Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Another day, another list

This time it's Amazon's 100 Greatest Indie Rock Albums of All Time which may have been out for a while (it's undated) but I just found it and then about an hour later somebody emailed me the link. This time I'm not counting how many I've heard, partly because it'd be kinda low and partly because oddly enough I'm just not that interested.

For one thing, there are a number of bands that I don't remember even running across the name before: The Microphones, Panda Bear, Portugal the Man. (Boy that last one is a terrible name.) And there are far more I've heard just a track or two. Mainly this is because even though I listen to a lot of new music, my idea of "new" is no longer "recently released independent label rock" especially when it's garbage stuff like Cat Power or Bonnie "Prince" Billy or Tortoise. (Guided by Voices always seemed like an elaborate prank.) A few years ago I stopped trying to "keep up" with whatever's current because there was just no point - no longer reviewing and so much of it is just treading water. Innovation is never a requirement for good art but freshness certainly is.

Oh, there's definitely first-rate stuff here: Sonic Youth, Pavement, Sleater-Kinney, The Fall, Replacements, Stereolab, Half Japanese (yay!), etc. But you'll notice those are mostly older (or older-ish) bands. I like the Shins and White Stripes and Spoon and Bright Eyes and Arcade Fire and so forth just fine but am not blown away by any of them. But why leave out SST, Slash, Subterranean, ZE, Posh Boy or dozens of other labels that released stuff decidedly better than what's here? Probably some of it isn't available (Human Switchboard's fantastic Who's Landing in My Hangar? for instance) but maybe also because Amazon wanted it to seem up-to-date. They are after all selling the music.

Monday, March 30, 2009

various movies

Bells Are Ringing (Vincente Minnelli 1960) - A landmark of sorts: Judy Holliday's last film, Arthur Freed's last musical and Minnelli's next-to-last musical. Comden & Green wrote the original for Holliday but I didn't know that until after seeing it because one of the first comments was that she was miscast. I don't know what the Broadway production was like but it's been somewhat clumsily adapted to film - Holliday's final solo could just as well have been filmed on stage. Holliday's continual stream of gags undercuts what little serious spine is in the story to start while she sometimes has trouble getting over what she has to do. Dean Martin just wanders (playing a guy who everybody thinks will no longer be successful now that his partner is gone - wonder if that bit was in the original). Still, there are two memorable novelty numbers and some of the story songs hold their own. Frank Gorshin's Brando parody is fantastic.

The Leech Woman (Edward Dein 1960) - Even at 77 minutes this is heavily padded by stock footage and some of the worst old-age makeup ever filmed. In fact I didn't first understand that the lead actress was even supposed to be old, the makeup was that confusing. Otherwise the only other notable point about the film is how unpleasant all the characters are. It opens with a nasty marital shouting match and from there we see everybody lie, cheat, double-cross and eventually kill. The only people that don't participate are the two police detectives at the end and that's probably because they aren't on screen long enough. Oh, and there are no leeches in the film.

Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter 1941) - Accounts I've read of the original Broadway production make it sound like a nearly unbelievable experience - vaudeville anarchy pushed into near-Happening chaos. The first section of the film appears to be a fairly straight documentation of that approach before settling into something like a backstage/lets-do-a-show musical. Like so many early Marx Bros films, Hellzapoppin' tends to flag when Olsen & Johnson aren't on-screen but there's still enough inventive material (including viewers watching the film being re-edited to change the story) that it makes most modern comedies still seem timid.

Lyrical Nitrate (Peter Delpeut 1991) - This assemblage of silent film fragments preserved in a Dutch archive does have a kind of mystery that you might expect when they're removed from any narrative. Still, you can't help but wonder what could have contained that castaway footage or want to see the entire film that held the striking Crucifixion sequence. Overall it feels like a test-run for Bill Morrison's stunning Decasia.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Guardian's 1000 Novels

I've mentioned before something that might be called listophilia - give me a list and it's time to check up how I did. So for The Guardian's "1000 novels everyone must read: the definitive list" I can't help but do a quick count: 198. Those are ones I'm sure about - didn't I read The Guns of Navarone in junior high? Absolute Beginners right after college? Or am I confusing the movies? Am almost positive I read The Female Man and both those Tom Sharpe novels but since I remember pretty much nothing about them they don't count.

The list itself is a bit odd. Done they claim by the "Review team and a panel of expert judges" it's hard to imagine this being very useful. Who really needs to read Finnegans Wake? Or for that matter The Bourne Identity? If the first is of any use to you then you already know about it and has anybody anywhere ever claimed a Ludlum book is essential in any sense? La Comedie Humaine is of course a cheat since it's not a novel but a gigantic, loosely connected group of novels that I think has only been translated into English once (though the better-known individual ones have been several times). Why give Perec's books their French titles instead of the English translations? Why would Brewster's Millions be included? Are there really five (five!) essential Michael Dibdin novels? Interesting that there are Asterix and Tintin books but no Alan Moore or other comics except Maus and Jimmy Corrigan (though maybe I overlooked one or two).

It's really not the choices and details that I'm questioning - I'd do that to a list I made myself. But what purpose will anybody get out of this? "Hey honey, can you grab me some of those Thomas Love Peacock books while you're out? Thanks a bunch." Probably 100 choices seemed too small and 500 not round enough a number. So a 1000.

One of the points of any such list is that the biases and unstated criteria should be somewhat visible so that any reader can make adjustments. Somebody who considers Saul Bellow a major writer will also over-estimate similar work as far as I'm concerned so I don't need to trouble about them. Or if they're including R.A. Lafferty (not here) then I'll pay more attention to their other choices. But a list this size and with a seemingly almost random selection process doesn't allow for any of that. That's where the listophilia stops.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The WB 150

The big news in film buff circles this week was the launch of The Warner Archive, WB's press-on-demand DVD series. Designed to fill the gap for titles that have real potential buyers but so few that by their terms a conventional release isn't worth the trouble, the Archive's original offering of 150 titles is mixed bag. Among such recent outings as Yes Giorgio and the Rob Lowe Oxford Blues are some Garbo silents, films from Boetticher, Tourneur, Mann, Borzage, Coppola, Cukor and others.

I was going to point out some of the other oddities or worthy titles except that sometime over the past couple of days the website has become so difficult to navigate that it's not worth the trouble. Tabbing no longer works and neither can you open a specific film into a new window. So now it's impossible to review a group of films quickly. The site is also moving very slowly and the relentless pop-ups (which I'm having to close individually) are a headache. Originally there was also a page with all the releases together but now they're being separated into smaller groupings that I'm forced to "browse". There may still be an overview page but if I have to hunt for it then what's the point?

At $20 per disc and $15 for a download I wonder how many takers there will be. WB at first said that these aren't DVD-Rs but it turns out that in fact that's exactly what they are. WB was just trying to say these won't be burned with the equivalent of a home DVD burners but a more professional system but in the end the actual media is DVD-R. I also haven't been able to find out what format and size the downloads are - the info may be in the FAQ but it's way too long for me to poke through for something I'm not actually going to do.

The Archive is at least a step in the right direction and I can only hope other studios follow suit. But at that price and the barriers they're placing to ordering I'm just going to hope these show up on Netflix.

Friday, March 27, 2009

What is a geek?

We had a book at work several months ago that was a group of tests to determine your geek-ness. I can't find the exact title or anything that really resembles it on Amazon but the book was clearly not for or even about geeks. It was a bunch of cliches that focused on Star Trek/Wars, computers and supposed social awkwardness of geeks. It's easy to believe the author(s) had never even met a RL geek.

I got hooked on The Big Bang Theory about the same time. For some reason I had watched a couple of episodes and thought here were TV people who actually know geeks but after having now seen all the episodes I realize these are still mostly Hollywood cliche geeks and don't know where I got that original impression. However, somebody on the staff clearly understands the geek or at least observes some of them - the Doppler shift Halloween costume is great and the response to Penny's question about why they're building a computer application to turn off lights halfway around the world ("because we can") very nearly sums up an important aspect of geek thought.

The Onion's AV Club recently added a featured called Gateways to Geekery that's a bit of an odd mix. When did power pop and French New Wave become geek loci? Or Universal horror films? Certainly there are different types of geeks but these topics don't seem quite overlapping enough. But otherwise the AV Club does understand that it's not the actual details that makes a geek but rather ways of thinking. These topics all, or mostly, share a status of being outside mainstream US pop culture but also having a fairly substantial body of information to master. The actual topics do matter to some extent - after all having geek-level intimacy with the intricacies of chess, embroidery and Provencal poetry still won't make you a geek. But if that chess embroidering poet can install their own hard drive while telling you what the different colors of Kryptonite do then you might have an actual geek.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Where is the comic business going?

Are we seeing the beginning of the end for the mainstream comic business? Last summer two of the highest grossing films were based on comics but neither Marvel nor DC could translate that into sales - each month there's still barely a handful of titles that sell over 100K copies. They're currently raising prices of select titles to $3.99 which will certainly lower sales. There's no indication they considered smaller price jumps (to $3.25 for example), different quality paper and printing, B&W (made marketable by manga), anthology series also along the lines of manga, or any of several alternatives. (Other than digital which is uncertain and not well done for now.)

