Book review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of CivilityRules of Civility by Amor Towles

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Think thirties – with the linger touch of the roaring twenties -, think mystery, think romance, think New York in grey with the Empire State building looming in the background, think high life, think jazz, think autumn in New York, think smoky bar with an attentive crowd silenced enough to hear the pensive tune of the crumpled jazz trombonist over the background noise.

That sort of thing.

Rules of Civility is the lingering remembrance of a time that perhaps never was but is served up tasty, steamy and hot by Amor Towles. The prologue is the bait. It is set in 1969 and ends, a handful of pages later, with a cliff hanger: “A case of riches to rags,” says Val, the husband of our protagonist about one Tinker Grey. “Not quite,” our protagonist Katey Kontent answers. Or rather, as is written,: -Not quite,. Because in my version of the tale the ” ” denoting speech is replaced by a single – at the start of a sentence. It sometimes leads to confusion when the spoken sentence continues after the comma.

Towles baits us in another way to: a man arranges his live according to the rules of civility set forth by George Washington. Rules that are that old? So how is that going to work out in a more modern setting with different morals? I was curious.
So it is fast backwards towards 1937. We are with Katey again, but now she is twenty five years old and with her roomy Eve hitting downtown New York to celebrate the closing of the year. They run into Theodore Grey; Tinker to friends.

And friends they become. It is a bit of a mystery why this man, who obviously belongs to the well-to-do, should associate himself with two women of the working class type. But hey.. he is a nice guy and they are nice gals.

And why not?

At first it looks like Katey and Tinker are the couple, but Eve intervenes and Tinker and Eve fade into the background from which an occasional update informs us and Katey of their budding romance. A party here, a vacation there. It seems all to be sunshine and roses.
In the meantime Katey has nothing to complain. Her association with Tinker gets her an association with Wallace. And later on she bumps into Dick. All three men belong in one way or another to the affluent layers of society. Katey is hot with the bon ton and, as irony will have it, she doesn’t even realize it.

Another storyline splits off at some point. Katey is a second generation Russian immigrant who works as a white-collar worker. Her task is to neatly and precisely type out contracts for third parties. She does so to the satisfaction of her employers. She even gets promoted.

But Katey has ambitions and while waiting for an interview with a possible new employer she meets an older man running a publishing company, who gives her a job. Cause that is what older men are for. A chapter later it is his referral that lands her a job by a starting high society magazine named ‘Gotham’. Gotham…. Wait? Isn’t that? It might be, but I am probably missing the point.

Katey is either one lucky broad, or a very talented one or very pretty one. Probably she is all three. If I was only told.
But what happened to the mystery? You know, the one that the book starts out with? The riches to rags thing?

We are coming to that about two thirds or so in. So after Tinker we have Wallace and after Wallace we have Dick. And we get back to Tinker again because the affair between Tinker and Eve was just make believe. In fact it was a string of disasters from the start, so Eve tells Katey.

^^

After Eve is out of the picture -she takes a train trip into the sunset and we never hear from her again- Tinker and Katey hook up.

Are you still with me?

Time for a little romance then, but we hit another bump in the road: Tinker has something with Anne. Yup.. it turns out that all the time Anne was his sugar mommy. Poor Tinker is actually only rich with someone else’s money: Anne’s money that is.

Right.

So Katey, wounded in the heart, disassociates herself from Tinker and now we finally get to that other cliffhanger. The one from the title: the rules of Civility.. Tinker lives according to them, but it is all pretense. At least that is what Katey thinks in her anger. He is a fake gentleman, but a better man than most.. According to his painter brother.

At this point in the book I lost patience.

I had a hard time believing the fortunes of Katey. She is white collar girl who gains access to social stratum where millionaires abide. Now I do not doubt that this is possible, but it is never made plausible in the case of Katey.

If Katey was portrayed as an intelligent capable beautiful woman (Katherine Hepburn springs to mind) who stands out, then it might have been understandable for her to do the socially upward mobility thing, but Katey is a nothing.

For instance: Katey exists in a void. Despite the fact that she actually lives in her hometown we never get to meet any of her friends and family. Her father is dead, her mother is missing and she has an uncle who is only mentioned in relation to the death of her father. Eve does not even count as friend as she is her roommate. Otherwise she seems to have no relations from her past at all.

