29 June 2012

Readercon 23 Schedule

I will be at Readercon 23 in a few weeks. It's the one convention I attend every year, and I'm especially excited about this year because the panels are especially interesting, the guest list is awesome, and one of the guests of honor is Peter Straub, whose work I am in awe of and who is among the most delightful people to hear on panels or in interviews or readings or, really, anywhere. (Honestly, if Peter Straub were a train conductor, I'd follow him from car to car. He'd get freaked out and call the police, and I'd get arrested for being a weirdo, but it would be so worth it!) Also, we get to celebrate 50 years of Samuel Delany's work. And we give out the Shirley Jackson Awards!

Before posting my schedule, I wanted to note the Readercon Book Club selections for this year. These are panel discussions of specific books, a "classic" and a recent work of fiction and nonfiction each. This year's are:

27 June 2012

"The Stains" by Robert Aickman

Today is Robert Aickman's 98th birthday, and in honor of that, here are some thoughts on my favorite Aickman story, "The Stains". I've been meaning to write about Aickman's work, and this story in particular, for a long time, but I have found it difficult to muster the courage to write about works that are so mysterious, so ineffable, so richly strange and deeply affecting. I think it is no coincidence that I have had the same struggle with the work of Franz Kafka, who is absolutely central to my reading life, and yet I have never written at much length about him at all. Aickman is not as great a writer as Kafka, but that's no insult; Aickman's talent and vision were narrower, his oeuvre less ragged. Nonetheless, there is an affinity of effect (and affect), partly, I suspect, because both writers were masters of writing from repressed obsessions, and both found unique, personal forms of fiction with which to encase those obsessions.

"The Stains" is a late story by Aickman, first published in Ramsay Campbell's anthology New Terrors. It won the 1981 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, but has rarely been reprinted. (Currently, it's in print in the Faber & Faber UK edition of the Aickman collection The Unsettled Dust, which, along with a couple other Aickman collections, is also available as a Kindle ebook from Amazon, though I haven't found it for other electronic formats.)

It is the story of a civil servant named Stephen, whose wife, Elizabeth, has recently died, and whose very straight-laced, controlled world has begun to come apart. Stephen seems like a perfect representation of the stereotypical stiff-upper-lip, aging British male — but really there's nothing essentially British about this stereotype, for it is more generally a kind of masculine ideal: fastidious, emotionally repressed, with a sense that one's status as a (white, middle-to-upper-class) male should lead then to dominance over a world that always threatens chaos. Such attributes lead to a psychology that fiercely guards against the exotic. Stephen's Britishness (and Aickman's) will be important to the story, though, because of the story's subtle allusions to the Empire.

Marriage is, for Stephen and his ilk, a vital component in the fight against chaos, and Elizabeth was for him the nearly-perfect wife. ("They said he was a man made for marriage and all it meant. ... [H]ow many women would want to marry Stephen now? A number, perhaps; but not a number that he would want to marry. Not after Elizabeth.") A man made for marriage and all it meant. Elizabeth's only flaw was her inability to bear Stephen a child, preferably a son to carry on his name, lineage, tradition. But no man can have everything, and each needs some burden to bear.

It is no surprise that once Elizabeth is dead, Stephen's world shifts toward chaos. Their doctor immediately leaves, and he is replaced not by another man of the same mold, but rather someone different. "The new man was half-Sudanese, and Stephen found him difficult to communicate with, at least upon a first encounter, at least on immediate topics."

Stephen leaves to see his brother: the Reverend Harewood Hooper BD, MA. ("Their father and grandfather had been in orders too, and had been incumbents of that same small church in that same small parish for thirty-nine years and forty-two years respectively.") A man of scholarship and God, Harewood is also a "modestly famous" expert on lichens.

23 June 2012


I had no intention of ever writing anything ever again whatsoever about Prometheus, or even mentioning the movie ever again in my life, but I just read two great pieces about it, so can't resist sending attention to them. (One links to the other, in fact.)

