that get people so annoyed, and explain why and how they came to be.

For starters, it is not in the public interest for material to stay forever copyrighted, for the simple reason that stuff is always more valuable if freely in the public domain as it is more accessible for the majority. If we consider a technological innovation or invention, restricting its production solely to the inventor leaves them free to charge pretty much what they like, since they have no competition to compete with. Not only does this give them an undesirable monopoly, it also restricts that invention from being best used on a large scale, particularly if it is something like a drug or medicine. Therefore, whilst a copyright obviously has to exist in order to stimulate the creation of new stuff, allowing it to last forever is just asking for trouble, which is why copyrights generally have expiry times. The length of a copyright’s life varies depending on a product- for authors it generally lasts for their lifetime plus a period of around 70 years or so to allow their family to profit from it (expired copyright is the reason that old books can be bought for next to nothing in digital form these days, as they cost nothing to produce). For physical products and, strangely, music, the grace period is generally both fixed and shorter (and dependent on the country concerned), and for drugs and pharmaceuticals it is just ten years (drugs companies are corrupt and profit-obsessed enough without giving them too long to rake in the cash).

Then, we encounter the fact that a copyright also represents a valuable commodity, and thus something that can potentially be put up for sale. You might think that allowing this sort of thing to go on is wrong and is only going to cause problems, but it is often necessary. Consider somebody who owns the rights to a book, and wants someone to make a film out of it, partly because they may be up for a cut of the profits and will gain money from the sale of their rights, but also because it represents a massive advertisement for their product. They, therefore, want to be able to sell part of the whole ‘right to publish’ idea to a film studio who can do the job for them, and any law prohibiting this is just pissing everybody off and preventing a good film from potentially being made. The same thing could apply to a struggling company who owns some valuable copyright to a product; the ability to sell it not only offers them the opportunity to make a bit of money to cover their losses, but also means that the product is more likely to stay on the free market and continue being produced by whoever bought the rights. It is for this reason legal for copyright to be traded between various different people or groups to varying degrees, although the law does allow the original owner to cancel any permanent trade after 35 years if they want to do something with the property.

And what about the issue of who is responsible for a work at all?  One might say that it is simply the work of the author/inventor concerned, but things are often not that simple. For one thing, innovations are often the result of work by a team of people and to restrict the copyright to any one of them would surely be unfair. For another, what if, say, the discovery of a new medical treatment came about because the scientist responsible was paid to do so, and given all the necessary equipment and personnel, by a company. Without corporate support, the discovery could never have been made, so surely that company is just as much legally entitled to the copyright as the individual responsible? This is legally known as ‘work made for hire’, and the copyright in this scenario is the property of the company rather than the individual, lasting for a fixed period (70 years in the US) since the company involved is unlikely to ‘die’ in quite the same predictable lifespan of a human being, and is unlikely to have any relatives for the copyright to benefit afterwards. It is for this reason also that companies, rather than just people, are allowed to hold copyright.

All of these quirks of law are undoubtedly necessary to try and be at least relatively fair to all concerned, but they are responsible for most of the arguments currently put about pertaining to ‘why copyright law is %&*$ed up’. The correct length of a copyright for various different stuff is always up for debate, whether it be musicians who want them to get longer (Paul McCartney made some complaints about this a few years ago), critics who want corporate ones to get shorter, or morons who want to get rid of them altogether (they generally mean well, but anarchistic principles today don’t either a) work very well or b) attract support likely to get them taken seriously). The sale of copyright angers a lot of people, particularly film critics- sales of the film rights for stuff like comic book characters generally include a clause requiring the studio to give it back if they don’t do anything with it for a few years. This has resulted in a lot of very badly-made films over the years which continue to be published solely because the relevant studio don’t want to give back for free a valuable commodity that still might have a few thousand dollars to be squeezed out of it (basically, blame copyright law for the new Spiderman film). The fact that both corporations and individuals can both have a right to the ownership of a product (and even the idea that a company can claim responsibility for the creation of something) has resulted in countless massive lawsuits over the years, almost invariably won by the biggest publishing company, and has created an image of game developers/musicians/artists being downtrodden by big business that is often used as justification by internet pirates. Not that the image is inaccurate or anything, but very few companies appear to realise that this is why there is such an undercurrent of sympathy for piracy on the internet and why their attempts to attack it through law have met with quite such a vitriolic response (as well as being poorly-worded and not thought out properly).