But I think their biggest problem--the one that causes all the others--is that they're focusing on the fans. Now that doesn't sound so bad but over the past three decades mainstream comics has created a defensive posture designed to repel outsiders and now that there's the opportunity and interest to reach those outsiders the business is just curling up more tightly. A guy at work and I have been discussing this for months and there's a lot of net commentary so I don't think these are eccentric opinions.

How hard could it have been to put the dozen best Iron Man stories into a tpb and have it in mainstream stores last summer? Instead anybody who walked out of the movie and into Borders' graphic novel section would have been confronted with one of the Essential volumes which isn't quite what they were looking for or tpbs of the current series which is even more confusing. (Is his armor alive? What's SHIELD? All changed now but that was status quo last summer.) There actually are some "greatest" books for Batman but if there was any marketing to take advantage of The Dark Knight I missed it. Over the past few years both Marvel and DC have been successful in getting product (even the "pamphlets" themselves) into mass stores but apparently that's still distasteful to them.

But look at the recent New Krypton storyline. It ran through three DC titles which is frustrating in itself but more bizarre was the decision to include three one-shots as part of the main storyline. Store owners have reported that many interested readers overlooked these one-shots because the marketing just wasn't clear - more to the point is why the one-shots even existed. One of them, the Guardian issue, really had no story that needed to be told or at the most could have taken up a page or two somewhere else. I'm glad a friend let me read these because I would have been annoyed to have paid money for them. In fact it was the sheer awfulness of the Infinite Crisis spin-offs that started me cutting back on mainstream comics.

Or check the increasingly frequent delays in series. The Kevin Smith and Ultimate Hulk vs Wolverine have become almost legendary by now but even big lynchpin events like Final Crisis and Civil War had big delays. The guy who runs my local comic store says that while this may seem somewhat fannish to complain it really does have a direct effect on his business and on the overall sales. Again, is it such a tough task to have all the scripts and most of the art done before starting? Especially with a mini-series this seems inexcusable but it's become SOP. I'm still a little bitter about the Grant Morrison Authority - an enormous publicity blitz that led to a first issue with no apparent connection to the characters, a second issue trickling out months later that I never even saw and then nothing.

Now I do understand what Marvel & DC are trying to do. The big events do indeed drive sales (most of those above-100K titles are event-related) and having the special one-shots and limited series and so forth not only appeal to the collector that's in all of us who read these things frequently but they also allow different types of stories (at least in theory - neither company is in a hurry to invite Bagge or Kieth back into their worlds). For all its flaws I thought Secret Invasion handled this about as well as we can expect: a fairly self-contained main story and then we can pick up any of the spin-offs or related series as we please. (Remember one of the key events in Infinite Crisis being stuck in an issue of Wonder Woman when nobody was reading that series? The manager at my comics store actually told me to just stand there and read it instead of buying.)

It's probably not an accident that the current superhero comics I enjoy the most are the kids series such as Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC (though the latter has been gutted recently). They're usually clever, well-made, contained in one issue and most importantly have that kind of goofy Silver Age vibe that got me hooked all those years ago. This isn't completely nostalgia - I do still want to see a Morrison Authority and love Brubaker and Vaughan's work, Bendis usually, Warren Ellis is finally turning into a decent writer, and the other creators doing something that--I hesitate to even put it this way--is "grown up". I sure don't want to see Ware or Tomine or Brunetti doing superheroes but so far the business is only letting TV writers onto their playground rather than some of the creators who really understand comics. Bagge's Sweatshop was always going to be a limited-appeal title but what if it had been published as a few manga-type books sort of like Scott Pilgrim? Manga and hugely increased distribution opportunities have created the potential for comics to move seriously into the mainstream (again) but so far Marvel and DC (and unfortunately too many smaller companies following their lead) aren't willing to take the leap with different formats or maybe more importantly different types of stories.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lost on Planet China

J. Maarten Troost's Lost on Planet China is like many recent travel books aiming for amusement and a few chuckles by constant complaint rather than much real depth. Just check out its full title: Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid (though the paperback has shortened that to Or How I Learned to Love Live Squid). The giveaway of course is that "mystifying" and the live squid hook. Travel books have always focused on the different and the odd, in some sense that's a major reason for their existence. Who wants to read about somebody going halfway around the world only to discover that whoever is there is just like us?

But Troost isn't even entirely concerned with this but rather all his own problems in China: it's dirty, it's very very dirty, Chinese don't care about foreigners, he has trouble mastering haggling, train stations are unbelievably crowded, his problems communicating, etc. He says learning Mandarin was too difficult and claims to have picked up only a few words but I suspect he could do more than that. And he describes going to get a therapeutic massage after a rough day only to discover the masseuse is a hooker - this might be just an "oops" moment but Troost has mentioned the openness and ubiquity of prostitution and "massages" that I find it impossible to believe that he didn't know what would happen. Yeah yeah traveling is tough but how much of that do we really need?

Troost isn't completely self-centered of course so overall Lost on Planet China does work as travel narrative. Bits of history are thrown in when appropriate, musings about the radical changes in China, some strange-to-non-Chinese customs, etc - all the stuff you might expect. But it's cramped by Troost not meeting many actual Chinese. He only mentions a few by name and they rarely last more than a couple of pages - we learn far more about his Republican traveling companion or Sacramento home life than specific Chinese people. This does give the book a touristy, high-spots-only feel even though of course Troost has nothing but contempt for tourists. He does take a brief sidetrip to Lhasa and finds Tibetans a remarkably (and he does indeed remark on remarking on it) cheerful and outgoing people, not surprising really.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tempest meet teapot

In a bookstore ran across a new anthology called American Hybrid that looked like it might be very interesting or very tedious: "the long-acknowledged 'fundamental division' between experimental and traditional is disappearing in American poetry in favor of hybrid approaches that blend trends from accessible lyricism to linguistic exploration." Yeah yeah doesn't sound promising but that's just jacket copy and I have hopes for Oulipo sonnets or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E rondeaux. Will probably get some stuff that's really cool and a lot more that's an effort to wade through but until this shows up at my library I won't know.

But trying to find a table of contents (still missing - not on Amazon or publisher site or elsewhere yet) I ran across some blog comments that are striking for the intensity that they attack or defend a book that they haven't read. You can check blog posts here and here and a more sedate one here. Normally I wouldn't do these kind of "blind" links but eh why not?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Where did the Sci Fi Channel go?

Marketing people surely must have been put on Earth to amuse the rest of us. If you've spent any time around them or read their books & interviews you'll see that they're much like astrologers - intent on meaningless calculations, claiming a nonexistant influence, skillful at pretending they have superior knowledge. The difference obviously is that astrologers are mostly harmless while marketing folk can create some real damage.

The Sci Fi Channel name change isn't quite a case in point - the damage there was done a while back when they started ignoring most true SF in favor of ghost hunters and Leprechaun movie marathons. The NYT has a fairly extensive piece on the change (if you don't have a password go to BugMeNot) though you can get the basic info elsewhere.

For one thing I wonder about "syfy" which I thought would be pronounced "siffy" - if you have to do an ad campaign for the correct pronounciation of your new name then there's likely to be some trouble. At least the SFC people are honest that they wanted something they could trademark though really was this the best they could do? Certainly they seem to have paid enough money for it but then that's the curse of marketing - companies think that's what they have to do when really a couple of people during a coffee break could have come up with SyFy.

But SFC is hardly the only cable channel to go down the tubes. TechTV of course vanished years ago into the horrid G4 but we've also seen Food TV relentlessly dumbed down, the History Channel start to avoid history, VH1 become just another celeb outlet. And people wonder why I don't have cable.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

assorted poetry

Wendy Cope Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986) - Cope's first book is a mix of usually spot-on parodies and usually decent personal revelations (unless I'm mistaking more parody for honesty). She often uses set forms, villanelles seem most common, but the one that I really love is "Waste Land Limericks":
In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clarivoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me -
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.

Eliot and Wordsworth nursery rhymes also work well and the title poem is a brief gag. Included is some work by her alter ego Mr. Strugnell, a deliberately awful but not unreadable poet.

Lisel Mueller The Need to Hold Still (1980) - I ran across a real jawdropping poem of Mueller's in Garrison Keillor's Good Poems and immediately found a collection. Unfortunately she turns out to be a real hit-and-miss writer. For every "For a Thirteenth Birthday" that intertwines maturing, aesthetic ways of looking at the world and what might be called "realism" Mueller gives us a few others that should have stayed in a workbook. "Picking Raspberries", for instance, starts "Once the thicket opens / and lets you enter / and the first berry dissolves on your tongue" and never improves from there. A longish piece about Mary Shelley never rises above "she had a hard life" while repeating biographical info. Mueller is somebody who would really benefit from a Selected Poems (assuming they were well-selected - obviously she can't be trusted to do it) but not a Collected Poems.

