Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mitchell Lichtenstein - Teeth (2007)

There is, of course, a long tradition of the horror movie as a metaphor for the disturbing bodily changes and desires of the teenager. And there are a number of (relatively) recent films in this genre which I esteem highly - particularly the excellent Ginger Snaps, and also Cabin Fever (shame about the execrable Hostel). I was hoping Teeth would fall into this basket. I didn't think that the film could possibly live up to the tagline, "a coming of age story via David Cronenberg," but I thought its presence might be a positive sign nonetheless. And so, after reading some polarised reviews, I thought I'd give it a go.

Having done so, I'd have to agree with the reviewers who called this film a missed opportunity. Speaking of metaphors, while the teen sexuality one is very much in evidence, as far as fear of female sexuality Lichtenstein (incidentally, the son of the famous pop artist) has decided just to dispense with the whole metaphor thing, and go straight for the vagina dentata. The film began promisingly. Twenty-year-old Dawn (Jess Weixler) is a teen abstinence advocate. There are some nicely done, though very heavy handed, early scenes satirising the 'promise keepers,' and throwing in some material on evolution (an evolutionary mutation is the nominal explanation for Dawn's, ahem, VD) and pointing out the sexism inherent in this kind of discourse. But as soon as Dawn's seemingly abstinence-supportive friend Tobey (Hale Appleman) forces himself upon her, we move into fairly standard horror territory. All men are sexual predators, except a girl's daddy - including doctors, and creepy stepbrothers (incidentally, I don't know why filmic purveyors of violence are so often portrayed as pierced - facial piercings have a nasty habit of getting ripped out in violent encounters); and they're going to get what they deserve (I don't intend to imply here, by the way, that this is a misandric story - that's not it at all).

It is refreshing, if that's the word, to see a film where the 'female rape revenge' story isn't played out in a context of brutal, bleak rape voyeurism, a la I Spit On Your Grave. But as soon as the violence starts, the story veers from quasi-realist to non-realist in a rather dissatisfying way (it's the veer I object to, not the one or the other); characters seem to have little or no motivation for their actions, and to behave out of character for the sake of the evolution of the predictable plot, while the interesting discussion about female sexuality and constructions of viscerality, religion, fear, humiliation, and sexual power is instantly jettisoned.

The film isn't worth rejecting out of hand; visually it's nicely done, and it remains an interesting concept which I admire for having a stab at revealing the subject matter which remains a misogynistic subtext in most horror films; and turning a spotlight upon that subject matter as an overt subject for a narrative, and for reflection, in its own right. But given that this somewhat valiant attempt is doomed to failure early on, the accomplishment of this film is to open up possibilities of further investigation of this kind of approach to the standard tropes of the horror genre, rather than to accomplish a meaningful investigation in itself.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Jamaica Funk: Original Jamaican Funk and Soul 45s (Soul Jazz, 2007)

We're lucky to have Soul Jazz, which covers a rather eclectic selection falling into my own musical taste - that area covering post-punk and new wave as well as reggae, disco, and funk - and they've given us such post-punk gems as The Sexual Life of the Savages and New York Noise, as well as various Studio One compilations and releases by personal favourites including Konk, ESG, Arthur Russell, Mantronix and A Certain Ratio. And that's just to name a few.

This particular compilation, which collects tracks from 1972-1978, falls into the basket of recent releases of Jamaican music from the 60s and 70s falling outside the traditional reggae canon (other notable works include Trojan's Work Your Soul and Blood & Fire's Darker Than Blue.

Like those releases, the tracks featured on Jamaica Funk aren't actually reggae-free, so to speak; there's a clear musical influence on most of these cuts, which are for the most part more closely wedded to the reggae tradition, and then to soul, than to, say, the funk of James Brown or George Clinton. There are some familiar names here (testifying to the diverse talents of Jamaican musicians): Augustus Pablo (with two instrumental cuts of 'Ain't No Sunshine,' a version of which also appears on Original Rockers), Derrick Harriott, The Heptones and Big Youth, among others.

Like other Soul Jazz releases, this is a very well put together selection, which flows nicely, dud-free, and an interesting range of sounds, showcasing this soul-funk-reggae fusion area. As Soul Jazz suggest, there's a three-way fusion of Jamaican, American and British trends in the work featured here which made itself felt both in the music musicians were listening to, and in the nature of emerging markets for the Jamaican sound in the UK and the US. Particular highlights are the moody instrumentals: Cedric Brooks' Silent Force, Winston Wright's Jam #1 and The Rebels' Rhodesia. I was also very taken by Sydney, George & Jackie's cover of perennial favourite Papa Was A Rolling Stone (while various other covers of funk and soul tunes are also in evidence). For a different slant on Jamaican popular music, uncovering connections which may not be obvious or well-documented; or, on the other hand, an excellent selection and construction of a bunch of funky reggae numbers; it's well worth your while taking a look, or rather, a listen.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

William Asher (dir.) & Samuel Z. Arkoff (prod.) - Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)

I never imagined that beach party films would be a genre that I'd come to have an interest in - although I did have a lot of time for Charles Busch & Robert Lee King's erotic beach horror spoof Psycho Beach Party (2000), and I'm not averse to the more interesting manifestations of tiki culture, despite it's overtones of neocolonialist appropriation.

But having recently spent a lot of time listening to surf rock (despite the best efforts of Quentin Tarantino to put me off by featuring it prominently in his overhyped, unoriginal films) I thought it best to go to the classical sources of surf culture, so to speak, despite the fact that the music on display is much more sixties pop than surf per se. BBB happened to be staring up at me from the shelves at my local film purveyor, and so became the first candidate. It features the two major stars of the beach party series, teen idol Frankie Avalon as himself, and notorious Mousketeer Annette Funicello.

I have to say, there's not actually a lot of surfing in this one, which didn't particularly bother me. Each of the films is loosely set around a different activity, with this, the fifth instalment of the Beach Party series (made over the course of only two years), being nominally about skydiving (giving the opportunity for some nice romantic war-of-the-sexism duologues). I'm a general fan of sixties 'genre' pieces in music, fashion and film, and in this aspect BBB doesn't disappoint - the DVD transfer is nicely done and the colours are gorgeous.

It's hard to know how much of the camp is completely intended, and how much isn't. The villain of the piece, Eric von Zipper and his motorcycle gang, actually verges on frustrating, being even less realist in his acting than the other characters (oh, except for the character who's a mermaid, that is) with some 'humorous' catchphrases which I found irritatingly unfunny despite their awful B-movie characteristicicity (if you'll allow me the word). The musical numbers are randomly dropped into the plot; and at one point we seem to have suddenly left the world of teen movies and found ourselves in a James Bond, then in a horror spoof. The randomness of all of this is rather endearing in itself.

Ultimately, although at an hour and a half my full attention was a little overstretched, I'll definitely give the other films in this series a go for something lighthearted with all the genre, period and B-grade thrills that the aficionado could desire.

P. D. James - A Certain Justice (1997)

I don't read crime very much, and almost never anything published after the 1960s (with the exception of C. J. Sansom's wonderful historical Matthew Shardlake series). But, having neglected to take sufficient holiday reading, I was thrown back on limited resources, and so I found myself reading P. D. James, who I've always heard spoken highly of - although in the fields of genre writing (or indeed other fields) this isn't necessarily any guarantee). My opinion after reading one work, though, is very much in agreement.

The plot concerns the murder of Venetia Aldridge, a high-flying lawyer who (as is so often the case) has provided various acquaintances with numerous reasons to wish for her death. One of the quotes on the book characterised James' work as 'Dickensian,' and, while the humorous and satirical aspect of Dickens' writing isn't to be found here, the atmosphere James creates around Chancery and the Inns of the Court (a legalistic atmosphere which might appear the driest possible setting) reminded me favourably of the only work of Dickens' that I have much time for, Bleak House. James' writing is sharp, clean, and observant, while the murder itself and the question of whodunnit, particularly in the early part of the book, takes a back seat to, or provides a vehicle for, characterisation and psychological observation. Adam Dalgliesh, James' well-known investigator, doesn't even appear until a good third of the way through the book.

While the plot itself isn't quite as 'realist' as every other aspect of the novel, and I found aspects of the denouement unsatisfactory (and thus perhaps more realist than most crime novels), overall I greatly enjoyed this work both from the perspective of a genre crime piece, and that of a work of literature. I'll definitely be reading more P. D. James.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Tom Vanderbilt - Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) (2008)

So I keep telling people, "I'm reading this fascinating book about traffic,' and they're like, 'that doesn't sound that fascinating...' But actually, anyone who drives tends to have strongly held pet theories and peeves (and those who don't will generally have their own, from the vantage point of a non-driver), and this book explores them all.

It's essentially a work about systems and human input into them; so we move from 'traffic' as a phenomenon to efforts to influence it (whether in terms of safety or flow) which inevitably bring us to the question of human psychology. A lot of common assumptions are squashed here: for example, 'safer' roads, and safer cars, aren't actually safer because they lull us into a false sense of security and encourage us to ramp up the risk level of our own driving. As Vanderbilt points out, if an engineer built a dam to hold a certain water pressure, they wouldn't have to factor in how the water would respond to its knowledge of the dam being built to those standards...

It's the psychology that's the most interesting issue here. Although I'm not generally a fan of evolutionary psychology, Vanderbilt suggests convincingly that humans are not 'designed' to deal with moving at any more than 20 miles an hour, nor with interactions in which the other parties are 'faceless' and we have no investment in the local community. In such a situation, all of our methods of assessing risk, coping with crisis, and so forth, can be highly maladaptive. He also explains a lot of misperceptions: why, for example, does it always seem like we're being passed more often than we overtake? (because cars we pass immediately disappear from our field of vision, whereas those which pass us stay there for much longer).

