The cinema has been flooded with remakes and superhero films over the past several years: True Grit, Wrath of Khan, X-Men, Avengers, Batman, and the list could go on. While this is not inherently a problem, the saturation of films (especially superhero ones), has started to become tedious. There was a time when I genuinely got excited to go watch a new film about some guy/gal in spandex saving the world, but not so much anymore. Marvel, which has been consistently hitting it out of the park with story, characters, etc. has become (in my opinion) very samey in their films. On the opposite end of the spectrum, DC has produced some stylistically intriguing films, but they have largely lacked (with Christopher Nolan’s notable trilogy as an exception) well-paced stories and characters. DC’s latest entry, Suicide Squad, suffers from most of the same weaknesses as past films from the publisher but makes up for it in other areas.
Suicide Squad has a plethora of protagonists—think Avengers but with all villains. However, while Marvel manages to introduce their cast in a way that does not feel rushed, Suicide Squad manages to only introduce three of the characters in any depth: Deadshot, Harlequin, and Diablo. As such, the film has multiple characters that feel very flat since their backstory and motivations are not fully drawn out. Overall, the pacing of the movie did not bother me too much although the introductions of characters is placed heavily on the forward end of the film which creates an odd division between the two halves.
For any pacing or character/plot problems the film has, there are still positive aspects that made the film fun for me. Firstly was the music. The film makes ample use of contemporary music which fits extremely well with the style of the movie. Songs like “Sucker for Pain” by Lil Wayne, and songs by Imagine Dragons and others, create a soundtrack that provides immediately recognizable theme music. However, while the music was entertaining, the visual presentation of characters and settings is what I enjoyed the most. As I mentioned in the introduction, DC often has interesting stylistic approaches in their films (see their animated shows/movies and the 90’s Batman series). This approach of translating the comic book to the screen has always pleased me because, being a huge fan of comic books in general, any time a film tries to capture the eccentricities of the drawn page, it usually creates a very unique experience. Suicide Squad manages to do this with its bizarre and over the top characters like Harlequin and the Joker, as well as with Deadshot, Diablo, and others. By created a visual experience most certainly NOT grounded in reality, the film does a good job of carrying over the visual themes and characters from the comic book genre.
Suicide Squad, although suffering from some poor pacing and weak character development, offers a humorous musical experience combined with a unique visual presentation of its subject matter. While this film will certainly not win over those who have become tired of the superhero genre—or never had an interest to start with—those who are drawn to the more visually stylized films will probably find it an enjoyable romp through bizarre super-powered action.
Dr. Perry Webb was a man who wore many hats. Often dressed in slacks, a dress shirt, and some sort of flat cap, he had a classic style about him. Slim in build and with a full head of silvery hair, he had been a Baptist preacher for many years. But to me, he was always just the kind neighbor who lived across the street, and my first boss. He and his wife built a house in my neighborhood several years ago and lived there until he passed away earlier this year. He was 91.
When my older brother and I were growing up, Dr. Webb would often call us over to rake leaves, clean flowerbeds, lay pine straw, and mow his yard. One summer, Dr. Webb bought grass for his back yard and called us to come lay it down. We spent two days—two of the hottest days on record in a sweltering Louisiana summer—laying grass pads down in his back yard. But he paid us well—we each earned $48, good money for part-time labor.
Dr. Webb would often joke about paying us in Confederate States money, just to see how we would react. He would also sometimes use his age to play jokes on people, like one time he fondly recounted to us. After dinner in a downtown restaurant, he called the waitress over and said (very seriously), “Do you have change for a dollar? I want to leave you a good tip.” At this, the waitress made a face and said, “That’s not a good tip!” which made Dr. Webb laugh (after which he left a real tip).
There seemed to be no end to Dr. Webb’s stories. Born in 1925, he could remember speculating with his friends as a teenager when D-Day was going to happen. His guess had been June 4th—two days early as it turned out.
Even into his 80’s, Dr. Webb maintained a great deal of energy. I often saw him in the early morning going on a walk around the neighborhood. He maintained that as he got older he needed less sleep—staying up until midnight and rising at 5 or 6 every day. He chalked the change up to the fact that he expended less energy during the day than he used to.
This past November, on break from school around Thanksgiving, I had an extra day with nothing to do, so I called Dr. Webb to see if he needed any work done the next day. He explained that he did need some wood moved to his garage for the winter, and that I could do that. There was some other work to do, he said, but a sorority at the local university had volunteered to come work, and he wanted to make sure the sorority girls had plenty to do. “I understand they’re doing this for senior citizens in the community,” he said, adding dryly, “Jack, apparently I now qualify as a senior member of the community.”