In her hometown?

Is New York so big that she looses contact with the people she knew from her childhood? Does anyone have a clean break like that from the past?

But what makes her upward social move itself so implausible is her passivity. You might expect her to be of an ambitious nature with an intelligence and a drive to match, but Katey is simply not pictured that way by Towles. Instead she retreats most of the time to her apartment to read Dickens and Christie and only sallies forth to partake of parties when invited by others. And her dalliances with the men who are infatuated with her, is on their invitation and not hers.
But why her.. why not any of the other girls? Why Katey? She is a docile party animal at best and a social climber by accident.

Towles entices with a mystery and a complication but both sizzle out in the end. They are promises, but little is delivered. What is left is cute but implausible romance with a sad ending.
It is a bit too forced and unbelievable.

A pity.. it seemed to promise more.

However: Extra points for the catchy dialogues though. Towles does not hold back.

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Book review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 (Catch-22, #1)Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some weeks ago I found that I sleep better when I read something, but I did not have any books of my own anymore. I used to have a collection of mostly science-fiction and fantasy books, a size able part of which was handed down to me by my father. Another part -the cheaper ones- I had collected myself. But I did them away. Some I gave to good causes, others to friends and others I threw away as they were in a bad shape. It felt odd to completely remove all books from my house, as they had been my companions for years, but I figured that most of them I could get digital and read them that way. As fate would have it: my digital reader broke down.
So I went to the local library and got me whatever book they had that looked interesting to read according to the cover blurb. At first I tried some Dutch books, both written in dutch or translated from other languages, but I have always read English books, so after that brief encounter with my native language I moved over to the English section of the library, which was good size smaller, which made it easier to choose.

One book that I found was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I had heard of it before, but never what it was about. So I decided to read it with some trepidation as it is considered literature and I am not much of a well-read reader, being more interested in non-fiction or fringe books. However I thought that the reading of a good book would rub off on me and I would write better for it. I write, because it is my desire to tell stories and writing is one way of doing it.
Catch-22 left me somewhat confused in whether I liked it or not. I have that more often of late, in that I do not quite know what to make of a book or a movie. It is why I have two characters doing my movie reviews. I am sometimes of two minds, or even more.
Catch-22 is the story of group of American bomber crew based on an imaginary small island of the coast of Sicily at the end of world war II. The most important MacGuffin of this book is the war or better the missions the men have to fly over Italy. When I read about that I immediately knew what that meant. The air missions in World War II were notorious for their casualty rates. At the height of the war this could even mean a loss of over 10% of the crews involved for one mission only. In the wikipedia you will find that the average rate of a Bomber Command mission was 2.2 percent throughout the war. Since a normal tour of duty was considered to be twenty missions this amounted to a 44 percent casualty rate at least if we use Bomber Commands figures to illustrate the situation. In Catch-22 the amount of missions they have to fulfill is an absurd fifty at the start of the book and that number increases during the book. Facing almost certain death makes that some of the men involved go to great lengths to get out of the war, one way or another, or die trying. This is what basically drives one of the main persons: Yossarian. One way to get out of the war would be to be declared crazy. And this is where the title comes in: Catch-22 is basically an logic fallacy: you can not get out of the war on the grounds that you are crazy, because that is the desire of a sane man.
This illogic you will find throughout the book, not only in the attempts to escape the war, but for instance in the desire of an atheist assistant of a chaplain to replace that chaplain, because he thinks he can do a better job at what the chaplain is supposed to do.
Next to this Catch-22 the whole book is a bit of a jumble of scenes and situations who only seem related because the men all belonged to the same unit. It reminded me somewhat of Mash, but more absurd and more satirical, but also less focused. Mash is of course of a later date then Catch-22 and it is probably inspired by Catch-22, but I name it because it give me a neat bridge to one of my problems with the book.
Catch-22 reads as an absurd satire and when it was released that might have been a novelty. However nowadays, over sixty years after the book was first published, we have seen a lot of absurd and satirical series and movies. Mash is one, the Monty Python series another. South Park and Red Dwarf all added their satire. The consequence is that Catch-22 is not much of an eye opener as an satirical book. There are little story lines that stuck with me, such as the guy Milo who manages to set up an expansive free trade network all over Europe and the Middle East using (bomber) airplanes of both sides to trade with anyone for a profit. Free market capitalism unites people in their thirst for greed. It sounds like a thing to wish for until Milo shows his mettle by having the American bomber crew bomb their own airfield, because he has been contracted to do so. In the mean time his greatest worry is how to get rid of the complete Egyptian cotton harvest that he acquired but nobody wants to buy from him, thus threatening him with bankruptcy. One attempt is to sell it off as cotton candy by dipping it in chocolate.
Perhaps because the satire and absurd situations are not very new or exciting there are two problems that suddenly comes to the foreground: the plot and the characters. There is hardly any plot. In fact you might cut up each chapter and see it as a separate standalone episode, just like an episode of Mash. Now Mash was at least consistent in that most of the time the same cast was used, but in Catch-22 this is not the case. Different people are central to different chapters without any apparent organization or reason. But even in this there is no consistency as there is even a chapter named after a person who hardly features in that chapter.
All of this might of course be a subtle way of telling a story with a deeper meaning, but if that was the case it is lost on me. If it was to tell that war is hell and life is absurd, then it might have been a novel way back then, by using satire and ridiculous situations, but nowadays it is hard to get more than a ‘Meh’ reaction. It has been said over and over again. And personally I somehow find Monty Python’s killer joke sketch a lot more funnier then the situations in Catch-22.
The last problem I want to mention with this book are the personalities involved. I simply could not connect to any of the people. They behaved in absurd and sometimes hurtful ways and because of the haphazard plot line the focus kept shifting from one to the other.

