30 January 2010


When it first came out, many critics loathed Mandingo.  They said it was a pulp potboiler, a racist exploitation film, softcore porn, immoral.  Roger Ebert gave it zero stars and called it "a piece of manure" and "racist trash".  It did just fine at the box office in 1975, the year it was released, but its reputation as laughably and/or offensively awful stayed with it, keeping it out of circulation for a long time.  It's only been generally available on DVD for a couple of years now.

In 1976, Andrew Britton wrong a long and careful vindication of the film, but his essay was not widely read.  Britton noted how many of the reviewers didn't seem to have paid much attention to the film itself, given how many simple errors about the plot and character relationships filled their reviews.  More famously (if academic press books by film scholars can qualify as "famous"), Britton's teacher and colleague Robin Wood devoted a chapter of Sexual Politics and Narrative Film to Mandingo, which is where I first heard about the movie.

After watching Mandingo, I wanted to see if anybody had written about it more recently, especially within the film blogosphere, and that's when I discovered some real gems.  I can't say I loved the film in the way some people have, but I certainly think the original critics who hated it missed the mark completely.  It's a remarkable corrective to and comment on such things as Gone with the Wind, and some moments reminded me strongly of Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn!, particularly in the way both movies complicate the viewer's sympathies for the white protagonist.

But my purpose here is simply to point you toward some excellent online writings about the film:

29 January 2010

Salinger of New Hampshire

We've had to say goodbye to one of our residents, Mr. Salinger.  He wasn't a native, but lots of folks up here aren't, and we try to treat them all the same.  (We don't give them a special sales tax just for them, we don't tell them they can't have guns.)  Mr. Salinger lived pretty close to the border of the People's Republic of Vermont, but he was still one of us, not a dirty commie.  They say he had some peculiar habits, but that was none of our business.

I've been through Cornish, where he lived, but never sought him out.  Folks from the big cities called him a recluse, but I'm not sure that's true.  He didn't go around on book tours, he didn't give lectures, he didn't seek out his fellow scribblers, so therefore he must be crazy, they thought.  Plenty of people said they'd seen him in town.  He and I enjoyed the same library, so we might have roamed the stacks together for all I know.  Not wanting to be pestered, he didn't post his picture up on every telephone pole, and I expect he didn't look much different from all the other men his age around here, stoic and grizzled.  People who knew him, knew him; people who didn't, didn't.

I read all the books when I was an adolescent, or just before.  I started with Catcher in the Rye when I was about 12, and I loved it.  I'd never read anything with such a strong and idiosyncratic voice.  Then my uncle told me it wasn't much of a novel in comparison to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and eventually I read that one, and yes, he was right, but then, most novels aren't much in comparison to A Portrait of the Artist.  Of Salinger's other books, I liked the pieces in Nine Stories best, especially "A Perfect Day for Bananafish".  I haven't read any of them in at least a decade, though.

I twice had to teach Catcher to high school students, 9th graders both times.  I say "had to" because it's not a book I would ever assign of my own free will.  If I were inclined to make students read Salinger, it would be some of the stories.  Catcher should be a book you discover on your own.  It's a perennial favorite of English teachers, though, many of whom encountered it themselves in high school, and now there's a whole industry of study guides and lesson plans to go along with it, making it into a school institution, like little cartons of milk.  Holden Caulfield, hater of schools and phonies, beloved of so many counter-culturists, has been tamed and institutionalized by an infinite battery of tests and quizzes and short essays.  Just as The Great Gatsby is the sanctified text from the first half of the 20th Century for American high schools, so Catcher seems to be the sanctified text from the second half, at least by a writer from the U.S. (Lord of the Flies is the only competition I can think of).  Sure, it gets banned a lot, but that's both a sign of and an aid to its popularity.

None of my students ever admitted liking Catcher to me, and many of them found Holden insufferable.  Maybe it was my fault -- I find Holden insufferable and could live a perfectly contented life without ever rereading the book.  Or maybe it wasn't my fault -- none of my students ever admitted liking Lord of the Flies to me, and that's a novel I gain more respect for every time I read it; conversely, many of my students have enjoyed Gatsby tremendously, and the only thing I much enjoy in it is its last page.  (Lesson learned: I have no effect on my students' opinions of books!)

So yes, I like the idea of J.D. Salinger more than I like most of his writing.  (But the writing was important to me at a particular time in my life, it taught me a lot about voice and point of view, and the short stories strongly influenced my perception of story form.)  I have a lot of respect for writers who stop publishing, even if they are primarily able to do it because some of their books provide more royalties in a year than most writers will see in a lifetime.  Salinger got close to the sun and found its flames too hot, so he hunkered down on the moon.  Reportedly, he kept writing, but felt no need for much of an audience beyond himself.  He let the byline on the four books do his public work for him, and for nearly half a century he, the person, lived a fairly anonymous life in the Granite State, growing old and deaf, occasionally having his army of lawyers send out a sortie of suits, but mostly just trying to keep people from bothering him.  Good for him, I say.