You'll also find a lot of your ideas about the 'morals' of driving challenged. For example, I tend to be a driver who thinks that going up the empty outside lane then merging at the last moment is queue-jumping, but Vanderbilt points out that everyone will get where they're going faster if two lanes are being used to their capacity.

Ultimately, this reader came away thinking that we're never really going to be able to scientifically 'figure out' answers to any of the big questions in regard to any activity as complicated, and subject to human factors, as driving. That also goes for safety, which is a somewhat scary prospect... Nonetheless, for an activity which the majority of people spend a great deal of time doing, and doing in a mostly 'unconscious' fashion - as well as one for which we're prepared to accept tens of thousands of deaths annually - driving, and traffic, haven't been the subject of much writing outside the realm of the specialist, and this is an amusing and thought-provoking book, written in a light and humorous style, which goes some way to addressing the issue.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Michael Veal – Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (2007)

So you might think to yourself – I don’t like reggae (I’ll resist the urge to say, ‘I love it!’), what does a book about a subgenre of reggae have to interest me? In fact, ethnomusicologist Michael Veal’s carefully written book illuminates all kinds of aspects of popular music: not only reggae, Jamaican music, and Jamaican history, but also the history of recorded music and the nature of changing perceptions and uses of recording technology, and, specifically, the changing role of technology as an art form in itself rather than simply a medium in the musical context; the way in which economic and demographic necessities shape art forms; the interaction between recorded music and memory, as well as music, physicalities, and socialised geographies; the evolution of dance music and the remix; and the history of black music and art forms (in particular, afrofuturism) and diasporan music and culture.

Veal takes as his subject dub, that is, the deconstructed ‘versions’ of Jamaican reggae that began as vocal-less or instrumental b-sides, played at sound systems as a palette for DJs to 'toast' (rap) over the top of, a way to stretch source materials to their fullest extent in a context of limited economic resources (which also limited live music as viable public entertainment for any but the economic elite). To me, the best description of dub is ‘x-ray music’; it deconstructs the traditional unity of the various parts and puts them back together in mutated ways which can foreground the unexpected, withholding traditional musical resolution, and uniting a longing for wholeness (emerging from the ‘roots’ Rastafari discourse extolling naturalism and repatriation) with the pleasures of a technologically-mediated and decentred aesthetic.

In the first place, Veal’s book is an excellent history of dub for those who are interested in the genre as such, or in Jamaican music generally. He gives excellent potted histories, firstly, of the development of dub in Jamaica, both musical and in terms of culture, society and politics, and secondly, of the ‘post-history’ of dub, its fate in the context of the (in my opinion, lamentable) evolution of reggae into dancehall and ragga, and its interaction with non-Jamaican forms of music, particularly psychedelia, rap and dance music; the different experiences of ‘head’ music and ‘body’ music (to draw a crude differentiation) and the way these are combined in dub; and the way dub has become an influence in technological music of equal importance to European experimental art-music traditions. Particularly valuable are his histories of the most important Jamaican dub mixers and their studios: Sylvan Morris at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, King Tubbys (and Tubby’s associates and protégés Bunny Lee, ‘Prince’ Philip Smart, King Jammy, and Scientist); the Hoo-Kim brothers’ Channel One studio; Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Black Ark; and Errol Thompson at Randy’s and Joe Gibbs’ studios.

Another important aspect of Veal’s work is that he combines the role of historian, cultural theorist, and musicologist. What this means in practice is that he carefully analyses individual dub tracks and the originals on which they are based from a musicological point of view, creating a vital bridge between the actual musical qualities of the works he examines and the context in which they are placed in terms of history and culture. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t come with a CD (the costs and effort of tracking down rights were apparently insuperable), although it does include a long list of recommended albums. Particularly insightful are Veal’s arguments regarding the role of echo and reverb, two defining techniques of dub, as related both to memory and to space, in the context of a diasporan people confronting the fact that an attempt has been made to erase their past through the process of colonisation and slavery, leaving a fractured relationship both to memory and to geography in which resistance attempts to re-imagine identity on the basis of unknown ideals (in particular, Africa as a Utopian historical homeland) as well as present lived reality.

The work is not entirely unproblematic; in the realms of cultural theory, Veal sometimes draws a long bow, particularly in his comparison of likeness between dub and literary magical realism (I’m not a fan of magical realism in any case, but from a cultural point of view it seems to me, to take one example of the problematics of this comparison, very much narrative-based rather than deconstructory).

There’s a tendency to accept the self-proclaimed ideology of rasta reggae and other diasporic black cultural forms which often manifests in an unproblematic acceptance of the fact that these forms are literally ‘African-derived,’ ‘African-influenced’ and so forth, rather than what I’d see as the reality, that links with anything which is ‘authentically African’ (whatever that might mean, either historically or culturally) are tenuous, whereas what’s being put into play tends to be very much an imagined and often idealised ‘Africa,’ or else traditions which do have ‘African roots,’ but which have transformed into something entirely different in a transplanted context (but which may nonetheless be contrasted with practices which are developed from distinctly European forms).
In a similar vein, we might also give more consideration to the cultural discourses of Christianity and the Bible, so vital to Rastafari, in dub.

Veal’s work sometimes has the typical problem of much work in the realm of postmodern subaltern or postcolonial studies in that it tends to lionise every and any activity as a form of resistance, without ever looking at the ways in which such resistance demands obedience to other exclusionary narratives. Here we might think firstly of the exclusion of women – and Veal also refers to dub as problematising gendered music with little exploration of this aspect of gender; secondly, we might also ask what the relationship of dub was to the violent macho braggadocio, and extreme homophobia and misogyny, which came to the fore in later Jamaican music in the digital era; and, finally, question how, in narratives of diaspora, we might consider the traditions of Chinese and Indian-subcontinent immigrants in Jamaica, as well as, in terms of cultural destruction, the place of the original Arawak and Taíno inhabitants of Jamaica, who are never mentioned in this work.

Overall, though, these are minor issues in a work which skilfully blends different disciplines to provide a deeply satisfying history of dub, its major players, and its often-unsung role in the development of Western musical trends; a fascinating close musicological reading; and a thought-provoking grounding of both in cultural and sociological theory which encompasses historical concerns as well as the reading of texts per se. King Tubby’s phrase characterising dub could be applied equally to Veal’s work on the subject: ‘jus like a volcano in yuh head!’

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

S. T. Joshi (ed.) - American Supernatural Tales (2007)

S. T. Joshi is known for his anthologies and work on classic supernatural authors such as Lovecraft, Blackwood, Dunsany, and M. R. James, so I was quite excited about this anthology. Some of the stories included will be familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the genre – Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, Chambers’ The Yellow Sign - but one could hardly put together an anthology of American supernatural literature without including work by these authors. Each author is also given a brief introduction. While the volume is titled ‘supernatural stories,’ these are essentially horror stories. There’s always a problem here – as in movies, there’s a permeable line between non-supernatural gore, tales of serial killers, and supernatural horror or dark supernatural work – but there’s not really anything here which is ‘supernatural’ without being intended to scare, or involving fear or violence. This in itself says some interesting things about the labelling of the genre and a reluctance to raise certain associations, which may be connected to ‘literariness.’ But on to the tales…

Though I’m a fan of the classic ghost story, a lot of the time my issue with the genre is that we know what’s going on fairly early in the piece, and the story doesn’t really add any more. Some of the earlier pieces are very much like this. We begin with Washington Irving’s The Adventure of a German Student (1824), a fairly standard retelling, set during the French Revolution, of the story of the woman with the band around her neck. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Edward Randolph’s Portrait (1838), an ‘unheeded supernatural warning’ narrative, brings us to American shores, and has some nice political period detail from the War of Independence. Fitz-James O’Brien’s What Was It? (1859) is a bizarre story (with a whiff of opium) of a wholly substantial invisible thing, in which the usual pattern of such stories (the impossibility of laying hands on the creature) is not followed, but with unsatisfactory results. The Bierce tale is The Death of Halpin Frayser (1891), an odd, fragmented narrative of incest and poetry from beyond the grave. I must confess that I’ve always preferred the idea of Bierce more than his actual writing…

We then move to Henry James’s very characteristic The Real Right Thing (1899), a fascinating, highly nuanced examination of the concept of the ghost as a disembodied presence whose existence (as in The Turn of the Screw) exists ambiguously between materiality and the consciousness. Clark Ashton Smith’s The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis (1932) is an interesting, Lovecraftian merger of horror and science fiction which doesn’t quite follow through on a rather chilling Martian monster. Robert E. Howard’s Old Garfield’s Heart (1933) has a very refreshing Americana style (though inevitably accompanied by the indigenous American as supernatural Other), and gives an interesting twist to reanimation in which it is the presence of life, rather than death, which is the source of horror. The American mood continues in Robert Bloch’s Black Bargain (1942), a Faustian tale with some nice atmospheric detail, but which confirms my feeling about Bloch; that his work is over-rated. I have similar sentiments about August Derleth, whose main claim to plaudits is his championing of Lovecraft, though, as Joshi thankfully notes, he utterly failed to understand the nature of Lovecraftian work. The story included here, The Lonesome Place (1948) is a well-worn tale of the thing under the bed or, in this case, near the grain elevator; with a nice coda, however.