Tomaz Salamun The Selected Poems of Tomaz Salamun (1988) - This comprises some translations from 1973 and 74 chapbooks done while Salamun was in Iowa along with recent translations by Charles Simic. I have no idea what any of the dates are so that the recent translations could actually be older poems but still I think this gets more interesting as it goes along. Salamun (there should be some diacritical marks in his name but I'm not about to look them up) draws from surrealism and influences like Rimbaud but is too grounded to really be called visionary. Several poems are boastful ("Tomaz Salmun you are a genius / you are wonderful you are a joy to behold") almost like blues lyrics while others are list poems. (The introduction doesn't give any information about what type of form these poems had in the original language.) Others work with nonsequiturs or build stray images around a central theme. A few are quite striking but the bulk seems a bit tossed off.

Jaime Saenz The Night (1982, English trans. 2007) - Bolivian Saenz was certainly a colorful character even if it seems half calculation and half true dementia - pet panther, hiding human body parts under his bed, long trawls through dingy bars, etc. He apparently wrote in many forms (novels, criticism, etc) but his poetry has just started being translated the past few years. The Night is a book-length work, attempting a kind of fever dream vision though to me it sometimes seems a bit forced and not a coherent whole. Perhaps a second reading is in order but why a second based merely on a "perhaps"? The Night isn't in a standard form (or at least none I recognize). Each poetic line is very long, taking up usually two to three lines of type, and each separated by space from the next. The result is more a succession of moments rather than interwoven verse, maybe appropriate for a journey through the night, maybe not. There are cetainly effective moments and enough of them that I'm planning to check out the selected poems.

Benjamin Peret Death to the Pigs, and Other Writings (1988) - Apparently the first English-language collection of Peret and originally published by the indispensible Atlas Press as a "selected writing" (with the slight title change for the US edition from University of Nebraska). The biographical introduction is amazing - Peret is somebody whose full biography would be a blast even if you weren't familiar with his work. But it's that work filling the rest of the book and a bit of a let-down. The poetry tends to be like much other surrealist poetry and instead of being liberating just becomes a long playground taunt where one thing after another is mentioned and that's it. More successful is "Death to the Pigs and the Field of Battle", labelled as a novel though it's certainly not. The images in constant flux work better in prose, at least for me, because there's a flow and a connection, however meaningless. In fact much of "Death" could easily be turned into an animated film, consisting as it does of descriptions of physical transformations. A collaboration with Andre Breton on "Calendar of Tolerable Inventions from Around the World" is a hoot - practically a parody of trivia books before such a thing would be likely. The book closes with a few letters and "polemics".

Saturday, March 21, 2009


There's an interesting piece in an old issue of The Boston Review tracing what happened to Richard Yates' reputation. Revolutionary Road is one of those books I've always heard great things about and meant to read but is so far down the list that in reality I'm unlikely to ever crack the covers. While this piece doesn't quite change that it does fit in with things like Kapsis' Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation and Rodden's George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation. I vaguely remember similar books, maybe one about Defoe, but there are numerous other examples of revived reputation (Donne, Bach, Melville, Faulkner) and even more of declining ones (though the examples there by their very nature tend to be more obscure - does anybody read St-John Perse anymore? Marquand?).

This is a tangled nexus of commerce, taste and lately academia though the artists aren't completely blameless. After watching Match Point a friend and I wondered how somebody can completely lose their way - Allen's last decent film was 1999's Sweet and Lowdown and his last better-than-decent was 1992's Husbands and Wives and the pickings are slim even before that. Had we over-rated Allen and he was never really that good? Had he run out of films he really wanted to make but continued anyway? Rock music is filled of course with people who peak early but it's a form dominated by what can be called inspiration; it's not designed for long exploration unlike jazz where even though musicians can audibly lose their chops as they age, they can also improve their music.

Not sure that this ties together in any way but....

Friday, March 20, 2009

Perdido Street Station

[Spoiler warning - usually don't bother but I'll be revealing some major, uh, revelations.]

China Miéville's Perdido Street Station (2000) is a messy, moderately imaginative novel that's acquired a reputation out of proportion to its real achievements. It's a self-conscious mix of fantasy and SF elements - the main threats are quasi-Lovecraftean entities who eat dreams and a possibly renegade AI just as the two main characters (up to a point, noted below) are an artist and a scientist. Basic story is that Isaac the scientist is approached by Yag, a bird-man who was convicted of an unnamed crime and had his wings removed, to find a way for Yag to fly again. From this everything else starts to build even though the main conflict is completely accidental to this initial purpose.

And that twist, which occurs nearly at the half-way point, is one of the problems. The entire first 200 pages are an elaborate stage setting that really shouldn't have been but a quarter of that length. It's no revelation that editors today don't want to do the real work of editing but don't at least some of them remember Max Perkins? The other issue is that the second half is mostly a completely different kind of book, more an adventure story about stopping unstoppable monsters. I'm not completely joking by saying I think you could start reading at page 150 and still get the full impact.

Like so many F&SF writers before him Miéville has become too fond of his setting for the book's good. When he wanders off on a brief summary of some neighborhood's history it's almost like he was writing a Rough Guide and though many people say the book reminded them of Dickens (some of those are even excerpted for blurbs) that's only superficial. Dickens was a master at secondary characters but Miéville rarely creates anybody who doesn't play some part in the overall plot - thus the gangster who appears completely unrelated is an important element later, we're treated to a lengthy (and completely irrelevant) description of one of the mayor's advisor's secret life while hunting the monsters, a stray journalist becomes a key character (while the artist fades away). Even a trio of mercenaries that are basically just plausibility support get a recount of how they met. This is one author who really needs to be studying Hemingway. Still, having few true secondary characters for a book this long creates an oddly compact feel, especially when he should be going for expansive. Lots of writers were able to do this even better at shorter lengths - Leiber, Vance, Harrison, Moorcock, etc - but sometimes writers don't learn the real lessons.

I would also recommend not expecting Perdido Street Station to be as unusual as you may have heard. Miéville is often lumped in with the New Weird movement/tendency (though apparently everybody in that lump claims they're actually not part of it) but there's not a lot genuinely weird about this. OK, the artist character does have a person's body and an entire insect for an head while a gigantic sentient spider fills a trickster god role but really the whole book is fairly conventional fantasy, almost steampunkish. The city does resemble a 19th century London, the goverment is a straight-forward police state, professors teach at a recognizable university, people ride trains and carriages, etc. Magic is treated as a kind of science. And so not a weird effect at all except in descriptions of the non-human ("xenian") races.

The real kicker, though, is the closing sections of the book where another bird-person appears to reveal Yag's crime - this second bird-person appearance is so implausible that Miéville has his character comment on it. Why not have Yag reveal this? As it turns out Yag is a rapist so while Isaac now has a way to allow him to fly he's in the dilemma of whether to not do it because of Yag's crime or do it because Yag was a client and a good friend, stood by Isaac during extremely tough times, saved the city from certain death as well as separately saving Isaac's girlfriend. This being a 2000 novel we already know what the decision will be but the whole thing is so oddly contrived that I can't but wonder what Miéville was thinking. There's nothing else in the novel that's really a moral decision (questions of racism are brought up in the Isaac-artist relationship but Miéville apparently does that just to denounce the small-minded, who incidentally we don't meet). Did Miéville honestly think he was doing any hard work here? Did he want a "everything you know was wrong" moment? Did he just feel there needed a better closure to the whole book?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock

Now here's an amazing blog. Rock was a botanist/anthropologist/scholar of the type and energy and wide interests that just don't seem to exist any more (check out his Wikipedia entry). I saw a passing reference to a piece Bruce Chatwin wrote about him calling one of Rock's books the most eccentric ever published by the Harvard University Press (1948's two-volume The Ancient Na-khi Kingdom of Southwest China which is in my library so I'll probably take a look but unless it's Corvo eccentric likely will never read).

Anyway, this four-years-and-counting blog has some of Rock's original photos along with lots (and I mean lots) of current ones by the blogger, apparently an Australia-based Brit. I do kinda wish there was a bit more text but that doesn't matter very much.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Peter Tscherkassky

Austrian filmmaker Tscherkassky's work reminds me of Paul Sharits filtered through Ken Jacobs. I've seen about a third of them and they're all manipulated found footage, often color turned to B&W and with sprocket holes visible as the image skitters loose from its original frame. (His first film, unseen by me, was yet another Aktionist document; Tscherkassky has also written about Kren.) The images overlap, get sliced & rewoven, sections darkened while accompanied usually by a minimal soundtrack of clicks and whirrs like a projector periodically malfunctioning. My favorite is 2005's Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine which reworks sections of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly into a cryptic narrative that soon dissolves among swiftly blurring images. Almost as good is 1999's Outer Space which uses Barbara Hershey from some obscure movie (turns out to be The Entity which I saw so long ago as to have forgotten) as she enters various rooms in a house, again with hints of a story but mostly like watching the world clatter apart. Some of the others don't always come together, most particularly 1985's Manufraktur which is similar to the others but uses what appear to be car commercials and the like - Tscherkassky needs something more potentially ambiguous as a source.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What about e-books?