Meanwhile, if you want to glimpse the young J.D. Salinger (the byline, not the man), subscribers of the New Yorker can see digital copies of the first appearances of many of the stories, including the first appearance of Holden Caulfield.  Those of you who don't subscribe to the magazine aren't out of luck, though -- Salinger fans have posted all of the stories at various websites.  Search for one of the unreprinted titles via the Google and you'll find them.  The man himself wouldn't have wanted you to do so -- he spent a lot of money trying to keep anything that wasn't in one of his four books from being reprinted or distributed -- but that's one of the perils of publishing: the byline keeps on living.

Paris, Texas Gets Criterioned

My old DVD of Paris, Texas had been loaned out to friends and acquaintances many times, because it's the sort of movie I just want to make people sit down and watch.  DVDs are sensitive things, though, and somewhere along the line this one got scratched, making it skip and stall during one of the most important scenes at the end.  Sometime this summer, I decided to replace it, and went searching for a cheap copy on Amazon.  When I saw a Criterion edition would be coming out, I gave up on the idea of getting a cheap replacement for my wounded disc and instead pre-ordered the new one.  There are a few films that, if you're going to own them and watch them a few times a year (as I've done with Paris, Texas ever since first getting it on a $5 videotape during a sale at a local video store), you should get them on the best edition possible.  And the fact that it's now on Blu-Ray is nearly enough to make me run out and get a Blu-Ray player.

I ordered the disc so long ago, I nearly forgot I'd done so and almost ended up replacing the other edition.  But the new one arrived yesterday, and I quickly watched all the extras on the second disc and a few favorite scenes in the film itself.  Because it had been about a year since I'd last watched the movie, the final half hour seemed even richer in its emotional effect than ever.

The colors on the new disc seemed more vivid than ever, though I haven't compared it to the previous disc and my memory of the film is strongly affected by having watched it many times on a washed-out VHS.  The greens, reds, and blues are particularly sharp now, almost overwhelmingly so.  The film has always been, even at its most desaturated, a powerful visual experience, but with the fine-tuning of every element by Criterion, it now verges at times on being an assault on the senses.  In a good way.

Part of me, though, misses some of the old flaws.  I really love the 23-minute collection of outtakes and extended scenes that was on the old DVD and is also on the Criterion edition -- love it not only because all of the scenes are interesting, a few of them are stunningly beautiful, and together they add up to a fairly compelling short film on their own, but also because the film hasn't been cleaned up, it's grainy and torn and messy, with moments of Stan Brakhage texture.

The feature commentary with director Wim Wenders is very good, but is the same one that was on the old DVD.  Some of the interviews on the Criterion edition are interesting, but the real treasure of the extra features is a collection of the Super 8 films that were excerpted as home movies in the feature.  They're evocative on their own, but the best thing Criterion did was add an optional audio track of Travis's monologue to Jane over them.  Written by Sam Shepard, this is one of the great film monologues (in one of the great film scenes), and adding it to the Super 8 footage creates a deeply affecting new short film.

I hope to get around to writing more about Paris, Texas as a film (and as a screenplay -- it's some of the best work Shepard, in collaboration with L.M. Kit Carson and Wenders, has ever done, and I think he's written a few of the greatest American plays).  But first I need to watch it a few more times, to revel in it, because this is a movie of endless revelations.

28 January 2010

Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

A well-lived life of 87 years is something to celebrate and be joyful for, but some deaths strongly separate the world that remains for us, the living, from the one that was there only a few hours or days before.

Howard Zinn almost single-handedly changed the way I saw the world.  I was in high school when I encountered A People's History of the United States and Declarations of Independence and I have never been the same since.  They hit me like alien messages from a more enlightened planet.  I'm not sure I've ever learned as much from any other books, if learning can be defined not only as the gaining of information but the adding of awareness, the opening of new vistas previously hidden.  I expect this was Zinn's effect for many people, especially those who, like me, encountered his writings during particularly impressionable years.

I went to lectures Zinn gave three or four times, mostly during the mid-1990s.  I bought audio tapes of some of his lectures and radio appearances.  I eventually collected most of his books.  After Matt Damon gave him a shout-out in Good Will Hunting and then George W. Bush was appointed President, Zinn seemed to be everywhere, with lots of new books, CDs, DVDs, TV shows...  I didn't keep up with him too much during the last decade, mostly because I had other interests, other things to look at and read, but I was glad he was out there, fighting the good fight, and I was thrilled to see he was able now to draw bigger crowds than had ever attended the events I'd seen him at.

What struck me in Zinn's writing was the clarity of its arguments; what struck me in him as a person was his apparent decency.  He didn't come off as a wild-eyed nutball, which folks on the political right-wing surely saw him to be, but as a fairly normal guy who'd been thinking about stuff and wondered why, as human beings who proclaim ourselves to be decent and civilized, we are so often willing to wield power in both our political and personal lives in ways that are fundamentally indecent and uncivilized.  "Why are we so horrible to each other?" he seemed to ask, "And why do we support systems that are profoundly more horrible than most of us would ever dream of being?"

There will be plenty of eulogies for Howard Zinn.  I hope they're full of his own words.  Here, for instance, are the last paragraphs of Declarations of Independence:
One of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, who later was a scientific adviser to President Eisenhower, chemist George Kistiakowsky, devoted the last years of his life, as he was dying of cancer, to speaking out against the madness of the arms race in every public forum he could find.  Toward the very end, he wrote, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "I tell you as my parting words.  Forget the channels.  There simply is not enough time left before the world explodes.  Concentrate instead on organizing, with so many others of like mind, a mass movement for peace such as there has never been before."