First, Elaine Costello's amazingly rich, provocative, nuanced, thoughtful, beautiful stream-of-theoryness wonderings about the film — about its economies and genders and races and religions, its unsaid saids and said unsaids. ("...which reminded me that the spaceship is a military-industrial [and so imperial-colonial] apparatus...") Here's just a tiny taste of an extraordinary tapestry:
What I wonder about is this: if David really can be read as an anti-colonial and anti-corporate saboteur, why does this progressive message, this transgressive messenger, still have to wear the most Aryan body imaginable? I’m aware that casting an actor of color as the android character would have made the slippages that David animates, between subordinate-saboteur, product-producer, and particularly colonial-colonized, perhaps more difficult to represent. (Though not necessarily; you can have Idris Elba imitating Peter O’Toole, why not? I would have watched the hell out of that, actually, can you imagine how fucked up and interesting that would be, the commentaries you could make on the reversal of racial drag, etc.) What I’m trying to say is that it is still impossible for mainstream Hollywood film to imagine a person of color in a role as potentially complex and subversive as David’s. A character of color who could be plotting to destroy the imperial-corporate complex he was created within, and is forced to work for? That would be too radical. Which is to say, that would be too real.

Idris Elba once said himself, “Imagine a film such as Inception with an entire cast of black people – do you think it would be successful? Would people watch it? But no one questions the fact that everyone’s white. That’s what we have to change.”
Subashini at The Blog of Disquiet picks up on some of Costello's ideas, and others, offering particularly interesting interpretations of the movie's use of body horror, its apparent nihilism, and Idris Elba as the One Black Dude:
I do think that having acrimonious feelings towards the film is the actual point—the film seems to be a stand-in for a certain segment of humanity and its imperialist, ruinous ambitions, though like most films coming out of Hollywood this seems to coexist with its appreciation of capital, technology, and involuntary/reproductive labour. That in itself doesn’t make it inherently unlikeable, not at all. But as Susan Sontag wrote in “The Imagination of Disaster,” “Science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence—a technological view,” and perhaps it’s the nihilist technological determinism of Prometheus that is inherently unsettling. Perhaps it’s this utter lack of meaning in the movie that is its meaning, and consequently the source of my loathing. Maybe a part of me just wants machines and people to get along? I’m not sure.

22 June 2012

Shakespeare on Screen: Coriolanus and Private Romeo

A Shakespearean double feature: one, a relatively faithful adaptation of one of Shakespeare's least-loved tragedies, fully populated with Famous Brits; the other, a reconfiguration of Romeo and Juliet in an all-male military academy, made on a clearly minuscule budget with a small cast of pretty unknown actors. Neither is entirely a success, but they're not boring, and both are valiant attempts worth at least the time it takes to watch them.

Coriolanus was the last of Shakespeare's Roman plays (after Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra) and it has never had the popularity of its predecessors, despite being at least their equal in its rhetoric and drama. Indeed, T.S. Eliot once wrote that, "Coriolanus may be not as 'interesting' as Hamlet, but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success." (Meanwhile, Shaw called it "the greatest of Shakespear’s comedies.") Shakespeare took the basic story from Plutarch, but adapted it for greater resonance with the circumstances of early-17th Century England. He also simplified it for dramatic purposes — Plutarch's Coriolanus is politically experienced and shrewd, while a central fault of Shakespeare's Coriolanus is his inability to adapt his brute military talent to the political (or social) realm.

One of the reasons Coriolanus has probably not been as popular as many of Shakespeare's other tragedies is that its central figure is unlikeable, but not delightfully so. Richard III is utterly detestable, but the character is beloved of actors and audiences because he absolutely revels in his nastiness, and thus allows us to do so as well. (The same could be said of Titus Andronicus — Julie Taymor brilliantly showed how much our enchantment with such Shakespearean characters is similar to our enchantment with such characters as Hannibal Lecter.) But Shakespeare keeps us at more distance from Coriolanus. His verse is rough, raw, sharp; he has nothing but contempt for the masses and yet also loathes the aristocracy. His only comfortable home is a battlefield. More than any other of Shakespeare's protagonists, Coriolanus is the subject of other characters' conversations, and so his function within the play is less that of a tragic (anti-)hero than of a foil: through their responses to him and interpretations of him, the characters stand as a portrait of their society.

15 June 2012

Catching Up with the Caine Prize

This is my fourth post for the great 2012 Caine Prize blogathon. (See my first post for some details.)

