Thursday, July 24, 2014

Brief thoughts about language

I’ve run across several little points of interest regarding language in recent weeks, much of which was based around the World Cup as the confluence of many different cultures and peoples. As most of those who know me will be glad to irritably point out, I’m a bit of a grammar marm (“unique” is an ultimate; you can no more be “kind of unique” than you can be “kind of pregnant”) and mildly concerned about the degradation of the English language (the one I know best) and communication, in general. It’s one of the supreme ironies (genuine) of life that the world’s greatest communication tool, the InterWebs, is also the thing that is most reducing the ability of the species to communicate, whether by the reduction of text to something approximating alpha-numeric Streetspeak or the echo chamber created by only frequenting information sources that agree with your worldview. But the occasional pitfalls in communication only really become prominent when trying to bridge the actual gap of language, as we saw in this year’s tournament.

Hulk fall!
 The Croatian team had basically outplayed the hosting Brazilians in the first match of the event until the referee made an atrociously bad call in the box and awarded a penalty kick to Brazil. The Croats immediately surrounded the Japanese official, protesting the call, to which he responded with a couple mumbles and hand signals. Why? Well, because FIFA, in all its brilliance, had somehow assigned a mono-lingual official to the opening display of the biggest sporting event in the world. He knew only Japanese, which none of the Croatian players knew. However, that wasn’t what upset them. What really got to them was that he didn’t know English because almost all of them were at least roughly fluent in that (as are many other officials in FIFA’s ranks…) English, as many world travelers are aware these days, has become the lingua franca of the age. Here’s where we try to wrap our minds around the idea of English being the target of an Italian term for “Frankish language”, a pidgin communication used around the eastern Mediterranean by the dominant Italian and Ottoman merchants in the 16th century. Strangely enough, actual French (the descendants of the Franks) became the lingua franca of the 18th and 19th centuries before English began to dominate in the last 100 years because of the spread of American culture and hegemony.

Smażyć się w piekle?
That moment reminded me of the Euro championships two years before in Poland and Ukraine, where anti-Russian demonstrators would often appear outside the venues for the soccer matches with various banners like the “Anti-Putin League” written, obviously, in English since it was the surest way of communicating among Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, and the thousands of international visitors. What makes this reality odd to many of us is the concept of the Ugly American; that famously abrasive traveler who appears oblivious to local custom or communication except to believe that by speaking Tourist (loudly and slowly via Twoflower of Discworld fame), they’ll be able to communicate anything to anyone: “CAN… YOU… TELL… ME… WHERE… THE… LOOV-REH… IS?!” These days, he’d probably be right.

Of course, the spread of English has largely been conveyed not only by American economic dominance but also by American entertainment, including sports… making it even stranger that it would be the dominant vehicular language of the largest tournament of a sport that continues to have little traction in the US, relative to other major sports, and which many Americans actively reject as “un-American” (no accounting for taste or intelligence there.) But forms of American slang are also spreading.

If only this was the most obvious example.
Textspeak, adopted organically as a matter of convenience, continues to leak over into other electronic communications, such that many businesses are expressly forbidding it in any kind of official communication attempt (like, say, a job application.) But it’s interesting to note that the lingo common to much of that new style was adopted much earlier by such things as the TL;DR exercise or simple typos.

An example of the former case is online forum communications, where anything past a hundred words is automatically dismissed by much of the Ritalin-prescribed populace as simply too much information to be absorbed. Thus, Too Long; Didn’t Read prefixing a one or two sentence condensation of the post that, of course, removes any and all nuance and context. The latter case centers on frequent typos. Perhaps the best known is that of “pwned.” The term first arose on the forum for Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft game and was an expression for completely dominating one’s opponent (originally “owned”.) There’s fairly widespread dispute as to whether the first use of the term was a typo or was the mistaken approximation to the intended term by the game’s vast Korean audience. I trend toward believing the former but the latter would add a certain texture to the story that speaks even more about the language difficulties and transformations alluded to above.

In ur base, killin ur d00dz...
Most outside the gaming world have only a cursory experience with terms like “pwned”. In other words, they know that kids and geeks use it, which is similar to many other expressions and shorthands that often separate generations and which become outdated with the accession of a new cultural overlay. With the increased prevalence of technology and the tendency of people of all ages to use things like textspeak, one wonders if we’re looking at a transformation of the vehicular language from English to a pidgin form of English even among English speakers.