He understood that it was not the bomb he had worked on, but the people he had come to work with, on behalf of peace, that were the ultimate power.

22 January 2010

A Note on Clarion

I meant to say this quite a while ago, but it got lost in the shuffle (Paul Witcover's post reminded me)  -- the faculty for this year's Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop is extraordinary.  The Clarion workshops always have great faculty, but for this particular Clarion in this particular year, I can testify to their extraordinariness because I've worked with four of the six instructors on writing projects, and they're people I continue to learn a lot from.

I have never met or interacted with Dale Bailey or George R.R. Martin, two of the instructors in the middle weeks, but I've read the writing of both, and I'm sure they will have a lot to offer.

Delia Sherman is one of the best editors I've ever had for a short story ("A Map of the Everywhere").  She did what the most talented editors do: made comments that let me see the story with new eyes and shape it accordingly.  She's a very good writer herself, but when choosing to go to a workshop, the quality of an instructor's own writing is (beyond a certain basic level) not always an indicator of their ability to offer insight into your writing.  In my experience, Delia has that ability.

Readers of this blog don't really need me to go on at any length about how I feel about Samuel Delany or Ann & Jeff VanderMeer.  I would sell major parts of my body for medical experiments if that would let me build a time machine to send my younger, aspiring-writer self to a week of workshops with Delany and two weeks with the VanderMeers.

The deadline for applications is March 1.  If you are an aspiring writer, you should apply, and if you are accepted, if you have to move heaven and earth to attend, you should do so.

21 January 2010

Choose Your Own Apocalypse

Since I mentioned Alien Sex earlier this week, I thought I would continue exploring The Year's Best Science Fiction, Eighth Annual Collection with the story Gardner Dozois chose to reprint from Alien Sex: "Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates" by Pat Murphy.

The writing and pacing are what distinguish "Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates" rather than the central concept, which is for the most part a familiar one derived from the question, "What would you do if you were the last person on Earth?"  Science fiction writers have been working with that premise for a long time.  In this story, the narrator designs and builds robots, and because of her own interests she endows the robots with the capability and desire for sex, reproduction, and, perhaps, love.  They will, she believes, continue the evolution of the species homo.

The concept of robots reproducing themselves and replacing humankind isn't a remotely original concept, either, though Murphy uses it well as a reflection of her character's yearnings and sense of meaning.  All of the discussion of insect and bird sex in the story ties into the few glimpses of the narrator's own life that she offers, including a vision of her dead mother asking her now, at the end of her own life, "Katie, why didn't you ever fall in love?  Why didn't you ever have children?"  Katie herself has already told us,
I think perhaps I missed some narrow window of opportunity.  If, at some point along the way, I had had a friend or a lover who had made the effort to coax me from hiding, I could have been a different person.  But it never happened.  In high school, I sought the safety of my books.  In college, I studied alone on Friday nights.  By the time I reached graduate school, I was, like the pseudoscorpion, accustomed to a solitary life.
The rest of the story shows us Katie answering what seem to be her mother's desires -- though she cannot, herself, understand love, and has missed any opportunity for procreation, she has the godlike ability to create creatures that can care for each other and make babies.

The story is both elegiacal and optimistic in a rather typically science fictional way.  Indeed, I couldn't help thinking of some of what the narrator in "Invaders" says, because here we have a story of the lonely nerd as lone survivor and savior.  Not quite savior of humanity, because humanity seems pretty much dead, but the savior of what the narrator clearly thinks of as a kind of human evolution.

I wonder about the choice of focusing on this character amidst all that is going on in the background (the apparent death of all human civilization).  We learn nothing of the war or what has brought complete destruction -- all we know is that "Yesterday ... the bombs fell and the world ended," and then we get a story of a character coming to some self-realization through the creation of robots that will likely repopulate the world with themselves.  She creates these robots so quickly and well that I'm tempted to think it's all a delusion -- that "really" she's dying of radiation poisoning and has dreamed the robots and their progeny.  She's already admitted to seeing her dead mother, so why not a delusion about saving something of the world?  Unfortunately, the story doesn't give us much evidence that we should be skeptical of what Katie tells us, nor does it give us much to do with such an idea.

I suppose it speaks to my own prejudices as a reader that I would prefer the story if it were a more complex study of a fairly ordinary, flawed woman's last, dying delusions.  (But then it would be Wittgenstein's Mistress, one of the most interesting and affecting American novels I know.)

Molly Gloss's "Personal Silence" (also in Dozois's anthology), like "Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates", takes place during a time of destructive war, but the characters here are not superheroes or exceptions.  Though the protagonist, Jay, at first seems exceptional -- he's wandering around the world, looking for a place without war -- he's not the only person on such a journey, and even though he may have been the first, he's not even the most famous.  When he meets the 12-year-old girl, Mare, and her father, they aren't especially impressed with him.  He's interesting because he relieves the monotony of their days, and he's pleasant enough to have around because he has taken a vow of silence, which makes both Mare and her father more willing to talk to him about personal things than they would be with someone who could respond with speech to what they say.  He's not particularly special, but he is useful.

