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Saturday, April 25, 2015

King John and ASOIAF

Let me count the similarities ---

1. The bastard of Richard the Lionheart. He's pretty dashing, but he talks like Tyrion Lannister, or more accurately Tyrion talks like him. And they both are in fact loyal and pure at heart. They just like to put on a cynical appearance and deliver some zingers.

2. The sympathetic poor Hubert. The misunderstood killer. The wronged bad guy with a heart of gold. He is almost exactly like Sandor the Hound.

3. At the center of the three-sided battles is the question of whether it is justified to murder a child. John decided that he had to, and was duly punished for the crime. Ned Stark refused to be the cause of potential execution of three children born of incest (and treason), and he was duly punished for his kindness. Yes, damned if you do and damned if you don't.

4. Even after all three parties opposing him (Rome, France, and his own dukes) have been appeased, King John can still be killed off by an almost random person and act. See also Ned Stark and Balon Greyjoy and Tywin Lannister.

This is what drives me crazy when I try to dig out Shakespeare's influence on GRRM. Nothing is concretely transplanted --- No, GRRM is too clever for that. Rather, it is a strong whiff of shared view on people and the way of the world.

Friday, April 24, 2015

King John Revisited

I am trying to test my memory on this absurdly complicated story.

In the beginning King John was the de facto king of England. His brother, Richard the Lionheart, named him heir to the throne, despite a stronger claim by their nephew Arthur, as Arthur's father (dead) had been older than John. Still an innocent child, Arthur was not particularly keen on overthrowing his uncle, but his keen mother, Constance, took him and the claim to the King of France, Philip. France confronted England in Arthur's name. One does not need France's true intention spelled out, however, considering the ongoing land disputes between the neighboring countries (England held Brittany and other territories on the Continent).

And so they attempted to resolve the dispute the old fashioned way: through war. The conflict was stuck in a stalemate. What to do? John and Philip reached a truce, in which John married his niece Blanche to the Dauphin Louis and England gave up some of the land to France as her dowry. Methinks England probably lost in reality. The war ended and Arthur's suit was put aside. Constance, of course, was not happy about the arrangement, but John and his army had captured Arthur in a battle. Now England seemed to hold all the cards ... Or do they?

Peace with France might not be the best policy, but the king had little choice at the moment, because he was being attacked on another side by the Pope, who was unhappy about his domestic policy to levy taxes on the churches. England's conflict with Rome also put France in an awkward position. If you don't denounce England, the angry Roman envoy Pandolf threatened Philip, you would be excommunicated along with John. Ah the problem of The Three Kingdoms. The fragile alliance between England and France hung in a balance. Pandolf convinced the Dauphin to invade England, because now Louis also had a claim to the English throne through his marriage to Blanche. Oh isn't that clever of the little cardinal?

Meanwhile in England, John did not want to sit and wait for the French invasion in the name of rescuing Arthur, the rightful king. So he ordered the boy executed by Hubert, everyone's favorite killer. Only this killer had a heart of gold (unlike the killers in Richard III but not unlike Sandor Clegane) and was moved by the child's innocence. So he quietly hid Arthur somewhere in the Tower, while telling the king he'd done the deed. But the king changed his mind two minutes later! When his already-disgruntled lords were appalled and outraged that he had murdered a child! John wished he would kick the stupid lords' asses, no doubt, but right now he needed their help to fight off the French. Oh how he regretted having given the order.

Man, it sucks to be a lowly henchman. One moment your boss wants the kid dead, the next he is blaming you for being a psychopathic killer. What a bhenchod (oops, wrong language). Anyway, so Hubert told John the truth and they all hugged each other and thought, The kid's still alive! We're all saved from a rebellion and bad names for a thousand years! Unbeknownst to them, Arthur sneaked out of the Tower and jumped the wall and broke his own neck, lying dead in front of the fuming lords. Awkward. If they had been wavering a bit about betraying England, now they had to be pushed to the Dauphin's side by the bloody corpse.

And so there John sat in his tent on the battlefield and couldn't believe how things had fallen apart. An hour ago he had married Blanche to Louis, got France off his back, and Arthur had lost. Everything had been so peachy. Suddenly he became a child-murderer, even though he rescinded the order, was excommunicated by Vatican, and was about to lose his country to France! Maderchod (sorry, wrong language again). In a desperate last-ditch effort, he treated with Pandolf and gave the Vatican whatever they wanted.