Fritz Leiber’s The Girl With The Hungry Eyes (1949) is a breath of fresh air, dwelling on consumerist themes which, in this chronological connection, gives an interesting historical perspective on the changing nature of society, though it also introduces the overt sex-and-misogyny brand of horror which would continue to blight the genre. Ray Bradbury’s The Fog Horn (1951) is a strange, moving interesting tale, not entirely a success but very worthwhile and original (something I’d say of much of Bradbury’s work) – imagine the story of the Loch Ness Monster written by Raymond Carver and you’ve got something like it… Shirley Jackson’s A Visit (1952) is, to my mind, the standout piece, though I’m biased where Jackson’s concerned; gorgeously understated and yet at the same time dramatic, a set piece, a meditation on gender and emotion, it stands with the best of her work. It was also nice not to see The Lottery, which I think is overrated as far as her work is concerned. Richard Matheson’s Long Distance Call (1953), in which being dead doesn’t mean one can’t keep up with new technology, begins very nicely, but peters out in horror cliché, while Charles Beaumont’s The Vanishing American (1955) is closer to self-help than horror. T. E. D. Klein’s The Events At Poroth Farm (1972) is a vaguely Lovecraftian story with a very nicely-done atmosphere, but with an ending which disappoints – and I personally prefer my horror stories with some kind of explanation for why events have come about as they have…

We then come to more modern concerns. Stephen King, I think, is a writer who, while his work is problematic, particularly in his later period, is often undervalued and bracketed with those of much lesser talent. I was disappointed that the work of his included here was Night Surf (1978), which to my mind was one of the weaker stories in the collection it’s taken from, Night Shift - though its subject, a killer flu, does seem rather prescient from today’s vantage point, and is more original than much of his material. Dennis Etchison’s The Late Shift (1980), a tale of zombified Seven-Eleven clerks with interesting racial undertones, also looks even more relevant in the context of present-day exploitative hyper-capitalism.

Moving away from the concerns of contemporary society, Thomas Ligotti’s Vastarien (1987) whisks us back into a Cthulhuesque environment of the forbidden, madness-inducing book; well-written stylistically, but hardly an original concept (I’m yet to be as impressed by Ligotti’s work as many seem to be, but I haven’t read a great deal of it). Karl Edward Wagner’s Endless Night (1987) is a nice little piece of delirium, though it suffers from the common problem of stream-of-consciousness works in that there is no satisfactory resolution, narrative or otherwise. Norman Partridge’s The Hollow Man (1991), a piece told from the point of view of the Wendigo, is one of the stand-outs of the collection, though the idea is perhaps a little under-fleshed-out (and the pun is very much intended regarding the subject matter).

The postmodern rears its head in David J. Schow’s Last Call For The Sons of Shock (1994) is an interesting treatment of B-movie stereotypes and horror icons, in comic-book style; but it suffers from that perennial problem of 90s horror (I think particularly of Poppy Z. Brite), the darkwave pop-culture reference - personally, I may be a Cramps/Cure/Bauhaus fan, but I don’t give you kudos for checking them in your story; I find it to be trying a little hard. Joyce Carol Oates’ Demon (1996) suffers from a similar problem to Endless Night, though there is a nice gory final scene – but I find the experimental-stream-of-consciousness thing to be a bit overdone in modern horror, presumably as a backlash to the genre-conservative nature of the older horror tale. By far the most horrific work of Oates’ that I’ve read, and by far my favourite, is her novel Zombie, based on Jeffrey Dahmer. We finish with Caitlin R. Kiernan’s In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888), a work which fuses the modern concern for the underclass with the traditional trope of the professor who finds out more than he (it’s usually he) bargains for; while the palaeontological details (Kiernan is a trained palaeontologist) give a nice ring of authenticity; though, as in Wagner’s story, one could wish she could have avoided rounding the story off with a quote, which I personally find a lazy habit in a writer, and one which often shows their own work to disadvantage.

Overall, this is an interesting and valuable volume, demonstrating the historical evolution of the American horror story and showcasing some classics of the genre, as well as giving opportunities to some lesser-known names, and fusing so-called
‘low’ and ‘high’ culture. However, at least to this reader, it demonstrates that the glory days of the genre lie in the past. The stand-out tales are from authors whose names are well-known among aficionados; there’s nothing in the newer material that shows the originality of, say, the Lovecraftian combination of horror and science fiction, or of Shirley Jackson’s chilling domestic gothic; nothing that makes this reader want to run out and track down the works of any promising new authors whose writing holds an interest extending outside the confines of the genre. If this collection is anything to go by, musty tomes remain the proper domain of the horror story…

Monday, August 18, 2008

Shirley Jackson - Life Among The Savages (1952)

Although I tend to think her best known story, The Lottery, is over-rated in comparison to the rest of her work, Shirley Jackson is, in my opinion, one of the finest practitioners of the art of the short story. That her work tends to the darkly-inflected makes it even more of a treat. I also can't praise the novels of hers I've read, The Haunting of Hill House and the neglected We Have Always Lived In The Castle too highly.

So I tracked down her book Life Among The Savages, a lightly-fictionalised, humorous book-length memoir of family life. The pieces were first published individually in women's magazines (Jackson was determined to live by her writing) - in tone, the work compares to some of the 'light' stories which have been published in Just An Ordinary Day. To be honest, though, LATS hasn't really stood the test of time. Jackson's spare, understated prose style is very much in evidence, and it works well in a comic setting, but the material is very light and sometimes repetitious (befitting its provenance). In particular, what seemed an amusing, self-deprecating story in the 1950s looks like a tale of the acceptance of misogynistic conditions and family structures in the present day; and that acceptance makes the reader (or at least this reader) consistently frustrated - especially considering Jackson's gifts in comparison with her husband, who comes across more as selfish than endearing, as well as the fact that Jackson also worked to earn a wage through her writing, therefore stepping outside any view which might see equity in the choice for one partner to be a breadwinner while leaving domestic and childrearing duties to the other.

One point of interest is the inclusion of material that can also be found elsewhere, and the way its tone is shaped by the context - here we find a section which is included, as a short story, in The Lottery and Other Stories under the title Charles (the small print tells us that it's included at the request of her son Lawrence, who is the main character); but while in the context of The Lottery it has a sinister, 'bad seed' air, here it takes on a 'kids say the darndest things' air - an interesting comment on the ways in which the reader is subtly guided by factors outside the work itself; and of course, Jackson's work is premised on the unspoken, on meaning constructed through context.

Overall, however, even as a huge Jackson fan, I found LATS more of a curiosity - and an evocation of a particular historical era and its attitudes - than a rewarding read as such.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wild Palms (1993)

So, as in my recent excursus to the Southland, I find myself again in a Los Angelean world of sur/hyper/realism, set almost but not quite in the present (WP is in fact set in 2007, then fourteen years or so in the future) in a techno-magical-realist world in which plots are convoluted, costumes are outrageous, and seeing is definitely not believing.

WP, a mini-series written by Bruce Wagner, is based on a comic strip of his, which I haven't read (Oliver Stone was an executive producer, but he was using his powers for good, not for evil). Wagner described the comic strip as a 'tone poem' and there's definitely an element of that to the TV series. The plot follows Harry Wyckoff (Jim Belushi), a patent attorney and family man living 'the dream' (including the element of the dream where things would always be more satisfying if you just had that much more material wealth) in Los Angeles. Harry's been having strange dreams about finding a rhinoceros in his empty pool; and he's about to run into an old flame, Paige Katz (Kim Cattrall). Meanwhile, technology has just given birth to interactive, 'virtual reality' television, embodied in the new series Church Windows, spearheaded by Senatoir Anton Kreutzer (Robert Loggia), head of Channel Three, founder of the Synthiotics religion and champion of New Realism. Oh, and there's an ongoing conflict between two shadowy underground groups, which nonetheless seem to have conspiracyesque connections to the corridors of political power. lost yet? You should be...

Wild Palms is a treat. It has a very filmic and decadent quality, and visually it's gorgeous - I'd say, more of a late eighties than a nineties sensibility, with a strong Japanese thematic, post-modernised fifties elegance, and some post-apocalyptic post-punk thrown in for good measure. The casting is inspired - I particularly enjoyed Ben Savage (for those of us of an age to cherish fond childhood memories of The Wonder Years, he's Fred Savage's brother) as a child who's definitely not what he first appears to be...

Thematically, there's a definite problematisation of the role of television as a form of 'brainwashing' (with more than a nod to Christianity), and the pleasures and dangers of a virtualised reality, without being heavy-handed or anti-technology in that tiresomely common way which suggests that we'd be a healthier society if we were to sit around playing parlour games, or (worse still) playing sport; while Senator Kreutzer seems to be at least in part a satire on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology (though in the present-day context, both in terms of media dominance and conspiracy, I'd also think of Italian prime minister and monopolistic media mogul with the daytime soapstar looks, Silvio Berlusconi). The series itself, with the soap-opera quality of the interactions between characters (Angie Dickinson, as Wyckoff's scheming mother-in-law, is particularly effective), reflects the glossy surfaces which the series itself takes as its subject. Throughout, the influence of Philip K. Dick is very much in evidence.

As a viewer, every time you think you've got a grip on what's going on, even if only in relation to one character or plotline, your expectations are suddenly confounded, mirroring Wyckoff's experience. Particular phrases and symbols echo through the narrative like reverb-drenched samples - indeed, there's very much a 'remix' aesthetic to this work; all the elements of a traditional narrative are there, but they've been taken apart and stuck back together in a very decentreing way. Points of comparison would be Twin Peaks, another early nineties show playing deep games with appearance and reality; and works like Existenz or Videodrome which use science-fiction futurism to blur and interpenetrate the line between appearance and reality, between flesh and technology.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Richard Kelly - Southland Tales (2007)

Given that Richard Kelly is the director of Donnie Darko, a film I enjoyed a great deal, I had high expectations of Southland Tales - and it reached them in spades. DD is the more coherent work, but ST is much more interesting.