Incidentally, the presence of the lingua franca wasn’t the only language issue that cropped up during the World Cup. The famously welcoming hosts, who speak Portuguese unlike every other nation on their continent, were reportedly pretty testy about hearing Spanish spoken around the venues; that being the language of two of the most significant challengers to their presumed victory. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, for NPR, was castigated by listeners for not only speaking Portuguese with a Spanish accent but also supposedly speaking Spanish with an Argentinian accent (she claims otherwise), since Argentina was the most threatening of those potential challengers. The strange interplay among cultures wasn’t solely the province of the fans, either, as otherwise brilliant commentator, Ian Darke, attempted to make a point about fans in the stadium during the US-Portugal match perhaps favoring the latter because of a shared culture and language… neglecting to remember that Brazil was a Portuguese colony which fought a fairly ferocious war of independence to remove that status. That said, the US did the same and you’ll find a lot of casual fans favoring the English national team and the Premier League because them people look like us and talk like us…

Now I begin to wonder how we could increase the spread of Braille with accents. If you’re reading in Boston, do you replace all of the Rs with Ahs?


Brian’s recent brief explanation (last question) about how to pick an EPL team to root for got me to thinking. As some of you know, I’m an LFC fan and became one largely because it was the only professional club that we could get footage of when I was a kid (mostly via public TV and occasionally CBC) and that was largely because Liverpool was the dominant team of England’s first division at the time (late 70s/early 80s.) I knew of the other big clubs like Arsenal, but I mostly saw Liverpool so I developed an attachment for the Reds. I’ve been accused of having a similarity in my rooting interests for aged teams with great histories but little recent success to show for it, because Michigan is the same way. But that sentiment is accurate in that I had the geographic advantage of living in the state where one of the most successful college football programs in the history of the game happened to exist. I became a Michigan fan because that’s what I saw and one of the first things I vividly remember is the cool helmets compared to almost every other team that they played against. Coming full circle again, I remember thinking how distinctive the all-red kits of LFC were compared to their opposing numbers (young communist even then…)

But the point that Brian made that triggered this post is his measure of disdain for the “petrosheik” clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City (even though the former is owned by a Russian, not a ‘sheik’, it’s still oil money.) While both of the latter clubs have history in the Premier League (Chelsea’s considerably superior to City’s), their recent success is (ahem) fueled largely by their respective owners’ status as billionaires. This allows both clubs to spend vastly more than most of their rivals and, therefore, sweep up the world’s soccer talent and use it to create championship teams. The Premier League’s spending rules are fairly few; nothing like many American sports’ leagues salary caps or luxury taxes and certainly nothing like the Bundesliga’s defined spending limits, as most of those clubs are municipally-owned. That kind of largesse is looked upon by Brian and many others as, ironically, ‘cheap’ in that the club didn’t work to build its own development system or “play by the rules” in direct competition with its rivals, but instead bought its way to success. Consequently, they’re considered less viable from a fan interest standpoint because they’re seen as artificial and it’s assumed that a new fan would only be interested because they’re two of the best teams in the top division right now, rather than something more genuine. Of course, part of my attachment to teams like Liverpool and Michigan is the fact that they were very successful. That meant it was gratifying to watch them play, because they usually won, but it was also one of the main reasons that I saw them in the first place: lots of people wanted to see them because they usually won. Therefore, TV networks were glad to show them because the networks made money and they also paid out money to the teams in question, enabling Liverpool, at least, to pay more for players and Michigan to at least create better facilities under the NCAA’s artificial “amateurism” system.

