Hollywood Babylon – Moving Pictures

Moving-pictures-cover‘You know what the greatest tragedy is in the whole world?’ said Ginger, not paying him the least bit of attention. ‘It’s all the people who never find out what it is they really want to do or what it is they’re really good at. It’s all the sons who become blacksmiths because their fathers were blacksmiths. It’s all the people who could be really fantastic flute players who grow old and die without ever seeing a musical instrument, so they become bad ploughmen instead. It’s all the people with talents who never even find out.’

Up until now, each Discworld novel has been a comic take on the fantasy genre, chock full of puns and jokes and, if we are really lucky, an icy sliver of darkness and ambiguity through its centre.

Moving Pictures is different.

On the surface, the book is the usual comic take on the fantasy…and so on. Given its focus is on the movie industry, Pratchett stuffs the novel to breaking point with countless references to films, including The Blues Brothers, Casablanca or The Wild One.

But when I read it, I got this wonderful sense of dread from the off. Pratchett makes it clear that Bad Things are going to happen and is happy to park the comedy to just remind you that something dreadful is occurring in the background. And he does this brilliantly – by encouraging the reader to spot the references to some of Hollywood’s best films, you feel you should also be able to work out the crisis that will land in time for the third act. And you can’t (at least, I couldn’t). That makes the threat worse because you are trying to parse through the hints dropped into the plot and are disappointed in yourself that you can’t.

Which makes Moving Pictures one hell of a compulsive pageturner. Screwball Stephen King, if you will.

(As an aside, Pratchett has become formally a much better writer during his past few novels. From the narrative flipping backwards and forwards in time in Pyramids, to the split opening of Guards! Guards!, he is tremendously effective at cutting away at opportune points, either for comedic effect, or to draw in a related, but separate, aspect of the narrative. Like film, oddly enough.)

The dread is dropped here and there into the main plot, which involves alchemists bringing film to the Discworld. They set up shop at the conveniently named Holy Wood Hill and begin making the titular moving pictures. The stars of the show are the reluctant wizard Victor Tugelbend (at this point in the Discworld I would love to read of someone who genuinely LOVES doing magic. It’s getting a bit tiresome) , Theda Withel, who acts under the stage name Ginger, and Gaspode, a literal talking dog.

But as Holy Wood starts making dreams come true, reality starts leaking out of the Discworld and *something* leaks in. Because the power of the Hill had to be dealt with in the right way but no one is around who knows what that is.

Thematically we have been here before as Pratchett has had a lot of mileage exploring the power of storytelling and myth. But there’s a manic energy to Moving Pictures, where the novel is overloaded with spoofs, references and even more puns than is usual. And that is a lot of puns. This reaches its logical conclusion in the third act, where Holy Wood’s creations step off the screen to wreak havoc across the Hill. So we have a literal Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman.

This book took a while for me to sift through. While the comedy of the main plot is excellent, it’s not actually pushing at the boundaries of the average reader. The satire of Holy Wood is weak and obvious and is only rescued by the volume of references and nods to the industry. But saying Holy Wood is self-absorbed is like bears wearing funny hats or the clergy defecating in the woods.

Tugelbend and Withel are also rather forgettable as protagonists and seemingly exist to service the plot and nothing more. Gaspode, the talking dog, is better, given he is going through an (r)existential crisis of trying to find a place for himself where he is not the wild wolf he wants to be and is horrified by the life of domesticity of the average hound.

So if the protagonists are weak and the satire somewhat lazy then why do I like Moving Pictures so much? Aside from the unsettling tone and corresponding tug on the reader as they try to work out what the hell is actually happening, it’s the Wizards who make this.

In the nine preceding novels, the wizards at the Unseen University existed as a backstabbing organisation that usually triggers some kind of apocalypse and contains some sort of lesson about the responsibility of talents and using your abilities wisely. To a degree, the same thing is done here. But it’s handled in a much better way.

I feel Moving Pictures is more about knowledge and using it in the right way, than seeing how many references to Gone with the Wind you can fit into one book. Given how Archchancellors have had the average shelf-life of a red-shirt wearing crew member on the Starship Enterprise, the decision is taken to bring in a safe pair of hands to bring stability to the university.

They choose Ridcully the Brown, a blunt, straight-talking wizard, who had retired to the country to indulge in his love of hunting and Country Pursuits. And it’s here where Pratchett is very clever. What you expect is a broad strokes pisstaking of your average Little Englander Countryside Alliance member. Satire as limited as jokes about Hollywood executives wanting to make a fast buck, in other words.

What we get, deep behind the bluster, is a pragmatic moderniser, determined to shake the university out of its old, destructive habits. Pratchett really has a great grasp on ruthless but admirable authoritarians and Ridcully sits alongside the Patrician as one of my favourite characters. Ridcully’s general offensiveness effectively drives the wizards into the real world, with their cinema attendance at the end of the novel some of their first excursions outside of the faculty in decades. And with his ability to fire a crossbow from a moving broomstick, the Archchancellor plays a key role in saving the day.

This builds upon one of Pratchett’s key themes to date. Knowledge is fine, but without actually working out how you can use it in the real world, you are about as useful as the proverbial chocolate fireguard. The crazy postmodern ‘creations come to life and our imagination could be our downfall and ideas sometimes have power beyond their creator’s intentions’ themes are grand up to a point, but it is the Archchancellor forcing the wizards into the real world, away from the cosy self-absorbed reality that they have created for themselves (like Holy Wood), is where the novel has its power.

He isn’t done with this, taking up the baton with Reaper Man. And what am I looking at next time? What a coincidence…

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3 Comments

  1. I think you should look more closely at the titles. Often the title puns on a theme of the book. In this case, “Moving” can refer to being moved emotionally, and “Pictures” can refer to images; the book is at least partly about the power of images to move people. Notice that the hero gains his ability to fight the special magic of Holy Wood from the belief of the common people who have seen him be a hero, have been moved by the stories they watched, and truly believe he can do all the things that were faked in the films – so he _can_ leap up onto stairs that are only there for just long enough, he _can_ see inside an unlit tower, and so on. There’s a lot of interplay between image and reality.

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  2. I’m reading through all these reviews and they’re making me want to read the whole series again! Got to find the time soon… Something I’ve often thought about Moving Pictures (along with Men At Arms and Soul Music) is that I would have liked to have seen how Pratchett handled the concept if it was introduced later on in the series. At this stage in his career he mostly resets the big changes introduced in the books, but he’s far more willing to disrupt the Disc’s medieval fantasy stasis in later books – things like the printing press, the Clacks or the freedom of the golems. Adding cinema to that list without the threat of things from another dimension would have been quite interesting.

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    1. You should! Or at least do an edited highlights…

      I like how Men at Arms handled the gonne though – some things are too powerful to be kept in the real world. Although isn’t there a later Discworld novel where he has a slightly cheeky anti-gun control argument? Thud! maybe?

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