There's an article from the RAND Corp by John Warren called "Innovation and the Future of e-Books" that you can read for free. It's admirably succinct and for the most part seems pretty reasonable though not quite reasonable enough to be believable. Let's start with:

* It's a bit too tech-future gung-ho. When talking about responses from Frankfurt attendees he derides their "head-in-the-sand thinking" apparently just because they don't see a shiny future in e-books. (It's worth pointing out that though the specific numbers create the illusion of statistics these are really just poll answers - there's no extrapolation, no hard data.) The next paragraph says they (or at least the publishing business) should be learning from the music business but that's an odd statement. He doesn't point out that the decline of music labels can be directly attributed to their mishandling of first CDs and then downloads. His comparison to the music business finding other revenue opportunities seems barely applicable to the book business or if it is then he needs to do something more than pointing out what the music business has done (one of which - "sales of single songs" - is in fact the oldest type of music revenue).

* He assumes that enhancement is actually an advantage for books. The most extreme is mentioning an e-book of Pride and Prejudice that includes a filmography, reviews, recipes and illustrations, apparently oblivious that a regular book can do exactly the same thing. Norton Critical Editions is the most thorough but hardly the only example. In fact, all these "enhancements" aren't necessarily enhancements - in the textbook market price is actually more important. (And for anybody reading this who doesn't know me personally, that's my day job so I'm very familiar with it.) I'm not saying this stuff shouldn't be there but it's not necessarily a bonus.

* The example of RAND's own I Want You with a DVD of primary source materials isn't appropriate for the regular book market as he seems to realize later. 2300 documents isn't an enhancement, isn't even much of an object. You'll have to be far more than even strongly interested in the subject to even have a use for that, possibly without experience in handling or interpreting such material it might even be a barrier.

* Warren later uses the buzzword "mash-up" to mention "combinations of disparate bits of digital video, audio, text, and graphics refashioned into something new" while again assuming that this is a good replacement for traditional books. While I certainly would like to see things like this, they will be something different. Plopping all this stuff on top of Madame Bovary or Gravity's Rainbow (or you shudder to think, Pound's Cantos) can't in any way improve them, can actually only distract. And yes I do find the books glossing Gravity's Rainbow and Zak Smith's visual response to be worthwhile but they're secondary, optional sources.

* The Book of Disquiet isn't a novel and doesn't exactly "play with hypertext form". It's actually more like Leaves of Grass or Aubrey's Brief Lives that doesn't exist in anything like a final form, leaving an enormous amount of organization and sorting up to the editor. I'm guessing most readers go through editions of these books front to back even when they're aware of the background. (And even though Warren wasn't aiming for completeness how could he leave out B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates which was recently reissued?)

* For that matter when discussing hypertext did he omit computer games because they aren't purely text? (Guess Infocom is too long gone to count.) These fill the "choose your own adventure" model more than any book did.

* Hypertext has its limitations for a much more fundamental reason - most of us don't have any reason to do the work to create something of lesser value. I can write a sonnet but I can't write anything like Shelley's or Donne's but even if I could that doesn't mean I wouldn't want to read theirs. I can follow some hypertext story or remix a song but in the end it's extremely unlikely that this is as satisfying on any level as reading a completed story or hearing a finished song. Anybody who's ever listened to an entire album of remixes knows this is true. That's why I mentioned computer games above. The assumption with hypertext and remixes is that the mere fact of hypertext and remixing has its own value but computer game creators know there has to be a reason. This is hypertext in the pretty limited area Warren starts with - once he moves to the Web, Wikipedia and so forth hypertext is different because it actually does have a purpose. (Though if you've ever stumble on one of those sites that links almost every noun to someplace else you'll realize there are limits - even Wikipedia is guilty of this when it links years.) Warren seems to think wikifiction is a good or at least interesting idea - I find it almost impossible to expect anything worthwhile to be created that way. There are after all several round-robin novels from at least the late 19th century onward and none of them are anything more than curiosities.

* Warren does mention that e-books are a solution without a problem. Sure they're going to be more prominent but for the moment they're more expensive, more fragile, less stable, harder to read and perhaps simply inferior. Some or most of this will be resolved--I don't expect us to shift to Kindles or Sony Readers so much as see a convergence of readers with computers instead of separate dedicated devices--but it's far from foregone that e-books will replace physical books. Music was always independent of technology as far as listeners were concerned - in just my lifetime we've had LPs, 45s, reel-to-reel, 8-tracks, radio, Internet radio, CDs, MP3s. Shifting was easy, especially when MP3s offered a clear and present advantage (and certainly some disadvantages such as sound quality that most people didn't particularly care about). The situation with books isn't that we haven't reached such a tipping point but that while lots of commentators think that we will, nobody can exactly envision what that might be. The most likely outcome seems to me that e-books will become an additional form alongside print, perhaps the place for those deluxe enhanced editions or maybe the best way to read more ephemeral books like self-help, how-to and most political books (I'm not being snide - political books date extremely fast as anybody who goes through thrift stores or library sales can attest). Let's all gather back here in 2019 and see what happened.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Guild Wars

I gave the free trial of Guild Wars a run-through. It took about an hour to download the starting files which seemed reasonable enough so I created my character and it started to download more material. Showing was 19K files and it took almost 15 minutes to get to 1% so I stopped and the following day started the download again before I went to work. But here's the problem - when I got back the game didn't just download all those files but actually started so that it used almost 6.5 hours of the 10 hours trial time. If I hadn't come home early but at my usual time the entire trial would have been gone. Guess there's nothing that logs you out if you're not playing and haven't even moved for a certain time.

The actual game seems somewhat familiar. When I described it to a guy at work he says some of the mechanics come from Diablo (not the original which I played but one of the later versions) but otherwise it's similar to WoW and others that I tried. The main drawback is something I expected to be a plus: outside the cities everything is instanced. While that originally seemed like it would be cool I quickly realized this might as well be a regular RPG except of course that it plays like an MMO. While there's no ganking there's also none of the random encounters or busy population that makes an MMO feel MM.

There are a few oddities. Like WoW questgivers have an exclamation point but otherwise there's no info - no notice that you've acquired anything or that you're finished. When it's time to turn in the NPC has the same exclamation point as before so they might be overlooked if you, as I did, think you didn't want to get that quest. The graphics (which I pumped all the way to the max) are solid but the atmosphere feels a bit more bland than WoW though of course I've only seen part of it. The most annoying feature is that the action bar only has eight spots. Don't know if you can increase that later but even for a starting trial character it didn't feel right - my character could know 20 actions but can only do eight? It's never good to have play restricted by arbitrary design decisions. WoW of course has kept adding the potential for action bars until you could almost be paralyzed by the choices. I also tried a second character of a different class and was surprised that the starting quests play exactly the same - WoW at least has different areas and quest lines (to some degree anyway).

The big advantage to Guild Wars is that there's no monthly fee but the trail wasn't interesting enough for me to stick with it. Since it's thematically similar to WoW and plays to a large degree the same then I might as well play WoW.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fantomas, comics and episodic stories

The following are from Robin Walz's Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris (2000). They're descriptions of the original Fantomas novels but sound remarkably like superhero comics:

This interaction between the stilted dialogue of flat character types, and the nearly endless repetition of limited story plots, invited a certain kind of popular imaginary reading. The reader derived pleasure not from a sophisticated literary construction but from the exploits and details that filled a highly melodramatic form.

The conversations in Fantomas are highly theatrical, continually stating and restating the obvious in stilted and overdrawn terms. [...] Such dialogue creates its own sense of enjoyment, beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves.

Another popular-novel feature in Fantomas is the meandering storyline, which continually branches off in various directions and decenters the action through innumerable loose ends.

Now it's unlikely any American comics creators (or even the preceeding pulp writers) had even heard of Fantomas, at least until into the 60s, so there's no direct link. This is undoubtedly a case of parallel invention where similar constraints and methods of production (episodic narrative, continuing characters, fairly rigid page counts, a specific intended audience, low creator pay) resulted in similar solutions. Obviously there had been stories about the same characters before (myths, folktales, pamphlets) but these weren't done to a set schedule: Marvel is currently giving us 22 pages of a Hercules story every month but the ancient Greeks did not. And certainly novels were serialized, most famously Dickens and Henry James but newspapers carried these well into the 20th century (I.B. Singer was publishing newspaper serials as late as 1967).

What's different, of course, is what might be called an industrial method of production. Comic books (as opposed to strips) early on split creative duties among writers, artists, inkers, letterers, etc to keep production flowing smoothly. Movie studios had even earlier worked out a highly structured process that started to crumble in the 40s and was picked up by television. Today TV shows are probably the type of art that is most pervasive and these are nearly all done in episodic forms that the above quotes could describe as well. Even news broadcasts are highly regimented, actually might be the most rigid of all.

What Walz points out though is that this industrial production created, or more accurately allowed, a different way of reading. People who complain about comics (and here I'm going to use "comics" to mean "mainstream superhero comics") say they're cliched, that the need for continuing the story/characters means nothing can really change (with the implication that there's no chance for real art), that they're unrealistic even apart from the violations of physics, that they're childish power fantasies, and so on.

But that's not how comic fans read these, or at least not entirely. Those "innumerable loose ends" are actually quite deliberate and a critical element of the way comics create their storytelling - something left in one issue will be picked up further down the road (or frequently not at all as creators or corporate strategies change). The entire construction of interconnected stories pretty much creates their digetic world (or universe as they prefer - Marvel Universe, DCU).

