WORLDS OF URSULA K. LE GUIN

Space Mother

(The 9th annual DOC NYC ran November 8-15 in New York City. Lead Critic Chris Reed was there so stay tuned for his review and interviews…)

How do you like your boyish wizards-in-training? Physically scarred, searching for their place in the world and the best use of their own particular brand of spells? Possessed of great skill, but unsure how to master it? Have I got a series for you! No, it’s not Harry Potter (though that is a fine set of books, as well), but rather Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968. And while you’re at it, check out director Arwen Curry’s new documentary about its author, entitled, appropriately enough, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Le Guin (née Kroeber, hence the ever-present K), born in 1929, was a prolific writer of prose, poetry and essays, pretty much right up until her death earlier this year, on January 22. She came of age at a time when women authors were especially rare in the realm of fantasy and science fiction, yet those are the genres in which she initially chose to specialize, making her mark with such works as the Earthsea books (initially a trilogy before expanding beyond that in the following decades) and, my personal favorite, The Left Hand of Darkness, which examines the role of sex and gender on a distant planet inhabited by a race of humanoids whose individual sexes change often over the course of a lifetime. The older she got, the more of an active feminist she became in her choice of topics, realizing how much her own sex had played in both acceptance and rejection of her œuvre. She was a titan of American – and world – letters, leaving behind a vast treasure trove of books (in many genres), only a tiny fraction of which I have read. Curry’s movie makes me want to devour them all.

One of the best parts of this fascinating biopic is the visualization of Le Guin’s universes. Working with two different animators – Em Cooper and Molly Schwartz – Curry creates lovely accompaniments to the chronological walk through the material. I especially love Cooper’s lovely, textured oil-painting technique in the Earthsea sequences: the swirling images of sky and ocean emerge from the screen in palpable waves, and it is beautiful to behold. Beyond those innovative touches, Curry includes many informative talking-head interviews, including ones with Le Guin’s children, friends and fellow writers like Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman and Samuel Delany. As interesting as the individual parts may be, however, it’s the sum total that counts, and here that total is worth a lot, delivering a comprehensive look at Le Guin’s legacy in all its considerable glory.

Like all good scribblers should, Le Guin believed in the power of words. Indeed, the power of sorcery in A Wizard of Earthsea is based in words: naming things is magic. So is knowing how to place those named things in a coherent narrative system that makes sense once assembled. We open and close the film with our octogenarian subject giving a talk at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, where she mostly made her life (much of the inspiration for the topography of her fictional worlds comes from this area). Asked about good rules for writing, Le Guin replies, “Every story must make its own rules, and obey them.” Words, magic or not, to live by.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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