The next day, I walked over and met him at his garage. In his usual fashion (part of what made him a good boss), he gave me a careful breakdown of what he wanted me to do—he showed me where the wood was stacked, where he wanted it moved, the best way to orient the wood, and a cart I could use to move the logs.
After I finished later that day, we talked for a bit. He told me how he was unable to do as much as he used to, and how he knew that’s what happened when people get old, but that it still took adjusting to. Dr. Webb didn’t say this in an irritated tone, but in his usual, matter-of-fact sort of way. We talked some more, and then said goodbye. I remember thinking to myself as I walked home, If I can be half as active and full of energy when I am his age, I’ll be a happy man.
In the following article, guest author Caroline Bennett discusses the life and music of Camille Saint-Saëns. I have listened to and enjoyed many of Saint-Saëns’ works, including Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and The Carnival of the Animals. Two years ago, I attended a live performance of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony No.3. A theme from the symphonyis in the Disney movie Babe and is also the tune for the hymn “O Lord, I Love You, My Shield, My Tower.” Beyond merely this theme, though, Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony is a masterpiece, and it is one of the most majestic pieces of music I have ever heard.
“I live in music like a fish in water.”—Camille Saint-Saëns, 1835-1921
Some composers have a very distinctive sound, like Johann Strauss or Franz Schubert. Some only write music for a few kinds of events, like the composers in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Camille Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, was adept at composing music of all styles and for all occasions, and his pieces constantly surprise listeners with new sounds.
Born in Paris in 1835, Saint-Saëns made his debut as a pianist at the age of 10, and three years later began studying the organ at the Paris Conservatory. Saint-Saëns developed into an amazing organist; the celebrated pianist and composer Franz Liszt declared him to be the finest organist that ever lived, a master of improvisation. What truly made Saint-Saëns stand out, however, was the fact that not only was he an outstanding performer, but he was also a wonderful conductor and composer. Though many French Romantic composers were eager to be revolutionary in their harmonies and sounds—like Claude Debussy—Saint-Saëns’ compositions were rooted in the classical tradition, and his pieces ranged from operas to symphonies to solos. What makes his works distinctive is the fact that they all contain beautiful melodies and harmonies, and he seems to always bring out the best of each instrument. For example, in his famous work The Carnival of the Animals, Saint-Saëns used the wide range of sounds on the piano to not only create a majestic march for the lion, but also a flowing background for the cello’s imitation of the swan and the shimmering, magical effect of an aquarium. The Carnival of the Animals is perhaps Saint-Saëns’ most fun composition and is especially good for children because they can guess what animal is being imitated in the music, while at the same time learn the various sounds of orchestral instruments (like the violin, cello, contrabassoon, and xylophone). The most majestic and glorious of Saint-Saëns’ pieces, however, is his Organ Symphony No. 3, in which he perfectly blends together the thrilling sounds of the organ with the orchestra. But Saint-Saëns wrote many other notable works, as well. In his opera Samson and Delilah, Saint-Saëns used Arabian scales and sounds to create a Middle Eastern mood, and the opera also features the famous aria “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice.” Danse Macabre is a relatively short but extremely tense piece with a gorgeous melody, quite similar to one found in the Carnival of the Animals. And in his Oratorio de Noel Saint-Saëns demonstrated his prowess in combining different instruments by writing this Christmas work for organ, harp, string quartet, chorus, and voice soloists.
Though he wrote a number of works for the church, Saint-Saëns was not a Christian; he lived his life only desiring liberty and the ability to make music. He is said to have been critical of others, sarcastic, and ill-tempered, yet despite all of these flaws, he was an inspiring music teacher and obviously had a great appreciation of beauty. Through his music Christians can be filled with awe of the God who created music, who cherishes beauty, and who gives man the creativity and desire to discover and create a carnival of sounds.
♪ Berliner Philharmoniker, James Levine, and Simon Preston. Saint-Saëns: Symphony No.3 “Organ.” Decca Records, 1987.
♪ Saint-Saëns, Camille, Charles Dutoit, London Sinfonietta, Philharmonia Orchestra and Cristina Ortiz. Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals / Danse Macabre. Deutsche Grammophon, 1990.
Most of the time, any teacher, book, or article that gives advice on how to improve one’s writing includes warnings about not using the passive voice. While I agree that writers should avoid the passive voice as a general rule, I think those who proffer this advice should include some other guidance as well. After all, there are numerous situations where the passive voice is useful and more appropriate than active voice.