With 2 stories remaining for our Caine Prize Blogathon of Wonder, I fell behind.

Thus, this post will be about the last two stories, "La Salle de Départ" by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo and "Hunter Emmanuel" by Constance Myburgh.

Both are solid stories with their own virtues and are, much to the jurors' credit, utterly different from each other.

13 June 2012


Yesterday, I posted a mocking attack on Prometheus that also linked to other attacks. I hated the movie, and so did plenty of other people.

But I don't want to give the impression that it is Friday the 13th Part XXVI: Jason vs. Maximus Prime. (Actually, that movie could be awesome!) Plenty of perfectly intelligent moviegoers have not merely enjoyed Prometheus, but embraced it. Adored it. Gone to see it more than once.

So, for some balance, here are four quotes from reviews and comments on the film that view it more positively than I or the people I quoted yesterday:

Roger Ebert:
Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" is a magnificent science-fiction film, all the more intriguing because it raises questions about the origin of human life and doesn't have the answers. It's in the classic tradition of golden age sci-fi, echoing Scott's "Alien" (1979), but creating a world of its own. I'm a pushover for material like this; it's a seamless blend of story, special effects and pitch-perfect casting, filmed in sane, effective 3-D that doesn't distract.

Andrew O'Hehir:
...“Prometheus” damn near lives up to the unsustainable hype, at least at the level of cinematography, production design, special effects and pure wow factor. This tale of a deep-space mission late in the 21st century, several decades before Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo will discover an abandoned alien spacecraft and its sinister cargo, is a sleek, shimmering, gorgeous and often haunting visual mood piece. No other recent science-fiction film, with the sole exception of “Avatar,” has created such a textured, detailed and colorful vision of the human space-traveling future, and indeed it’s reasonable to assume that Scott conceives of “Prometheus” as a pessimistic counter-argument to James Cameron’s eco-parable on various levels.

Caitlín R. Kiernan:
And, lest charges of sexism arise, Kane is the first of the crew "raped" – a man – then Brett – also male – and then the ship's captain, Dallas – also male. Now, turning to charges of sexism in Prometheus (which I am seeing) as regards "rape" by the alien: What? The first person infected is Holloway, who unintentionally impregnates Shaw through consensual sex. Then we see Milburn mouth-fucked by a proto-facehugger. That's two men impregnated (though you might argue Holloway is, rather, infected) to one woman (the presumably male "engineers" not included). So, charges of a sexual bias towards women are simply baseless.

Glenn Kenny:
I've said before that I tend to measure certain genre pictures by the number, and quality, of what I call (if you'll excuse the phrase) Holy Crap! Moments. (I don't call them that, exactly, but what I actually call them can't be printed here.) In any event, in the notes I took for this film, on one page, in big block letters taking up pretty much two thirds of the page, I indeed wrote that phrase in the middle of one particular scene. You'll know it when you see it, and it is insane, one of the most perfectly perverse and beautifully executed pieces of shock cinema I've seen in years, an absolutely breathtaking and staggering and exhilarating set piece that kind of reminds you of every sick thing that cinema is good for. And that scene is more or less bracketed by sequences that, while not of equal impact (they couldn't possibly be), serve to buttress the truly insane sequence with whiplash-inducing excitement.

So far, Prometheus does not seem to be as epically polarizing a picture as, for instance, Tree of Life or 2001. Viewers' reactions vary, certainly, but I found it much harder to collect substantive quotes for this post than for the previous one, and far fewer people with a passion for the film that matched the passion of those of us who hated the film. There are certainly plenty of people who like the movie, or at least have mixed feelings that tend toward the positive, but the sort of writing about it that I've been able to find is mostly less specific on the positive side than on the negative, and most of the positive writings so far focus on the visuals, on Michael Fassbender's performance, and on the thrill/horror of the surgery scene. That may change with time, especially once the movie is available for home viewing, or once enough lovers of the movie get fed up with us haters and start firing back.

12 June 2012


I haven't hated a movie as much as I hated Prometheus in a long time. It is a movie that screams for mockery.

Some of my favorite writings on it so far...

