Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

The Bursar shrugged. “This pot,” he said, peering closely, “is actually quite an old Ming vase.”
He waited expectantly.
“Why’s it called Ming?” said the Archchancellor, on cue.
The Bursar tapped the pot. It went ming. (p. 145)

It’s a throwaway joke, of course, but it’s a perfect one. Not only can readers hear the sound that the vase makes, but they can see the Bursar’s anticipation of the conversation, somewhere between exasperated and amused, knowing exactly what is going to happen next. Everyone probably has set-piece conversations about particular aspects of their lives. Ming happens when I meet a fellow American overseas. “Where are you from?” is one of the inevitable questions early in the conversation, and nine times out of ten my answer provokes the — sometimes genuinely surprised — response, “But you don’t have an accent!” Ming!

That’s just people being people, which is exactly what the characters in Moving Pictures, the tenth Discworld novel, get up to, only more so. That’s because a little alchemical magic gets mixed together with a lot of genius loci of a place called Holy Wood, and a new industry is born. People follow a mysterious call to a sunny place by the ocean; once there, they try out new identities, become outsized versions of themselves, and look for the main chance. Within weeks of the alchemists’ discovery, the motion picture makers of the Discworld have recapitulated (gleefully satirized by Pratchett) much of the early history of making movies in our world.

One of the joys of this book is seeing minor characters from other Discworld stories get caught up in the movie madness, staying true to form while taking on roles in the new motion picture industry. Cut-me-own Throat Dibbler, one of the less scrupulous sausage salesmen from the great city of Ankh-Morpork (“I’ll let you have it for seventy cents, but it’s cutting me own throat”), muscles his way into the top of one of the production companies and aims to become the industry’s first mogul. He’s a brilliant Philistine, with a sense of what the people in the city want to see, and how many lies he will have to tell to sell it.

One of the characters Dibbler tells a great many lies to is Victor Tugelbend, a student at the Unseen University who has assiduously avoided passing the exams to become a wizard but never failed so badly that he would be asked to leave (a family trust fund only pays out while he is a student). Victor heeds the call to Holy Wood and soon has a screen test:

This consisted of standing still for a minute while the handleman watched him owlishly over the top of a picture box. After the minute had passed Gaffer said, “Right. You’re a natural, kid.”
“But I didn’t do anything,” said Victor. “You just told me not to move.”
“Yeah. Quite right. That’s what we need. People who know how to stand still,” said Gaffer. “None of this fancy acting like in the theatre.” (p. 76)

Victor is soon starring in one-reel movies shot in an afternoon, sent to the city the next day, and forgotten by the next day’s shooting. But he’s more than a natural, he’s the clicks’ first male star, and he’s soon seen opposite smoldering leading lady Ginger (known back home as Theda Withel). They make movie magic together, which is one of the first signs that the characters in the book have that all is not well with the new industry of illusion.

Reality is always a bit tenuous on the Disc, and it turns out that the industrial-grade illusions turned out by the motion picture business loosen reality even further. One of the hazards of the Disc, though, is of unspeakable Things that would like nothing better than to breach the walls of time and space to wreak havoc. Movie magic unsettles conventional reality, and makes such an intrusion increasingly likely, the more movies are made.

A side effect of the uncontrolled magic is that numerous animals gain intelligence and the ability to talk like humans. Pratchett plays this partly for laughs — “What’s up, Duck?” said the rabbit. (p. 137) – partly as a send-up of movies, as with the wonder-dog Lassie, and partly as a demonstration of the unsung heroism of just getting on with things. The chronically underrated talking dog Gaspode, for example, is the only being able to break the hypnosis that the Things can exert on people working on movies. His cold nose gives them a dose of reality that is impossible to ignore.

Moving Pictures is a little slower starting than most Discworld books; the pace is not yet pell-mell until about page 100. Part of that is the complexity: Pratchett is introducing another new setting to the world, as well as a new main protagonist (Victor), while weaving in existing characters and settings, such as Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler and the wizards of the Unseen University. Once the pieces are assembled, however, the movie references compete with the rapidly developing action to propel the story forward.

Will the terrible Things escape their ancient bindings to deal out destruction? Will our heroes be able to stop them before they have destroyed Ankh-Morpork? Yes and yes, of course, just in the nick of time. It’s the movies.

PS: Here are two more of the minor bits that I really liked, but couldn’t find a way to work into the main body of the review.

Then [the costumes lady] handed him a curved sword.
“Why’s it bent?” he asked.
“I think it’s meant to be, dear,” she said doubtfully.
“I thought swords had to be straight,” said Victor. …
“Perhaps they start out straight and go bendy with use,” said the old lady, patting him on the hand. “A lot of things do.” (p. 152)

[The ancient city] had sunk beneath the sea one stormy night. Only a few people had survived to carry to the barbarian peoples in the less-advanced parts of the Disc all the arts and crafts of civilization, such as usury and macrame. (p. 210)

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