Monday, January 31, 2005

apparently not a prank

Lovecraft in the Library of America? First it seemed a bit odd when Philip Dick became a minor literary light a few years ago (when I started reading his stuff in the late 70s he wasn't even particularly well-respected in SF circles and you could always find his work in used book stores). Then Joyce Carol Oates apparently picked up on Lovecraft somehow and it was his turn though I thought the Penguin Classics editions would be as far as this would go. And as much as I've enjoyed Lovecraft since high school surely there are better writers deserving the LOA treatment. Bradbury is obvious and already well-served (then again so is Lovecraft) but how about Fritz Leiber, who was the stylist that Lovecraft just thought he was? Robert Howard was also a better writer but worked too often in genres that still aren't even half-respectable. Or Robert Bloch perhaps. Maybe better would have been a LOA anthology of The American Weird Tale.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

recent reading

Hey, looks like I’m well on the road to the 50 Book Challenge.

Theodore Vrettos The Elgin Affair: The Abduction of Antiquity’s Greatest Treasures and the Passions It Aroused (1997) - The story of Elgin and the marbles doesn’t lack for events: war, political intrigue, trials, shipwrecks, imprisonment, adultery, disfiguring illness, financial crisis. You’d think it would be impossible to write a bad book about this but Vrettos has tried his best. Working from Lady Elgin’s apparently voluminous letters, Vrettos veers from extremely detailed description to hazy overview, often without much sense of where he’s going. He frequently omits adding any background information (I long ago forgot what metopes are) and sometimes mixes up the chronology (at one point I’m not entirely sure that there’s not a printing error). Bizarrely, the third part of the book appears to be selections from the adultry trial transcripts and depositions, presented suddenly and without any preamble. I can’t imagine what the point would be since this isn’t actual primary documents and it’s so tough to read that it took me a few minutes to figure out who actually won. I’ve heard that William St. Clair’s Lord Elgin and the Marbles is the standard work so maybe that’s a project for this summer.

Atsushi Ueda (ed) The Electric Geisha: Exploring Japan’s Popular Culture (1994) - This collection of little articles runs from pachinko to bureaucracy to sanitation. It’s quick read and moderately interesting but is undermined by the general term-paper bluntness and a sense that the topics were chosen haphazardly. The worst is the piece on manga which barely mentions the subject before veering off on a peculiar and quite unenlightening comparison of manga with the structure of Japanese cities.

Hannah Higgins Fluxus Experience (2002) - It’s not surprising that the daughter of two key Fluxus figures Higgins engages in turf wars, separating Fluxus from Conceptual Art, neo-dada, etc, all the while complaining about practically everybody who’s ever written about it. But this gets tiresome pretty quickly and it doesn’t help that Higgins is one of those clever people who’ve read and listened to a lot and have no hesitation parroting that for us. At one point she approvingly references Jerry Mander’s concept of “deep democracy” which is “necessary for the survival of all humans” and how Fluxus is a model for that. There’s not even the briefest explanation of what deep democracy is or why it might be something worth pursuing. Maybe that's because this view wouldn’t hold up considering that she’s absolutely wrong that democracy is necessary for human survival in view of how many billions of people have lived and will continue to live without it, deep or shallow. She has very few ideas of her own. You have to wonder when she approvingly mentions an artist's book that includes numerous blank pages as a way for readers to interact when actually the past 3000 years of literature have been pretty much people reacting to what they’ve read. Her proposals for education are nothing that good teachers don’t already do, while the idea of institutionalizing rule-breaking is just silly.

Tom Mes Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike (2003) - Useful as a resource but for little else. The bulk of the book consists of detailed, two or three page plot synopses of each Miike film. The good part is that so many of these are difficult or impossible to see (apparently some of them even in Japan) that this information is welcome. On the other hand these are still only plot synopses which are not really conducive to straight reading. Even worse Mes displays no feel for the films as films: Each synopsis could have come straight from a screenplay. He always tosses in a mention of style but it’s clearly an afterthought and doesn’t delve into how the films actually work. His attempt to defend Ichi the Killer from charges of misogyny is so ludicrous that I would considered it tongue-in-cheek if only Mes showed a sense of humor anywhere else in the book. There’s also a very brief biography, a moderately interesting set of newspaper columns Miike wrote about the making of Ichi and an ineptly conducted interview with Miike.