Considering that the NCAA is currently wrestling with critics of that artificial system that prevents giving athletes a share of the money they’re earning and requires schools like Michigan, with vastly more resources and far greater fanbases with even more resources, to play by the same rules as the Ball States, the disgust with teams like City is a bit questionable from a college sports perspective. It’s not as if I don’t understand the reaction. I share it. Liverpool is one of the most successful teams in the history of both the Premier League and international soccer (although they haven’t won the home league in quite some time, just like Michigan…) Man City has long been a member of the top flight, but has almost always been an also-ran. Their recent run of success has been created entirely by their essential status as “Qatar FC”, as Brian refers to them. They lack anything remotely like the fanbase of LFC, Arsenal, or their crosstown rivals, Manchester United, but they’re the hot item of the moment because they’re winning with a lot of the talent from the Continent and South America, bought and paid for by oil money. It seems cheap, in a sports sense, that they simply tapped a few holes in the ground and are suddenly winning the League and competing for the Champions League title on a regular basis.

But, what, exactly is wrong with that?

When the stake is finally driven through the NCAA’s heart and some share of the billions in revenue is distributed to the players of major college football and basketball, it stands to reason that the archaic rules of amateurism in terms of recruiting will also be swept away. If that means that Michigan and its huge alumni base can suddenly bring their full powers to bear in terms of attracting talent, why wouldn’t they? Michigan, the school, can outspend all but a few other institutions. Based on occasionally quantifiable evidence, it seems that the world’s largest alumni organization can outspend anyone. If we can bring the best athletes here, would that make Michigan a different form of Man City?

The counter-argument is that Michigan, while playing by the rules, built up one of the largest and most devoted followings of any program via sustained success. Consequently, the school has money to spend because it won within the rules and isn’t winning because it has money (barring the fact that facilities and other incidentals generated from that success are pretty attractive to the average athlete.) Michigan, ostensibly, earned its fans the “honest” way and now benefits from succeeding in that effort to a degree greater than any other school. But is being a dyed-in-the-wool, “traditional” winner a better choice for a new fan than another school simply because that team has the institutional and historical advantages that other teams do not? Liverpool is in the same situation. Sustained success earned sufficient money and fan support to enable that success to be continued until LFC, too, was purchased by very wealthy Americans (former money managers and now sports, specifically the Red Sox, not oil) who now spend considerable amounts of money trying to keep the club at the elite level.

Contrasting again is the question of: What makes fandom worthwhile? Is it more satisfying to root for a little guy like Northwestern, long the stepchild of the Big 10 until achieving decent success in the last couple decades? Or for a Purdue, which has almost never been able to rise above the traditional powers of its league? Tottenham and Sunderland are good comparisons in the Premier League. But would you suggest that to a new fan, to immerse themselves in the frustration of watching an average or poor team simply because they’re the little guy and it might be extra satisfying once a decade when they make 5th place? Is it likewise a bad idea to suggest that they simply join the crowd and root for one of the other big powers, because that’s what so many other people do (the best example in this case from an EPL perspective being Man U over the past 20 years)?

I guess my answer to that would be: watch what you like. Watch a ton of EPL (or college football) and see which teams’ style you enjoy or which players you really like to see perform. That one is likely to be your favorite almost regardless of record. Winning will still affect things, of course, because people are naturally drawn to successful things. But it won’t be everything. As Brian notes, Chelsea, while enormously successful in recent years, plays godawful, suffocating, boring football. Man City, OTOH, plays an up-tempo, attacking style which is far more entertaining. From my own interest, I’m thankful that Liverpool’s current style is also the attacking game, as they’re striker-heavy. In contrast, watching Michigan’s team in the past couple years on both offense and defense has been an exercise in head-pounding against the nearest hard surface. I can imagine new fans of the game enjoying LFC on the field. I cannot say the same for Michigan, but I know there are plenty of other fans who would say otherwise, because that's essentially what fandom is about.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Choice of character

There was a post on the board a few weeks ago that sparked something in my mind because I'd considered it a number of times over the past 4 years, but after I wrote it down I filed it away to be finished later because I was (and am) currently struggling with another story. Now that I've decided I'm stuck for the evening, the question reoccurs. Said question borders on the tautological: Can you like a character better in one medium than another if the new version is done well enough? In other words, how do you separate the two? If I think Sandor Clegane is better on TV than in the books, is it because the character was actually done better or because the actor has not only lived up to my expectations for the character but has actually exceeded them? Does that make show Hound better than book Hound? Does it depend on the actor? Does it depend on the script? Does it depends on how attached you are to the character in the original medium? Furthermore, do the TV characters end up being superior in some cases simply because of the fantastic foundation upon which they rest? It's a lot easier to write someone when the original author has already done the favor of laying their groundwork for ~4500 pages. Does that make our central question moot? Is there any other reason to have the Internet other than to discuss unanswerable questions? Well, let's discuss.

