Category Archives: movies

sharcano

Sharcano!!!1!

There’s this dismissive, tautological quote that goes something like, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can’t find a reputable source for this line — it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or a tumblr image of some cats — but it has the kind of epigrammatic pithiness that makes for great ad copy. I think you can fairly easily tell by the title whether you are in the audience of this book. Sharcano = shark + volcano!!!1! You know if this math is for you.

I guess I expected Sharcano to be a nod to pulp horror like anything by Guy N Smith, a journeyman writer who churned out well over a hundred novels, and, given that he isn’t dead yet, likely is churning them out still. (His wiki page notes that he is an “active pro-smoking campaigner”, which I find inordinately charming. I even smoke, and I know that shit ain’t good for anyone, mostly because I smoke.) I was expecting shoddy continuity, uproarious misogyny, and lurid bloodbath, the kind of thing banged out in two non-consecutive weekends with a lot of uppers in the mix.

But no, Sharcano is more a nod to big budget action disaster films, movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a criticism; more an observation. There’s an estranged couple — one of whom is a massive television personality slash dillhole — so you’ve got your remarriage plot; a couple of moppets of various ethnicity; a priest at the focus of a shady Vatican conspiracy; some bubbas; sasquatch &c. There’s a lot of destruction that would work well better on the screen with Michael Bay-ish craptacular jump cuts, but then there’s a wry comedy aspect that would never be evident in a Michael Bay film.

What Sharcano reminds me most of is The Core, which is a silly disaster film complete with unobtainium and Stanley Tucci. The scene where Tucci is in a train car thing, about to die, bloviating into a tape recorder in his showboat way, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of such an act is one of my legit favorites. Almost as good as Samuel L in Deep Blue Sea starting into a monologue about how we’re not going to fight anymore! right before the supershark fucking drops the knowledge. Drop the knowledge, sharks made out of lava. We’ll catch up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure this book needs to be 400+ pages, and I’m seriously unsure that it should be the first in a trilogy. Sharcano is well better than it should be, a quality which gives with one hand and takes with another. Pulp’s got a certain energy to it, a rough, unedited pulse. Sharcano has a more arms-reach approach to the material, a half-ironic tone that tries to split the difference between straight up satire and gleeful homage. That’s a hard line to walk, very hard, and that Sharcano manages it at all should be seen as a win. If you like this sort of thing, as the cats of tumblr tell me, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

 

I received my copy from Netgalley. Thanks, dudes.

the-wind-rises

The Wind Rises: Childhood’s End

I finally got to see my first Miyazaki film in the theater when I took the kids to see The Wind Rises this weekend. I’m still kicking myself for missing The Secret World of Arietty when it passed through town as that has since become my most deeply felt Miyazaki film – I hesitate to use words like “favorite” with my darlings – and that would have just killed on the big screen.  Hayao Miyazaki has stated that this is his last film, and even though he’s retired before, I should not be messing around with being “too busy”. The Wind Rises is the biography of plane engineer Dr. Jiro Horikoshi who designed planes before and during WWII. As a last film, this is both a departure and right in line with Miyazaki’s body of work, a puzzling, deeply personal biopic about a childhood hero that elides as much as it informs. It it both gorgeous and strangely inert.

This isn’t going to be a review, btw; it’s more going to be a collection of impressions. I don’t have a mind for the visual, and I’m no film scholar.

There are two Ursula K. Le Guin novels I haven’t read: Malafrena and Always Coming Home. (Note: Ursula K. Le Guin is my heart, and the writer whose works are most important to me on every single level.) I’ve only taken one run at Malafrena, and I suspect it was mostly wrong timing, as her other Orsinian tales – Orsinia is the fictitious country in which a collection of her stories occur – worked for me entirely. (She’s coming to terms with Virginia Woolf, on some level, in those stories. I know!) I’ve crashed on the rocks of Always Coming Home at least twice, making it a third of the way in before I just set it down and walked away. I posted a non-review of my failure at some point, and a fellow ursine reader sent me this just transcendent explication of the book, calling it her most personal work, this deeply felt but also surface-placid recollection and exploration. I still haven’t read it, despite circling around the book-with-cassette-tape edition I have on my shelves. I have a discomfort about it, like watching something too personal.

There’s something to that here, in The Wind Rises. My husband and I had a long conversation about works we thought fit this strange format: undisputed masters of their craft creating art that ultimately fails (on some level) because the artist has an audience of one: the artist. We can piggyback into this audience, or worm our ways in using biography or the tabs on the personal that align in some feeling way, but the art itself is ultimately impressionistic in a way that defies that external logic. You can hang on by the skin of your teeth or the teeth of your skin, but you will never get it on some visceral level, even if your viscera responds. This can seriously fucking piss off viewers or readers, as evidenced by a lot of nasty, false-populist reviews like Rex Reed‘s for To The Wonder:

To the Wonder is the kind of fiasco that keeps film-festival programmers salivating and discriminating audiences stampeding toward the exit doors. It’s a simpering yawn that makes The Tree of Life seem like an action thriller with Bruce Willis. It is about … nothing.”

 

Which, look, I’m not going to say that To The Wonder is approachable or even worthwhile to a lot of people, nor am I going to say that those people are either idiots or “discriminating”, Rex. But it’s not about nothing. We’ve been hacking our way through Malick’s To The Wonder over months now, stopping for tirades from my husband – what is this shit? – and conversations with friends – hi, Eric! – about the individual, national and cultural response to a work that’s clearly, clearly, as much about personal mythos and national narrative as it is about, like, telling a story. There is no story that can tell me. There’s no story for anyone. It’s all memory or recording. My husband made peace with To The Wonder when he realized the film depicts all the interstitial moments – just after that conversation, just before that realization – a collection of boring connective moments that are the troughs between the high heights, the slack edge of feeling. But that’s an intellectual response, in the end, to a stark emotional landscape. That’s what we’ve got, I guess.