The film is set in an alternate-history 2008, in which the USA was bombed by nuclear weapons in 2005, and the Bush government has invaded Syria, Iran, and North Korea, reinstalled the draft, and emplaced other Fascistic security measures under the aegis of the Patriot Act. One of these, US-Ident, is a totalising surveillance system. Due to security measures, the states have, in effect, become separate administrative realms, nations within a nation. Meanwhile, a Neo-Marxist underground is becoming increasingly militant, and fast-dwindling fossil fuels are in the contested process of being replaced by an energy system harnessing the tidal power of the ocean. The action takes place on the eve of the 2008 election, in California, possession of which is vital for victory. We follow Boxer Santaros (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson), an amnesiac action film star and the Californian candidate's son-in-law; Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star trying to launch reality TV show; and the twin brothers Taverner (Seann William Scott); as they become embroiled in this heady mix of politics, science, and violence, and the world careers toward an apocalyptic cataclysm, as presaged in Revelations...

As will be evident from this description, political satire is omnipresent in the film and vital to the plot, but it's done very well, and is never heavy-handed. Indeed, at times this is an hilarious ride; Krysta Now's single, Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime is a highlight. Anyone who's concerned with the authoritarian tendencies of US politics, with international aggression, or with global warming will appreciate this aspect of the plot.

As will also be evident, the plot itself, which like DD involves weird time shifts, is heavily convoluted - I found it difficult to follow, though that's a tendency of mine, but although the narrative sprawls uncontrollably and is quite complicated, I didn't actually find this too serious a problem - the film is visually absolutely gorgeous, and you can kick back and enjoy the ride. The casting is also inspired; don't let the inclusion of actors like 'The Rock' put you off - Kelly knows exactly what he's doing. Other favourites of mine who appear here include Miranda Richardson, and Wallace Shawn (Vizzini from The Princess Bride, and his character here seems a conscious reference to that role).

As a work, I thought of various points of reference - Strange Days, Buffy, The Chumscrubber, A Scanner Darkly, Existenz, even Inland Empire in the sprawling lack of directorial self-discipline and welcome disconnect from 'realism' - but there's a lightness of touch here which gives the work a deft touch, particularly as a satire, while Kelly is obviously no intellectual lightweight, given the various references, credited and otherwise, to poets and artists that pepper the work. It's films like Southland Tales that the term 'post-modern' was invented for - so you can forget linearity and enjoy the glossy surfaces, which at the same time reveal their own sterility, but never in a way that's less than ecstatically playful...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

John Hillcoat - Ghosts of the Civil Dead (1988)

I hadn't watched this film since I was a teenager, when I'd seen it mainly as a Nick Cave fanboy. I'm not sure I really 'got it' at the time, because it didn't leave a huge impact, whereas on reconsideration I was deeply impressed by this film - much more so than the more recent Hillcoat-Cave collaboration, The Proposition.

The story takes place in the close future, though this is by no means a sci-fi or even a futuristic film, in Central Industrial Prison, a maximum-security facility in the middle of the desert. The narrative conceit is a report detailing the events leading up to a total lockdown. There is not a strong narrative; rather, we follow the development of individual characters through periodical scenes of events in which they are involved. However, the film is neither boring nor slow-moving; and the violence, while at times extreme, is not presented in such a way as to make the viewer ethically complicit in voyeurism.

As the film opens, the prison seems a place of violence and oppression, but where camaraderie and humanity are nonetheless present. The focus is the degeneration of this state of affairs into one of complete dehumanisation, in which both prisoners and guards are caught up, as the management turns the screws for their own political purposes. The soundtrack was created by Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey, as well as Cave himself, and though minimal, plays an important part in the creation of a suffocating atmosphere of meaninglessness, inhumanity and extreme violence. Unfortunately, the character Maynard, played by Cave himself, is the only one which doesn't 'ring true,' being a psychopath-without-a-cause of fairly typical filmic derivation; whereas the other characters, however minimal their roles, are all complex and ring psychologically true. Cave's character introduces an element of melodrama into an otherwise realist, though extremely dark, piece, whose disturbing quality hinges on the reality of the world it creates.

Indeed, the characters are shown neither as devils nor as rough-hewn angels, but as complex human beings whose actions are determined not only by their character but by the system(s) which exert control over their environment; an important point in a society like ours, which would prefer to judge every action as being the result of individual disposition rather than situational factors.

According to Wikipedia, the film is partially based on the true story of Jack Henry Abbott; it is also based on the testimony of David Hale, a whistleblower and former prison guard in Illinois - the soundtrack features a number of interviews with Hale, who witnessed events very similar to those in the film in terms of management provocation of violence. In addition, apparently, the cast involves only a few professional actors, the rest being made up of real ex-crims, prison guards, etc - if this is in fact the case, it certainly works.

Thematically, a Foucauldian reflection is made (consciously referenced in the 'Foucault authority') on the modern prison as a place of surveillance, where regulation takes place through the psychologically-driven efforts of those within the system, rather than being a system where violence is institutionally inflicted from the outside in an organised fashion. This is emphasised by filming techniques like surveillance camera footage and the framing of shots through surveillance windows. There is also a heavy political critique of the system of imprisonment in itself, and of the political use to which an imprisoning justice system is put by politicians and other demagogues.

For an Australian in particular, the film seems eerily prescient of the barbed-wire concentration prisons in the middle of the desert into which refugees in the Howard era were abandoned, and left to self-mutilate, inflict brutality upon one another, and otherwise succumb to brutalised insanity, a situation created entirely for political ends. I also appreciated the uncompromising 'Australian-ness' of the work, in the dialogue and the few external shots, particularly unusual both for a science fiction film, and for a film which could have been easily set in a geographical 'nowhere' so as to highlight the universal aspects of the narrative.

This is not an easy work, but it's one which is both a stunning film as a film, and one which continues to be vitally relevant in the current political landscape.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Philip Reeve - Larklight (2006)

Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series was one of the most impressive works of childrens' literature I'd read for quite some time, so I was very much looking forward to Larklight, the first book in his new series.

Larklight is a Victorian steampunk/space opera work - genres which I'm fond of in childrens', though not in adult, literature - and it's certainly a rip-roaring adventure. The story follows Arthur Mumby's adventures saving the known universe from a race of intergalactic spiders, with lashings of alien exotica and space piracy on the way. The Victorian detail is not quite perfect, and someties verges into cliche, but is generally well done - we find, ultimately, alternate-history as well as strictly fantasy aspects to the tale; and the book is sprinkled with historical and Victorian in-jokes for those with a passing knowledge of the period.

Larklight is aimed at a slightly younger readership than the ME series, so it's much less dark, with less moral ambiguity (though it's not entirely absent), the characters are less developed and psychologically drawn, and we're more focussed entirely on action. Indeed, I found the somewhat convoluted, but also action-packed, plot left me a little exhausted as the narrative switched back and forth from Arthur's POV to his sister Mabel's diary, and leapt from one bizarre situation to the next.

Larklight was a lot of fun, and the Victoriana aspects really made it for me, but nonetheless, if it had been Reeves' first work I'm not sure I'd be following him closely as an author in the way that I followed ME, which was admittedly a hard act to follow. Nonetheless, I am planning to read Starcross, the next instalment in the series, so I won't protest too much...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

John Dickie - Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia

When you're interested in the Mafia, there's a lot of sensationalist non-fiction to be avoided. I've been looking for a while for a decent history, and this work definitely fits the bill. Cosa Nostra is compulsively readable and never dry, but also a work of serious history, written by a senior lecturer in Italian history and exhaustively sourced.

The book follows the history of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia (as opposed to other Mafia-like groups such as the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta), from its roots in the nineteenth century through to the present day, including a new chapter bringing us up to the present-day Berlusconi period and the 2006 arrest of Bernardo Provenzano, the 'boss of bosses'. Dickie also deals with the connections with the American Mafia, and the significant differences between the two organisations. In the process, some myths are squashed (such as that of a 'golden age' of Mafia honour preceding the bloody, drug-drenched second half of the twentieth century) and other beliefs are confirmed (the role of the post-WWII American occupation in entrenching the Mafia as a consequence of their anti-communism).

Issues which Dickie turns his attention to include the ambience of Italian secret societies (such as the Carbonari and Freemasons) in which the Mafia emerged, and which continue to be seen in shadowy groups such as Propaganda Due, implicated in attempts to bring down and reform the state in the '70s and '80s;
the entrenched links between the Mafia and Italian politics, and therefore of the whole political destiny of Italy itself;
following from this, the reasons for the tolerance by the Italian people of Mafia involvement in and corruption of public affairs, which at times can seem inexplicable, and the practice of 'behind-ology,' the common reading of shadowy nefarious interests into the surface of public actions, which has so much basis in fact and yet can create gauzy layers of complication and paranoia which serve to divert action;
the way in which the very landscape of Italy has been shaped (chiefly in terms of the destruction of historical buildings and the erection of hideous and unsafe concrete monstrosities) through Mafia control of the construction and concrete industries;
the often vexed relationship between Palermo (Sicily's capital) and the rural areas, as well as the continuities and discontinuities between Northern and Southern Italy;
the decision of the Mafia to 'go public' in the '60s, as internecine wars exploded and the phenomenon of 'pentiti', Mafia stool pigeons who broke the code of silence, emerged, while at the same time unprecedented killings of judges, politicians, priests and others whose actions ran contrary to Mafia interests;
and the connection between Mafia, religion and the Catholic church.

