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...