A lot of The Wind Rises bores me in the same way that To The Wonder does – these vistas where I consider the shape of the light or the angle of the sky more closely than I should, knocking myself out. Huh, you don’t see animated characters smoke anymore, and that smoke is gorgeous. Look at the ripples on the water. Look at the fluid dynamics of the clouds. But then there’s the moments that poleaxe me, like when Marina’s daughter asks her, “Why are you sad?” and she says, “I’m not sad.” There’s no reason on earth that should freak me out, but it does. The moment when I realized that all of the machine noises in The Wind Rises were made by people, which is occasionally funny and sometimes alarming. The 1923 Tokyo earthquake was made by human voices as well; yeesh.

It felt important to me that Hayao Miyazaki was born in January of 1941, about a month after Pearl Harbor, just weeks before my grandparents married and my grandfather enlisted in the Navy, which would send him to the South Pacific where he would encounter Jiro Horikoshi’s planes, at the very least in their effects. Miyazaki is not a Boomer but a War Baby, living through this profound upheaval as a pre-linguistic person; the war more a series of impressions and conversations remembered over dinner or around the doorjamb. I remember these times of my pre-personhood myself – Nixon impeached, the end of the Vietnam war – but I remember them more from my relationships with Viet and Hmong children who began peopling the elementary school, or the conversations overheard but not actually listened to, in the way of children, as my parents talked. Miyazaki is dealing with a part of his life that cannot be accessed through memory.

That The Wind Rises works best in its soaring, physics-defying dream sequences makes perfect sense to me, in this context: Miyazaki painting these watercolor vistas – like the landscapes Jiro’s wife paints en plein air during their courtship? The goofy, childish authorial voice of the Italian engineer intoning with its almost easily-dismissed gravitas as a bedtime story about the worst things there are, and the ugly, logical conclusions of the engineering war machine. There’s a lot of criticism of The Wind Rises because it never exactly owns the effects of Jiro’s engineering in the war effort, but then also some real anger in Japan about its pacifist message. I get the impression that a man of Miyazaki’s generation cannot win, in artistic portrayals of his generation and the gauzy childhood memories of the one before, a rock and a hard place of national narrative and the you lost mentality of the post-Allies. I’m aware of my dislocation as a viewer because I am not Japanese; here I felt the generational disconnect as well.

One of the things I noted as I watched was the strange convergence between Jiro Horikoshi’s marriage and the one between Richard and Arline Feynman when Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. (The wiki article on Jiro has exactly zero about his personal life. I honestly don’t know how much Miyazaki bent here, in terms of life story, and it would be interesting indeed if this was fictional. Also, bearing in mind I’m getting most of my information about Feynman’s marriage from Feynman’s anecdotal memoirs and the film starring Matthew Broderick. I refuse to google, because on some level this has more to do with how biography is created than dreary facts.) The sick woman of Jiro’s wife is something of a thing in Miyazaki’s films, from the absent mother in My Neighbor Totoro to the boy in Arietty. The sequence where Jiro holds his wife’s hand while working slayed me, slayed me like the harsh breaths in Arietty. There’s a lot of his signature characters – the dwarfish superior played for comedy like the mean housekeeper in Arietty; Jiro’s sister who is so like Ponyo in her chubby, brutal girlishness, even when she is grown. I can see the war machines from Howl’s Moving Castle or the thrill of flight from Kiki’s Delivery Service.

The Jiro Horikoshi of the film has the same courtship as Feynman with a tubercular woman, a marriage despite filial objections, and the same divided loyalties as he works unceasingly and tirelessly for a dubious purpose.  The same dislocated relationship to the war effort – tangible, but indirect – the same lonely death of the wives. And the same transcendent belief of the unflinching beauty of their arts as they practice them. There is something wrong with the world that intellects like Feynman’s and Horikoshi’s are spent on things that florescence and then explode. “None of my planes came back,” Horikoshi tells his soul-body in the end. It is left to the viewer to see them driven to debris and the end. Feynman’s creation rains down on Japan in a hellfire. That Miyazaki inserts himself in a wand-breaking sequence like Prospero’s, the authorial acknowledgement that talent and mastery come to their end, hellfire or not, lends a tragic sweetness to the film. Is this the end? Does it have to be? Oh, God, no, please.

 

unsafe on any screen

Unsafe on Any Screen by Scott Phillips

I’m really trying here to come up with a Walter Benjamin quote about media studies and engagement with popular culture, and I’m totally failing, which is about right. Obviously, I spend waaaay too much time reading all of y’alls lovely, personal reviews of all kinds of books. Books I would never read; books I have been warned away from; books I’ve been ordered to read; books I have on the long and growing list that I will never complete because some day I’m going to die.
Even though I have less engagement with movies, as an art form, I compulsively read movie reviews as well. I have the reviewers I trust, and the reviewers I know that I can take anything they say and turn it inside out, so that a bad review becomes a recommendation. I have a passing interest in trash movies, but not a full-blown love affair. Mostly my affection for bad movies leads back to Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the times I spent with my family watching MST3K. My immediate family, growing up, was all-female, and I still have the warmest of memories of watching bad movies on Thanksgiving, with my mother & sister, in lieu of the football that was de rigueur in most co-ed households.

Scott Phillips doesn’t just have nostalgia to warm him when he watches grindhouse trash, he has a full-blown and well articulated love. This is awesome, and makes for a fine collection of movie reviews. Leonard Maltin, you may fu*k yourself. Many of the movies reviewed in this slender volume cannot be found on Netflix or even in your local video store, should you have such antiquated things in your location. You have to seek these movies out. They are made by people on no budget, with a group of friends, and a maniacal laugh. Or they were made on a budget and then disappeared. Phillips has an encyclopedic knowledge of the pedigree and taxonomy of trash cinema, so that he can draw lines between this director and that, this actor, this imprint, etc. Awesome.