Particularly moving are the stories of Giovanni Falcone, Paolo Borsellino and the other assassinated anti-Mafia judges and campaigners of the later decades of the twentieth century, who went courageously to their deaths in the attempt to 'clean up' their country.

This is an impressive, compelling and often chilling work, which makes a good companion piece to others such as Peter Robb's Midnight In Sicily (1996) or Marco Turco's documentary film Excellent Cadavers (1995). It'll make you think twice about glamourised or humorous depictions of the Mafia in popular culture, as well as providing a counter- or shadow-history of modern Italy and to ponder the culture. Finally, caught by the behind-ology bug, I started to wonder whether non-Italian readers can comfortably relegate these Mafia tales to 'another country' or whether we should also be wondering about what similar things might be going on behind closed doors closer to home.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Juan Antonio Bayona - El Orfanato (The Orphanage) (2008)

I like films in which a house is a major character, and El Orfanato fits the bill precisely. Laura, with her husband and her adopted, seriously ill child, Simon, returns to the crumbling mansion, on a cliff above the sea, where she was raised as an orphan; her aim is to run it as a loving home for disabled children whose parents are in need of respite. But there seems to be something strange in the house… and then her son disappears…

El Orfanato is Bayona's first feature-length film, but it is 'presented' (whatever that means) by Guillermo Del Toro, of Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and The Devil's Backbone (among others). I liked EO a lot more than del Toro’s most recent film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which seemed to me through its magical realist treatment to trivialise a very serious subject, the Spanish Civil War. This film dealt with the personal rather than the political, (hence) much more successfully. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s visually beautiful. The atmosphere is very well done; there are genuinely frightening moments, but it isn’t a typical modern day thriller in which we’re constantly kept on the edge of our seats through hackneyed chase scenes, ‘jump’ moments and screeching violins. Both atmospherically and in terms of subject matter, it reminded me of other films which I have a lot of time for like The Others or Haunted. Finally, it goes beyond the typical haunted house genre in that the intentions of the ‘ghost,’ and the way in which the narrative resolves itself, are by no means predictable.

El Orfanato is not a wildly original film, or one which leaves you thinking; but it’s a very aesthetically satisfying experience, which does what it does very well.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Edith Wharton - The House of Mirth (1905)

I must confess that I haven't previously read any Wharton. However, as a fan of Victoriana (okay, we're talking America, not Britain, and publication a few years after Victoria's death, but let's not quibble) and particularly the Victorian novel of social mores (good ol' Wikipedia describes THOM as one of the first American novels of manners), this work fell right into my demographic, so to speak.

There is, of course, a resemblance to the works of Henry James, though Wharton does not have James' love-hate relationship with all things English; nor does Wharton possess James' subtlety as a stylist. But in comparison to James' works set in the American milieu (well, Washington Square, which is the one I've read) I preferred THOM. The story, realist with touches of melodrama, follows Lily Bart, a poor but lovely socialite, as she attempts to find a wealthy husband, but slowly sinks into a disrespectable and ultimately destitute state through th self-sabotage of her own quest. I was driven by the narrative, which is moving and tragic.

Ultimately, the novel is a sharply biting satire of the hypocritical social world of the American upper classes in this period. The work was first published in serial form, and was not expected to be hugely successful given that it was not a traditional romance as such, but it became a massive hit, perhaps because of the depiction and criticism of this upper-class world, fascinating both for those who belonged to it and those who did not. Lily Bart's quest for extensive wealth and a place in society at the cost of her own happiness is at times frustrating in its seemingly reasonless monomania, but this, I think, is the view of a modern-day reader who does not exist in such a social world.

The major characters are well and intimately drawn, although some of the minor characters are not so original or deeply sketched. But a major point of interest here is the intersection of privileged and underprivileged groups and their intersection with the (separated) spheres of social class and wealth. Lily's position as an upper-class woman makes 'good' marriage a financial necessity, and the difference between her possibilities and that of a man's in a similar class and financial situation is a theme which fascinates and angers in its inequity. The intersection between class and money, though well-explored in Victorian literature, also holds a great deal of interest in a period in which, particularly in America (even as opposed to Britain), a great deal of money was being made very quickly (in comparison to previous eras), by individuals who would not necessarily have previously had the opportunities they did, and effecting the old class system in ways which were still in the process of working themselves out. Finally, and in this light, ethnicity is also a problematic factor - one of Lily's marriage possibilities is to Simon Rosedale, a financially up-and-coming Jewish man, and there is a fair amount of nasty (authorial) antisemitism here, while at the same time a realistic depiction of the same sentiment in the New York social milieu, and an unexpected sympathetic glimpse into Rosedale's character.

I was somewhat disappointed by the ending, inasmuch as Lily's fate seems inevitable (though realistic), even fatalistic, in the same way as the typical homosexual narrative in fiction. However, ultimately THOM provides not only a fascinating and emotionally involving narrative, and a glimpse into a social milieu which is relatively under-represented in fiction, but also a fascinating dissection of the intersection of money, class, gender, and ethnicity in a fast-changing world.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Matt Reeves – Cloverfield (2008)

If I said to you, imagine a cross between Godzilla, Eight Legged Freaks and The Blair Witch Project, that wouldn't be a film you'd be running to see, right? That's why I'm not going to say that about Cloverfield.

I was skeptical. But although I'm generally far from a fan of the 'hand held camera=extra, arty, reality' style that became so prevalent after BWP, it really works in this film (as it has in others, such as Series Seven). The conceit is that the film, recovered by the Department of Defense, was the digital camerawork of 'Hud' Platt, filming a friend's going-away party when monster/alien disaster strikes New York. The action is intercut with previous sequences involving the group of friends and their relationships.

This isn't at all a typical monster film, however - although towards the end it comes closer to what we'd expect from the genre, with a strong narrative pull, and does so very effectively in genre terms, without overplaying its hand. In terms of atmosphere, it reminded me more of works like Cube where the psychology of a pressure situation is the focus and the event is the framing device in which it occurs. Again, I didn't initially feel sympathy for the main characters as a fairly film-standard bunch of young, rich, vacuous New Yorkers, but this really changed over the course of the work.

There's also another point of interest here, in that in the light of September 11 it seems to me quite a daring choice to make a very 'real' feeling creature feature flick about an attack on New York. Perhaps that also added to the fact that the trauma, poignancy and tragedy really worked, for this viewer at least. I also admired the fact that the film wasn't delivering on our genre expectations of heroism, and on the meaningfulness of action in terms of its resolution.

While there are a lot of similarities with BWP (including a viral marketing campaign, and the release of a 'mix-tape' soundtrack to a film with no musical score, though the tracks are played in the original party sequence), I enjoyed this film more, given that, in comparison to the aforementioned film, the genre/subject Cloverfield was working with is much less adapted to the mood it so successfully created, giving this work a real originality, which, combined with narrative and emotional drive, and the successful use of the genre conventions without exploiting them or simply setting up the cliches and knocking 'em down, made for a film that I have a lot of time for.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Tony Krantz - Sublime (2007)

George Grieves goes into surgery, the day after his fortieth birthday, for a routine colonoscopy. But when he comes round, things have gone wrong. More wrong, even, than a surgery mix-up… He’s having strange hallucinations, or are they? Memories return from his birthday party the night before, which seem to be entwining themselves with his present reality and his anxieties - but why can’t he seem to convince anyone to take him home?

Sublime opens impressively. The surreal, noir-ish mood is very well done, as is the mood of understated, but increasing, disquiet, and the mysterious, fleeting symbolic and physical connections between the disjointed scenes. This is one of those films where the location, in this case, the hospital, is a character in its own right. But, as in many other films of this ilk (Identity), a set-up like this (what’s going on here?) is easy to put into motion, but difficult to resolve in a satisfactory way. In this case, the understated mood goes out the window (and in comes the gore), in the process introducing all kinds of issues, which remain unresolved, around tricky areas like class and race; and finally we’re presented with a completely unsatisfactory, but total, explanation for George’s experience.

An interesting film which is certainly outside of the run of the mill, and superior to, the standard mainstream horror movie, but which ultimately fails spectacularly to deliver on its tantalising initial promise.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Point Pleasant (2005)

Point Pleasant is a plasticky American Fox series about the struggle between Good and Evil (note purposeful capitalisation), involving a great deal of overt Christian material in relation to this struggle. So why did I like it so much?

Everything here is not quite as it seems. The plot follows the character of Christina, a girl who is washed up on the beach in Point Pleasant and who slowly realises that she is - well - the devil's daughter, and is fated to have an intimate role in a coming apocalyptic scenario. The town itself is a fairly typical American TV show realm of beaches and bods, so to speak.

On the one hand, the show holds the same kitschy appeal as the Christian supernatural delvings of daytime soaps. But things here are rather more complicated; it's by no means so simple as Christian equals good guy, though we are at first led to believe that this is the case. Indeed, there's a low-key satirical element (I'm not sure if it's entirely intentional) as regards the tropes of Christianity in popular fiction, a la Left Behind. The complexity (for a mainstream TV show) of the plot development, the concepts involved regarding morality, and the way in which our perception of the heroes and villains of the piece changes, is one of the show's strengths. Unlike many other TV shows and films in a similar vein, the action is never driven by special effects, and neither the conclusion, nor the final actions of the main characters, are predictable.

I also found that the setting of the show really worked for me; call me a sucker for suburban gothic (not to mention Biblical blood and thunder), but, in a similar manner to Desperate Housewives, The Devil's Advocate or The Craft, there's a nice contrast between the shiny, plastic surfaces and the dark, Biblical-melodramatic thematics; one which also allows complexities to develop contrary to our expectations. Finally, though the teens are, for the most part, more looks than substance acting-wise, there's an excellent performance by Grant Show as the villain of the piece, and I also very much enjoyed Dina Meyer, who I loved in Starship Trooopers.