There's also a kind of blankness to many characters partly because the "characterization" beloved of creative writing teachers and middlebrows everywhere is simply not important to comics nor to science fiction nor to mysteries nor to many types of TV. It's just another element that sometimes can be used as a main ingredient and sometimes as just grace notes (how's that for mixing metaphors?). Plus many comics characters are handled by numerous creators over decades which can result in wildly varying interpretations. Batman is always considered smart but that means something different for the 2009 version than it did for 1977 or 1965.

All of this doesn't mean that once you know the aesthetic secret key that you'll think more highly of comics or sitcoms or whatever. You can completely understand Fantomas or The Mighty Avengers or How I Met Your Mother and still think they're trivial or mindless. And it doesn't mean that they should be judged on their own terms. 24 is usually effective at what it attempts but is still politically reprehensible and often shoddily conceived. (And I've seen every episode - make of that what you will.)

But as Walz discusses, these may be opportunities to do something new. A mass audience picked up on Fantomas and while the surrealists did also for many of the same reasons they also used the books for their own ends. If I tell you that Ed Brubaker's Captain America is one of the best mainstream comics published right now, don't read it expecting it to be like any of the recent superhero movies or like an HBO series or like a Booker-winning novel. It's a dark story about missed opportunities, personal responsibility, the idea of democracy and whether justice can ever be achieved using violence but it's also very much a comic book complete with a skull-headed Nazi, a mind-controlled spy, a deranged scientist with his head in his chest and a former assassin who spent long periods frozen between jobs. Oh, and a guy who talks to birds.

And while I think even a fresh reader would get most of the story it also draws from decades of earlier comics without synopsis or explanation. Those themes could of course have been explored other ways (they almost sound like a summary of Conrad's novels) but Brubaker is using the possibilities of long episodic stories for both compressed meaning and for their sheer comicbookness. One difference from the other examples is that Brubaker is clearly very aware of what he's attempting while Souvestre & Allain definitely were not as aren't most sitcom writers (and I suspect that many TV news creators have so deluded themselves that they may not even be conscious of their generic limits).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Other viewing

Watchmen (Zack Snyder 2009) - A disgrace.

Leatherheads (George Clooney 2008) - A screwball comedy about the start of pro football? If this had worked that mix would be a genius call but since the film is DOA it's instead a "what were they thinking" thing. The attempt at period detail seems misguided when it's detailing a neverland 1920s, it's drawn too much from ideas created by old movies (not the actual movies - if only Clooney had watched His Girl Friday or Twentieth Century a dozen times each), the script lurches from half-written situation to the next, the pacing is leaden and nothing seems to fit. Just a compete mistake.

27 Dresses (Anne Fletcher 2008) - Sure it's a play-by-the-rules romantic comedy but at least done without a sense that the rules are limitations. The dress gimmick is just clever and silly enough to hold up and it helps that the cast at least comes across as believing the whole thing. That is all.

The Four of the Apocalypse (Lucio Fulci 1975) - Fulci directs Bret Harte stories? Yep, most anybody who's been through the American school system will recognize "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and though the rest are unfamiliar to me, somehow I doubt any of Harte's stories originally contained a person being skinned alive or cannibalism. But what do I know? Well, for one thing that this is odd even by spaghetti Western standards and also that it's a bit unfocused even by spaghetti Western standards.

Zombi 3 (Lucio Fulci 1988) - Another Fulci but this is a colossally stupid take on zombie films and as such at least entertaining. In any case Fulci isn't completely to blame since he only filmed part while other directors did the rest uncredited (Claudio Fragasso gives much of the details in a DVD extra). It's the kind of film where the highest military command seems to consist of a general and two motionless subordinates in what looks like a schoolroom, where a top-secret and highly dangerous test lab is a few hundred yards away from a resort hotel, where the silent zombies suddenly start speaking at the end. Not Troll 2 funny but still funny.

Ghost Town (David Koepp 2008) - A fairly innocuous and sporadically amusing comedy of the type where the mean misanthropic guy at the start learns to love kittens, bumper stickers and Whole Foods by the end. In that sense it's calculatedly dishonest and Ricky Gervais is so anti-charming that he nearly throws the whole film off but sometimes the cards just fall where they do.

Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green 2008) - If you're wondering what Green is doing directing a Hollywood drug comedy then the only plausible answer is money. Sure you can blame or praise him for the greater focus on dialogue scenes than is the norm with this stuff but in the end there's not much that can be done with such a hackneyed script or with Seth Rogen, a one-trick pony who has to be tightly controlled for even that trick to be interesting. The final 20 minutes are an embarrassment to everybody.

Friday, March 13, 2009

24 so far

The last season of 24 was a real trainwreck, a complete mess in almost every sense. The writers' strike delayed the new season a year so this past November we got the TV movie 24: Redemption as a sort of long teaser though it too was so tedious, predictable and unimaginative that I can't even think of unpredictable, imaginative adjectives to toss at it. Rumors had been that the new season would start in Africa but that was cut out when the creators realized that even though nobody really plays by the real-time gimmick, having Jack stuck on a plane for a big chunk of the season wasn't really good TV. (Though just think: Andy Warhol's 24.) So Redemption was supposed to be a bridge between the seasons and a bit of background for the upcoming one but since we had seen the previews and know that Jack isn't repentant then we also know there's no redemption.

I'll have to admit, though, that Season 7 has been a blast, a modern version of a 30s/40s serial that only cares about movement, impossible situations, good & bad guys and a regular-as-clockwork cliffhanger. (I'm still hoping that someday an episode will end with Jack literally dangling from a cliff. Or even better: Jack Bauer vs. Dr. Mabuse.) It's had some nice set pieces, kept the story changing fairly often, came up with decent surprises and made good use of getting away from LA and CTU. Even the by-now-routine discussions about the ethics of torture were somewhat believable this time and not people shouting bumper stickers at each other. Some of the stuff that seemed a bit forced such as the speed that Walker started emulating Jack or the president's unreasonable stick-to-the-policy approach paid off down the line when their B&W ideas got messily gray. (Not too gray - this is still a show where the lead character is a borderline psychopath and multiple felon but is invariably right.) I would never choose this as an example of TV at its best (nothing like, say, Battlestar Galactica or Heroes) and 24 will never be able to top or even match its second season if only because that element of hey-we-can-do-anything surprise can never be repeated.

The overall structure has played into the sense of unpredictability even if it was probably accidental. The opening episodes focused on a stolen device that escalated into a larger threat but it was still not clear how this would fill an entire season. The answer is that it wouldn't. That initial threat went through its various twists 'n' turns before being mostly wrapped up to make way for the next related one (the assault on the White House) and then that's just moved aside for an as-yet unrevealed but clearly much larger story.

Now there's still a lot of "they can't be serious" moments. The entire infrastructure of the United States on a single firewall that a single guy knows the inner workings, a hacker using odds-ends equipment breaking into the FBI network and outwitting everybody there, a pesticide plant that apparently never designed any failsafe mechanisms, Jack's intimate knowledge of D.C. streets. And of course Tony being alive.

But if this stuff really bothers you, you're watching the wrong show. The last season was bad not because it was implausible but because it introduced characters and storylines that went nowhere (my favorite was the people from district that were talked up for a couple of hours, showed up to take over CTU and then simply vanished), plot devices repeated from earlier, characters forced into odd behavior just to move the plot (Curtis being the prime example), and so forth. All we want is just enough effort that some element doesn't create derision and we'll be cool with that.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Swamp Thing

Andrew O'Hehir at Salon nails why, or at least one "why", Moore's Swamp Thing has lasted. I particularly like this summary:
Moore loved comics, in all their overheated melodrama and violence and passion and romance, and simply wanted them to fulfill their potential. He wanted comics to be better written (and more beautifully drawn; he has consistently brought out the best in his artists), to be more alive to the outside world and to other forms of culture, to be less imprisoned by the emotional ghetto of pre-adolescence.

My copy of this edition hasn't arrived yet but when it was announced it changed at least one thing - for years I always thought it was audacious that Moore started his first issue with the main character's autopsy. It turns out that was actually Moore's second issue, the first having never been reprinted. But guess it's still ok to say "started his run with...."

LP Cover Lover

I just found LP Cover Lover, one of many sites that display campy or humorous or just odd LP covers but also one of the best. It's odd to constantly stumble across these covers, or in fact any of the obscure albums in thrift stores that are too marginal to even make it into second-hand record stores, and realize the enormous amount of LPs that were produced. I sometimes think that every church singing group that bothered to come up with a name also released an album. Perhaps just as mystifying is was anybody buying these things? Some schlocky generic-covered surf band? Some reading of no-name poetry? A edge-of-town lounge singer? (Though my old roommate Jeff and I realized years later that both our first encounters with Chuck Berry was a wretched album of re-recordings he made in the 70s for a bit of spending money)

Of course the advantage to these covers is that they're quick hipness - you don't have to listen to an entire album or watch an entire movie or even run through an entire Mike Avallone or Harry Stephen Keeler novel. For the type of people who would watch an Ed Wood film before a Hou Hsiao-Hsien that's an advantage. All the coolness, none of the work.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Recent reading

Tony Horwitz A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World (2008) - It's hard to say that something as edgy and unsettling as Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic could be a favorite book but maybe that's accurate. I've been recommending it for years and would especially for its honest exploration of race and the South (which for most people simply and incorrectly means South=racist). Still I almost didn't read this new book because it's about early exploration of the Americas and somehow seemed dull - a quite mistaken "somehow seemed". A combination of travelogue and idiosyncratic history, the book shows Horwitz's knack for out-of-place humor, sharp eye (journalism experience probably) and knack for telling a story for the kind of history we should have been taught in jr high. Except we wouldn't have appreciated it then. Highly recommended.