I get the impression that Unsafe on Any Screen started life as a blog, so some of the reviews are annoyingly short. Kind of like my – and many people’s – early reviews. But once he starts cooking, man, what a joy to behold. He has really weird grading scales: one about how many greased gorillas he’d fight to watch the film in question, and one about how many scotches, or whiskeys? it takes to get through the film. I endorse this. The scotch metric in particular, not because I especially love scotch, but because it can be either a bad or a good thing that a particular film is awarded the high scotch metric. I feel this way about a thousand things: that they are awesome, but they make me drink, or that they are terrible, and they make me drink. Or they are nothing at all and I remain sober. It gets at the whole deep ambivalence I feel towards so much stuff, even the stuff I love, in an intensely satisfying way. My only real complaint is that there is no index. At least the reviews are alphabetical.

What it comes down to is that I’m as fascinated by the critical process as I am with the art/trash in question, and this book is as much a love letter to the silly fun we have while watching bad movies as it is to the movies themselves. His exuberance is infectious, like an alien pathogen beamed down to a small Italian village that infects a scantily clad babe. It’s going to eat someone’s brains, but it might just take its top off before it does so.

Keep circulating the tapes.

Also, P.S., Scott is a friend of mine, which is how come I read this, in interests of full disclosure. I never know where to put these disclosures: at the front, like I’m defensive, or at the close, like I’m sneaking? I guess I’m going with sneaking this time. The thing is, there’s no such thing as objectivity, so I’m not even going to pretend that the fact I think Scott, personally, is awesome didn’t have an effect on my read. It did. But in this case, his balls-out love of his subject, his total commitment to  the barrel-bottom of sleaze and cheese movies resonated for me. I know love when I see it, and he loves this shit. Amen.

World War Z: The Movie

Of course when I started seeing trailers and reading descriptions of the film adaption of Max Brooks’s journal of the zombie apocalypse, World War Z, I immediately jumped up onto my high horse and started penning angry screeds in the comment sections of Reddit. (Just kidding. I don’t use Reddit.) Why in the hell were they even calling this movie World War Z if exactly nothing was taken from the book but the title? The book World War Z is nerdy and wonky, very much what a serious military history geek would write about the zombie apocalypse with CNN on mute in the background. So, maybe the individual voices were a little same-same; Brooks’s take was refreshing in its long, global pan, broken out from the locked room scenarios of so many zombie narratives. Instead of the usual how will we survive tomorrow, it was a consideration of how society - societies - would respond to such a threat.

Admittedly, the book is a little bloodless – the snap gone out of recountings because we know the raconteur has survived – and I was expecting changes. Much of Brooks’s book simply wouldn’t work on the screen. I did have some fantasies about the film being about the soldier’s narrative. He pops up at least three times in the book, moving from the Battle of Yonkers – which is actually beautifully narrated, and a pretty biting criticism of the ways military tacticians refuse to adapt to changing realities – to a West Coast enclave, and then back out through the flyover states, reclaiming this grand America. The zombie herds like buffalo, the consideration of the in-fill towns and the feral domestic animals, the drudgery and mud-covered victories: all this would have worked on the screen. Alas, no mas.

World War Z, the film, opens with a languorous morning flipping pancakes and only occasionally tense domesticity. Gerry Lane is an ex-CIA investigator, clearly still in the recovery phase of adjustment to stay-at-home dad and unemployment. His kids are moppets, and while I think it might be indicted that his wife is a professional of some kind, this isn’t lingered on. The New York setting and the traffic snarl action pieces reminded me of Will Smith’s I Am Legend, but the New Yorkiness and generally elegiac tone is absent from the movie. Pitt’s Gerry Lane seems like someone who would be better played by Tom Cruise, whose asshole Ethan Hunt routine from the Mission Impossible movies might register stronger than Pitt’s surfer insouciance. Much as I generally like Pitt, here he lacked an edge that made his supposed backstory anything but narrative justification. I was in the CIA, like, I guess.

From here, the movie bops around the zombie apocalypse, running set pieces with the thinnest of narrative fiber between them. Some of the set pieces were honestly thrilling – like the zombies swarming over the Israeli wall, or some of the stuff in North Korea. Some of them felt like hey, what about an outbreak on a plane??? I felt twitchy about a wasted David Morse vamping through a toothless mouth prosthetic about Jews and how they never forget, although the chatty Jurgen Warbrunn – one of the few characters (sort of) from the novel – explains a little better what looks like unvarnished antisemitism in Morse’s explanations of the Israeli response. I liked the look of the androgyne Israeli soldier tasked to escort Lane out of Israel, but there wasn’t much more than a look to her character. All in all, the movie was the kind of contentless flash-bang that can be fun in the dollar theater on a Sunday, but will likely diminish on the small screen to the point of boring.

Rather than just complain about fast zombies, because honestly, that’s maybe the lamest criticism one can level at the zombie narrative, my complaints more have to do with the lack of viscera. (Seriously, I’ve been trolled one too many times by people exclaiming that fast zombies aren’t really zombies, like the taxonomy of imaginary creatures isn’t flexible enough to include a little sprinting.) But really it was the lack of guts that got me, because whatever other societal jibber jabber zombie narrative might capture, they can thrill because of entrail-rending zombie bouquets, the mob ripping someone limb from limb. They’re about physical fear, body horror, our fear of the inevitably declining meat-sack we all live in. It’s not about the fear of death, but of decomposing life. Blood splatter was notably absent in World War Z, which seems a crying shame.