Once Jay has learned of Mare's dreams and that she expects soon to die and to have her death written about in a way that will stop the war, he imagines himself as the vessel for this.  But it's clear from the story that this hope is, if not arrogant, at least not a whole lot different from previous hopes he's entertained for himself, none of which have entered reality with the force he imagined them to offer.  At the end of the story, Mare isn't dead, but Jay is in the position of wishing for her death so that he, through writing, can save the world.  He thinks he has given Mare's life great meaning and her death great power.  There is little reason to assume he is right.

"Personal Silence" is a fine companion for "Invaders" in that it offers ways for us to think about storytelling.  Though Gloss's tale is less explicit in the questions it asks about wish fulfillment, atrocity, and writing, I think those questions are equally important in the two texts.  It's not all of what either is doing, but there is a resonance between the two -- a resonance derived from questions of the silences we choose to break, and the form, thought, and hopes we attach to the noises we send out into the world.

19 January 2010

Likely Stories

From a wonderful new interview with Brian Evenson by John Madera at Rain Taxi:
Brian Evenson: Some of the stories I always come back to, when I’m teaching full stories and trying to get students to understand how all the different elements of a story are working together, include William Trevor’s “Miss Smith,” which I think does amazing things with shifting the reader’s sympathy; Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” which does something amazingly manic with doubling and which may be my favorite story ever; Isak Dinesen’s “The Roads Round Pisa” or “The Monkey,” both of which do things that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else do; Peter Straub’s “Bunny Is Good Bread” and “Lapland,” which do very important things in terms of questioning the relation of genre to literature; Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which manages to collapse as a story while still establishing an incredible resonance; D. H. Lawrence’s “The Prussian Officer,” because it works even though it does all sorts of things that contemporary writers have been taught a story shouldn’t do. I often teach Kafka’s “A Fratricide”—it’s far from his best story, but it’s very rich in the things it can teach a writer; I can talk about it for hours. I love, too, to teach Muriel Spark’s novellas, Ohle’s Motorman, Dambudzo Marechera, Barbara Comyns, Leonard Sciascia, Ann Quin, Jean Echenoz, Eric Chevillard, certain Chekhov stories, Bruno Schulz, Heinrich Böll, Nabokov, Gary Lutz, Stanley Crawford, Kelly Link, etc., etc. There are a lot of writers I draw on and they’re different every semester, which is probably why I find it difficult to stick to an anthology. I end up teaching stories that I think are likely to be helpful or important to particular students.

Get Some Alien Sex!

In the comments to a previous post here, Ellen Datlow mentioned that she's got hardcover copies of her excellent young adult anthology Alien Sex available for sale.  Contact her if you're interested.  Here's the table of contents, if you're curious.

I can tell you from experience that having a book with such a title on your shelves in a place where visitors can notice it is a great conversation starter!

18 January 2010

Stories of Faith & Fiction, Reality & Escape, Shobies & Invaders

For my first bit of venturing back into 1990, two stories offer not only a good place to start, but an interesting pairing: Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Shobies Story" (first published in Universe 1) and John Kessel's "Invaders" (first published in F&SF, October 1990), both of which were reprinted in Dozois's best-of-the-year anthology.

(By the way, in these posts I plan to discuss the entirety of the stories, which means that if you don't like to have plot elements revealed, you should not read here about stories you have not read.)

David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer have offered a good basic summary of the ideas Le Guin is exploring in her story:
"The Shobies' Story" describes a society in which consensus matters more than individual viewpoints. [... It] posits a reality that emerges as the sum of what all the participants say: a meta-narrative, a democratically constructed myth.  Le Guin tells us that the observer is part of the reality she's trying to describe.  Every observer sees things differently, and the melding of those interpretations becomes the world.
It's not just interpretations, though -- from the title to the final word, it is stories that create reality for her characters.  Stories are dramatizations of interpretations, webs of cause and effect, and they are they are themselves subject to interpretations.  "The Shobies' Story" becomes a kind of metaphor for science fiction: the characters are the first sentient beings to travel via a new, instantaneous space ship drive, and what they discover is that such travel requires them to get their stories straight.  But the interesting thing here is not just that the new form of travel requires consensus reality, but that it requires consensus storytelling -- instantaneous travel through the universe relies on stories.

Now here's a passage from early in "Invaders", where a colonel is interrogating an alien who has landed a flying saucer in a football stadium:
"Our ships operate according to a principle of basic physics [said the alien, Flash].  Certain fundamental physical reactions are subject to the belief system of the human beings promoting them.  If I believe that X is true, then X is more probably true than if I did not believe so."

The colonel leaned forward again.  "We know that already.  We call it the 'observer effect.'  Our great physicist Werner Heisenberg--"

"Yes.  I'm afraid we carry this principle a little further than that."

"What do you mean?"

Flash smirked.  "I mean that our ships move through interstellar space by the power of prayer."

SF in 1990 and 2000

Now that we're living in our second Clarke Year (that is, second year Arthur C. Clarke used as a title for a novel), I thought it might be fun to glance back at the starts of previous decades.  With that in mind, over the coming weeks and perhaps months, I'll post here some thoughts particularly on SF short fiction from 1990 and 2000, since the stories from those years are what I have easiest access to.