Sid Jacobson & Ernie Colon The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation (2006) - The key thing to note is that this is an adaptation of the official report which means no independent research or sources and no contradictions - it follows the Report story and recommendations even when they now seem a tad dubious. For the most part it's a reasonably succinct introduction but comics form might not have been the most efficient or at least they didn't reconceive it thoroughly enough. There should have been more background info (at one point Al Qaeda is first mentioned but no explanation or identification is given) and sometimes comic iconography in the depiction of evil seems too superhero-ish and inappropriate.

Dawn Ades and Simon Baker Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and Documents (2006) - I was disappointed to discover that this doesn't actually reprint issues of Documents, the quasi-surrealist, quasi-anthropological, quasi-artistic journal created by Bataille and friends. (Though apparently intended as anti-surrealist much of Documents' concerns and techniques seem inspired by, or at least parallel inventions.) The book is actually the catalog for an exhibition that has some mostly pretty solid overview essays and then extensive samples of material that appeared in Documents, all heavily illustrated. The caveat of partial reprint aside if that title is even remotely interesting to you then this is worth checking out.

Terry Jones & Alan Ereira Terry Jones' Barbarians (2006) - A companion to the TV series of the same name but more interesting because of the greater detail and opportunity to follow situations rather than barely mention them. It mostly follows the general structure of the show and I think at times incorporates parts of the scripts but doesn't have the dips and slipshod segments that hurt the series. Jones' consistent anti-Roman, rethink-everything approach gets a bit wearying at times but that's only a minor drawback.

Stanley Wells Shakespeare for All Time (2002) - Wells tries to put a lifetime studying Shakespeare into a single book mostly aimed at non-scholarly readers. It's probably about as strong an overview as you could wish, covering the biography, the plays, changing production styles and some critical controversies. If you're familiar with the material you'll notice some areas that get short-changed but then this isn't meant to be exhaustive.

Félix Fénéon Novels in Three Lines (2007) - Fénéon was one of the many fellow travelers in early 20th century French culture whose name may be familiar even if you can't ID anything he did. Before computerized layout, newspapers frequently found that pieces didn't take up the entire space and usually filled them with short bits of trivia or news items - in France these were practically an entire genre as the discussion in Walz's Pulp Surrealism explains. This book collects Fénéon's news fillers from 1906, usually done in two or three lines. It's a remarkable historical document filled with strikes, thefts (telegraph wire especially), murders, trials, religious controversies, etc. Even more importantly Fénéon had an extremely dry sense of humor and a feel for the intense compression these pieces required, resulting in work that has genuine literary value (translated by Luc Sante). A real find.

William H. Gass Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (1999) - The entire book is basically just a long introduction to Gass' translation of The Duino Elegies. He gives an impressionist, high-spots bio and later something of an analysis - I say "something" because Gass apparently thinks Rilke was a philosopher who just happened to use verse, sort of a latter-day Lucretius. The real meat is a section on translation where he goes line by line comparing numerous previous translations of the first elegy. It's a rare detailed look into the mechanics of translation, hobbled some by Gass' unstated and perhaps unacknowledged belief that translation can (or even should) be almost identical to the original. Plus he justifies his own use of "awesome" as creating an almost-religious awe though anybody remotely a part of modern pop culture will think it sounds far too Bill & Ted. The main and clearly unintended drawback to this approach is that it shows Gass' own translation as too stilted and slippery.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cuadecuc Vampir (Pere Portabella 1970)

During the filming of Jess Franco's Count Dracula, Catalan director Portabella created an alternate version by filming behind-the-scenes moments, sfx details, empty settings and large chunks of the actual narrative (much of the latter could just as well, and may actually, be clips from the Franco film itself). Instead of color, it's done in a high-contrast B&W that most viewers interpret as an attempt to recall silent films. The sound is completely unrelated to the images except for a shot of a passing train where the dopplering whine is most likely an overdubbed library effect and a sequence at the end where Christopher Lee describes Dracula's death and then reads the relevant passage from Stoker's novel.

The end result of such long narrative passages accompanied only by some clanking and low-key proto-industrial noise (and a few bits of easy listening just like the early industrialists did as well) is like watching the Franco film on TV with the sound turned off. Which just leaves me to wonder what Portabella thought he was accomplishing. I'd guess he might have been trying to free poetic moments from a commercial horror film but for one thing many horror viewers are quite adept at finding those ourselves and for another Portabella failed miserably. (Compare to Bava's Lisa and the Devil or a few decades later Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary.) The end result is like watching an incompetent promo that the studio thought might entice audiences. Y'know, show us a few clips from the film, the actors having a lark while not in front the camera and a sfx guy creating fake cobwebs. (Speaking of which, the opening credits misidentify the film as a Hammer production - peculiar since you'd think Portabella and crew would have dealt with whatever actual studio to get access to the filming.)

So where did Cuadecuc Vampir get its reputation? (Many sources add a hyphen and sometimes a comma to the title but neither exist onscreen.) Jonathan Rosenbaum for instance wrote "It all adds up to a kind of poetic alchemy in which Portabella converts one of the world's worst horror films into one of the most beautiful movies ever made about anything." And elsewhere seeing a link from Dracula to General Franco that "Portabella offers witty reflections on the powerful monopolies of both dictators and commercial cinema." A MOMA notes writer claimed it's "a delirious reflection on the codes and conventions of the horror film through the language of structural materialist cinema." The Documentary Hour blog says "dreamlike combination of documentary, narrative, experimental, and essay film styles and is one of the key films of contemporary Spanish cinema." The La Mirada Film Festival added "a spectral and hallucinatory cinematographic experience by both revealing the entrails of the filmic process and re-arranging them in a radical form"

I can't even remotely understand these comments. The film I saw was not "beautiful" and certainly not a "most beautiful" "about anything". It's not dreamlike or hallucinatory, there's nothing structural about it (or actually any kind of "radical form") and maybe in 1970 wishful thinking and governmental over-reaction might have made it seem political but today that's just silly. Portabella doesn't show any logic to his organization other than vaguely following the story and using such long, completely edited narrative sections doesn't allow him to get enough distance from the source material. Now Jess Franco is an untalented hack and I expect that his Count Dracula is pretty tedious but the viewers that think Cuadecuc Vampir is an improvement are likely congratulating themselves for being above commercial cinema when they really haven't gone anywhere at all.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Do poets need patrons?

Last week I flipped through a recent poetry collection that had won an award but was probably more notable for slimness even as slim poetry volumes go - it was barely more than a chapbook. (The book will remain unidentified for a variety of reasons.) The actual work was the kind of neither-here-nor-there quasi-prose with a bit of trendy politics that so many people like but what most struck me was something in the acknowledgments.

The author thanked a group for grant money that allowed him/her to finish the poems. What? This person has a well-paid job without huge time demands and needed extra money for this? It's not the Cantos or A or Finnegans Wake. I thought of Williams writing between patients or Stevens after a day at the insurance office but apparently there's some sense of entitlement now that poetry is mostly funded by grants and colleges. I wonder how much better off our culture would be if these sources were cut off?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Some recent viewing

300 (Zack Snyder 2006) - Surely this is some kind of joke. With a script so bare and pompous that it wouldn’t have served for a third-rate peplum, 300 has nothing to do but unleash a viciously florid style that might as well have been animated. Or in fact actually is mostly animated with something resembling flesh-blood actors traipsing among the stones and viscera. That Snyder has persistently denied in interviews any homoeroticism is either sad or unusually deluded - he has to go through hoops to even justify any female characters at all and the rest might as well have been imagined by Tom of Finland. 300 tends to follow the Hollywood practice of being obsessively accurate about some specific historical details while otherwise completely ignoring anything else (how can you not laugh at their portrayal of the Persian king?). This is, after all, a film that portrays one of the greatest slave states in history as one fighting for freedom. In the end this is just propaganda for the Iraq invasion and of no value but sociological interest.