So… yeah, that’s pretty much copyright, or at least why it exists and people get annoyed about it. There are a lot of features concerning copyright law that people don’t like, and I’d be the last to say that it couldn’t do with a bit of bringing up to date- but it’s all there for a reason and it’s not just there because suit-clad stereotypes are lighting hundred dollar cigars off the arse of the rest of us. So please, when arguing about it, don’t suggest anything should just go without thinking of why it’s there in the first place.

The Encyclopaedia Webbanica

Once again, today’s post will begin with a story- this time, one about a place that was envisaged over a hundred years ago. It was called the Mundaneum.

The Mundaneum today is a tiny museum in the city of Mons, Belgium, which opened in its current form in 1998. It is a far cry from the original, first conceptualised by Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri la Fontaine and fellow lawyer and pioneer Paul Otlet in 1895. The two men, Otlet in particular, had a vision- to create a place where every single piece of knowledge in the world was housed. Absolutely all of it.

Even in the 19th century, when the breadth of scientific knowledge was a million times smaller than it is today (a 19th century version of New Scientist would be publishable about once a year), this was a huge undertaking, this was a truly gigantic undertaking from a practical perspective. Not only did Otlet and la Fontaine attempt to collect a copy of just about every book ever written in search of information, but went further than any conventional library of the time by also looking through pamphlets, photographs, magazines, and posters in search of data. The entire thing was stored on small 3×5 index cards and kept in a carefully organised and detailed system of files, and this paper database eventually grew to contain over 12 million entries. People would send letters or telegraphs to the government-funded Mundaneum (the name referencing to the French monde, meaning world, rather than mundane as in boring), who in turn would have their staff search through their files in order to give a response to just about any question that could be asked.

However, the most interesting thing of all about Otlet’s operation, quite apart from the sheer conceptual genius of a man who was light-years ahead of his time, was his response to the problems posed when the enterprise got too big for its boots. After a while, the sheer volume of information and, more importantly, paper, meant that the filing system was getting too big to be practical for the real world. Otlet realised that this was not a problem that could ever be resolved by more space or manpower- the problem lay in the use of paper. And this was where Otlet pulled his masterstroke of foresight.

Otlet envisaged a version of the Mundaneum where the whole paper and telegraph business would be unnecessary- instead, he foresaw a “mechanical, collective brain”, through which people of the world could access all the information the world had to offer stored within it via a system of “electric microscopes”. Not only that, but he envisaged the potential for these ‘microscopes’ to connect to one another, and letting people “participate, applaud, give ovations, [or] sing in the chorus”. Basically, a pre-war Belgian lawyer predicted the internet (and, in the latter statement, social networking too).

Otlet has never been included in the pantheon of web pioneers- he died in 1944 after his beloved Mundaneum had been occupied and used to house a Nazi art collection, and his vision of the web as more of an information storage tool for nerdy types is hardly what we have today. But, to me, his vision of a web as a hub for sharing information and a man-made font of all knowledge is envisaged, at least in part, by one huge and desperately appealing corner of the web today: Wikipedia.