But that’s not even what I want to note about this movie. What I want to talk about is Gerry Lane’s wife. I’ve noted before that zombie stories deal with domesticity in a weird way, and the housewife, as the embodiment of domesticity, ends up bearing the brunt of the weirdness. And maybe I should just take a minute to define terms. Yes, obviously, Lane’s wife is working outside the home, and Lane himself is playing emasculated parent to her harping worry. There’s a quelling quality to their marital interactions: you shouldn’t want to go back out into that manly, war-torn landscape, Gerry. No, no, of course I don’t. I’m using housewife as a shorthand term for the straight, white, middle class momming set, working or not, who regularly are the focal point of the Mommy Wars, the cultural wars, and apparently, now the zombie wars. The housewife is a category more mythic than actual, but she’s got teeth like any other monster, and sometimes she sprints.

But when the fit hits the shan, it’s Gerry’s war skills that nurture domesticity. Gerry mansplains to the Hispanic family that they have to move to be safe in crisis, and they don’t listen, bringing moppet count up to three when their son takes the advice they don’t. By the time the Lane family makes it to the aircraft carrier, Mrs Lane is in full on helicopter mom mode, hissing at Gerry and the UN dude that they should take their conversation about zombies outside lest they upset the children. I punched my husband at this point in the film – in the arm, jeez – why wouldn’t she want to know wtf was going on? Fair enough, don’t freak out the kids anymore than you have to, but given that they were pretty much unconscious in every scene from here on out, maybe you have a shred of curiosity about anything but making sandwiches? Why would a professional woman just wring her hands and push her sleeping babies’ hair out of their eyes? You’re in danger of getting chucked from the relative safety of the carrier, why don’t you offer up whatever hastily sketched skills you have?

Mrs Lane’s story reaches a nadir when she calls Gerry in a panic while he’s on a dangerous op in North Korea, the squeal of the phone alerting the zombies to their locale. Pro life tip: set your cell phone to buzz when in the zombie apocalypse. (Also: cell phones work?) His world-weary decision not to tell her that her domestic panic got a lot of good men killed – good men! – just exhausted me. Broads, man, amiright? Don’t text me right now because I’m in a v. important meeting. Mrs Lane ends up as this tragic impetus for action, inert and often interfering, but without agency or motivation beyond the cheesy invocation of family. Someone smacks down Gerry near the end when he invokes it right back – I watched the thing that became my wife kill my children – but this is a weird conversation, bros ruminating on their obligations that are little more than luggage. Think of the children! Because that’s all we can do!

I don’t know. It’s late, and I’m tired, and maybe I’ll be back to bloviate tomorrow. I thought WWZ: the Movie was fine when people were running and screaming, but it wasn’t much more than that in the end.

Oh, and also, the scene where Gerry pops open a Pepsi machine and the cans all rolled with their labels out cracked my shit up. Pepsi: The Choice of the Undead! Pepsi quenches your thirst for brains.

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

I have a fractious relationship with Quirk Books. No, fractious isn’t the right word, is it? Because they don’t know I exist nor do they (or should they) care about my opinion? I was excited for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because the idea rules, but then it turned out soggy and under-heated. But then came the clones - Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic with a Blood-Sucking TwistThe Meowmorphosis - which mimeographed this idea into a purple-blue stew of end-cap bait, finally culminating, for me anyway, in the dire shit-show that was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. That book made my blood boil. 

Because, look, I don’t really mind end-cap bait, and I don’t mind the toilet reads that publishers put out to give my non-reading friends and family something to give me when my birthday rolls around. (“I know you like Jane Austen! I think you’ll love this!”) I’m not even being an asshole when I say I appreciate the thought. So when the illustrious and inimitable karen sent me William Shakespeare’s Star Wars out of the blue, I thought, uh oh, I’m going to have to make the choice between my desire to shittalk this book, and being a grateful and worthy human. Again! Why am I such a terrible person? etc.

But as it turns out, hey Mickey! She likes it! So, phew. There’s a dry conversation one can have about translations: which is better, a translator writing from the original language, or one writing to the target language. Is the translator’s mother tongue the original or the translated language? My own take is that it’s almost always better to write to the target language. I once read this biography of Rasputin that was obviously translated by a native Russian speaker, and while it was often hilarious, and I enjoyed the wobbly prose as a desultory Russian language student, you just can’t mix verb tenses like that in English, товарищ. 

I think there’s something of the translation problem in the mash-up, for the reader at least. P&P&Z was probably more aimed at the Austen nerds, because the zombie parts were really more about ninjas, and big swaths of the text were from Austen herself. So you rate it as an Austen nerd, not a zombie nerd – if you happen to be both, like me. (A straight up zombie nerd should probably just stay away.) As an Austen nerd, it was mostly just perplexing, like, what exactly are you saying about Charlotte? Also, you get that messing with the chronology messes with…oh Jesus, nevermind. I really liked the cover and study guide, so I guess thanks for that, Quirk Books. 

By the time Dawn of the Dreadfuls rolled around, that book managed to drop trou and dump on both Austen nerds and zombie nerds – remember, I’m both, so double dump for me – which turned the translation problem into a Zen koan of Not Giving a Fuck. If the translator in question doesn’t care about either language, that’s what you get. (And I’m going to throw in the disclaimer that if you’re neither kind of nerd – Austen nor zombie – then you’ll probably think whatever about all my shouting.) Point being, it is clear to me that Doescher is a Star Wars nerd – that’s the language he is translating to - which I think is a pretty good choice. I’m going to wince when he drops a Naboo reference because I spend a fair amount of energy pretending the prequels never happened, but then I’m also going to hand-clap about a sly reference to nerf herding, which, you know, wasn’t a thing until The Empire Strikes Back. Ahem. Shut up. 

