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Oz and good stories

Princess_Truella_on_a_stork_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_16529"It's steampunk." "No, it isn't." "It's pretty steampunk." "No, it's not." "You have to admit, it has steampunk elements." "Well, it's not steampunk."

A discussion about my novel, Skater in a Strange Land, which can be categorized as "steampunk lite"?

No, an exchange with me and stepson, who is apparently a big genre purist, concerning the movie "Oz the Great and Powerful."

We hadn't seen the movie yet, but from the trailer it was clear that the time period (late nineteenth or early twentieth century) and period technology the movie did qualify as steampunk-y if nothing else.

But once I saw it, genre considerations took second place. Was it a good story?

I don't think so, and technology, I think, doesn't help.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" has a prominent 3D element. I am not a big fan of 3D. I saw "Up" in 3D, and it made my head hurt and added exactly nothing to the story. I would argue, in fact, that 3D takes away from the story by distracting you from the progress of the action.

Storytelling is about action, not effect.

Now I saw "Oz" in 2D by preference, so that I could concentrate on the story. It was still a spectacular feat of technology, but it felt like a feast that wasn't warranted, like having Easter dinner on Maundy Thursday

Again, did the appearance of the movie contribute to the storytelling?

Not so much.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" concerns the "man behind the curtain" from the 1939 classic movie, "The Wizard of Oz." It asks the question, how did the wizard get to be who he was?

The movie starts with a black-and-white sequence in Kansas, like in "The Wizard of Oz." It also has a tornado that whisks you away to the fantasy world. And, as in the other movie, the whole screen is filled with brilliant color and effects after the fantasy world is entered.

What is that made this cinematic strategy so fun and story-appropriate in the original? Dorothy, the girl from Kansas, knows nothing but a very bland, boring, and yet menacing world. When she enters Oz, we feel her awe. She has truly come somewhere else and other.

James Franco, who plays the main character, Oscar Diggs ("Oz"), is a womanizing con man and sleight-of-hand magician. He himself is master of many special effects in the grayish Kansas he inhabits. When he enters the kingdom of Oz, his reaction is bemusement, but not wonder. He is too cynical to be amazed by the new world. And he cynically manipulates the first person he meets in Oz, the naive witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who resembles very much the naive woman he manipulates while in Kansas.

3D does not help this type of story. You don't believe the world because the main character doesn't believe the world. One strike against.

As the story progresses, the audience is asked to believe that Oz, this charlatan, is going somehow to save the world that coincidentally has the same name as he. In fact, we are asked to believe that three powerful and intelligent witches (Kunis ends up being quite formidable) somehow need this man to unite the kingdom. The more power they show (and the more the technology shows them using it), the less we believe that Oz is the man for the job of CEO.

Talk about a glass ceiling.

One part of the movie does ring true for me. When Oz and his sidekick, talking monkey Finley (Zach Braff), enter "China Town," a village made up of porcelain houses and porcelain people, he uses common glue to heal the broken legs of the best character in the movie, the China Girl (Joey King). Her reaction of wonder to technology we take for granted is magical. And the special effect of her walking after being healed is affecting. That was worthy of an ooh and an ahh.

L. Frank Baum wrote a whole slew of beloved Oz books, with a bunch of strange technology (including visions of robots, television, and laptop computers), and in a world full of wonder.

This movie really made me want to go back and read those books, and use my imagination to create the special effects.

(Movie poster from here)

(Link below contains a review with a bunch more plot details, if you need them.)


Goodreads Giveaways, oh my!

If you are a member of and interested in a chance at a free (personally inscribed) copy of Skater in a Strange Land, get on over to the Giveaways page and search. The Giveaway ends on March 11, and there are two books available, so you double your chances.

In other news:

  • The sequel to Skater in a Strange Land is titled "The Skater and the Saint"; I'm going to be doing the main drafting and revising over the summer, but I am pleased to announce the book is about a third there, almost 24,000 words.
  • Coming soon: in Borschland there is something called the Borschland National Sweepstakes, or BONAS, which is keyed to a daily puzzle in Latin that you need to solve. I'll be starting that on this blog with fabulous (or sorta fabulous) prizes available.

  • One of the things I would love everyone to have is a map of Borschland and the Continent on which it lies. I'm working on that and will be making it available soon.
As always, if you have any questions about Borschland, the Borschland Hockey Chronicles, or for me as an author, don't hesitate to contact me at teenage underscore heroes at sign yahoo dot com. 

Vermeer's Woman in Blue and Borschland

On NPR this morning, much speculation about the subject of the letter that the "Woman in Blue" is reading in Vermeer's famous painting.

The beloved, who is a painter herself, harumphed and said, "I'm sure Vermeer was concerned more with the color of the dress than with the subject of the letter. It was probably his wife reading a receipt."

I went to the NPR site to have a look, and they have a lovely, large .jpg of it that you can click twice and make bigger.

What caught my eye was not the woman so much as the background-- a mysterious map painted on the wall. 

I am big on maps and created Borschland first as a place and without any of the people in mind. The ice hockey and the Dutch culture came after.

You can read about the origin of my love of maps here. But what was this particular map depicting? It's blue and beige and from a distance hard to tell.

I went to the handy-dandy Internet and found out the map was of the Netherlands, which makes sense since Vermeer was Dutch. But I still couldn't place the picture as the Netherlands. It didn't look like the maps of the Netherlands I know, even framed off and magnified, as it is here:

Vermeer Muchacha Riendo 01

(With humble thanks to the English students at the Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Spain, who write an impeccable report in impeccable English)

So off it was to another of the 21st century's best tools, a picture manipulation program. I blew up the photo of the map and saw the words NOVA ET ACCURATA HOLLANDIAE ET VESTPHALIAE TOPOGRAPHIA, which is Latin for "a new and accurate map of the Netherlands and Westphalia."

I also saw the words MARE GERMANICUM in part of the beige section of the map, and what looked like a bunch of ships. Then I realized, like a person who looks at a Rorschach test a second time, that the beige was water, and the blue was land. MARE GERMANICUM means "German Sea" and is an old name for the North Sea.

I rotated the picture with the manipulator program, and hey presto! the Netherlands was staring out at me.

Compare this with a contemporary map of the Netherlands:

Vermeer Muchacha Riendo 02 Netherlands_map

What does this have to do with Skater in a Strange Land? Not much, at first, but follow me into the wilds of my imagination if you dare.

Vermeer painted in the 17th century, which is also the century when Borschland was discovered. It was an age of great exploration, and the Dutch were some of the most adventurous sailors out there, including a guy named Abel Tasman, who discovered the Australian island of Tasmania.

I imagined Tasman also discovered the mystery continent where Borschland is located while on his way to Australia, since the Continent is fairly close to Australia. In fact, I wrote a short story about Tasman and the two captains, Willem van Noos and Henrick Lojren van Borsch, whom he left behind to map the Continent. You can read the opening of that story here and buy the whole thing if you wish. If you've read this far, you can even ask for it from me for a gift. First three askers who comment (and send their email address to teenage underscore heroes atsign yahoo dot com) get it.

That short story will be helpful background reading for my next novel, The Skater and the Saint, which hopefully will be published around Thanksgiving of this year (2013).

I love that Vermeer included a map of the Netherlands in his painting, with all the tiny ships on it that indicate the Dutch commitment to expanding their horizons. Borschic folks have a little bit of that adventurous spirit still, which makes for a fun place in which to set adventurous stories.