If you take a step back and look at Wikipedia as a whole, its enormous success and popularity can be quite hard to understand. Beginning from a practical perspective, it is a notoriously difficult site to work with- whilst accessing the information is very user-friendly, the editing process can be hideously confusing and difficult, especially for the not very computer-literate (seriously, try it). My own personal attempts at article-editing have almost always resulted in failure, bar some very small changes and additions to existing text (where I don’t have to deal with the formatting). This difficulty in formatting is a large contributor to another issue- Wikipedia articles are incredibly text-heavy, usually with only a few pictures and captions, which would be a major turn-off in a magazine or book. The very concept of an encyclopaedia edited and made by the masses, rather than a select team of experts, also (initially) seems incredibly foolhardy. Literally anyone can type in just about anything they want, leaving the site incredibly prone to either vandalism or accidental misdirection (see xkcd.com/978/ for Randall Munroe’s take on how it can get things wrong). The site has come under heavy criticism over the years for this fact, particularly on its pages about people (Dan Carter, the New Zealand fly-half, has apparently considered taking up stamp collecting, after hundreds of fans have sent him stamps based on a Wikipedia entry stating that he was a philatelist), and just letting normal people edit it also leaves bias prone to creep in, despite the best efforts of Wikipedia’s team of writers and editors (personally, I think that the site keeps its editing software deliberately difficult to use to minimise the amount of people who can use it easily and so try to minimise this problem).

But, all that aside… Wikipedia is truly wonderful- it epitomises all that is good about the web. It is a free to use service, run by a not-for-profit organisation that is devoid of advertising and is funded solely by the people of the web whom it serves. It is the font of all knowledge to an entire generation of students and schoolchildren, and is the number one place to go for anyone looking for an answer about anything- or who’s just interested in something and would like to learn more. It is built on the principles of everyone sharing and contributing- even flaws or areas lacking citation are denoted by casual users if they slip up past the editors the first time around. It’s success is built upon its size, both big and small- the sheer quantity of articles (there are now almost four million, most of which are a bit bigger than would have fitted on one of Otlet’s index cards), means that it can be relied upon for just about any query (and will be at the top of 80% of my Google searches), but its small server space, and staff size (less than 50,000, most of whom are volunteers- the Wikimedia foundation employs less than 150 people) keeps running costs low and allows it to keep on functioning despite its user-sourced funding model. Wikipedia is currently the 6th (ish) most visited website in the world, with 12 billion page views a month. And all this from an entirely not-for-profit organisation designed to let people know facts.

Nowadays, the Mundaneum is a small museum, a monument to a noble but ultimately flawed experiment. It original offices in Brussels were left empty, gathering dust after the war until a graduate student discovered it and eventually provoked enough interest to move the old collection to Mons, where it currently resides as a shadow of its former glory. But its spirit lives on in the collective brain that its founder envisaged. God bless you, Wikipedia- long may you continue.

The Hunger Redemption

Today, I wish to take a look at the subject of films. I do not make any claims to be a film buff or any expert on such things, but I go to see my fair share and like to think I know the basic principles and terminology.

Normally though, I still wouldn’t bring the topic up, but a couple of events over the last couple of days almost wrote a post for me. The first of these was a showing of The Shawshank Redemption on the TV the other day, which changed my opinion of the film from the mere Excellent ranking it had slipped to since last time I saw to up to the far more deserving Superlatively Awesome position. The other occurred earlier today, when I went to see The Hunger Games, and I saw an interesting opportunity to compare the two.

At first glance, this might seem quite an odd choice of comparison- the two films are from completely different eras of film making and have some wildly different fundamentals, but when one thinks about it they are actually remarkably similar in several aspects. Both are exactly the same length, both are adapted from highly successful books, both manage to cram a lot of film into their (admittedly still quite long) running times, and both contain a central theme of the man (or in the newer film’s case, woman) versus the system, to name but a few. The most important similarity though, is the films’ aims- neither are action showstoppers or visual spectaculars, trying to wow the audience with a show- these films are trying to appeal more on the basis of what they say and mean instead.

However, one crucial difference strikes me- my reaction to the film. Shawshank is a very emotive film for me, and it is impossible to watch it and not leave with a deep sense of the profound and the epic- the film just feels like it’s really, really good, as well as being so. The Hunger Games, on the other hand? Well, it’s certainly not bad, and is certainly above average, but something strikes me as… missing. There is nothing to elevate this film from the mundane and merely ‘good’, to the unique and exceptional- it lacks a certain spark imbued to truly great films.