So this isn’t really for Shakespeare nerds. (Do you people exist? I mean, I’m sure you exist, but are you reading slovenly populist Internet reviews?) I wrote this whole thing aping Shakespeare to start my review, but it turns out when I try to write that way, I end up sounding like a pirate. Avast, me hearties! God’s teeth! and all that. So, we’ll give Ian Doescher some props for pretty solid metered dialogue, plus he manages to pull off an occasional heroic couplet that made me smile. I did spend some time discovering this handy nit-picker I got as a booby prize for being an English major had somehow gotten into my hand, and then having to put it away. I’m like an unconscious nit-picker fast-draw, matey. All the short’ning o’ words wit’ apostr’phes to make fit the met’r makes me freak out. Just, ugh. Also, I kept thinking things like, “Other than maybe the chorus in Henry V, who is present at the beginning of every act, Shakespeare didn’t really use a chorus throughout the action like that. That’s really more a feature of Classic Greek playwrights.” But then I gave myself a wedgie. Language from, babies, even if it’s kinda dumb. It’s dumb with jokes about R2D2 monologuing about stuff as an aside, which is pretty freaking fantastic.

So thanks, karen. This rules. 

All Politics is Feudal: This Dark Earth

So, I was recently watching The Dark Knight Rises, and kind of craughing to myself about what a brilliant expression of post-9/11 fascism it is. I don’t mean the term “fascist” in its sloppy usage of “stuff I don’t like” or “dad”, but the more old school definition of authoritarian militarism that positions the arbiter of justice not in law, but in an idealized übermench, you know, with your usual racial and nationalistic overlay on what makes the mench über. Bad guy Bane talks a lot of shit about giving power back to the People – invoking the dialectical enemy of fascism, communism – but as a fascist tract, there is literally one person who might be considered “the people” with a speaking part, and that’s Catwoman’s wing-girl. She has maybe three lines. The police state and the über-police state are pretty much the only important players in a city of 11 million, the People existing either to cheer Batman or drag rich people from their homes dumbly. It’s pretty much a Leni Riefenstahl film, both in terms of ideology, and stunningly beautiful fascist aesthetics. 


A diver in the 1936 Olympics, photographed by Riefenstahl

Putting aside some lumpy plotting – which no doubt was caused by Heath Ledger’s untimely death after so perfectly capturing hysterical nihilism in The Dark Knight (and I’m glad they didn’t re-cast the Joker) - The Dark Knight Rises brilliantly expresses the not-so-latent fascism of the superhero story. It’ll be interesting to see what the Nolanizing of Superman comes up with in Man of Steel, because Superman was your granddaddy’s very first anti-fascist American fascist superhero. (Sometimes you gotta fight fascism with fascism, apparently.) Somehow I don’t think it’ll work, because Superman is boring, and the best fascists have some chutzpah. The old fanboy saw is that Kent is the disguise, and overpowered aliens posing as dorks are hard to put the banners up for. Squeeze out that single tear, fascists, then we’ll root for you. 

Anyway, some what belabored point being that I was reading This Dark Earthat the same time, and kinda musing to myself about all the post-9/11, fear state, how-will-we-maintain-our-humanity-in-the-face-of-terror that I see as endemic to the zombie narrative. This Lord of the Flies with cannibal corpses has been going on at the very least since 9/11, but certainly bubbling there in Romero’s game-changer, Night of the Living Dead, where he rips the shit out of the American nuclear family and societal structures, and probably even earlier in your older school Voodoo sorcerer controlling reanimated slaves folklore. (Sophomore level paper topic: taking the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead as a structure that symbolizes the Freudian psychological model – id as basement, ego as main floor, superego as attic – map the movement of the characters within this landscape as pertains to societal construction. Et cetera.) 

So, This Dark Earth is, in some ways, a very traditional zombie story, starting in a hospital becoming overrun as the doctor very slowly accepts what is occurring around her, complete with zombie infants and a chemical dump outside of town. A basement-bound reunion of mother and child, a bullet in the brain of a turned husband, a military group using a woman as rape fodder and mama, a barbed wire settlement slipping towards feudalism, a girl writing notes that she’s sure no one will read – it’s all there, and more – the wrangling and hand-wringing of the boy grown into a world with new rules, the prince of this new dark earth. The steam train. The slavers. Jacobs hits all of this, lightly, humanely, with an eye toward the individual that I feel gets lost in a lot of zombie stories, somewhat perversely. Even with very large time shifts, the pacing is furious while still managing a tightly personal tone. 

A lot of people are going to invoke AMC’s The Walking Dead with this book – and I guess I am too – but this book checks a lot of the stupid societal bullshit of that show – Rick shouting about how “this isn’t a democracy” and then getting his ass bitten by eye-patched demagogues (but not literally, of course), Carl turning into a squint-eyed tiny badass, the rheumy moral mouthpiece wondering “but at what cost?” I’m still into Walking Dead for the set-pieces, because those continue to thrill, but I have no patience for the people or the society of that show. And I’ve lost patience with the characters of Walking Dead because it never comes out and owns the inherent fascism of the zombie survivor community, not with any finesse anyway. Breathers are all imbued with exceptionalism in the zombie apocalypse. It’s numbers; that’s all. But on Walking Dead, Rick gets to be touched with the invisible hand of narrative superiority/safety, lending his leadership a sort of unassailable divinity that should just suck it. This Dark Earth addresses that impulse to feudalism, and it does so while being beautiful in an unshowy way. 

I almost don’t want to recommend it to your average non-horror reader, because I think what Jacobs is doing is subtle, this slow, personal invocation of all the tropes of the genre, that sets them all up and knocks them all down, slowly, like a steam boiler, like cancer. Death is the greatest democracy there is; we all have our one vote. Survivalist groups in the zombie apocalypse are often pictured as Spartan paramilitary camps set against the undead Athenian mob. I think that we tend to conceptualized survival this way shows our instinct towards feudalism – the dictatorial Governor in Walking Dead growling about terrorists, the slaver in This Dark Earth looking for a king to behead. Both Carl and the “Prince” here are positioned as the members of the New World Order, unable to remember the world before the mob, groomed in violent expediency to threats both real and imagined. I’m not sure where Walking Dead is going to go with Carl, but I have my suspicions, and I’m already girding my loins for disingenuous speeches about honor and stuff. 

this is not a democracy anymore, it's a ricktatorship with an image of Rick Grimes from Walking Dead

Observe Jacobs, instead:

The world loves a tomato because it’s red. The apple is red too. But the tomato’s flesh is the flesh of mankind.