Catch-22 is for me an ok book, but the lack of a consistent plot and someone to identify with made it hard to keep on reading. I did therefore not finish the book but stopped two thirds in.

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Traces of Second Life: MBK( Masterbastler Kreise.)

mkb-6 copy
It is me.

After I had visited the exhibition of Instincta van Helsinki at the MBK gallery, I wandered out of the gallery on to the nearby sim. I had expected it to be just one sim with perhaps a few shops, maybe a dancing perhaps another gallery or some houses. A general sim from sl. Instead I found that place consisted of  no less than eight sims connected to one another and was made to resemble a part of Germany. While you can wonder why people would want to remake parts of real life in SL if they are at liberty to do any fun stuff, I have to say that we had some really nice time going about the place. With me: I mean Missie and me.
Here is a picture of us both at the trainstation Frankenhain.
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I have made a few more pictures of the sim, which are not exact screenshots, as I altered them a bit in photoshop as part of my desire to experiment with images, but they should give you a general idea of the sim. I understand you can rent shops, houses and so on. At one place there is a ski-track where you can get ski’s which you can also use for lang laufen. There are also bicycle stands.

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This was a picture I made when I had just walked out of the gallery. The gallery is that church like building in the top right corner. I have visited Germany at times.. and it captures the general mood of it. Or to be more precise. It breathes the atmosphere of rural Germany.

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This picture is somewhat more altered then the above one. It still resembles the picture I made though.

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The sim was set to a winter landscape. And this was one of the villages we happened on to.With the white fog it makes for a chilly winter picture.

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Another town called Grunau. Look at the timber-framed houses. There is a bit of a mystery about this place, which I did not try to solve. I leave it to you to find out. The mystery is this. The coat of arms that you see on the windows of the shop to the right side, shows a fir tree, partly white and partly green.You can see it behind the busstop. This is the coat of arms for Grunau in Austria, but the whole place is advertised with Germany.

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Not much to add. I hope you like the pictures.. I like to make and altered them a bit. In general I tried to capture the mood of the sims.. It is interesting how people spend time in making these things look nice.

Second life url: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/MBK%20Flughafen/113/77/43

Art by Second Life: Instincta van Helsinki

instincta
Artwork by Instincta

Seems that of late I visit art places. Since I eventually meet other artists, they give me links to their art. I am not sure where this heading, but I sort of like to fiddle around with pictures so I use those visits as a bit of an excuse to do exactly that. At first I had just the idea to show their art without my interference, but I want make sure that what I show is just to report what they make and not to copy their art so it can be copied again. Hence the appearance of myself in these pictures, often as a neko and the odd angles. The art belongs to the artist.