Point Pleasant's executive producer was Marti Noxon, known for his work on Buffy. Though PP definitely has more of a soap-opera quality to it, fans of Buffy - those who appreciate relatively sophisticated supernatural action/melodrama in television - might well find a lot to like here. Unfortunately, it was cancelled after 13 episodes - the final two, which bring the action to a conclusion, are included only on the DVD release. In one sense, it's a shame - but where TV is concerned, being left hungry for more is often a better option than watching a promising, successful series have the life wrung out of it season after season. Better to end, Armageddon-style, with a bang...
“It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite impractical, and goes against human nature. This is perfectly true. It is impractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change. The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development.”

— Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (From Ken Knabb's The Joy of Revolution)

Q (V. Vale): So how do you see yourself regarding all this?

A (Lydia Lunch): Merely as the instigator. Merely as the cattle prod. Instigation can be a fine art in itself! I never claimed to have any answers or solutions to the world situation; I merely report on it as I see it. But a common complaint about me is: "offers no solutions." Just because I call what's going on "disintegration" or "apocalypse now," I'm supposed to provide the salvation?!

You answer the fuckin' question... and answer it for yourself. Politicians offer solutions - they never work. My job is just to question the roots of the madness.

- Angry Women, RE/Search, 1991.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Naomi Klein - The Shock Doctrine (2007)

In typical fashion, I didn't read Klein's hugely popular No Logo until a few years after it came out, and then wondered why I hadn't done so earlier. So I was avidly awaiting TSD, and I wasn't disappointed.

In this work, Klein takes 'disaster capitalism' in her sights. Like NL, TSD mixes economic and political theory with often-heartrending personal stories of the human reality of those affected and those who have challenged exploitative power; angers and depresses but also gives hope in presenting those who have successfully challenged the systems it criticises; and is compulsively readable.

Klein's argument is that 'disaster capitalism,' the neoliberal, free-market economics which has Milton Friedman as its godfather (and the word is appropriate), cannot be implemented under democratic conditions because the populace understand the way in which it effects a mass transfer of wealth and power to the top of society, while leaving the rest in extreme suffering; those who would implement such a system have learned that it is only implementable in the shocked aftermath either of natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina or the Asian tsunami) or, in even more sinister fashion, in the wake of disasters which are created expressly for, or expressly including, the purpose of implementing such systems (as in the US-backed overthrow of democratic government in South America, or the invasion of Iraq).

Klein convincingly relates this economic 'shock treatment' to the psychological kind developed by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s, in which the aim was to completely wipe an individual's mind clean so that an entirely new and desirable structure could take its place. Not only do these two resemble each other metaphorically, writes Klein, but the psychological techniques are used to destroy those who oppose the economic program, from Argentina to Abu Ghraib.

One of the interesting things about this work is the demonstration of the way in which the ideology of neoliberal capitalism becomes unchallengeable, and is understood by its proponents as a universal good (in the same way that, for example, state communism or state fascism demanded the deaths of millions 'for the good of all'). For this reason (among others), the ideology has been adopted by all sides of politics in the two-party systems which go under the name of democracy, so that the old parties of labour are also part of the neoliberal consensus. At the same time, economics itself is completely postmodern inasmuch as wealth and poverty rely entirely on perception; so, for example, a political leader who gives any public sign of failing to follow this ideological consensus will immediately see their national wealth shrink dramatically as 'the global market' responds.

The biggest strength of the book from my own perspective, however, was to give an informative perspective on economics in the world order. As someone with left-liberal politics (and I suspect I'm not alone in this), economics as a subject turns me off. I start to yawn as soon as I see the jargon. But at the same time, I know that economic theory and ideology is a driving force behind the nature of modern states, the global system and the workings of power. This work explained, for example, why 'global aid' and 'reconstruction' has in fact been counterproductive in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and the tsunami-affected countries: the Western 'free market' left to its own devices, will charge the highest price for the lowest level of service as provided by its own cronies (this much is already familiar), transferring wealth out of the affected area and leaving the people who are victims of these events with no role in the reconstruction and reshaping of their own society, let alone the concomitant financial support which such work would provide.

In some ways, then, this book is also a wideranging global economic history of the post-WWII period. Once you've read it, you'll see the fingerprints of this system everywhere... and in itself this knowledge is power.

Christopher Nolan - The Dark Knight (2008)

As a massive fan of the Tim Burton Batman films, I wasn't particularly overwhelmed by the first of the new Christian Bale series, though it certainly didn't approach the monumental awfulness of the Val Kilmer and George Clooney films which had appeared in the interim. Fortunately, however, The Dark Knight had a lot more to offer than Batman Begins.

Heath Ledger really made this film. The role of a psychotic madman is very hard to play in any kind of original or interesting way, but he certainly succeeds here. Neither Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal nor Gary Oldman really had a lot to work with as such in terms of characterisation (though Michael Caine continues to amuse, even if I haven't quite figured out why the butler has a working-class English accent). As with the first film, visually this work is gorgeous, though I preferred the gothicism of Burton's Gotham to the gleaming tower blocks of Nolan's.

However, there are a number of serious flaws. The film sprawls over two and a half hours or so, and both the storyline and the moral issues which are being explored become amorphous and unsatisfactory. A number of scenes simply finish unresolved and hasten us on to the next. Anyone with a low tolerance for long car-chase scenes will exit with a headache (though I've seen worse in terms of interminable action - we're not talking Peter Jackson's King Kong here). Ultimately, however, the largest issue lies in the film's take on morality. An attempt is made to seriously problematise the standard morality of the (super)hero, and in itself this is laudable; it also means that the film carries its own gravitas rather heavily. However, some serious intellectual rigour is required in order to resolve the attempt to complexify something which is usually oversimplified, and it's that which is missing here; the follow-through, in other words. An interesting work, but one which sets its sights too high for the effort made in pursuit of their resolution.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Errol Morris - Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

I'm not sure what it is about Errol Morris. I'd previously been disappointed in his doco Mr. Death, on US execution technician and Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter, because it was so filmic that it destroyed any sense of reality regarding some very serious events - execution in the United States, and the Shoah. I had the same disappointment with SOP, his documentary on the American torturers at Abu Ghraib. It's very slickly made, but it doesn't really tell us very much in the end, while the technique distances us from the reality of events. As an audience, we're so used to slick filmmaking that, to my mind, in order to have some impact a different technique is necessary. At one point, when one of the soldiers involved was telling of the way in which Iraqi prisoners hated pop music more than hiphop or metal (blasted at deafening volume continuously into their cells) the audience started laughing. And this is an audience who presumably were already sensitive enough to the issue of torture and prisoner abuse to come and see the film in the first place.

There are a number of important issues floating around the film, but none of them really got an in-depth exploration.

The film itself consists mainly of interviews with the soldiers who appear in the notorious photos, as well as with Janis Karpinski, the prison commander of Abu Ghraib at the time of the scandals, since demoted. However, there are no interviews with the two men who seem to have been at the very centre of the abuses, Charles Graner and Ivan 'Chip' Frederick; nor any interviews with the Iraqis themselves. Apparently, Morris attempted to, but could not find any to give testimony to their experiences; but this is simply never mentioned in the film, thereby once again 'disappearing' them as people. This means that, rather than the viewer realising that anyone might act this way in such a situation and that it is created purposefully by a system involving much higher powers, it is still possible to think that these two were sadistic monsters, at least to some extent; and to have no sense of the actual suffering involved in such abuses as 'stress positions,' sexual abuse, drowning short of death, and so forth.

The fact that the abuse situation was purposefully created by higher powers, up to the very top level of the US administration, is certainly foregrounded; but despite the title, the structure of the military, and the involvement of non-military bodies including the CIA and private contractors (that is, 'outsourced' civilian torturers) is not explored in any detail. Nor is there any real investigation of the nature of the military as an institution, the dehumanisation that soldiers themselves go through in order to be able to do what is demanded of them, the fact that the US army recruits from the poor and uneducated because it's the only way these people might have an economic chance in the current state of American class affairs.

What the soldiers themselves have to say is initially interesting; in my view, because of the fact that they have been punished, they have been able to create a narrative which ignores the entirety of their culpability and the human impact of their actions on their victims, given that higher-ups have gone unpunished, as if it must be the responsibility of one or the other only, a narrative in which they themselves are pitiable victims. But they are not particularly articulate or reflective, and after half an hour we have essentially heard what they have to say about the events beyond describing particular incidents, leaving an hour and a half or so which becomes quite repetitive.

Finally, there's an interesting issue about photographs themselves which could be explored. The given narrative about photography is that it has an aura of authenticity, but in fact what it shows is not real. This is the line the participants themselves keep putting to the viewer, unconvincingly. But I came out thinking that what I had seen in the Abu Ghraib photos, unlike many photographs, did in fact truly capture the essence of what had happened; there were no imagic illusions here to be disabused of. The point is made, and it's well-taken, that for reality to exist there must be images; if these images had not existed, then the scandal would not necessarily have been such (think of the relatively low profile of the illegal US 'ghost prisons' in Europe and elsewhere), and those involved were being punished, essentially, not for the actions which took place, but for the existence of the photos and particularly for appearing in them.