Do the dead love the flesh of man because it is like a tomato? We’ll never know. But I have my suspicions.

As the matriculating Prince observes as he filches tomatoes from their tenuous garden. There are times when this is too much, like in an overtly symbolic sequence that has our boy crucified, quite literally, on an exit ramp sign, but then Southern Gothic (which this book is also, in many ways) often can’t help its dips into histrionic religious imagery. Jacobs runs this linear and time-skipping narrative hand-over-hand, from one point of view character to the next, which I believe works beautifully with the stakes and danger of the undead-filled world: you will hear this voice, but you will not know when this voice will end, or if it will pick up again on the edges of another person’s story. Knock-out’s sequence, and the boys on the steam train were especially tight. (And I have another sophomore paper topic ruminating about the train as it fits into the American landscape as some kind of echo of industrialism and colonial expansion, but I haven’t worked out all the kinks.) Certainly, This Dark Earth isn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of zombie narratives, but I thought it dealt with the tropes in a thoughtful manner, which for me can be much more enjoyable than genre-confounding gimmicks or the like. I, for one, welcome our zombie apocalypse feudal overlords, at least as described by John Hornor Jacobs. Hail to the king, baby. 

3 Things I’m Glad Didn’t Exist 20 Years Ago

I just turned 39, which I wasn’t all that pleased about for a number of reasons, some of which are none of your beeswax. But one reason is that it’s a joke age, a place where the oldometer stops for a lot of people, a numerical cultural signifier for “actually, a lot older than 39″. So it’s like turning 40, but worse, because I don’t actually get to own that I’m 40, instead looking like some kind of liar. I admit I’ve overthought this, but it’s my party.

So my husband was watching dross on Netflix, the way he does, and hit upon Tiny Furniture - if you like this you’ll like that, etc. I didn’t even get an individual assessment out of him so much as him reading out the wiki page about mumblecore film-making in absolute horror. Unscripted digital video with a focus on naturalistic dialogue! He shouted. Bah. I haven’t seen any of the mumblecore titles listed, but ignorance hasn’t stopped me from making fun of something before, and I’m not going to stop now. Whenever I see Ed Burns talk about his “low-budg” aesthetic - even the term makes my gonads shrink – I want to die a little. Oh, another lazy, hideously filmed family drama about a lovable asshole being half-redeemed by the love of a someone or something whatever monologue about how it totally sucks when you burn your fingers getting Hot Pockets out the microwave!

It’s not the digital video: I’ve made my peace with that. Digital video can be used brilliantly, like in 28 Days Later, where the shaky, hand held quality and the sub-cinema quality worked with the subject like nobody’s business. The end of the world is seriously fucking nigh indeed. It’s not even low budget film, because I love all kinds of low budget movies, from Evil Dead to Primer. Maybe it’s just that digital video, with it’s lower barrier to entry – you don’t have to know anything about film, in a technical sense, which might mean you don’t know anything about film, in the more metaphorical sense. It’s like the old joke about the film student wondering about why no one goes to the bathroom in movies, and then makes a film comprised of exclusively that. No one goes to the bathroom in movies because that’s stupid and no way to tell a story.

Which brings me back to my shaky point (which isn’t that I’m mad that I’m getting old, completely): I’ve said for a while now, maybe two full years, that I’m so happy that I didn’t have fucking facebook when I was a kid. Good god. Adolescence was bad enough without an indelible record of my idiocy and assholery out there in the world, and that’s not even getting into the idiocy and assholery of my peers. (And I even cringe about stuff I wrote on the Internet 5 years ago, when I was supposedly an adult.) It doesn’t surprise me at all that many of my younger friends and family have deleted their facebook accounts, or inactivate them for long periods of time.

I’m also happy that there wasn’t self-publishing, because, speaking of indelible, I could see my younger self self-publishing the crap out of some seriously painful sophomoric poetry, and that my seriously painful sophomoric poetry is only available in unavailable high school and college journals makes me a happy cat indeed. It was sweet that my shit juvenile writing was set to the page and all, but that it’s ephemeral is part of its charm. We should be able to bury our pasts, which certainly happens in the constant crushing content-production of the Internet; the good news is, people are rarely listening anyway. But someone can still do the hard google though, and that is ouch.

So the third thing I’m glad didn’t exist when I was young enough to take liberties is mumblecore filmmaking. Not that I ever had any interest in film, except as an audience, but I could totally see younger me thinking, hey, why not? when a friend decided to stage some self-indulgent mumble drama, and there I’d be, for all time, doing some walk-on as a barista or girl at the party fudging my lines and generally sucking. (I wouldn’t mind dying in a horror film, though, whatever that says about me.) I recently stumbled over some clueless young man’s personal manifesto, which he wrote in Socratic dialogue as something approximating a novel. The last pages, which I read, have an author-proxy totally burning a television reporter after she asks a bunch of softballs. Cold dis, imaginary reporter! I laughed myself sick and then praised the baby Jesus that self-publishing didn’t exist when I was 20.

So I guess what I’m saying is that on some level I’m glad I’m old, because I can’t imagine younger me navigating this brave new world with any kind of aplomb, given that older me doesn’t have a ton of restraint. I’m getting better at backing away from the keyboard. Even then, I can imagine a 59 year old Ceridwen reading these words and shaking her head. You poor, dumb slob.