To see all posts in the series, just click on the "1990/2000" label.

My motivations for this project are partly personal -- 1990 was the apex of my reading of genre fiction, 2000 was a year I read almost no genre fiction.  In 1990, I was 14 and 15 years old, I subscribed to Asimov's and also picked up various copies of F&SF and Science Fiction Age when I could find them, and any money I had with which to buy books went to SF books.  In 2000, I had recently returned to trying to write fiction after some years spent writing plays and screenplays, but the fiction I had in mind was the sort being published in literary journals, not SF magazines.  In the summer of 2000, I wrote "Getting a Date for Amelia" and attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, then that fall wrote the first draft of "Blood".  I expect the only SF magazine I bought was the June issue of Asimov's because it had a James Patrick Kelly story in it, and because Jim was such a huge influence on me, I always buy everything he writes.  But I paid no other attention to the genre world.

I'm curious, then, to look back at 1990 and see what remains strong in my memory and to see how some of what I remember holds up now.  From 2000, I'm curious to see what I missed.

Beyond the personal, though, I'm curious to see what sorts of developments are apparent between 1990 and 2000 and now.

17 January 2010

Robin Wood on Michael Haneke

At the end of the his life, Robin Wood was, according to various biographical notes accompanying his later essays, working on a book about Michael Haneke's films.  I don't know how far along that book was at the time of Wood's death last month, but knowing that he had written some essays about Haneke's work through the years, I fired up the ol' Google to see what of Wood's writings on Haneke were available online.  Quite a few, it turns out, and they're very much worth reading:
Those all come from issues of CineAction that are available via Findarticles.com, and you'll discover plenty of other essays by Wood therein (sometimes bylined with his full name, Robert Paul Wood, by Findarticles) as well as other CineAction essays on Haneke, especially from the Summer 2006 issue.

[Update 18 August 2011: Alas, it seems CineAction is no longer available via Findarticles, so the links above will no longer work.]

For more on both men, Film Studies for Free is the best single place to check, with posts on Wood and Haneke.

I've seen all but one of the Haneke films available on DVD in the U.S., and thus all of his major feature films except his latest, The White Ribbon.  The one I have not seen is the American version of Funny Games, mostly because the original is my least favorite Haneke, and Wood gets close to my feelings about it, calling it a "minor work", lamenting how it has tainted people's perceptions of Haneke, and pointing out the nonsense in the statements Haneke has (repeatedly) made about punishing his audience for sitting through the film.

As for Wood, you can ignore his bizarre statements about Kafka at the beginning of the excellent "Beyond Compromise" essay -- when not writing about film, Wood was sometimes embarrassingly obtuse, but his sensitivity to film was astounding.  His essays and books are particularly valuable when he writes about what he sees as successful and meaningful in particular films, and that is especially so of Haneke, a director who can be very difficult to appreciate -- read Wood on The Seventh Continent or Code Unknown (my own favorite among Haneke's films).  Let's hope that someone is putting together a collection of Wood's uncollected essays and/or that, before his death, Wood was able to finish the manuscript of his book on Haneke.  Either would be a treasure; both would be bliss.

    14 January 2010


    My knowledge of Haiti is mostly limited to the revolution, but I, like many other people who should know more about a place so closely connected to the history and politics of my own, have been stunned by the images of destruction from the earthquake.  By now you probably know of where and how to donate to relief efforts.

    I liked how Ann Fernald ended a thoughtful and personal post about Haiti (which I'm editing just to make a bit more direct):
    Maybe ... while we pray for the victims, the survivors and all who help them, we should also try to think our way to a more just world, one in which Haiti would not always and forever suffer.

    13 January 2010

    Alice Munro and the Case of the Chekhovian Dames

    [update: for some reason I originally attributed the New Republic article discussed below to Ruth Gordon rather than Ruth Franklin.]

    I adore (adore, I tell you!) the stories of Alice Munro, as anybody who's looked at my bookshelves can attest, and I adore (adore, I tell you again!) the stories of Anton Chekhov, who actually takes up considerably more space on my shelves, but that's just because he wrote hundreds of stories, a bunch of plays, and all in Russian, which means, of course, that I absolutely must own every possible translation just to be able to compare.

    Anyway, I discovered (via Scott) that  Ruth Gordon Franklin over at The New Republic has claimed that Munro just writes about women and Chekhov didn't do this and why won't this Munro woman explain herself, eh?  Writing primarily about men is just fine, everybody does that, no need to comment, but writing primarily about women is ... "not necessarily a flaw".  It would be understandable if she were a lesbian, of course, because what else do they know, and anyway those Canadians are ... weird...  And Chekhov, by the way, was neither a Canadian nor a lesbian, though he was a little bit weird, but he was also Russian, and we know what they're like from James Bond movies, so it all makes sense.