Tyrion- As I noted in the episode 8 write-up, there’s a distinction that becomes much more prevalent in the characters that are written as quite canny and literate; Tyrion being one of those. In the show, we can’t read their thoughts, which deprives us of some of their eloquence. But in the books, we can’t see their reactions and facial quirks and it’s that aspect which often defines Peter Dinklage as an actor. His undeniable charm has sold Tyrion to an audience of even more millions, beyond even the fact that he gets many of the best lines. Furthermore, he’s far more good-looking than the Tyrion from the books, who was a fairly distorted dwarf with off-color hair even before he lost his nose (unlike the Margaery-pleasing scar he bears on HBO.) Those things play as they’re supposed to in the visual medium. Most humans respond more favorably to an attractive person than they do to one who falls below that common standard (there’s a lengthy discussion possible here about standards of beauty being societal or instinctive; I trend more toward the latter based on the reactions of children, but that’s going far afield right now.) However, even with Dinklage’s contributions, I think Tyrion is still a better character in the books simply because of the time and space he’s allowed to elaborate upon those inner workings that make him the character he is. If given the screen time necessary to more fully acquaint his audience with exactly who he is and the depth he has as a tragicomic figure, perhaps that would be different. This does nothing to detract from Dinklage's performance in the show and, indeed, this first choice is one of the more difficult because of the involvement of the writer. Martin has stated before that Tyrion is the character with whom he feels the most familiarity so there's little doubt that he'd be a more developed individual in the books. Furthermore, Dinklage has developed Tyrion as a different person in the show (he has not read the books) and there's plenty of argument to say that that difference is better, but not necessarily a better Tyrion.

Cersei- is absolutely a better character in the show, without question. Prior to Feast for Crows, Cersei was a device; a constant foil for a multitude of other characters. Martin wrote her with intelligence, certainly, but the personal depth took a long time to come to the fore. Lena Headey has had the opportunity to develop that depth from day one and she has excelled in doing so. She’s made Cersei into a sympathetic character for much of the audience even as she’s been utterly reviled (as intended) for the rest. Her defining moment was when Tywin informed her that she’d be marrying Loras and the cocky, evilly-gloating Cersei immediately crumbled to helpless daughter in the same fashion as her younger brother whom she’d been cackling at moments before. It’s tough to do that kind of transition as an actor. It’s tough to write it as an author and still maintain some kind of genuine reaction on the part of the majority of your audience. Headey sold it and then, even after creating that moment of sympathy, continued to be the ice queen in season 4, culminating with her self-satisfied smirk over the corpse of Oberyn Martell. I think having her wholly realized from the outset has led her to become a character of far greater complexity. You can't fault Martin for not making her a viewpoint character from the outset, as these things have a life of their own, at times, and he probably only realized that she had grown into that status as he began Feast. I realize there is some dissension out there over Headey's performance as being too sympathetic but I would urge those people to look at Cersei as a human and not simply Malificent with blonde hair.

Jaime- is an interesting question. Both versions show the transformation from elitist prig to thoughtful man and both versions use Jaime as one of the most obvious “shades of grey” examples that is one of the primary themes of the entire work. Interestingly, the show has allowed him to swing back and forth over the line at different points: the infamous rape scene next to Joffrey’s body was a significant departure from his path in the books (as the scene never took place), while his assistance in Tyrion’s escape in the book was a far more venomous scene between the brothers than the fairly heartwarming moment in the series. Overall, I’d have to say that he’s a “better” person in the show, but that assumes that you want him to be. Is he better in the show because the audience can more easily access Nikolai Coster-Waldau’s charismatic performance or is he better in the books because he’s still the grim, cynical persona arcing more toward the Hound as someone who has given up on the concept of knighthood or good people, in general? I think I’ve found him to be better in the show simply because Coster-Waldau’s rendition has been more entertaining but I’m not sure that he serves the story better than the book version (assuming that I understand Martin’s intent for the character.) Jaime in the book is still in that transformation and there's room to argue that Coster-Waldau's transition has been too complete at this point (although, again, the rape scene puts the lie to some of that.) I've become fond of Jaime as a character in the latter two books largely because he is a cynic, but I tend to favor the show version in many ways because of Coster-Waldau's sterling performance. How this guy went from a bit role in Kingdom of Heaven to this is a mystery to me, given his obvious talent, but it certainly does help to have good material to work with.