Fremdschämen: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

There’s this really great German term, fremdschämen, which means to be embarrassed on someone else’s behalf. Sit-coms are often predicated on the concept of fremdschämen, that squirming feeling you get when people are in untenable positions of their own unconscious devising – Jack Tripper in  eye makeup running some gay panic, or absolutely anything Michael Scott does on The Office. Breaking Dawn – Part 2 manages to ride the edges of my vicarious embarrassment so, so much, not really tipping into fremdschämen into the very, very end. I call this a win as far as adaptions go, really.

It’s hard to sum my feelings about the The Twilight Saga succinctly. Sure, absolutely, this stuff is objectively terrible and completely regressive. But I am not joking in the slightest when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is the scariest fucking thing I have ever read, ever, hands down. Stephenie Meyer is writing from the unconscious part of her brain there, running an electric wire to certain gendered fears, and while Meyer tries her absolute hardest to write away the horror from that sequence, she’s not ultimately successful.

The ending of the book Breaking Dawn ended up being a different, chilling kind of horror to me: a vision of narrative and personal perfection that destroys both personal coherence and narrative unity. “And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.” Gag. But I get Meyer’s desire to run the pearl silk around her earlier panic, somehow to staunch the sting of the entirety of the nightmare she produced mid-book. Which is deeply nutty in a young adult novel about marrying Jesus and living perfectly forever and ever, world without end, amen.

I’ve only read books one and four of The Twilight Saga, but I have seen all the movies, and it’s been a trip watching them on the screen. Twilight is a mess on the screen – not much that works on the page works out loud, and things like Edward’s sparkling or the vampire baseball sequence come off as unintentionally campy.

But you want to hear a crazy thing? Breaking Dawn – the second part anyway – actually works better on screen. The first part, no, they gut (heh heh) the birthing sequence of its alarming resonance, chickening out about Meyer’s bloody awful vision. (Though the coded rape scene of the honeymoon sequence is still funny/terrifying.) But the second half of the book is such a hot mess that it’s hard not to improve on it.

There’s a lot of fan bitching about how the movie people ran an action sequence with a lot of head-popping and fire, but it totally worked. I was so, so disappointed by the book, the way Meyer sets everyone up with their swirling capes, and then everything goes fssst in a Vampire Matlock sequence that is both boring and lame. It ruled to see the possibility for some godamn action in all the squandered potential of the book, even if the sequence went on overlong. The whole action sequence was smartly set up by Alice’s clairvoyance and its possibilities though. It was a departure that saw potentials in the source material that hadn’t been realized.

But the real beauty of Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is in the huge love letter to all the Twifans, from the love scenes between Bella and Edward that end in some kind of nuclear annihilating sunrise, to the dumb parts where Bella reads aloud to Edward, to the page-turning final sequence where the filmmakers invoke all the lost hours the fans of the books have spent freaking out with flashlights under the covers. Breaking Dawn is garbage, but it is the garbage end of so much godamn garbage-y fun for so many people, and the credit sequence that runs a CHiPs-style freeze-frame on every single person ever mentioned in The Twilight Saga kinda brought a tear to my eye. Graham Green! Omg! What are you doing in this p.o.s.?

The part that killed me though – the part that evoked the fremdschämen I started with – was the very end, where Edward and Bella are literally (and I mean this in the original sense of the word, not to mean figuratively) are rolling around in a meadow full of flowers, and she manages to relay to Edward a psychic montage of all the previous movies. OH my GOD. That is the WORST. Fan love letters are just fine, but this is moving into seriously embarrassing territories here. Um, okay, but get a room, guys.

So, this movie was a blast, and I had a lot of fun watching it, but I can’t say it’s anywhere near objectively good. Love letters to swooning girls are few and far between though, so I respect it on that level. Good job, Twilight Saga.

Squirrel Eyes by Scott S. Phillips

Scott Phillips posted this video of The Blue Man, which is the short film the protagonist made as a kid in the book, and Scott made in real life as a kid in, um, real life. Super 8mm done by kids about a post-apoc wasteland in the 70s! <3

….

Oh man, Squirrel Eyeswas so fun to read. I didn’t really know what to expect, because I’ve seen a few of Scott’s movies, which are definitely more on the grindhouse end of things. Fight scenes, blood splatter, some boobies, maybe some zombies, and off they go. They’re fun, if you are into zombies, boobies, and/or blood splatter, but maybe aren’t for everyone. I don’t mean that as a dis; genre tastes are what they are. 

This is not a grindhouse book, whatever the hell that might mean. This is an affecting, anecdotal story about dreams deferred. Our first person protagonist, Alvin, starts the story by slinking back to Albuquerque from LA after his girlfriend leaves him and his film-writing career goes to shit. He drunkenly hits on the idea of making it with his high school girlfriend as the way of getting his mojo back. This is an incredibly bad idea – we all know this – but it makes pretty perfect sense in the stew of shame and loss that Alvin is living in. He falls into re-making a short film that had been an aborted project as a teen, and the sections detailing the process have a lived-it feel & good physicality. 

Alvin’s voice is just fantastic, and the chapters read like personal anecdotes told by someone who is an excellent anecdotalist. I have this friend Mewes who is the master of the personal anecdote, and he has a couple that I beg him to tell me whenever he’s drunk enough. Many of them are from his time in the Peace Corps, and all of them center on vomit and/or diarrhea. At some point, you know he’s going to say, “So there I was…” I’m already giggling thinking about them, and I’m sorry I will not relate them right now, because I’ll just botch them.

Anyway, Alvin reminds me of Mewes, not because of stories of vomit – although there is one funny interlude in this book about the technicolor yawn – but because he’s got this great conversational style that knows how to take the folk idiom and twist it. (One example I can think of without looking it up: “She was built like a brick shithouse full of bobcats.” Hahaha! Wonderful extension of the brick shithouse folk metaphor.) He’s got great timing, and the chapters often end with a nice knife twist, not one that draws readerly blood in an act of cruelty, but one intended to make you look at the situation in a slightly different way. 