Nick Mamatas:
In the grim meathook future of this film, corporations rule the planet, CEOs rule their corporations on whims, and women wear naught but Ace bandages as undergarments, the poor sexy sexy things.

Kameron Hurley:
In the world of Prometheus, we all came from white dudes, who went around seeding the universe with their magical, life-giving sperm.

Genevieve Valentine:
One of the saving graces of the psychosexual terrorization in the Alien franchise is the leveling of the gender playing field – the rape threat they represent is omnipresent and sexually indiscriminate. But not in Prometheus! Thanks, Prometheus.

Richard Brody:
Which is to say that, despite the lack of intentional humor, lots of things in the movie are laughable, from the giant tiki-head of primordial power or the flying cruller that threatens humanity to the cumbersome pseudo-mythology that blends Sunday-supplement science with the kind of puffed-up archetypes of genesis that would have embarrassed Wagnerian epigones—and which Scott’s proud earnestness renders all the more ridiculous.

Also, the production design and cinematography are dull and repetitive, the plot is little more than a videogame script (and thus about as much fun as watching somebody else play a videogame), the characters are all idiots and stereotypes who spout pseudo-profundities they apparently picked up from Fortune Cookies of the Gods, and Guy Pearce is stuck in Dustin Hoffman's Little Big Man make-up for no apparent reason. (I liked Michael Fassbender's performance, though. He seemed like a refugee from an incomparably better movie, A.I.)

10 June 2012

30 Years After Fassbinder: Where to Begin?

On June 10, 1982, thirty years ago today, Rainer Werner Fassbinder died. He was among the most remarkable filmmakers of all time, a director whose work I've wrestled with and adored for a while. His extraordinarily rich, diverse, and vast oeuvre has become the single body of film work that most fascinates me, though I still haven't been able to see it all (few people have).

I've written a bit about Fassbinder, and specifically his astounding TV movie World on a Wire, previously, but I've resisted writing about him more, partly out of a sense of humility in the face of his accomplishments and partly because I still feel, even after years of watching his movies, very much a beginner as a Fassbinder viewer.

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

But even with the acclaim Fassbinder has received and the esteem in which he is held by many cinephiles, his films seem to have trouble staying available to viewers — though roughly 75% of them have been released on DVD at one point or another in the US or UK, many of those editions have long gone out of print, and some, like the US DVD of Effi Briest, now sell for quite a lot of money on the used market. (I am grateful to my past self, who bought it for a perfectly reasonable price when it came out in 2003. The Arrow Films UK DVD is available, though.) Recently, Criterion's magnificent boxed set of The BRD Trilogy went out of print, though Criterion has reportedly said there will be a re-release at an unspecified time in the future.

I have decided to try to write a bit more about Fassbinder, then, to keep his name out there, to try to express some of what I find so affecting about his films, and, most importantly, to proselytize in his favor, with the hope that other people will do so as well, because it is only through proselytizing that more of his work may become, and remain, available to audiences worldwide. (If anybody out there wants to join me in writing about Fassbinder over the coming months, please feel free to put links to what you write in the comments here, or email me.)

Fox and His Friends (1975)

For this first post, it seems most appropriate to offer some suggestions for newcomers to Fassbinder.  Certainly, the immense amount of material he created makes beginning seem daunting, but even more than that, if you start with the wrong film, you may be put off too soon. Fassbinder's not for everybody (who is?), but I strongly believe you can't tell if he's for you if you begin in the wrong spot.

For instance, I spent years thinking I hated Fassbinder because the first movie I watched knowing it was a Fassbinder film* was The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. I have since come to cherish it, but I really spent about five years avoiding everything by Fassbinder because I had so hated Petra von Kant on a first viewing.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

At his invaluable Fassbinder pages, Jim Clark suggests starting with The Merchant of Four Seasons. Not a bad suggestion, but it depends on who you are and what sorts of films you're used to. A lot of people could find Merchant a little hard to get into, a little too slow or ponderous. (If there are multiple movies you like that other people have called slow or ponderous, then by all means, start with Merchant of Four Seasons, because it's wonderful and full of many of Fassbinder's major concerns.)