Daenerys- Daenerys, Daenerys, Daenerys… So, trying to play an innocent babe-in-the-woods who, in the books, is almost literally a child (she’s 14 when married to Drogo) and who becomes a queen with a distinct level of authoritah is a challenging prospect for any actor. I think Emilia Clarke has done a phenomenal job with the task, culminating in the Mask of Rage moment this season when she dismissed Jorah. That said, it’d be kind of difficult to do worse with the role because the book character has in many ways been something of a cipher. She’s delivering the Targaryen storyline and the depiction of Essos but hasn’t really been one of those characters whom you remember fondly for various moments (other than Dracarys.) Martin has had near-legendary problems with her storyline, which has faded out for lengthy periods of time (she has about 50 pages in Clash of Kings) and which has become difficult to move forward for fear of completely voiding the character’s consistency. There is no there there, when it comes to Daenerys. That changed to a certain degree in the latter part of Dance and we now have a clearly more interesting path for her to proceed upon, but I think the show character has had more opportunity to present Dany the person, as opposed to Dany the plot element, and I think that’s more worthwhile. However, again we're hampered here by not having access to her innermost thoughts which tends to demonstrate a bit more of her intelligence in the books in the same manner as Tyrion, so I think this is a closer call.

Jon Snow- Without question, I think the book character is better. As much as I appreciate Kit Harrington’s efforts, Jon Snow of the Page is simply far more thoughtful and deliberate than Jon Snow of the Screen, even when he was a novice at the Wall. Harrington has played him to his intended age and with all of the emotional turmoil that he endures playing out on his face. The book Snow is more guarded than that and his actions become more reasonable as a consequence. Harrington never sold me for a minute as the Wildling ex-pat. Snow in the book, even though I was in his head the whole time, put on a more believable performance for his new allies. Furthermore, Harrington plays him with a great deal more angst than the book character displays and I've carried a distaste for that particular human condition since I stopped reading the X-Men in the late 80s as a direct consequence of Claremont's overindulgence in it. While Harrington is a capable actor, I think his inexperience shows through moreso than any of the other younger people and he becomes a bit wooden in tough spots. One can argue that that actually reflects Jon Snow's personality to some degree but I think Martin has done a better job of depicting him as somewhat detached but still very human.

Bran- Likewise, I think Bran is better in the books, but this may be more of a method problem than anything done by the actor. Bran’s role is tough because a lot of what happens to him is completely beyond his control, such that he can only react, rather than act, not solely because of the magical events occurring that he doesn't understand but also because he depends on others for his survival and even mobility. In the book, we’re treated to a lot of Bran’s inner thoughts, which demonstrates more clearly how he’s adapting to the situation around him and why. We won’t ever get that in the show without an expository infodump that is bad for TV. Furthermore, the delivery problem rears its head. In prose, otherworldly things can come to life in a very reasonable manner for most people. It’s a lot easier to read about genuinely fantastical things happening and be carried along by the story than it is to see them on a screen in front of you because you don’t need a suspension of disbelief for your own imagination, which is providing the pictures as you read along. You still need that when it appears in front of you because it may not be your interpretation of how it should look and it will never look as good as it does in your mind simply because of that gulf. That makes Bran’s role more difficult on TV than it is in the books. Also, Bran's story suffers from the same problem that Dany's does, in that it's out on its own, largely unaffected by events elsewhere in the world, so it was possible for Martin to leave it for extended stretches which leaves the actors cooling their heels or engaging in relatively mundane stuff ("We're still traveling north...") that doesn't give Isaac Hempstead-Wright a great deal to work with.