 

Here is a statement of the artist who made this art. She is also the co-owner of an art gallery in Second Life called Valo Gallery(Second Life location: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Cotton%20Cay/185/55/22.)

 

This is the information she send along with the invitation about the exhibition I visited.

“The artworks of MBK gallery have been made both in real life and in Second Life. I started to do the exhibition on December. I photographed the ice in my country, Finland. Weather conditions, however, quickly changed the unprecedented warm and the ice melted. It was as if spring had already arrived. The ten-degree temperature in December was really

strange and on the other side of the world was the polar vortex snow storms in areas where not should be snow. I captured with a digital camera how the last ice crystals disappeared.

On January I filmed myself floating in Second Life. Basic idea was make short machinima about woman floating meditatively, where the time, weather and culture does not matter.”

The above art was displayed at MBK gallery which stands for Meisterbastler Kreise.. which in an interesting place. It has eight sim that are a representation of Germany. I explored a little with Missie and later returned to take some pictures that I will show in a later post.

The art of Instincta can be seen until the end of March at this MBK gallery at this Second Life location: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Meisterbastler/65/159/34.

 

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Missie and me agreed that we liked this big layered artwork. It looked so good, it felt real.

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One of the artworks on display. Two pictures actually, one on a round prim superimposed over a larger square one.

When gravity becomes beautiful

apple-bounce-tree

In reply to: Towards more aesthetic forms of cryptography by B. Skoric

Whenever one wades into the stream of a discussion surrounding an article one is called upon to add value to the premise that caused said article into existence. If not,  a wise man would say; silence is golden.This seems to point to the observation that wise men could be affluent if they held their tongue and perhaps – the other way around – that rich men would be wise or rather they could be if they practiced what wise men preached. But I do not hold to such ideas as I am no lover of objectivism and besides: it is not the subject under discussion. What is under discussion is the assumed aesthetics of higher levels of cryptography.
 Now I am not much of a cryptographer but – in my pretense to be an artist – I think that aesthetics might be a terrain on which I  feel at home enough to add something of value. Indeed: a lot, given that I live most of the time on the edge of destitution. And, as it bears out, I noticed that the more I say, the poorer I become. This might probably be the reason why wise men make poor politicians.
Aesthetics, to explain to those who missed out on the finer points of advanced education, is the experience of pleasure through beauty (As an aside:this is not the same as sex, although I grant you that ugly people can have sex, it will never get to be a thing of beauty, regardless of how much glasses of scotch one downs). The premise of Skoric’s article is that the more complex a certain discipline becomes, the more it tends to get infused with an aesthetic element. Taken to extremes this might mean that a discipline gets so intricate that it becomes synonym to beauty. Or actually: it becomes beauty and only beauty at that..
But is this what really happens?
Let us take a pure random example as a case in point: warfare. Warfare is a simple discipline. It is aimed at destruction. Which is the simplest thing one can do as even a new born baby possesses the ability to break things, as parents all over the globe can attest to. Over time the means and ways of waging war have become more complex, yet the aim is still the same: destruction. Sometimes warfare can be beautiful, but that has nothing to do with means nor the methods used. Nor has it anything to do with the outcome. It is the simplicity of destroying that matters. And this simplicity is seen by some people as a thing of  beauty.
So can one really say that complexity is correlated to beauty?
I have my doubts.
It is my belief that things have an inherent beauty of their own and it is not complexity nor simplicity that makes them beautiful. Cause and effect are swapped around in Skoric’s article. A thing is beautiful and sometimes complexity and sometimes simplicity brings that out in the open.  It is therefore not that something is beautiful because it becomes more complex, it was already beautiful and complexity revealed this to be enjoyed. In this case, complexity removes the veil that hides the beauty inside.
It can therefore also be said that when something becomes more simple, it becomes more beautiful. It is exactly what an abstract artist like Malevich showed to us. His painting of a  black square shows a black square on a white background..it was the simplest of things and to some the utmost thing of beauty.
Simple things can have you experience pleasure: they are aesthetic. Simple things are uncomplicated and through their simplicity can be depended upon. Like gravity. There is nothing complex or intricate about gravity. Gravity is as solid as a rock. Push something of a ledge and it will fall with the same acceleration towards the ground below. Q.E.D. Like the apple that never fell on Newtons head, but would have if he had been sitting under a tree from which an apple would have fallen at the exact same time and spot where he had been sitting if he had been sitting there on that spot at that time under that tree. Just hold on to that image. In fact that apple would have fallen twice.. once on his head and then bounced of his head and fall towards the ground a second time. And all that falling would have been done at the same acceleration. Newton showed that there is no mystery there. Gravity is as simple as things can be. And every time I see gravity at work I thus experience joy. Just like Newton. Gravity is a thing of beauty.
Merit Coba
Str to gt wuzzy nw
Sources:

Chronicles of another world: the poledancer

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She was like that..
Her art was not in the way she snaked her body around the pole. Those movements were animations made by others and then automated through scripts.  It cost  her no effort at all.
Her art was picking – or getting picked by – the right companion, the subsequent conversation and  the possible follow-up. It was the unspoken promise: the possibility of pleasure once you got to know her more intimately. The outcome was never fixed: she was a poledancer, she entertained with easy banter: stirring, sensual and silver-tongued. The price was the tip. The ultimate reward was her avatar. And always and only on her terms: she was a poledancer after all.
Sometimes she was more interested in the other dancers then the customer. Girls like her, twisting their often similar shaped bodies around similar poles in similar ways while they made out or chatted over private channels, mostly between each other. For some that was all the sport they wanted: the other girls and not those male customers. The latter were just a way to earn a living.
She knew one girl who only danced when a new girl had joined the club.  She wanted to get to know the newest dancer and put her on her list of exclusive female contacts. Once that was accomplished, she would withdraw to her skybox again.  Every morning she went through this list of potential diversions and invited one to come over to her place up in the sky. Sometimes she had little to choose from, for in her morning few were online, but she always picked one when one was online, for she craved a quick lay before going to her monotone real life work. When she was able to she tried the newest first, hoping and fearing that that one would be the one true love she was destined to meet. Hoping: for was she not told that there must be a special someone out there? Fearing: and what demands would that true love have?
One girl hated her male customers and she proved to her own satisfaction their depravity each and every time when they paid her for her company in  a shady room filled with pre-animated adult poses and beds that were hugely oversized. They, so she told the other girls, just wanted to use her for sex, while she suffered them, all for money. For half an hour of her time for which she was paid the equivalent of a dollar. She could not devise another way to earn it. If that was possible, she would not have to sell herself. So she told them.
And a few girls were searching for others – other girls mostly – to have them bowing their heads at their feet or to grovel on the floor themselves.  For – to them, – nothing is of such unreel  beauty as an avatar bound with shiny leather, coarse chains and chafing ropes. And it is compassionate creativity that drives them to trigger the twisting and bending animations that mimic discomfort and thus find or cause liberty through restraint. So it says.
She suspected that some of the other girls were no girls at all, but rather men using the countenance of women.  Most girls drew the line there and called such individuals dishonest, even though their real life selves were decades older, many pounds heavier and their skins of any other color but tan. But gender was the deciding moral factor and they howled their anger, as did their clients and the girls who were men.
Some girls have darker passions.. secret forbidden fantasies,  not tolerated by  society. In this virtual world, were anything could be possible, as long as the computer supports it and the graphic card renders it, these could be played out..provided one could find the right companions to play with. And poledancing was a good way as any to find them.
She was a poledancer and it reminded her sometimes of  that old movie she once saw in which one person desired an other, who desired another,  who desired yet another again and so the camera drifted from one spurned lover to the next,  from one broken heart to the next until it returned to the first person. For this world was a world of short passions and desires. It is so much easier to hurt a pretty puppets when it starts to bore you.
She was a make belief poledancer in a make belief world and nothing was real, but she knew one thing for certain: that she would never ever touch a pole in real life… ..again.

Henry and Kristl spaced out on The Road(2009)

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“Bleak, bleaker, bleakest. Is there a word that would top bleakest?”

“Sunshine,” Henry said.

“Sunshine?” Kristl’s jaw dropped and she gave Henry a look of incredulity.

“Yes. It certainly would top bleakest.”