The film that cured me of my Fassbinder-hate was Fear Eats the Soul. I went into it with low expectations, since I thought I hated Fassbinder, but I was fascinated by Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows and Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven, so I thought, "Okay, I guess I have to break down and watch one of those godawful Fassbinder movies, since Far From Heaven is as influenced by Fear Eats the Soul as it is All That Heaven Allows..." It was actually the perfect attitude to have, because it caused me to put up the wrong defenses, and by the end of Fear Eats the Soul, I was weeping, absolutely shattered, utterly entranced, and totally and completely in love. After that, there was no turning back. I put every available Fassbinder movie on my Netflix queue and watched them all in about six months or so.  

Fear Eats the Soul is the only Fassbinder movie I've used in a class, and some of the students liked it very much, which is another reason why I'm pretty confident suggesting it as a starting point, especially since the majority of my students have never encountered much beyond recent Hollywood movies. No undergraduate class in my experience entirely loves any film in a language other than English, never mind one quite as "weird" (read: "not mainstream Hollywood") as Fear Eats the Soul, but there were at least a few students who really fell under its spell on the first viewing.

I think the next one I watched was The Marriage of Maria Braun, which I had seen in high school but hadn't known anything about, and had more or less forgotten. It's become my sentimental favorite of Fassbinder's movies, and would also make, I think, a pretty good starting point. It's among Fassbinder's best, certainly, and while there are others more accomplished in various ways, Maria Braun has, for all its difficult moments, a real likeability — perhaps "approachability" is a more accurate word. The story moves along at a faster rate than some of Fassbinder's others, and Hannah Schygulla's performance is entrancing and unsettling.

After that, you may want to watch the rest of the BRD Trilogy (Veronika Voss and Lola), Merchant of Four Seasons, or try World on a Wire. If you're feeling ready to branch out to some of the more ... idiosyncratic ... corners of Fassbinder's world, The Third Generation wouldn't be a bad choice. Or you may be ready to appreciate the slow, tense, suffocating world of Petra von Kant. If you can find a copy of Effi Briest, by all means watch it. If you want to explore Fassbinder's more explicit (in every sense) and controversial portrayals of sexuality and identity, try Fox and His Friends, In a Year of 13 Moons, and Querelle. By this point, you'll certainly know whether Fassbinder is for you, and if he is, you will want more, more, more — which means, it's time for Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The Third Generation (1979)

There's plenty more, of course, and all sorts of avenues to explore. But that's not the real challenge; the real challenge is to calibrate yourself, and it should only take a few movies to do that. Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun, The Merchant of Four Seasons — not only some of Fassbinder's best, but films that will prepare you for the more difficult, challenging, messy others. The pleasures of Fassbinder's movies are inexhaustible.

We have been thirty years without him. And yet the world seems only to be beginning to know him.

*I had seen, and more or less enjoyed, The Marriage of Maria Braun and Effi Briest previously — the former because my father had a VHS of it, and I watched it sometime in high school when I was falling in love with German cinema; the latter during my senior year of college, when a 35mm print was shown at the University of New Hampshire and my German teacher told us if we didn't see it, we were depriving ourselves of a sublime experience. She was right, though I didn't fully appreciate it at the time because I thought the story was trivial and tedious. I was an idiot.

08 June 2012

The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard

My review of Lucius Shepard's The Dragon Griaule is now available at Strange Horizons. (And the book itself is now available from Subterranean Press.) It's an extraordinary collection of stories, rich and multifaceted, nearly 30 years in the making. (I'm probably the only person on Earth who also reads it as a kind of allegory of Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author", but I think the stories are rich enough to survive even the most idiosyncratic readers...)
Lucius Shepard published his first story of the immobilized, mountainous dragon named Griaule in 1984, and each of the four stories since "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" has furthered the purpose of showing up the evasive, escapist stupidities at the heart of the phrase once upon a time.

Or maybe that wasn't their purpose, in Shepard's mind. It doesn't matter. Purpose or not, it is their effect, and it is an effect that grows out of the stories' distant relation to fairy tales of dragons and maidens and gallant knights and, as a Shepard character might say, all that horseshit.