    Sorry, I'm being deeply unfair in reductio-ing Gordon's ad for absurdum.  There are lots of things I could say about Gordon's premises about gender and writing, about characters and writers, about seeing what you want to see, or about Chekhov's complicated attitudes toward and relationships with women, but I'm really only in the mood to be facetious.  I haven't read any of Munro's or Chekhov's stories for a little while now, so I'm going to go back to them.  Maybe I'll start with this book:

    Some Things to Remember

    I'm stealing these points from a recent post from Cheryl Morgan because they're important and succinct, and I like a reminder now and then myself:
    1. Every time you make a joke about how someone born female is “really” a man you are reinforcing the idea that trans women are something shameful. It is like kids in a school yard yelling “spastic” at the current target of the bullies.

    2. Every time you describe trans women as “deceptive” you are denying their gender identity and their right to live as they feel appropriate. You are also making it harder for them to get access to jobs, health care and so on. You are labeling them as inherently dishonest.

    3. Every time you describe trans women as deceptive sexual predators you are reinforcing the myth that trans people only do what they do in order to satisfy perverted sexual desires.

    4. Every time you advise men to be wary of being “deceived” by trans women you are providing support for the “trans panic” excuse for murdering trans women. This is no different from the “gay panic” defense for murdering gay people, which is still being used today.

    5. Every time you attack trans people but actually only attack trans women you are reinforcing the idea that for a woman to want to live as a man is a natural and understandable ambition but for a man to want to live as a woman is somehow shameful and degrading.

    Double Feature: In the Loop & The Hurt Locker

    Released on DVD the same day in the U.S., the British comedy In the Loop and the American war movie The Hurt Locker make a fine pairing.  The first is a political satire about the behind-the-scenes machinations leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq that feels rather like an extended episode of the original version of The Office, while the second is a tense and intensely immersive view of six weeks in the life of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Baghdad in 2004.

    Or, to put it all another way, In the Loop is the story of a bunch of repressed homosexuals who start a war rather than deal with their feelings, while The Hurt Locker, as Glenn Kenny pointed out, is a study of addiction.

    09 January 2010


    Lucile Hadzihalilovic's 2004 film Innocence is haunting, beautiful, mysterious, unsettling, and maybe bait for pedophiles. Based on some of the reviews I've read, what you think of the movie may depend on how much you blame Hadzihalilovic for her husband.

    First, the movie. It's based on Frank Wedekind's 1901 novella Mine-Haha: or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls. Wedekind gave us the controversial works Spring Awakening (recently seen on Broadway) and the Lulu plays, which were filmed as Pandora's Box in 1929 by G.W. Pabst and made Louise Brooks a star.

    Knowing this, it should be no surprise that Innocence is a surreal story of a weird boarding school for pre-pubescent girls, and that certain sexual undercurrents are present.

    07 January 2010

    Who Can Kill a Child?

    Yes, the title got me.

    I knew almost nothing about Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's 1976 movie ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? except that it was a horror movie, and I figured a horror movie with a title like that ought to at least be interesting.  And it is that.

    The film has had other titles over the years -- Island of Death, Death is Child's Play, Lucifer's Curse, Los Niños, etc. -- but Who Can Kill a Child? is apparently the original one, and is the one used on the 2007 DVD from Dark Sky Films, the edition I watched.  It's provocative, but it's also perfectly accurate for the movie.

    The story is fairly simple: a nice British couple visit Spain and travel to a small, secluded island the husband had visited twelve years before.  When they arrive, the island seems deserted.  The husband says the people often went to festivals on the other side of the island.  Eventually, he and his wife discover the truth: the children of the island have, for mysterious reasons, killed almost all of the adults.  And enjoyed it.

    The film would be a somewhat routine (if surprisingly well directed, acted, and filmed) story of demonic children and people trapped somewhere dangerous if Ibáñez Serrador didn't have more on his mind than just shocking an audience.  He did have more on his mind, though, and it is that more that makes the film fascinating -- fascinating both for its content and for what seems to me to be a contradiction between its construction and its theme.

    Who Can Kill a Child? doesn't begin right off with its story.  Instead, the first ten minutes presents images of dead or dying children in concentration camps and war zones.  A voiceover tells us that in war and in disasters caused by humans, children are the greatest victims.  Millions and millions of children have died because of adult actions.

    From this disturbing black and white imagery, we move to the bright sunlight of Spain and a happy British couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome).  Evelyn is pregnant with their third child.  They enjoy their time in a coastal city, but it's noisy and crowded, so they head off to the island Tom, a biologist, spent time on more than a decade before.  The sunny happiness slowly gives way to sunny anxiety, until Tom and Evelyn discover the secret of the children.  The last third or so of the film is thus all about their attempt to escape, and, naturally, that escape raises the title's question, since it's clear that the only way to escape is to kill some kids.

    From the opening sequence and from some statements Ibáñez Serrador has made, it's obvious that part of his intention is to make us realize how hypocritical we adults can be about the killing of children -- most people believe it is absolutely wrong to kill children, but in war children are "collateral damage" and even in peacetime millions of children die from easily-preventable illnesses, so obviously we don't really believe it's unforgiveable to kill them.  In Who Can Kill a Child, the childrens' behavior is never definitively explained, but there's some talk of evolution and adaptation, and in an interview on the DVD, Ibáñez Serrador seems to indicate that, for him, the explanation is that the children have realized (subconsciously, maybe even genetically) that the biggest threats to their existence are adults, and so they are wiping out the threat.  From the opening sequence, Ibáñez Serrador seems to want us to understand that it is in some way or another understandable that children should want to kill adults, since adults kill them so wantonly.