Juno (Jason Reitman 2007) - Resembles nothing so much as those films Hollywood produced in the late 60s/early 70s to show how hip they were, only with the new hip being pop culture references, deadpan humor and condenscending smugness we get Juno. The first 20 minutes are excrutiatingly unwatchable, including banter with a drugstore clerk that’s hard to believe was OKed by all supposed adults that sign off on this stuff. The rest of the film reminds me of Garden State in that there’s a proclamation of drama but no actual dramatic conflict. Garden State constantly told viewers that the protag was troubled and something emotional was happening but never bothered to actually do that. Juno has about a minute of soul-searching (surely Juno is the first person, or at least fictional character, to decide against an abortion because she thinks it's tacky) and then there’s little else. Nobody seems to care whether Juno has the baby, no pros/cons debated, nothing. In fact at the end the only thing that seems to have changed is that Juno has decided to go with a boyfriend, basically making the entire film the strangest “meet cute” in Hollywood history. Such a weak script means that the actors are basically on their own and while most survive (couldn’t Simmons have been given more to do?) some seem lost. Jennifer Garner in particular is hopelessly over her head with the one-note role and even Ellen Page struggles at times. But what could she do with a film so tin-eared “quirky” that the main character decides to announce she’s pregnant to the father by hauling a discarded living room suite to his front yard, waiting for him to appear in the morning and then leaving all the furniture? (The teen father is so underwritten that he's practically offscreen even when he's being filmed.) Possibly somewhere there really is a 16-year-old girl who likes the Stooges and Patti Smith, cracks jokes about Soupy Sales and appreciates H.G. Lewis (if “appreciate” is the appropriate verb) but surely they’re so darn rare that Juno and Juno become implausible. Perhaps that doesn’t matter much--His Girl Friday isn’t plausible or realistic--but for a film that seems to think it’s dealing with real world issues such as teen pregnancy and class differences then at least a whiff of reality wouldn’t be amiss.

King Kong (Peter Jackson 2005) - Talking about problem scripts here’s one that could easily have been improved. Simply eliminate the first 40 minutes--all of it--and the resulting film would be noticeably better. Reduce minutes 41-70 to total about ten and there’s even more improvement. The blame of course still rests with Jackson (and the producers who may have been too awed by the undeserved LotR success to complain). He’s the one who let this bloat until the entire thing became an epic disaster. Look at the rest. Along with Return of the King Jackson has given us two of the most racist films in the past decade - admittedly in Kong it’s a bit hard to deal with the given storyline but he seems to have drawn his natives from an Italian cannibal film and left it at that. The film has not one but two last-minute rescues by a ship crew who swore they wouldn’t go ashore. It has Naomi Watts amusing Kong with--and I still don’t quite believe I really saw this--vaudeville dancing (or at least 2007 ideas of such). And it has a brontosaurus (I’m guessing) stampede that violates so much common sense that it’s not even funny bad just tedious.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Discovery Channel, Part 2: Dirty Jobs

As mentioned in the previous post I don't care what's on the Discovery Channel; it's just that I noticed these shows were all there and it became an arbitrary hook.

I was going to write about why Dirty Jobs has kept my interest over time (the only episode I found completely uninteresting was the one about sharks) but either you've seen it and know or haven't seen it and don't care. In fact it's turned out that my grand idea for a lengthy post analyzing the show was based on just two smaller ideas: that Rowe doesn't always dumb down the jokes and that the show could be considered as an eccentric documentary project exploring forms of work. So that's pretty much it. Maybe I should take the sparseness as a challenge and still try to write a full post or maybe it's one of those voyages of discovery where you just start writing and eventually something worthwhile will come up, critical automatic writing perhaps. It would still need to be edited into something worth reading, there's not much worse than pages of auto-writing or free improv or process art.

Friday, March 6, 2009

20 Best Hi-Lo Art Records

This list by Matt Ingram isn't records by the Hi-Lo's but records mixing high and low art - at least in theory since some of them seem a bit opaque for such a criterion. As such it definitely leans more towards the high end, is nevertheless a bit too rockist and still comes out looking like a playlist from Funhouse HQ. I would have gone for Rubber Soul or Revolver, more Sonic Youth & Eno, added some Mingus or Cecil Taylor, absolutely no Scott Walker and have never heard Alva-Noto though judging from other Mille Plateaux releases it would be "interesting" and pretty forgettable.

Another book not finished

Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety (1993) sounded like it should be my kind of book: big historical fiction set during the French Revolution that's as much about the idea of history as it is politics and with Danton and Robespierre as major characters. Or as the Telegraph put it a "perfect historical novel, given numerous bracing modern twists" that's "as tumultuous, crowded and exciting as the storming of the Bastille".

In the end I made it through about a hundred of its 750 pages. The problem is that is, in fact, big and has Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins as main characters - just what I was expecting, right? Except that after a while I start to wonder how much is really true. Did Danton really do that or Robespierre really think that way? Putting them so front and center leads to such thoughts in a way that having the familiar figures a bit off to the side doesn't. Wouldn't it be better to just read a biography? (Sitting right beside me now is Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity.)

But that's only if I was reading for purely historical information which isn't why I picked up a novel in the first place. After a while A Place of Greater Safety started wandering more than even an expansive historical novel should. The final straw was a fairly long chapter focusing on the internal thoughts (as opposed I guess to external thoughts) of a teenage girl in a home that Danton--or was it Robespierre--visits frequently. The chapter appeared to be nothing but padding, not advancing the story (even as little as it was) or giving a different view to a main character or period feel or seemingly anything at all. For all I know this would later turn out to be a critical turning point but that seems unlikely, especially given that so much up to then felt pretty haphazard. Perhaps Mantel pulled everything together into a stunning tapestry (tag irony) but I couldn't summon the interest to care.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

My review of a Patti Smith doc

Up on the TCM site is my review of Patti Smith: Dream of Life. It's definitely a fans-only film and by that I mean real fans not even people like me who might consider her a major artist but have minimal interest beyond the music.

Discovery Channel, Part 1

Since I don't have cable I tend to pig out on TV when I visit my parents. Though there's not much in the way of brand/channel loyalty I did get hooked on a couple of Discovery shows, at least briefly.

Mythbusters is a great idea but over time the less-than-great execution has made it a bit tiresome. Putting all sorts of legends and hearsay to real-world testing can certainly "make for good TV" as They Say but the Mythbusters tend to pay too much attention to that and aren't as rigorous as they should be. An example is a show about whether a bullet shot into the air will fall with enough force to kill somebody. Their tests (some of which seemed too elaborate) showed no but a doctor who has specialized in such wounds says it in fact happens. They declared this one undecided but the real questions are were their tests actually testing this (and do we want to trust two special effects guys) and are the doctor's cases reliable (were there other factors). It's similar to a show where they proved that splinters caused by cannonballs on a wooden fighting ship couldn't cause the bodily damage that legend has it. Except they were completely wrong. Not doing the background research and then creating a test that overlooked key factors (in this instance velocity and type of wood mainly) were problems but ones that are typical of the show. When they're testing limited, narrowly defined myths it's fun to watch but they seem to be running out of those.

Survivorman was a real hoot when I first watched about six episodes back-to-back. The host seems to know his stuff and the self-shot/no-crew approach captures how such shows should be made. So this is what to do if stranded on a deserted island, or left in the jungle, or lost on a mountain. (Not that it really matters - 99% of us watching wouldn't be helped if we were in these situations in real life.) After a while, though, there's only so much he can do. Yes yes capture water, look for food, build shelter. The basics are more or less the same everywhere and the specifics aren't really different enough to support many shows. But those first shows are pretty cool.

Man Vs. Wild (aka Born Survivor if you're a Brit) is the same idea but gets nearly everything wrong that Survivorman gets right. For one thing, this host is an annoying creep and though he probably really is the ex-SAS survival expert the promos promote he might as well just be some actor (& if it's all a hoax it wouldn't be much of a surprise). Having a crew that's clearly tagging along behind him makes the whole thing seem even more a performance. In fact parts actually are since some deceptive scenes have been well-documented (and at least one so blatant it was cut from the US airing).

Part 2 - Dirty Jobs.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Keeping the squid

From USA Today's Pop Candy:

As for that new ending, I wasn't unhappy with it. But I will say this: If you're going to make a graphic-novel adaptation that runs almost three hours long, and if you're going to consistently profess that your movie is for hardcore fans, you need to go all the way. And that means keeping the squid. Otherwise, what's the point?

I fully expect to see bumper stickers that read Where's the Squid?.

Philip Jose Farmer

Farmer, who died last week, might have been the first author I tried to collect. Not sure exactly because that was in high school some three decades ago but at that time used bookstores were full of stuff you just don't see any more. So while I don't completely remember precedence that was when I was also picking up anything I saw by Dick, Bloch, Moorcock, Ellison and some writers with smaller bibliographies such as Disch. Not sure why Farmer - it might have been the whiff of the risque that interested a high schooler (his three Essex House books weren't reissued until college), the somewhat metafictional conceits of his fake biographies, the big idea behind Riverworld, the variety of genres (perhaps subgenres is more accurate) or probably just the sheer volume and confusion of his output. This latter is always a key factor for a geek, mastering a mass of information that in some way doesn't really matter what the information is.

It's been probably 20 years since I've read anything of Farmer's but the Riverworld series is what's stuck most firmly. It had one of those "wow" setups and an elaborate story that wasn't quite like anything else. The final revelation of what actually caused Riverworld was something of a let down, mainly because after years and a few novels anything would have been a let down. Perhaps Farmer should have wrapped this all up in the first book and then used the rest as installments but SF&F writers tend to think big (or at least trilogies) when that's not always the way to go. But apart from that the Riverworld books had an abundance of ideas & situations that were constantly surprising.