Thanks to Subterranean Press, we now have the five Dragon Griaule stories (novellas, mostly) together between two covers instead of scattered through various anthologies and magazines, along with a new novella, "The Skull." For the first time, it's easy to read them one after the other. We can spy on their correlations, theorize their conjunctions, and spelunk through the shadows linking their darkest caverns. On their own, the stories are moments of myth, shards of a fantasy land that, it turns out, is just around the corner from our own. Together with the added narrative iterations of "The Skull," the stories show themselves to be a tapestry of texts, histories, myths, horrors, deceits, contrivances, lies, illusions, and, in the end, hopes.
Read the rest at Strange Horizons.

05 June 2012

Seeing War

I was futzing around trying to create a video essay showing links between Cornel Wilde's 1967 war movie Beach Red and Terrence Malick's Thin Red Line, not really getting anywhere, when I watched Kevin B. Lee's video essay "War Movies for People Who Don't Like War Movies". Most of the video offers his take on two films, Marwencol and La France (films well deserving more attention), but as someone who has seen a lot of war movies, and who would put a few on any list of top movies of all time, I struggled with the opening of his essay, even though he quotes my beloved Francois Truffaut:
There’s no such thing as a truly anti-war film, Francois Truffaut once said. By depicting the adventure and thrill of combat, war movies can’t help but glorify their subject, fueling fantasies of spectacular, heroic violence. It’s a case where the sensational beauty of cinema works against our humanist impulses rather than for them.
I'm not sure that categorizing war films into either a pro-war or anti-war box is the most helpful view of them, but the question of the spectacle of war in the spectacle of cinema is certainly worth thinking about. Lee says he's a "not a fan of war movies as a general matter of principle", but his set-up doesn't do anything to distinguish the violence of war movies from the violence of westerns or crime films or whatever — what makes the subject of war more likely to inescapably "glorify their subject, fueling fantasies of spectacular, heroic violence"? By that logic, Lee must not be a fan of any violent movies. That's a nice principle, and I might believe it from somebody who didn't much like movies in general, but Lee clearly likes movies. (Perhaps the problem is really the word "fan".)

It seems to me that while yes, we can point to specific techniques that glorify war and embody fantasies of glorious violence, we can't necessarily predict how those techniques will affect all audiences. For instance, I loathe Saving Private Ryan. Every frame of it. Yet I also realize my loathing is pretty personal, and that plenty of people have found that film, particularly its first 25 minutes, a deeply powerful conduit toward understanding some of the horrors of war. Alternately, being a Malickoholic, I love The Thin Red Line, but I'm not entirely unsympathetic to criticisms that it aestheticizes war in a way that is not so much glorifying as it is perhaps trivializing or fetishizing or something. (I don't agree, obviously, but I do think it's necessary to think through the beauty of the film's images.)

So anyway, with all that in mind, as well as a recent re-viewing of one of the most affecting and disturbing war movies I know, Come and See, I broadened the scope of my Beach Red / Thin Red Line essay and turned it into an essay on war movies and spectacle:

02 June 2012

Delany & The Bat

Ed Champion interviews Samuel Delany for his Bat Segundo Show. An informed, wide-ranging conversation that's very much worth the time to listen to:
Delany: And I think pornotopia is the place, as I’ve written about, where the major qualities — the major aspect of pornotopia, it’s a place where any relation, if you put enough pressure on it, can suddenly become sexual. You walk into the reception area of the office and you look at the secretary and the secretary looks at you and the next minute you’re screwing on the desk. That’s pornotopia. Which, every once in a while, actually happens. But it doesn’t happen at the density.

Correspondent: Frequency.

Delany: At the frequency that it happens in pornotopia. In pornotopia, it happens nonstop. And yet some people are able to write about that sort of thing relatively realistically. And some people aren’t. Something like Fifty Shades of Grey is not a very realistic account.

Correspondent: I’m sure you’ve read that by now.

Delany: I’ve read about five pages.

Correspondent: And it was enough for you to throw against the wall?

Delany: No. I didn’t throw it. I just thought it was hysterically funny. But because the writer doesn’t use it to make any real observations on the world that is the case, you know, it’s ho-hum.

Correspondent: How do we hook those moms who were so driven to Fifty Shades of Grey on, say, something like this?

Delany: I don’t think you’re going to.