    That would certainly be a provocative theme for a movie to develop, but this movie does not really develop it.  Our sympathies as viewers are focused on Tom and Evelyn, while the children are not the least bit sympathetic except for the fact that they are children.  Though she spends at least half of the movie trying to prove she is utterly ignorant of the world and everything around her (presumably because the only way Ibáñez Serrador could think of to make the film long enough was to make at least one of the characters really stupid so lots of time can be spent explaining things to her), Evelyn is by the last part of the movie someone whose welfare we have begun to care about, and Tom seems like a nice enough guy.  The story has mostly been presented through their point of view, making their interpretation of the world is the one the spectators identify with.  What suspense there is in the movie comes from our not wanting them to be harmed.

    We don't have any access to the children's inner lives at all and very few of them are named or even differentiated from each other for us.  The boys behave like sullen, petulant brats and the girls giggle and cry, and so all of the children are little more than the most annoying stereotypes of annoying kids.  When Tom and Evelyn are driving all over the island in a Jeep, we're cheering for Tom to just plough through the kids who stand in his way.  Go, Tom, go!  Splat, kid, splat!

    Maybe this is the point -- we, the spectators, are put in the position of rooting for children to be killed.  But if Ibáñez Serrador's point is that we should recognize that it would be rational for children to want to kill adults, shouldn't our sympathies instead be with the homicidal kids?  The children in the movie are nothing more than sadistic little demons.  Wouldn't Ibáñez Serrador's point have been made more profoundly and more complexly if we had been brought to see the little demons as sympathic and justified, while the adults deserved their fate?

    In the interview on the DVD, Ibáñez Serrador says he thinks the one mistake he made with the film was putting the opening sequence at the beginning rather than the end.  Ending with those scenes of atrocity would have certainly been jarring, and might, indeed, have worked better: we would have been happily cheering on the killing of children, maybe a little uncomfortable at the thought, but nonetheless content that it was all "just a movie" and then we would have had proof that no, in fact, our willingness to kill children is not confined to killing the demonic ones in movies.

    Or the effect might have been for us to be annoyed at the false analogy, and to see the film's manipulations as exploitative, sensationalistic, and ridiculous.

    Whatever our conclusions about the film's theme, though, it's nice to see a horror film that's thought through the purpose of its violence, even if a bit more thought might have led to a more complex and rewarding experience overall.

    06 January 2010

    "Loot" by Nadine Gordimer

    I've intended to write about Nadine Gordimer's very short story "Loot" for years, ever since I first read it in The New Yorker, and for some reason I actually thought I had written a post here about it.  I recommended the story to a friend a few days ago and intended to include a link to my post about the story when, after a bit of searching, I realized I'd never written the post.  Now I will fix that mistake.

    From the first sentence, "Loot" is a story about time and history, about legends and imagination.  "Once upon our time," it tells us, there was a Great Event -- the greatest earthquake every recorded, the greatest of all measured "apocalyptic warnings".  Not only is it a Great Event (indeed, the Greatest of such events), but it is ours: we possess it.

    The second paragraph details the effects of this greatest event of ours.  Most giant earthquakes at sea produce floods and tsunamis, but not ours -- our special earthquake does exactly the opposite, causing the sea to pull back and reveal all it had hidden beneath it in the "most secret level of our world".  (From our world the sea steals things, hides them.)  The list of revealed items is egalitarian both in type and era: ballroom candalabra and toilet bowls, barnacled swords and Kalashnikovs, automatic dishwashers and baptismal fonts, wrecked ships and aircraft and tourist buses.

    The narrator tells us that "it is given that time does not, never did, exist down here where the materiality of the past and present as they lie has no chronological order, all is one, all is nothing -- or all is possessible at once."  Time and class don't matter at the bottom of the ocean, where all these items are equally useless -- all can be possessed because none have value or cost -- but the revelation of them to human eyes inspires assessment and desire.  Value is born, apparently with no cost.

    And so people "rushed to take; take, take."  Look at the punctuation there: semi-colon, comma comma.  The first take is the initial desire to own, the curiosity of wondering what an item might be worth, but with the initial possession comes pure desire, the need to quickly grab as much as possible just for the sake of possessing, the madness of brute avarice.  People's justifications follow, but anything can be justified.

    The nonhuman world doesn't understand ("gasping sea-plants gaped at them") and the people do not notice that all that is here are inanimate objects.  The water took the fish back, leaving only the things.  These people, deformed by desire, are no longer natural.  Their allegiance is not to the living or the dead, but to that which never lived.

    Possession and desire give them comfort -- these are people whose houses and livelihoods have been destroyed by the earthquake, people who have been made helpless by nature, but they can forget that in the bounty and the mad, blind, unappeasable ache of their yearning.

    Obsessive greed blinds them, and the sea returns and swallows them up into its indifferent equality, making the people the equal of the things they so coveted.

    But this is just the first section of the story.  It is, the narrator tells us, "what is known" from what was reported by witnesses and journalists.  It is what was turned into a story, legend even.  The second part changes the focus from the objective to the personal, from wide-angle to zoom.