Farmer's rethinking of fictional characters and then linking them (in what's come to be called the Wold Newton universe) seemed quite brilliant to me at the time though more pedestrian in retrospect, almost like slash fiction minus much of the slashing. To a large degree Farmer was breaking this ground. (I read Myer's Silverlock when it was reissued in the 70s--Wikipedia says 1982--but wasn't very familiar with its classic lit sources.) By now of course we have League of Extraordinary Gentlemen where Moore does something similar but for more serious ends.

Other than that not much of Farmer's work has stayed in my head if I even read more. I do remember A Barnstormer in Oz feeling like a distinct mistake and am pretty sure I got through Lord Tyger and at least a couple of story collections. Nothing from the World of Tiers series and probably little of the very earliest stuff. And of course his notorious sub-Joycean contribution to Dangerous Visions that really should have stayed in the desk drawer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Rushdie on adaptations

Salman Rushdie wrote an odd piece about the process of adaptation. Much of it is reasonable while still feeling a bit off. To complain that a film is bad because it's not believable doesn't seem quite right coming from somebody who wrote a book about The Wizard of Oz. My guess is that Rushdie would claim that Wizard is clearly defined as fantasy but Slumdog Millionaire is not (though since I haven't seen the latter and read little about it I don't really know). But believability is never much of a criterion for any kind of film except, crucially, documentaries.

But the key might be when he writes:
an adaptation works best when it is a genuine transaction between the old and the new, carried out by persons who understand and care for both, who can help the thing adapted to leap the gulf and shine again in a different light.

So does that mean The Godfather is a successful adaptation because it resulted in a major film or an unsuccessful adaptation because a bad book would have been faithfully adapted to become a bad film? Who cares whether somebody making an adaptation cares or even understands the original - I haven't the foggiest idea whether Ford & Nugent cared for Alan Le May's novel The Searchers or in fact had even read it (though it's a safe bet Nugent had). (There's a story that Cronenberg was well along in production for A History of Violence before learning that it's based on a book and that's completely plausible for filmmakers working mainly off screenplays.)

This is just shows that what Rushdie is writing about is actually something much more specific than adaptations. He's concerned with adapting "brilliant books" into brilliant (or at least good) films. So what? Why should it make any difference as long as the resulting film is good? It might be unfaithful to the book or even practically unrelated but as long as we get a good film out of it that's all that matters.

Monday, March 2, 2009

So why Blogspot?

Almost seven years and now I'm changing servers. The reason is fairly simple. Earthlink gives me 10 meg server space to use, or more accurately 10 meg per email address but even though I can have eight addresses it's only 10 meg for each. (Though the actual server space for the email is 100 meg, not sure exactly why.) So for one thing I was running out of space on my main address and it was going to be too complicated to try to split archives if that's even possible. I had avoided hosts other than my own server space in the past just because I didn't entirely trust a third party but now that seems pointless. Many blogs I read use Blogspot and do just fine but of course not having to worry about running out of space is a plus. I think there's also some Blogger functionality that just works better this way, scheduled posting for instance. (A recent test on my Earthlink server wiped out the entire blog temporarily.) It doesn't help that Earthlink almost pretends we don't have that server space and provides almost no way to find out how much space I was using (had to go with an FTP client to figure it out).

So I'll fiddle with this a couple of weeks and then leave it alone for years, SOP at the Funhouse. I'm not 100% sure all the archives transferred - did I really only do 10 posts in all of 2003? Maybe. I do have a downloaded archive of the full site from last summer but it's on a hard drive I have to recover from a dead computer so that's probably a while away before inquiring minds can tackle that.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Academics Meet Sleaze Artists

It was probably inevitable that film academics looking for new turf to make their mark would eventually start poking around in exploitation films. I’ve read several of the books and articles that have resulted and so far they’re mostly the kind of barely comprehending undergrad essays you might expect. The writers tend to be dipping their toes and make typical kinds of errors or bad but far more amusing is watching the attempt to fit existing critical approaches onto subjects that tend to elude it. Most obvious is the dominance of auteurist ideas even if these are not pushed forward or in fact often disavowed. These academics clearly think they’ve moved past auteurism but it still powers much of the writing. In the exploitation world the loose fit is more apparent - Bergman is presumed to have had complete control over, say, Persona but the compromises of b-film/exploitation directors are well-known and in some cases such as Jess Franco practically legendary. But viewers familiar with this quite broad milieu aren’t as focused on directors and can dig into genres, actors, countries, eras or even something as ill-defined as “weirdness” in a moment.

The most substantial academic book on exploitation so far is Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics (2007) edited by Jeffrey Sconce. It features a variety of marquee names and up-to-code articles but the interesting thing is that while it does have some minor insights into the marginal film it proclaims Sleaze Artists displays much better the limitations and institutional flaws of academic writing. So you get bland writing styles, a fear of non-approved research (note how little original research is shown in this book or how rarely academics use sources outside academia), excessively nervous footnoting (only academics consider ideas plagiarizable), a belief that they’re being political (many like to “interrogate” topics as if they trained at Gitmo).

Now I’m not saying all academic writing shares these flaws but they flourish more than they should due to the system itself: a focus on writing instead of teaching, making writing a job requirement for people who really have no interest (or ability) in writing, an outdated tenure system that removes accountability, tempest-in-teapot political beliefs, a narrowness of approach that downplays research and so forth. The result are writers who smugly congratulate themselves on dealing with “disreputable” topics (count the number of times that word occurs), who think they’re subverting or even opposing a hegemonic system, who name-check an array of references apparently unaware how narrow these actually are. Certainly not everything in the book is like that - Matt Hills’ piece on the Friday the 13th movies balances thought with genuine fan feeling, Colin Gunckel traces the cultural roots of Mexican horror films and Eric Shaefer has a sturdy synopsis on marketing.

But look at Tania Modleski’s “Women’s Cinema as Counterphobic Cinema: Doris Wishman as the Last Auteur”. Now I was never quite sure why Wishman has attracted academic attention but reading this (or more precisely the notes) it occurred to me that the relative easy availability of her films and perhaps more importantly availability specifically presented as Wishman films gives her a higher profile than, say, tracking down Larry Buchanan or Andy Milligan work. Plus a woman director gives a hook, despite the fact that any differences between Wishman and most comparable sexploitation of the era barely exist if at all. To claim that Wishman was an auteur is ridiculous and certainly not the “last”. But this isn’t really an auteur analysis so much as an attempt to work through Modleski’s feelings about what she considers a misogynist genre or at least a genre which produced an unusually large percentage of misogynist films. Fair enough except that she’s so focused on, indeed blinded by, the idea of “violence directed against women” that she doesn’t think clearly, frequently returning to response criticism and ideas of how she wants the films to be. Basically she’s confusing films with reality, assuming that violence on-screen is as bad as violence off (or actually even assuming the violence on-screen is bad in any way at all), and that her reactions as a “sensitive” viewer reveal some flaw in the films, the genre and apparently Western civilization its own self. Guess it’s a good thing she hasn’t yet discovered pinku eiga.

Chris Fujiwara’s “Boredom, Spasmo and the Italian System” is very nearly a parody of academic writing though almost certainly he’s dead serious. He goes through several pages before even getting to the main topic, quoting or referencing Cioran, Mitry, Akerman, Metz, Warhol, Snow, Freud, Tarkovsky and others. It’s almost as if he’s putting on thick gloves before handling distasteful material. Of course it doesn’t matter that almost none of his references are relevant - he’s proving that he’s no fanboy. (Though to be honest he would almost surely write the same way even about Straub-Huillet.) Even this wouldn’t much matter is there was anything of interest in his attempt to link boredom to viewing certain types of film, which is after all an aspect that even b-movie buffs are very familiar with and, unrelatedly, has a political literature from the Situationists. But Fujiwara is spinning a big piece from a little theme and basically goes nowhere.

Chuck Kleinhans’ “Pornography and Documentary: Narrating the Alibi” has a similar approach even if it’s more successful overall. His basic idea is that voice-over narration (what he calls “sleazy narrator styles”) in mondo films--note that despite the title he isn’t really discussing porn which rarely has any narration at all--allows the film to avoid some attacks by linking it to conventional documentary. Not exactly a new insight (most viewers notice this but the most extensive treatment is in Mark Goodall’s Sweet & Savage: The World Through The Shockumentary Film Lens) and really a page or so can fill out all the implications. But here’s where the conventions of academic discourse get in the way. Allusion and compressed thought are not the order of the day so instead Kleinhans has to spin this out to around 20 pages. Fine if this is an extended essayist argument but again we’re dealing with an academic so it’s really just a lot of padding.

And to some degree that’s also true of Harry Benshoff on “homo-military Hollywood films” and Joan Hawkins on Todd Haynes. In these cases though the extensions actually do build or at least trace their argument even if these pieces also could have been much shorter and still covered the same ground. So if Kleinhans was 10 times longer than it needed to be these are only double or triple so that’s some improvement.

The book closes with an obtuse piece by Jeffrey Sconce that seems to be about, well I’m not quite sure. I think he’s arguing that it’s hard to be hip and that since people have always claimed that movies are dying that in fact they aren’t dying because they’ve claimed they’re dying. Talk about something that should have been left on the cutting room floor.