David Lamb The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage (1987, revised edition 2002) - An engaging and sympathetic account of his years in the Arab world by this Los Angeles Time journalist. You couldn’t use it for any serious work because there’s no index and the chapter titles don’t really tell you what they’re about. For instance, there’s a good description of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon but unless you’d read the book how would you know that? Still, Lamb balances personal stories with larger trends, something that too many journalists don’t even try to do.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Best Movies 2004

Usual rules: Anything I saw for the first time between January 1 and December 31, 2004 qualifies.

1. Bright Future (Kiyoshi Kurosawa 2003) - Just imagine if Laurence Sterne had made a film about ghosts, fathers, crime, cities, jellyfish and Che t-shirts.

2. Unknown Pleasures (Jia Jhang-ke 2002) - I’ve never much cared for neo-realism as either theory or art but its re-invention over the past decade in such unlikely places as Iran and North Carolina is something else entirely. In some senses this portrait of dissolute life in a provincial factory town could seem standard-issue neo-realism but its blank spaces, bitter edge and narrative leaps aren’t. Few directors now working can match Jia’s visual sense, especially when he has the audacity to close with one of cinema’s greatest tracking shots.

3. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater 2004) - A sequel to Before Sunrise seemed like a phenomenally bad idea but then there’s a thin line between clever and stupid. This is actually almost more a remake and would be almost meaningless if it wasn’t.

3. Decasia (Bill Morrison 2002) - “I remember the light of darkness doubled / I recall lightning struck itself”.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry 2004) - The anti-realist music video version of Before Sunset.

5. Collateral (Michael Mann 2004) - Psychogeography with a vengeance.

6. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (Guy Maddin 2002) - The story would have appeared to be played long ago out but this startling fever-dream revision shifts trust to the teller.

7. The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci 2003) - Vivre sans temps morts.

8. 24: Season Two (various, 2003) - Though you could make a claim that this is an interlocking exploration of trust and duty, its real strength is the near-flawless orchestration of excess (including probably the highest body count in TV history).

9. Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder 2004) - The original’s satire and all-American existentialism are toned way down but this still burns with the true flame.

10. Derrida (Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering Kofman 2002) - Not really an introduction to Derrida’s work but an uncommonly honest depiction of the life of the mind.

11. Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii 1995) - Like cyberpunk was all that happened.

12. Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa 1926) - One of the most sheerly bonkers movies I’ve ever seen.

13. Suicide Club (Shion Sono 2002) - Though marketed more or less incorrectly as horror, this set of dissolving narratives is pretty much what I’d always hoped Raul Ruiz’s films would be like.

14. The Tracker (Rolf de Heer 2002) - Possibly something of a parable about the dissolution of colonialism, this is also an unusually sharp chamber drama played out among an unusually expansive landscape.

15. Passing Fancy (Yasujiro Ozu 1933) - Like Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, this uncredited remake of The Champ shows just how far you can go with an apparently washed-out story.

Honorable: All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green 2003), Bus 174 (José Padilha 2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore 2004), Firefly pilot episode (Joss Whedon 2002), The Five Obstructions (Jorgen Leth & Lars Von Trier 2003), The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara (Errol Morris 2003), Freaky Friday (Mark S. Waters 2003), Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett 2000), Graveyard of Honor (Kinji Fukasaku 1975), Hero (Zhang Yimou 2002), The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati 1976), I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (Mike Hodges 2003), In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai 2000), Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak 2002), Ju-On: The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu 2003), Kairo / Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa 2001), Mean Girls (Mark S. Waters 2004), The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin 2003), Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright 2004), Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury & Conrad Vernon 2004), The Sopranos: Season Four (various 2002), Spartan (David Mamet 2004), Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi 2004), The Stone Reader (Mark Moskowitz 2002), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (Melvin Van Peebles 1971), Suzhou River (Lou Ye 2000), The Weather Underground (Sam Green & Bill Siegel 2002).

Crimes Against Humanity: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay 2004), Azumi (Ryuhei Kitamura 2003), The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman 2002), The Cooler (Wayne Kramer 2003), Fat Albert (Joel Zwick 2004), Freddy vs. Jason (Ronny Yu 2003), Haute Tension (Alexandre Aja 2003), Intolerable Cruelty (Joel Coen 2003), National Treasure (Jon Turteltaub 2004), Saved! (Brian Dannelly 2004), Scorched (Gavin Grazer 2003), Secret Defense (Jacques Rivette 1998), Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow 2001), So Close (Corey Yuen 2002), Team America: World Police (Trey Parker 2004), Thirteen (Catherine Hardwicke 2003), Thriller: A Cruel Picture (Bo Arne Vibenius 1974), The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet 2003), 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle 2002), Versus: Director’s Cut (Ryuhei Kitamura 2000).