None of the information is new to anyone who had a passing acquaintance with the case, including the connection of Rumsfeld, the military cover-ups, and other ways in which the scandal was in no way the action of a few 'bad apples at the bottom of the barrel'. The film may demonstrate that the people involved were not sadistic, inhuman monsters as such, but it doesn't get across the vital point (discussed in detail in Philip Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect) that almost all of us would behave the same way in the same situation. I tend to think, in any case, that these points are likely accepted by people who choose to see the film in the first case. I can't imagine those who think torture is justified, or who think that the torture was the work of a few psychos with no connection to the military as a system or to the Bush administration, would choose to watch this film. Given all of this, in an overall sense, I'd call this film a massive missed opportunity.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Timothy J. Gilfoyle - A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of 19th-Century New York (2006)

A Pickpocket's Tale is a non-fiction account of the life of George Appo (1858-1930), a small-time pickpocket, opium addict, and confidence man. The tale of Appo's life gives a fascinating picture of the changes which took place between a Victorian and proto-contemporary criminal underworlds, and the changing understanding of and approach taken by the authorities to the 'problem' of 'crime' over this period.

Appo was in many ways an unlikely and atypical character, which may be part of the reason why records of his life (including his autobiography) survive in enough detail for Gilfoyle to produce a book such as this. His father was a Chinese immigrant, who was at first very successful, but would later be imprisoned for murder (Appo and his father would meet for the last time in prison). Appo himself, despite periods of contact with the licit and illicit areas of Chinese culture, would find a home as a 'good fellow,' a crook who practiced by skill rather than through violence and pre-emptive brutality (both of which Appo was often a victim of), and who took prison time rather than betraying even an enemy to the official forces of policing. Finally, however, Appo would be rejected, unjustly (according to the author) by this world after testifying before the Lexow Committee on police corruption, and would attempt, with little success, to 'go straight' in conjunction with various organisation and individuals working for the purpose of reforming criminals.

Gilfoyle weaves a fascinating story. Appo's experience evokes a New York which in part is more familiar through English Victorian imagery, but from which at the same time can be seen the emergence of a more particular American, noir-ish world of corruption.

Appo's experiences chart the 'evolution' of penitentiaries, from Houses of Refuge for boys, to prison ships designed to instil a working ethic into young male criminals, on which same-sex sexual activity was more or less taken for granted; from the festering conditions, murderous brutality and casual torture of Sing Sing, where the lines between the external world and the prison were always highly nebulous, to Eastern Penitentiary where total isolation was practised, intended to reform the prisoner by allowing them to do nothing but reflect upon their wrongdoing.

Gilfoyle's book contains so many interesting facets that it's hard to list them; for example, the emergence of bohemian culture and the way it brought the middle and upper classes into the ambit of crime (though many bohemian opium dens strictly forbade clientele of Asian origin); common confidence tricks, particularly the highly profitable and highly bureaucratised 'green goods game' in which the con man offered to sell forged currency to the mark, before substituting the cash-filled bag; or the casual, monumental inequity of the 'justice' system throughout the period, and the often naive or counter-productive efforts of organised reformers. A particularly memorable episode is Appo's period on the stage, as sensational plays depicting the criminal underworld became huge popular successes.

In terms of flaws, Gilfoyle becomes perhaps a little too sympathetic to his subject, despite the hideous injustices of his life and the fact that, given his social circumstances and the nature of society at that time, he had little opportunity to become anything else. Due to the nature of the sources, gender relations in the period are little explored. Finally, Appo's testimony is more or less accepted as fact by the author (though he notes that it is substantially corroborated wherever other records exist; but this, of course, applies only to major events). Overall, though, this book is a depiction of a fascinating individual, as well as casting light on the nature of criminal subculture and its interactions with the 'licit' social world, the practices of criminal justice and policing, penitentiary systems, illegality and popular culture, as well as giving an engrossing cultural and social portrayal of life in New York for the underclasses, whether criminal or working, in a period of massive social change.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Infantjoy - Where The Night Goes (2005)

Infantjoy is the creation of James Banbury (of The Auteurs) and British music journalist Paul Morley. Where The Night Goes is definitely a cerebral album, but one which is never pretentious, and which is also eminently listenable. These qualities echo those of its inspiration (whose work is heard 'haunting' the album), Erik Satie.

Musically, the album is - well - I'd say downbeat electronica if that didn't sound like something you'd play in a trendy cafe, which this work is emphatically not. There are glitch influences, occasional elements of a harsher, semi-industrial sound, and also, among the other non-vocal tracks, a cover of Japan's Ghosts (a song which also makes an appearance on another favourite album of mine, Tricky's Maxinquaye). Atmospherically, the music is reminiscent of Japan - dark (or, perhaps, 'grey' in the very bet sense) and understated without being melodramatic or angst-ridden. Satie is here, too, in the nature of the music, in its complexity and elements of the experimental without being 'difficult'; with a concern for form, for loops, repetition and return, for motifs and themes; and in the way in which it lends itself equally to close listening or to being played as 'incidental' or 'ambient' music. A soundtrack to late afternoon, on a rainy day, reading snatches of theory in between drifting in and out of sleep...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Grace Jones - Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions (1998)

I've been familiar with Pull Up To The Bumper and Warm Leatherette for a long time, but it had somehow escaped my notice that the fabulous Ms. Jones (star of such films as Conan The Destroyer and the chronically under-recognised eighties bloodsucker flick Vamp) had an entire art-pop oeuvre which placed her well apart from her contemporaries.

Private Life, a double-disc set, encompasses most of the tracks from the three definitive albums that Jones recorded with the legendary Sly and Robbie at the Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas - namely, Warm Leatherette (1980), Nightclubbing (1981) and Living My Life (1982) (for those who aren't familiar with Jones' oeuvre, the first two consist chiefly of covers, from The Normal to Roxy Music to the Pretenders and Iggy Pop). I'm a big roots reggae fan (if you can stomach the dancehall homophobia), and also a fan of what we might term alt-disco and of eighties synth beats and eighties electrominimalism. So this album, on which the three combine, had me salivating from the first time I played it.

The tracks range through the above genres, adding some soul and funk ; the emotional palette ranges from cold and disconnected, the epitome of knowing, sexualised eighties veneer, to quietly intense, to joyfully psychotic. All of the three albums mentioned above are great, although I prefer the first two, but for some reason this album comes together in a way that none of them do.

The tracks are mostly extended versions and/or dub versions (apparently these are all played live, rather than extended remixes), which really bring something out of the tracks which extends and deepens them and allows them to create an overall soundscape of fragment and repetition, running tracks into each other in a way, unusual for a compilation, which makes the album an experience as a whole rather than a bunch of songs that stand or fall on their individual merits. Even the tracks that I'm not quite so enamoured of fit perfectly into the aesthetic and the listening experience. The mastering itself is crystal clear (necessary for this kind of beaty, extended endeavour where the sound quality is make or break) and foregrounds the breathtaking art of Sly & Robbie.

Particular highlights are the long and dub versions of The Pretenders' Private Life, and of Joy Division's She's Lost Control; long version of Roxy Music's Love Is The Drug; a demo of the Cash classic Ring of Fire; and a soul-inflected cover of the Motown hit The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game (which i'm also, incidentally enamoured of in the version by the underappreciated Mary Wells). Overall, though, the album is an experience which drags you into Grace Jones' twisted, genrebending world and doesn't let go 'til you're grooving your art out.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Arthur Russell - Calling Out of Context

Arthur Russell is one of those musicians who I came across only recently, and couldn't imagine why I hadn't encountered years ago. Frequently name-checked in lists of music by eccentrics and outsiders, Russell (1952-1992) was known as a disco musician and also a cellist who collaborated with such countercultural giants as Philip Glass, David Byrne and Allen Ginsberg. In February, a documentary film on Russell, Wild Combination, was released.

Calling Out Of Context, a 2004 compilation of Russell's more dance-oriented work, is the first of his albums that I've come across, and I'm absolutely addicted to it. I was surprised to find that it was a compilation, given the way in which it hangs together perfectly as an album, both musically and in terms of emotional palette.

The album consist of synthy, dance-beat-oriented, reverb-drenched eighties art-pop melancholia. A reviewer's description, 'New Order meets Nick Drake,' isn't too far off the mark (given the general inadequacy of shorthand description by comparison). Though there's a definite pop flavour, and echoes of more pop-oriented eighties acts like New Order or even the more introspective moments of Jimmy Somerville's work, the songs are not pop songs as such; rather than traditional verse-chorus structures the listener is presented with sometimes-inaudible, haunting phrases drifting in and out of a musical landscape. Indeed, rather than a collection of songs, it's a landscape that's created here, or perhaps a marine-scape (given the frequent references to water and the feeling of the liminal, of surface and depth); a place in which one finds oneself adrift...

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Michael Pollan - In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasure of Eating (2008)

Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

This advice is the gist of Michael Pollan's new book. Pollan argues that the Western diet - concerned with quantity and speed (both of production and consumption) above any other values - exemplified in the United States but fast being adopted everywhere else, brings with it a huge host of lethal diseases, including cancer and diabetes (among many others), which Westerners have come to accept as an inevitable lottery.

Pollan argues, essentially, that the scientific response to nutritional health has been what he terms 'nutritionism' - the reductivist view, related both to capitalism and to the methods of scientific enquiry, that we can isolate particular nutrients, rather than particular foods or particular diets, which promote wellbeing or cause illness. The calling into question of the Western diet itself, or even of any particular food (with its associated lobby group) has become entirely verboten. Meanwhile, the scientifically-proven 'good' and 'bad' nutrients shift constantly, and in the entire period of scientific nutritionism the population has become healthier only in the sense that medical science has become better at prolonging life; but by any other measure, health has declined.