Because the passive voice hides the subject of a sentence, it is helpful in situations where the author does not know who the subject of the sentence is. For instance, in a criminal trial how are the judge, jury, prosecution, and defense supposed to be able to communicate about the details of the trial when the person who committed the crime is still unidentified? “Person A was killed in the local jungle. Person A’s body was found two days after Person A disappeared on a hike in the tiger-infested jungle.” The passive voice “was killed” enables the person describing what happened to tell the story without knowing who or what killed Person A. In the second sentence, the storyteller could probably say who found the body, but as long as this information is irrelevant, the storyteller has no need to name a person. Using passive voice in this example situation helps the narration of facts and eliminates unnecessary information.
Passive voice is especially useful when one is writing about history. History is often like a courtroom, where no one knows all the details of what happened. By utilizing passive voice, a historian can tell a story even when certain information—the doer of an action—is missing.
The passive voice does not exist merely to trip up unwary writers. Neither is it part of the English language because it is meant to be used carelessly. Understanding how and when to use passive voice is important. Using passive voice is often a sign of laziness or carelessness, but in some ways automatically replacing passive voice with active voice can be just as lazy or careless. The general rule “using active voice is better than passive voice” should not become an absolute rule. Authors ought to be discerning, to consider which voice suits a sentence better, and to write with that voice intentionally.
Writing intentionally goes far beyond passive voice, though. The verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs an author uses also matter. Repetition can be a powerful rhetorical device, tying together ideas or emphasizing important concepts. At the same time, repetition has the potential to weaken sentences and make them boring. Using the same word may be the sign of a great writer, or a careless one.
Authors should also note if they use boring words like “was,” “pretty,” or “thing” a lot, ask themselves why they are using these particular words, and consider whether there are better substitutes. For example, “Mary was tired and lay down on the bed” uses uninteresting verbs such as “was” and “lay down.” An alternative sentence includes vivid verbs that make the adjective “tired” unnecessary: “Mary slogged her way to the bed and tumbled into the pillows.” This example may be a bit dramatic, but it’s definitely more interesting than the first one. Carefulness and intentionality in choice of language can be the difference between a dull sentence and an interesting one.
Another way in which authors can write intentionally is by examining the beginnings and the lengths of sentences. Does every sentence begin with an article (a, an, or the) or a preposition (in, after, etc.)? Perhaps one should use a participle, infinitive, adjective, or adverb instead. Is each sentence short and choppy, or long and tedious? Count the number of words, and see if the sentences are close to the same length. In many cases, a variety of sentence lengths helps paragraphs flow smoothly. The length of a sentence can also help an author communicate an idea’s importance or a mood. Generally speaking, a short sentence has more power than a long sentence, and an author can use this power to emphasize a point. Further, a short sentence often conveys a sense of energy or agitation, and a long sentence conveys a sense of calm. Poems contain many examples of the effect line length (sentence length) has on the mood of the writing. Through sentence lengths, authors can control, at least in part, the mood their writing sets.
When I receive advice, particularly for improving my writing, I always appreciate tips for enacting the instructions. The following lists contain tools and methods which I find useful.
When revising one’s work on the computer:
Conduct a search for “by.” This preposition often indicates that a sentence is in the passive voice. Once one has identified passive voice, determine whether to leave it or make it active.
Mark each verb in one’s paper. Find overused verbs, and vary them with synonyms. This same method applies to nouns, adjectives, and other types of words.
Use the search feature to locate repeated words.
Highlight individual sentences, check their word length, and compare the lengths of adjacent sentences. Practice using a wide variety of lengths.
Use online dictionaries and a thesaurus or synonym finder to improve one’s choice of words. Also, in Microsoft Word, right-clicking on a word will bring up a menu that includes the button “Synonyms.” Mouse over this button, and a list of synonyms will pop up. This feature is often helpful for finding alternate words.
When revising one’s work that has been printed out:
Mark verbs in sentences with a pen or highlighter. Vary the verbs.
Circle sentence beginnings and identify the types of words (article, noun, verb, adjective, etc.) each one is. Vary the parts of speech that start one’s sentences.
Read the paper aloud, write notes, and mark changes.
Whether a paper is on the computer or printed out, reading it once out loud is always a good practice. Simple mistakes and typos which one missed while reading silently become a lot more glaring when one is reading them aloud. In addition, one’s ear will catch problems which one’s eye will not. Reading a paper out loud will help one correct rough transitions and improve the wording of sentences.
After all these tips, writing intentionally may sound like a list of rules. Nonetheless, writing intentionally is more than a manual. It is a mindset. Becoming a careful writer takes practice, patience, and thought. One must be willing to invest time and care in writing. In the end, though, I hope budding authors will find that the results are worth the work, for writing intentionally can help one better understand and appreciate language, communicate more clearly, and create writings which are more enjoyable to compose and read.