Undecidable: Irreversible (Gaspar Noe 2002).

Beyond all understanding: Addio Zio Tom: Director’s Cut (Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco E. Prosperi 1971) - Probably the most racist “anti-racist” film ever made.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

starting Planet Simpson

I'm only about 70 pages into Chris Turner's Planet Simpson but am already wondering if I'll finish it. So far Turner hasn't turned out to be much of a journalist or a critic. The background story behind The Simpsons' genesis and production is Sunday-feature breezy, lacking a lot of substantive details (there's no mention of Brad Bird so far). It's one thing to claim that the show was hugely popular across various demographics and in various countries but in a book like this (ie a book purporting to be serious and one that has the space) some documentation is needed. Elsewhere, Turner keeps repeating that the show is satirical and irreverant but that's about the extent of his perceptions; admittedly the rest of the book seems to be an expansion on that concept but if the overture is dull and unimaginative why should we expect the following movements to be any different? Though I would have expected anybody writing at length on satire to have tossed in names like Swift and Juvenal purely on reflex Turner didn't bother. That's not a bit omission if they were purely coloring but when he's discussing the idea of "riffing" and mentions a specific episode's dream sequence but fails to note that this sequence refers to Little Nemo and the Beatles then he's also failing to make his own argument about the riffing creating a web of references. Again maybe this is more fully explored later but hey there's no index!

One little fannish stupidity is that he refers to episodes by production number which as he cheerfully admits reveal pretty much nothing about the episode or its place in the chronology. Turner claims that this is more convenient than repeating lengthy episode titles constantly and while I think (or hope) that he's being tongue-in-cheek because a few pages later he reduces a title to its first couple of words during repetition as nearly all critics do, this is still a needless barrier to reading the book.

By the way, I'm about fed up with the placement of footnotes. With computerized typesetting and page layout, it should be an easy task to put any notes of commentary at the bottom of the page where they're needed. I actually think even simple reference notes should go there but what the heck leave them at the back. Planet Simpson has the worst of all worlds because the notes are at the end of each chapter. Do people that design books (or judging from what he's written apparently Turner as well) not actually read books? Do they have no idea how inconvenient it is to hunt for the end of a chapter to read a comment?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Bad Book Covers

Don't know why more people haven't covered this.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Pazz & Jop

For the first time in about a decade I didn't vote in the Pazz & Jop poll. The deadline was last Monday (Jan 3) and on Sunday I started thinking about it but eventually left it alone. There are a couple of reasons: The first is that this is also the first year in about 22 or 23 that I didn't publish anything about music (except a bit on this blog which doesn't really count). Sorta connected to that I didn't completely keep up with current musical events, at least not in the P&J-accepted way by contintually reviewing new stuff, checking out radio, reading magazines, etc. I actually listened constantly but when one of my faves of 2004 was Mahler's First Symphony, well, I haven't been exactly on the cutting edge.

If I had voted I probably would have included Goodbye Babylon, Franz Ferdinand, the new Sonic Youth, Mekons and Fennesz albums, maybe the Bad Plus or Rough Guide to the Music of Ethiopia, probably recent Matthew Shipp but I couldn't find my copies to double-check those, maybe Isaiah Owens, Caetano Veloso, that live Hound Dog Taylor, etc. I'm still sifting through Smile which didn't entirely convince me the first couple of listens and raves from other critics that I thought very uneven were Madvillain, Eminem, N.E.R.D. The Gray Album and the Streets.

Actually for me the most important musical event of the year was Kyle Gann's Postclassic Radio which at times edgec out my beloved WFMU for time. Postclassic has been a continual revelation with an unusually high percentage of music I'd want to hear again.

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Don't think I posted this before but my review of the Creature from the Black Lagoon Legacy Collection is up on the TCM website.

Sunday, January 2, 2005

January DVD releases

Anybody interested can see my highly selective list at Screensite, a site for film academics (though I think anybody interested in film will find something worthwhile on the list).