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.