Thursday, February 26, 2009

Movement in Still Life

I guess you can officially call me obsessed with a series once I start doing inter-library loan requests.  I'm trying to remember what books I've previously requested through LINK+, but I think they've all been stand-alones... The Third Policeman, for sure; The Mythical Man-Month (for some reason, San Jose just had the 1970's original, not the 1990's update); gotta be a few more that I'm overlooking.

Be that as it may: I broke out the LINK+ to grab a copy of "Moving Pictures", my latest foray into Discworld.  Moving Pictures is unique in that it is a coveted starter novel; in much the same vein as "Guards!  Guards!" or "The Colour of Magic", it stands on its own, and sets up the novels that will follow it.  The particular chart I follow calls this particular flow the "Industrial Revolution" novels.  I've already read and loved the final entries in there, which I think of as "The Moist Books."


Moving Pictures is also unique because it speaks in a primarily parodic voice, rather than a satirical one.  In fact, I think that contrasting MP with, say, one of the Guards books may be the best illustration I've come across of this fine distinction.  I now would humbly offer up this flawed maxim: "Parody's primary purpose is humor, while satire uses humor to reach a larger point."

Moving Pictures primarily deals with the Discworld's version of Hollywood - or, in their parlance, "Holy Wood."  (Hey, it's early Pratchett - we can cut him some slack in his puns.)  Like a lot of early books, it also spends a lot of time with the wizards, who apparently never got a timeline of their own but figure into every other series.  The wizards are kind of funny in this way, since it's tough to match up their chronology with what happens in the other books.  I believe that MP may be crucial, since it seems like this is the first appearance of Archchancellor Ridcully and Ponder Stibbons. 

While the wizards keep popping in and out of the story, the plot is initially driven by the Alchemists, which I believe is another first... they often appear in the obligatory lists of Ankh-Morpork's guilds, along with jokes about explosions, but this is the rare time when they actually do something.  They invent... well, moving pictures, pretty much exactly like our movies, except that instead of exposing film to light they have demons scribbling out drawings (maintaining a technological innovation from the Rincewind books).

What follows over the remainder of the book is a nearly non-stop parody of all aspects of Hollywood.  We see a city and industry spring up out of a beautiful deserted place near the water.  We see early attempts at education and culture quickly overrun by commercial concerns.  We see enormous egos grow ever larger, the creation of agents, and fighting for points of the gross.  Concessions are invented ("Banged Grains" replacing "Popped Corn"). 

And, along the way, almost every major film you can think of from the golden era is referenced, along with many beyond, from The Jazz Singer to Singing in the Rain to The Wizard of Oz to Jaws... all done in that very punny Pratchett way.


There is a nominal threat and plot that keeps the action moving forward.  For most of the novel, you think that Holy Wood is awakening an evil form of magic that is trying to break through into this world and sow destruction.  Only towards the end do you realize that Holy Wood is actually a guardian against that evil.  Bringing back the Dungeon Dimension from the Rincewind books (who I view as Pratchett's first stock villains before he invented the Auditors), he actually sets up a pretty cool situation.  "Real" magic is no good against the Dungeon Dimension, since those creatures thrive on magical energies.  The movies, though, are a special kind of magic: as in our world, it is a magic of illusion, of dreaming, of believing in the impossible.

Briefly, then: Movie magic is the one thing that can guard against the Dungeon Dimension breaking in to the Discworld.  And what do movie stars crave most?  Fame, of course.  An ancient "religion" required the "worship" of its "priest".  Keep the meaning of that sentence, then substitute the words "film studio", "fame", and "star", and you have the picture.  The last line of worshipers dies out, and Holy Wood tries to repair the damage.

Pratchett had me going for most of the book... I didn't figure it out until after the scene where Victor "rescues" the damsel from the Cthinema.  (Awesome name, by the way.)  As they both notice, whatever is possessing her doesn't seem particularly evil, which got me to thinking about what other role it could be playing.

It does end up putting you in an interesting position.  All of that fame-grubbing, trickery, obsession, pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to reach the largest possible audience?  It was all absolutely critical.  Without the vast spread of crass commercialization, there would have been no magic at the Tower of Art, and the world would have fallen.


So, what is Pratchett saying?  That trashy entertainment actually has a valuable role to play?  That it staves off our darkest impulses, giving our lives strength and freedom?  Is he very obliquely making an argument for the value of "Discworld" novels themselves?

Honestly, I doubt it.  As I said above, I think that this book is pure parody.  It's a very fun read, and really entertaining, but doesn't have anywhere near the bite or social depth of his later books.  I often thought, "Heh, that's clever," but never "Wow, I never thought of it like that before."  This is the work of an incredibly talented journeyman, and shows promising marks of the master to come.

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