Arya- Show. Show, show, show. Beyond doubt. Maisie Williams has been a revelation as Arya and is one of two characters that has so firmly embodied her role that it becomes difficult to tell whether she’s better because she’s better or better because she does the role to a level almost indistinguishable from the original character. I was not especially fond of Arya’s storyline until Storm of Swords, but I was blown away by Williams from the moment she appeared onscreen. I guess the real question will be if she can maintain that performance as the character transitions into the state in which she has become one of my favorites in the books. Interestingly, while Jaime, for example, seems to become more interesting on the show because he becomes more sympathetic, Arya wins out because she becomes less so. In both media, she becomes more brutal and less human to a degree, but the transition is far more stark in the show because it happens over a much shorter time. Furthermore, Maisie was a much more appealing person than Arya of the books, who was much more like a child who had been plucked from her home and dropped into quite dire straits. Am I saying that show Arya is better because her reactions may have been less genuinely human? I might be.

Sansa- Again, I think the show wins out here and really only from this most recent season. It took me a long time to warm to Sansa in the books, too, but I did eventually come to appreciate the strength that she displays as the completely powerless character that finally comes to realize how to play the game and how important she could be within it. That presence of mind is still kind of muted in the books, but she took control with a vengeance this season and had some of the greatest moments in its latter stages. Sophie Turner could easily be noted as the best actress of season 4 and making Sansa a more sympathetic character to much of the audience is part of that. It's also a total contrast to Arya, in that Sansa has become more sympathetic to me because of the very human nature of her reactions. Or is that just my more mature estimation of character than my first encounter with Sansa some 18 years ago?

Stannis- While I really appreciate Stephen Dillane’s performance as the man who insists he should be king (he was fantastic as Thomas Jefferson in HBO’s John Adams), I think Stannis has become less than what he should be in the show. In the original story, Stannis is the iron man: unassailable, unmoved, solely determined to gain what he thinks should be his. In the show, he’s far more vulnerable, which is everything Stannis is not. Granted, he’s not a perspective character, so we rarely see things from inside the eye of Stannis (i.e. Davos would not have been present while Stannis was nailing Melisandre on the Westeros table) but his reactions have also been more emotionally-driven than expected and it’s made the character not as imposing. Also granted, it’s hard as hell to be an actor and play someone who seems impervious to everything around him, so I don’t blame Dillane, but this is one area where I think that D&D may have taken it in the wrong direction.

Oberyn- I mention him here despite the brevity of his role because he's one of the outstanding examples of this contrast. The Red Viper was an interesting experiment in dramatic presentation. The character in the books is interesting but mostly because he was specifically designed to be so and not because he delivers an aspect of the story that's particularly deep. He’s an alpha male with a singular purpose: vengeance. The reaction of Tyrion and others to his presence makes that apparent from the moment he’s introduced. The audience is supposed to instantly understand him and, consequently, like him in the same way that they’re supposed to understand and like Omar from The Wire. In later years, many people have come to appreciate the other, deeper, more complex characters of The Wire moreso than Omar because of that depth. Same thing here. I appreciated Oberyn for fulfilling the role that he was intended for. Having said all of that, I think Pedro Pascal exceeded expectations of “coolness” for Oberyn Martell. He stole every scene that he was in and I think he improved upon the character.

Theon- Alfie Allen isn’t as smooth and arrogant as Book Theon nor is he as savaged and desperate as Book Reek. That said, he’s done a remarkable job playing the two sides of the very complex story that is Theon’s life. Still, without those extremes, I still feel like Theon has been more impactful in the book because we've been able to spend so much more time with his two halves. Oddly, though, I think that the show version has given us deeper insight into the character with small scenes like the burned letter to Robb and the clear transitions of emotion across Theon's face during the re-baptism and Reek's face when Ramsay dangles yet another temptation/threat in front of him in a fashion similar to Dinklage/Tyrion. Even with access to his inner thoughts, I feel like I understand the character better with Allen's depiction. I think that note about having the advantage of millions of words already written about these people is most prominent here. I don't think I can make a real choice.

Finally, we come to the Hound. I think that, like Williams, Rory McCann's depiction of his character has been so spot-on that it's difficult to separate the two. He basically is Sandor Clegane, down to telling fans to "Fuck off!". And, again, we circle back to those original quandaries: Can McCann be better because he nailed it or did he come to that natural level at which there's no point debating who is better because they both simply are?