I found myself laughing a lot while I read this, which is funny on exactly two levels, bitches. It was funny because it was funny, of course, but then it was funny because there’s this profound core of loss and pain in this story. The sections that deal with Alvin’s family – his mother and brother – rang especially with a kind of truth of disappointment and love, and hung uneasily with the ways family can be wonderful and awful in the same moment. There’s this running gag where Alvin starts sobbing every time he gets into a shower – something about the running water unleashing the floodgates – and while this is written semi-comically, it’s that sort of Chekhovian comedy that is not funny at all

This is what kind of kicked the shit out me in the end: talent is not the same as success; and passion does not translate from one medium to another. I totally apologize for this dorky allusion, but I kept thinking of Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” as I read this, especially at the end. Browning’s poem is one of his dramatic monologues, about a lesser know Renaissance painter named *cough cough* Andrea del Sarto. He’s a failure only of sorts, destined to be a footnote to Michelangelo, Raphael, da Vinci, but a powerful painter of his own. Browning writes del Sarto’s monologue as he begs his wife not to cuckold him again, but only in the most euphemistic of terms. The way he talks about his art with both deprecation and longing cleaves me: 

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? All is silver-grey,
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!

Alvin’s a sort of novelistic Andrea del Sarto: a successful vision of loss and failure; conversational and complete on its own, but still bending to the incompleteness that is the lives of all of us who are not stunning geniuses of whatever form. Does that make any sense? It might not. I guess I’m trying to say that I liked how Alvin struggled, finding his joys in the wreckage, remembering what drove him to his life choices, the passions that drive him, etc. The ending was a little rushed for me – I feel like there was a missing scene or two, especially that final, missing confrontation with the ex-girlfriend – but it was otherwise a sensible ending. A good book. 

And a last note: I know Scott, and he sent me a copy of this book to read, for full disclosure. It was only available as an ebook at that point – this has changed – and this precipitated a huge crisis for me as I tried to make my phone into an ereader. A completely ridiculous amount of gnashing of teeth and emails ensued, until I thrust my phone on my friend Jeremy, and demanded he make the Nook application work. Success! I didn’t mind reading it on the little screen too much, but it ran down my batteries like crazy, and I still prefer paper. So there.

Cadaver: A Bittersweet Love Story

This may sound meaner than I intend, but the macabre sweetness of Cadaver: A Bittersweet Love Storyby Jonah Ansell made me like it despite the egregious poetry. For example lines such as:

LET IT GO!
Bequeath to me
The organ that was meant for she

Should be strangled with piano wire. I get you’re going for the rhyme word there, what with the she, and I know that English is a rhyme-poor language and all that noise, but it’s her. The organ that was meant for her. Don’t sacrifice grammar for the rhyme, or you sacrifice sense for artifice. That is a direct object, and while we don’t do a lot of case-changes in English, we do them with personal pronouns, and…I’m sorry. I get that my head is coming to a point here, and that this sort of thing will not bother many people. I am, as the kids say, just saying. (I don’t even know if kids say that anymore. Off my lawn.) 

So, now that I’ve begun by flipping out about prosody and grammar, here is why I still liked this odd little book. First, this story was written for a brother for his sister on her first day in med school dissecting cadavers. That’s adorable, and also creepy. I love eavesdropping art – or maybe I just love the idea of it – art that was created by this one person for this other person, and then somehow, it ends up out in the world, and we get to pretend we know something about the artist and the audience of one. It might be that all or most art is eavesdropping art, everyone writing to that audience they imagine, which doesn’t, ultimately, include me but in the abstract, and I listen in behind my book. I like that idea. I like that I thought that while reading this. 

The sister-character with her too-large square glasses and fearful little face cuts open the chest of her first cadaver. (Random aside: while I was taking Russian, I learned there are classes of nouns that are animate, and ones that are inanimate; this only become important when conjugating certain nouns or something? Living things are, obviously, animate. But there are – at least – two words for dead body in Russian, one of which is animate, and one that is inanimate. (Sub-aside: we were reading that Akhmatova poem about the true love who washes up on the beach of the Black Sea, which is why we were talking about this at all. His dead body was the animate kind of corpse, but not, like, in a zombie way.) Point being, we had this long conversation about what the English equivalent would be, and corpse we decided was the animate, andcarrion the inanimate. Cadaver, now that was a trickier case. Obviously inanimate, on one level, used at is almost always in medical or scientific contexts to strip the body and its attendant death of personality. But on another level, there’s this sense of industry and learning in this term, the vessel for occult and revealed knowledge or something.) 

Once the sister-character pulls out the cadaver’s heart, he gets up off the table – but not, like, in a zombie way – and begs to road-trip to see his wife one last time. The road trip with cadaver parts were my favorite, him in his ass-showing medical smock, her at the wheel of a big American convertible. The prosody even tightened up long enough for me to stop hating it every second of my life, and there’s a quatrain or two I thought were honestly funny. Then he meets his wife and…well, the rest here is spoilers. 



The price of admission was probably paid by a link at the end of the book that took me to the short film version of this story, along with a password. The cadaver is voiced by Christopher Lloyd, for chrissakes! One point twenty one gigawatts! The doggerel sounds better coming from voice actors and not my internal Minnesota accent, and some of the switch-backs and reveals work better in moving pictures than still. I suspect the film came first, putting this book in the same category as The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, where the book is more of an artifact of a film than a full-blown work. (Not that I have a problem with that. It is, as the kids say, what it is. Get off my lawn.) Interestingly, or maybe only interesting to me, but I can think of many more books made into film than the other way around, stuff like Lost Thing by Shaun Tan. I pretty much want to eat everything that man does with a spoon, though. But not, like, in a zombie way. 

Just kidding. Totally in a zombie way. 






I received my copy from netgalley.com.