In the modern era, supermarkets are stocked, not with food, but with 'foodlike substances'. Meanwhile, there doesn't seem to be any common denominator, in terms of foodstuffs or nutrition, between traditional diets which kept people healthy, ranging from diets based only on blood and milk, to those entirely based on vegetables, to the well-known 'paradoxes' of the health of the French and Mediterranean peoples whose diets contradict received science.

Given the state of things, it's easy to throw one's hands up and say, all the advice is contradictory and untrustworthy - I give up. In response, Pollan gives some simple, and at times amusing, guidelines as to how to eat, expanded from those mentioned above. For example: don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognise. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, or more than five in number. Eat meals, slowly, at a table.

The overall picture is not necessarily original news to those of us interested in contemporary diet and health; but Pollan's style is easy and captivating, while not being didactic or 'dumbing down' his subject matter, and even for those of us who've put some thought into this issue it reveals (or at least it did for me) areas where I still wasn't questioning my assumptions. Ultimately, this book is not so much condemnatory as an impassioned plea for Westerners to re-enjoy food; to invest an effort, and reap the many rewards, of the whole communal process of growing, shopping, cooking and eating.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Patricia Wentworth - The Gazebo (1958)

I had this novel sitting on my shelf for quite a while, having not read any Wentworth and being unsure that the writing would be up to scratch - but once I opened it up, I enjoyed it a lot as a straightforward little whodunnit of the English old school. Wentworth's 'detective' is Miss Maud Silver, who bears a more than passing resemblance to Miss Marple (Marple's first appearance was in 1927 and Silver's in 1928; so I won't draw any conclusions about the coincidence or otherwise of this resemblance).

The story has all the ingredients of which I'm very fond in crime: an English village setting, a strong period atmosphere (contemporary, of course, at the time of writing), a heavy lashing of understated but cutting manners and cultural elitism, and a little old lady who's a lot sharper than she seems. The story begins with the unexpected return of Nicholas Carey, Althea's old beau; Althea's controlling, hypochondriac mother prevented their marriage five years previously, and Nicholas is determined not to let it happen again. At the same time, there are two mysteriously high offers on the house Althea's father left to her, where she lives with her mother... The murder itself doesn't occur until about a third of the way into the book, and I also appreciated the establishment of setting and character in the intervening period.

The writing itself is by no means outstanding, but Wentworth's modest style sits nicely with her modest ambitions and carries us along into her lace-curtain-concealed intrigues. The gender and class politics are, as they tend to be in this type of work, problematic, but certainly not to an extent which caused me personally any irritation or difficulty with the work overall. Characterisation, again, tended to the shallow at times, particularly in regard to the characters' emotional responses to the events of the story, but no-one expects deep psychological characterisation to be a strength of this type of work.

To a certain extent, I'd see this as a sub-Marple work, but nonetheless as a piece of classic English crime escapism I very much enjoyed it, and I'll definitely be reading more of Wentworth's Miss Silver stories.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

John Carpenter - Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

So I was in the mood for something undemanding and escapist, and boy did I get it... in a good way, that is. Carpenter has made some excellent, highly original films (They Live, In The Mouth Of Madness), some which, whatever you think of them, have earned their place in the genre hall of fame (Halloween) and many absolute shockers of the I-want-that-90-minutes-of-my-life-back variety.

The plot follows truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) as, in pursuit of a gambling debt, he helps his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) try to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend (with the help of Gracie Law [Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City fame]) and, in the process, gets mixed up in an ancient, supernatural turf war in Chinatown, in which he and his motley gang must face down Lo Pan (James Hong), an ancient and evil sorcerer.

To get the criticisms out of the way: the dialogue is atrocious and at times absurd. The set-up of the plot doesn't really make any sense. Most obviously, the story is highly orientalist, even racist, in the way it trades in Fu Manchu stereotypes of the ancient mysticism and evil of the Orient - although at least there are many positively portrayed Asian characters as well as Lo Pan and his evil hordes.

Having said that, I enjoyed this movie a lot. It's full of a raucous energy which I found irresistible - indeed, in that aspect, as well as the orientalism, it reminded me a lot of another fun 80s action/horror/comedy, Gremlins. I'd tie these and other eighties movies with similar subject matter (The Karate Kid and so forth) to a climate in which, on the one hand, there was a lot of fear around the rising Japanese economy, while at the same time there was a growing but shallow interest in manifestations of Asian culture (and the movie does attempt to link the film in to Chinese religions and mythologies with a sprinkling of names and concepts taken from these narratives, naturally completely out of context) - the fear/fascination combination typical of orientalism.

The action is nice but there are no interminable action sequences, the soundtrack is gorgeously classic eighties synth cheese, the costumes have a similar overblown charm, and the near-ubiquitous special effects (this was a big-budget Hollywood production) stand up well considering that the film is now twenty years old. Russell himself plays the typical macho, misogynistic, smart-guy action hero, which is a thing that usually irritates me no end; but here this is balanced by various moments of parody of that figure, played out in the misadventures Russell experiences as he plays the tough guy. The humour is mostly fairly low-grade, but there were a few hilarious moments which actually had me chuckling out loud, a fairly rare occurrence.

Overall, well, if you're the type of person who goes for this kind of thing you know who you are. On the other hand, if you can't overlook the typical flaws of commercial films, particularly action films (and I should add that personally I'm not at all a fan of the 'action' genre as such), or the orientalist character of the work, this is definitely not for you. But considering that I approach Carpenter movies with some trepidation, I had a lot of fun with this film - and it's definitely one for the classics-of-eighties-fantasy-cheese collection.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Evelyn Waugh - Black Mischief (1932)

This isn't the first Waugh I've read, but I was drawn to it not for the author as such, but from an interest in the history of Ethiopia. Of the two works I've previously read, I very much enjoyed The Loved One, with its macabre humour, but I wasn't such a fan of Decline and Fall - and though I haven't read Vile Bodies I've seen the film based on it, Bright Young Things, and though the twenties ambience was fantastic, the moral message, that sensual enjoyment leads to downfall, was unpalatable. Although I'm very much a fan of work dealing with the dark side of the human condition, I've found the underlying bleak anti-humanism of Waugh's work difficult (and this novel was no exception). So I approached the work with both interest and trepidation.

Waugh was a correspondent in Ethiopia, known at the time as Abyssinia (I've yet to read Waugh In Abyssinia or Scoop which also draw on and deal with his experiences there) and, I tracked down this novel after hearing that it was closely based on Ethiopian history. Anyone familiar with that history, though, will find that it's not a close fit, though there are a few resemblances - and Waugh himself claims as much in his foreword (written in 1962, thirty years after the novel itself was published). The plot takes place in the fictional island kingdom of Azania, off the coast of northern Africa, with the ascent to the throne of the modernizing but hopelessly naive Seth, and follows the machinations of the island's inhabitants, particularly the consular officials and court, around the shifting balance of power.

Neither Westerners nor Africans are spared Waugh's caustic satire, but the racism in this book is palpable. In his foreword, Waugh writes that 'thirty years ago it seemed an anachronism that any part of Africa should be independent of European administration. History has not followed what then seemed its natural course'. Seth himself is a figure demonstrating the ridiculousness of Westernised Africans attempting to ape Western ways, and other stereotypes, such as the oily, untrustworthy Armenian who'll sell his wife for a profit, are not lacking. The casual racism of the characters, though also at times making for unpleasant reading, is, however, realistic, I'd say. At the same time, the exploitation of the colonised, and failure to comprehend the suffering of others, on the part of the colonisers is very much in evidence.

Having made the above criticisms, however, I enjoyed the novel, certainly more than Decline and Fall - a contemporary satirical perspective on colonialism in Africa, written by someone with experience of the subject, is fascinating in itself, giving the work a great deal of interest as an historical document, and the black satire is very well done, working nicely in Waugh's spare style. The plot itself is compelling, and anyone who goes gaga over Anglophilic period pieces and comedies of manners, a category in which I very much include myself, will find it a treat on that basis. In sum, a problematic but definitely rewarding novel.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Richard Linklater - A Scanner Darkly (2006)

First up, I'll have to confess to not having read the 1977 novel by Philip K. Dick of the same name. Films based on Dick's works range from the sublime (Blade Runner) to the ridiculous (Minority Report) but even when they're done badly the ideas are always interesting. I'd read some lacklustre reviews of this one, but it pleasantly surprised me.

The first thing to say about the film itself is that, visually, it's stunning. It was shot in live action, and then animated in a 'painterly' style (by a team of artists), a technique which works beautifully with the surreal plot. Indeed, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed the film nearly so much live.

The action takes place 'seven years from now'; a deadly new drug, 'Substance D', is sweeping the USA, leading to a massive government response in terms of criminal law and surveillance. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover agent, living in the drug underworld along with Donna (Winona Ryder), Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and various other unsavoury characters. But Bob is getting addicted to Substance D himself - and meanwhile, New Path, a seemingly-omnipresent corporation running rehabilitation clinics, begins to loom large... The plot is convoluted, containing numerous 'switches' (I was reminded of The Matrix, though ASD is far less fantastical in a scifi sense), but this only adds to the pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and unreality which is the film's chosen metier.

This is a film about drugs with a clear and definite moral take, but not a preachy message. In its approach to the topic, it's also (metaphorically) political in terms of the operation of drugs in society, and seems very contemporary in that regard. Reeves is for the most part good (I'll admit that I have a soft spot for him despite his fairly limited acting skills - but given what's happening to his character, this might be seen as appropriate) although some ponderously portentous monologues are problematic at times. I also found Downey Jr.'s hyperactive character irritating, but not to the point of exasperation. The dystopic setting itself is very nicely done. Overall, by no means a classic, but a very interesting little work - the gorgeous visual spectacle alone is worth the price of admission.