But why exactly is that? What is it about the execution of The Hunger Games that makes me respond so comparatively poorly to it?

A first thing that strikes me is a lack of depth in the film’s plot. I have said already that a lot of stuff happens in the film, and I can see why they’ve done it- to drop sections would annoy fans of the book and spark web-based outrage for critics to giggle at. But then again, Harry Potter did much the same thing in pretty much every film (because how the hell do you pack 800 pages into a couple of hours screen time?) and, with hindsight, the film benefited from it. For all I know, not having read the books, Gary Ross (director & screenwriter) already did plenty of cutting but… a bit more probably wouldn’t have hurt, to be honest. So much ends up happening that is not a natural progression from another moment that it severely eats into the film’s running time without really adding anything major to it, and prevents anything from gathering any emotive weight to make it seem meaningful.

Speaking of lack of natural progression, that’s another thing- the film has a lot of thematic inconsistency that makes some sections sit very uncomfortably with others. The raw, rough nature of the District 12 opening scenes, for example, does not contrast as effectively as it should with the opulence of the Capitol and the accompanying stupid fashion sense. There is prime opportunity here to contrast the decadence and the poverty of the two and to create some real emotional hit to carry the film along with, but it never really comes. Katniss (the main character, whose name I cannot write without giggling inside) just seems to sit too comfortably with all the pomp and ceremony, which for a character who is meant to be fighting the system and even inspires a f*&%^$g rebellion, just seems odd- and yes, I know she has to make herself popular to attract sponsors, but it’s not beyond the wit of a filmmaker to at least demonstrate some emotional response to the whole business, is it? The irony is that the acting in the film is actually very good and emotive- but the screenplay and directing simply don’t allow it to come to the fore.

This lack of consistency is not only a plot-driven thing- there is a lot of it in the cinematography too. The film switches between ‘Hollywood-style’ backed off shots and more gritty, up close and personal moments- which I would applaud if this switching all happened when it apparently should. As it is… well, take a fight scene near the end. These scenes generally attempt to have on consistent camera aesthetic to get a consistent feel and allow the audience to absorb themselves in the action, rather than doing what Ross has chosen to do on this occasion and constantly switch between confusing, rolling shots between three people in black jumpsuits on a black background so you have no idea who anyone is, to sudden wide shots which tell you roughly who everyone is without giving you any real sense of immersion before throwing you back into the realm of confusion.

If I wanted to, I could go on nit-picking all day, which I don’t really means to since it demeans what is still a very good film. But my real point is that my perpetual feeling whilst watching The Hunger Games is one of a loss of direction, of there being something missing. There are lots of great elements, great camera shots, and great themes in there, but they all just appeared to have been thrown in haphazardly and mixed together without any real aim or direction. There is no real sense that this film has one consistent message, one standout theme, or one clear idea that it builds itself upon, and this just makes it feel… unsatisfying.

…And now to actually justify this as a contrast, I once again give you: The Shawshank Redemption– the epitome of a driven message ramming itself home. To understand what makes Shawshank great, only one simple fact needs to be noted- every single moment in this film is just one part of the emotional rollercoaster of up ‘n’ down of Andy DuFresne’s life. This is a film purely about one man’s life being  dragged through the shitheap, and his sheer determination and balls to pull himself out of it. It is a series of slow buildups and damning falls, of hopes being built and broken, and of the man finally coming good. Every risen hope dashed invests the heart of the viewer in DuFresne, and he becomes our collective avatar. We feel his joy when a chance of freedom or hope arises, and share his pain when it is dashed against the rock- which makes the film’s perfectly paced and beautiful finale something truly special, and something which the entire audience can enjoy and experience. Because we never get that kind of emotional investment in our characters, we are never in a position to enjoy it in the same way as The Hunger Games.

Do not take from this by any means that Games is a bad film, because it’s not, and I don’t mean to slam it so hard. I just think it’s a shame that would could have been a brilliant film has had to be compromised in such a way.