“I am somehow missing…”

“After the rain comes sunshine. Every dark cloud has silver lining. Come winter, come summer. So despair will inevitably result in..?”

“I am not sure that..”

“Sure you are sure.. look at yourself,” Henry beamed

“What?”

“Well, you are not hesitant to point out that you do not like war, while having spent a lot of time reading about it, watching war movies and writing about it. What would you say would be the lesson from all of that?”

“That war is hell and a waste of time and lives?”

“Sure.”

“So what does that say about this movie?”

“That bleak movies suck, can be turned of f and one goes to watch a bunch of nice movies that have uplifting nice endings and then you suddenly feel a lot better about watching films like,” Henry paused for a moment, “like…romantic comedies.”

“Those would top bleakest to,” Kristl shivered and then continued, “They make me feel down. Like this movie does.”

Henry suddenly rose, walked out of the viewing room and returned a few minutes later with a cup of tea which he handed to Kristl, “Have this yourself a nice cup of tea.”

Tea, Henry knew, was something handy to hand out. Even the most dedicated addict would not turn down a cup of tea and it gave you a nice feel to drink something warm.

“How come you are so..”

“Undepressed?”

“Yes, I mean. Geez,  this movie is.. I mean, well the world turns to shit and everyone is dead or dying and the only livestock that is left to eat are other humans. And even when they are not trying to have you for dinner they want to rob you or profit in another way from you.  And this in a landscape drained of color except for sepia and grim gray. The only thing that is positive is the dedication of the father to the son.  But that is even more depressing as it is either naive or totally at odds with what is happening. So what is the point ? At some they finally end up at a place where we hear the father says that at the other side of the ocean a father and a boy, just like them, are probably sitting and wondering if there is a better place to go? If there is no hope, why not take the gun and shoot your son and yourself before you run out of bullets? If you love him, would you not do that to spare him the suffering that lies ahead? I do not even understand why they would drag on when..,” Kristl swallowed hard.

Henry sat down next to Kristl and put his arm around her and for once she did not stiffen the first few seconds, “Gosh, Kristl it is just a movie.”

“A well acted movie. Well shot. I mean.. look at the cinematography, but in the end it is  not much different from say a movie like…. ‘The hobbit, the desolation of Smaug.’ Or one of the Lord of the Rings movie  for that matter,” Henry said.

“WHAT?”

“Well, it is about a make believe world, with make believe people, undergoing make believe experiences and acting in a make believe manner.”

Kristl smiled thinly at that, “You can not compare…this to.. It is in a whole different category.”

“Or say.. ‘Go west’, by the Marx Brothers,” Henry continued.

“But that is even… I mean that is an absurd movie.. With absurd people in it..totally wacky.. That is what a Marx brothers movie is..”

“Remember the train station scene you showed me once? It is from that movie”

“Yes.. That is very funny, but…”

“Totally silly over the top nonsense.”

“Yes.. but…”

“Did it make you laugh?”

“Well.. yes.. it..”

“Does it make you feel better thinking about it?”

“Yes..”

“Some people have that with romantic comedies.”

“Yes..but…”

“And so… wait.. Listen to this little story?”

“What..”

“A guy is hitting himself on the head with a hammer and in comes another guy who asks him.. why do you do that? Well.. he says, it feels so nice when I stop doing it.”

“That is absurd.”

“So there is your answer.”

“Huh?”

“I feel so undepressed because the movie ended. Somewhat cheerfully than expected. But it is done.”

“Uh.”

“In one movie one actor concludes a process by throwing a ring into the fires of the mountain after being beset upon by evil beings while wandering through a desolate landscape. In this movie they do the same, more or less, except the ring is now a boy and they do not throw him into the fires.. well not literally.”

“That is some comparison.”

“Yup, except this movie is more bleak because no doubt we are in a depression, so movies like these get made, just like we had this upsurge of disasters movie in the seventies of the last century, with earthquakes, meteors and global nuclear war threatening earth. And now we have that again. As sign of the times. But it’s just as much nonsense as any other movie.. including ‘Go West.”

“That one is at least funny.”

“So let’s watch that as an antidote to the bleakness of movies like The Road.”

“Let’s..”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0898367/