    The narrator gives us this transition as a particular sort of knowledge: "But the writer knows something no-one else knows; the sea-change of the imagination."

    We move from fantastic facts to fantastic fantasy, two sorts of knowledge, one a general sort and one the sort known only by a particular type of person: the writer.

    Interestingly, the next paragraph, admittedly written, begins like a tale told: "Now listen..."  The writer takes on a persona and pretends to be wielding words made of air, not print; words that appeal to ears, not eyes.  The writer pretends to be telling an old tale, to be using the mode of the oral storytellers, but it is a tale for our time.  We are given a character, a man who has desired a specific object his entire life, but he does not know what the object is.  This differentiates him from the people who went to the sea-bed in search not of something but of anything.  He wants something, but in its mystery it could be anything.

    He has things in his house, some of which he appreciates and some of which he doesn't.  Most notably, there is the print of Hokusai's "Great Wave" behind his bed, which "if it had been on the wall facing him it might have been more than part of the furnishings".  His bed is not the sea-bed, the wave is but a representation of a wave.

    He is a man full of time: retired, living in an old house above the sea.  He has escaped the excitement of his earlier days.  He is content, but that contentment and quiet is shattered by the earthquake, the Great Event: "the sight from his lookout of what could never have happened, never ever have been vouchsafed, is a kind of command."  The reality of the impossible impels him to join humanity again, to join them on the sea-bed, to search, again, for all he desires.  Quality and value are gone ("detritus=treasure") when the past is stripped bare.

    He wants one thing, not anything, and so he is different from the other looters and holds nothing in his hands until finally he finds his object, which the narrator tells us in parentheses and with a question mark might be a mirror.  Something to look at himself with.  "It's as if the impossible is true...  It could be revealed only by something that had never happened..."  What he sought could only be revealed by fantasy.

    He finally has what he wants, and just then the wave returns, linked by the narrator's words to the Hokusai print: art enters reality and claims a victim, dragging the man and his precious possession down to timeless, meaningless death.  He is complete now, finally, and outside history.

    The next paragraph tells us that this man was not anonymous: he was known "in the former regime circles in the capital".  Along with his corpses are other corpses, old and new, including "those dropped from planes during the dictatorship" -- anonymous, forgotten, unrecognized, hidden by "the accomplice of the sea".  The sea is not the disinterested creature of a nature separate from humanity; it is, or has been, also a tool used by humans to support their power.

    "No carnation or rose floats."  No symbol of love or mourning, no sign of the living who care for the dead.  The old regime is gone, but the waters still do their job.  Neither oceans nor dictators memorialize what they hide, destroy, devour.  Is the people's avarice so awful it deserves such punishment?  Is the old man's sin worse than the dictator's?  The members of the old regime still live in the capital, still pass news back and forth, but the old man has left the realm of the human, our world and our time.

    The New Yorker version of the story ends here, but the version in Gordimer's eponymous collection adds one more sentence, one that for the second time echoes Shakespeare's Tempest: "Full fathom five" (cf. "sea-change of the writer's imagination" above). Shakespeare's old man gave up his magic powers of control and creation and rejoined humanity.  Gordimer's old man's fate is, perhaps, more bitter.

    The old man and all the other drowned desirers are now rich, strangely so, turned into objects, preserved outside of time, unremembered and unknown by anyone beyond the sea-nymphs, those creatures of fantasy and imagination.

    04 January 2010

    Best American Fantasy 4 Guidelines & Reading Period

    I've just posted the new guidelines and reading period for Best American Fantasy 4, guest edited by Minister Faust, on the BAF blog (the info is also available elsewhere).  If you are a publisher or editor, or if you know and have sway over publishers and editors, then please take a moment to check it out.

    I'm also thrilled that Larry Nolen is taking my place as series editor -- I can't think of a better person for the job.  I continue to be thrilled by the development of the series, with volume four adding lots of new staff to help gather material, and, with Fábio Fernandez's assistance, the ability finally to be able to cover South America as well as North.  I'm sticking around to offer help and advice (much like Statler & Waldorf helped The Muppets, I'm sure!) but it's also quite exciting that right now, for the first time since 2006, I do not have to try to read every journal, magazine, webzine, and anthology I can get my hands on...

    01 January 2010


    I hadn't intended to write anything about Munyurangabo, because other people have done a fine job of it themselves: Robin Wood and Roger Ebert stand out, though others have also noticed the film's power.  But it's one of those movies that if you love it you really love it and you want to proselytize about it.  I figure my first post of the new year ought to be a positive and proselytizing one, so here we are...

    I went into Munyurangabo knowing nothing about it -- I had stuck it on my Netflix queue at some point and forgotten why.  This may be the best way to watch it, not because there are lots of plot points to create suspense and surprise, but because it's the sort of film that, for some viewers, could be ruined by expectations.  On the other hand, the story of how the film was made is compelling, and could aid in appreciating its wonders, and though there are a couple of moments that benefit from surprise, surprise is certainly not essential to enjoying the film.  In other words, before you follow any of the links above or read the rest of this post, consider waiting till after you've seen the movie once.  Or just plunge ahead as I try to explain why I think it is such an extraordinary work of art.