Mission happily accomplished, Pandolf went to Louis and said, OK, we can go home now, I got what I wanted. Louis laughed, What about what I want? Do you think you can let the wolf out of the cage and then drag him back before he's fed? The wolf will not let go of the big fat piece of steak between his teeth. He told Pandolf to get lost and pressed his army on, along with Salisbury and the other well-meaning English traitors. Finally, somehow, the English lords came to their senses and decided to switch sides from the French Dauphin. Louis had to abandon his dream and go home. All seemed to be finally looking up for John. Then King John got himself poisoned by a monk, I guess because of his earlier excommunication. So he died and his son Henry was crowned. The end.

How did he cram all this into just one play?! It gave me so many whiplashes I thought my head was going to fall off.

Oh, and in the middle of it all, there was this fabulous character who is a bastard and has all the best one-liners.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bhagavad Gita and Figure Skating (Mahabharata Notes #16)

The phenomenon of "choking" in competitive sports is well known. It refers to those high-stake moments when a competitor performs far below his normal ability, as if he has forgotten to be himself. Choking is particularly in sports that require highly precise techniques, such as figure skating. After years of watching skating live, it's become clear to me that, in an important competition, figure skaters routinely achieve no more than 70% of the highest level of difficulty they are capable of in practice. This level can drop further if the skater is temperamentally sensitive to the psychological pressure. For skaters often called "headcases," he might fail on techniques in a critical championship that he would succeed with 90% certainty in practice. Why? Perhaps the reason is that figure skating is exquisitely affected by the skater's mind. I have done a little bit of recreational swimming, running, and skating, and found that skating demands the most attention and concentration. Therefore, when the brain is wandering toward the thoughts of winning and losing, it is so easy to lose focus, which destroys one's technique.

The fact that many of my favorite skaters are prone to "choking" has vexed me for years and led me to wonder years why the mind fails them. Do they unconsciously sabotage their own success? Or does the chance of choking increase with how badly one wants to win? If so, how does one suppress the desire to win for a few minutes in order to focus on just the skating?

This is why, when I first read one of the themes in Bhagavad Gita, "detach from the fruits of your action," I immediately felt a tingling inside my skull. There is something profound and subtle about this seemingly paradoxical about the advice.

And this phenomenon is not limited to sports, for in life the wish to have something does not often lead to choices toward its realization. Thinking about what you want may spur you on sometimes and paralyzes you other times. The problem of self-defeating behaviors is complicated and difficult to remedy.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Get on Up

What do you do if you want to make a biopic of James Brown? The easiest and most obvious approach is to recreate a compilation of his greatest hits, sprinkled with anecdotes of his life. That was exactly the director Tate Taylor did. In a sense that is enough. It might have been even better to just do a fake concert movie with his recordings, re-enacted by actors, one song after another. James Brown's songs are sufficient to carry a movie all on their own.

The only somewhat distinctive but not entirely successful feature of this movie is to sprinkle the life anecdotes out of chronological order. The messages and themes, however, are no different from most other ordinary biopics of geniuses, especially but not limited to music geniuses. It's always about what egoistic womanizers they are. That is also not entirely wrong, because they do tend to be egoistic womanizers. Still, it is also a trope. Another trope is the tortured genius, whose childhood emotional trauma has driven him to the road to success.

Why is it so difficult to depict the life of an artistic genius that seems realistic and fascinating? The play "Red" about Mark Rothko might be the closest to believability that I have seen. It is hopeless when it comes to musical geniuses, however. We all seem to be more interested in their bedrooms drama than the grinding rehearsals in studios. Are filmmakers themselves not interested in how creative sausages are made or, more likely, they think the audience are not interested in the unglamorous hard work? But I am interested! The best scene in the movie is precisely a rehearsal, in which Brown schools his musicians on rhythms and syncopation. Its writing is not particularly credible, but is nevertheless all about working rather than fake and superficial psychoanalysis or wasted glimpses at women.

I did not begin to appreciate funk and old-school R&B until only recently. I wonder why it took me so long. It seems that when it comes to music I am just really slow.

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