31 December 2012

Some Movies

I haven't had a chance to write about many movies over the past few months, so here are some stray, incomplete thoughts and blazingly subjective opinions on various films, before I completely forget my first impressions...

The Amazing Spider-Man. I've come to the conclusion that I don't much like super-hero movies, and my love of The Amazing Spider-Man, which most people seem to feel at best lukewarm about, is probably because it's not much of a super-hero movie. I didn't care for Sam Raimi's three Spider-Man movies much — indeed, I thought number 2, which some people I know consider the greatest super-hero movie of all time, worked vastly better when played at 1.5 speed, and probably would have been even better played faster, if the voices didn't sound like The Chipmunks. I went into The Amazing Spider-Man with very low expectations, then, and those expectations were exceeded all around. The casting is ultimately the film's greatest strength, because Andrew Garfield (who I've been fascinated by since Boy A) has a wonderful mix of insouciance, nerdiness, and intelligence that plays charmingly off of Emma Stone's typically bouncy/breathy Emma Stone performance. Denis Leary, Sally Field, Martin Sheen, and Campbell Scott are all delights, as well. The story really isn't much, Rhys Ifans doesn't have a whole lot to work with as the villain, and the special effects, while fine, are nothing particularly special for a film of this budget and type. But I never cared, because I loved hanging out with these characters.

Argo. A fun thriller with a surprisingly low body count. We're used to thrillers in which lots of people die, and yet this is in more than one way an old-school movie, a movie that is optimistic about the world-changing power of cinema, and nostalgic for a time when people thought movies could be a force for good in the world. At its core, it's a true story, but the liberties taken with the more mundane truths of the tale are all ones that fit the story into a conventional Hollywood mode. (More unfortunately conventional is its marginalizing of women.) And that's the point, as Jim Emerson has astutely written. It's enjoyable enough as a thriller, but it's more interesting as an exploration of audience expectations, genre conventions, and what we desire from our "true stories".

Beasts of the Southern Wild. I've been arguing with myself about this movie for a month now, which means I need to watch it a few more times. On the one hand, I was completely taken in by the performance of Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, I found some of the cinematography lovely, and I found the ending moving. (The music totally got me.) On the other hand, it felt at times a bit too close to "noble savage" myths for comfort. What I want to look more closely at with a later viewing is the way the film uses Hushpuppy's point of view — as a child, she does her best to make sense of events and circumstances through her own perception, and because the movie is told through her eyes, her perception becomes ours (hence, the aurochs, which I also loved). While the surface of the film may seem to celebrate the self-reliance of the denizens of the Bathtub, and while Hushpuppy's abusive, alcoholic father Wink is celebrated with a lovely funeral at the end ... I didn't come away feeling that the movie itself was unambiguously celebrating all this. I was not left with an uplifting sense of the wondrous potential of human ingenuity in the face of disaster; instead, I left the film feeling overwhelmed by how limited the characters' choices were, how much they had been abandoned by the world beyond them, how much they had been forced to make do by a country that ultimately didn't really care that much if they washed away into the ocean. On the other hand, while I don't agree with the perspective of the Beasts-haters in this discussion at Slate, and even less so with the perspective of bell hooks, their points are worth considering, and I don't have good answers to some of them. On the other hand, there was a lot I enjoyed in the movie, a lot it made me think about, good and bad. (For other views, see Matt Denault at Strange Horizons and N.K. Jemison.)

25 December 2012

3 New E-Books

I have contributions in three new e-books that offer all sorts of wonders and joys:

  • Don't Pay Bad for Bad is a collection of rare and previously unpublished short stories by Amos Tutuola (author of The Palm-Wine Drinkard, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, etc.). The e-book includes an introduction by Tutuola's son Yinka, and an afterword by me in which I try to give some of the context for how Tutuola's writing has been perceived by readers over the years. [Available from Weightless (Epub & Mobi formats), Wizard's Tower (Epub & Mobi), Amazon.]
  • Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn is a nearly-indescribable novella, easily one of my favorite pieces of writing of the last few decades, and so I'm thrilled to have provided an afterword for the e-book. [Available from Weightless (Epub & Mobi formats), Amazon.]
  • The second issue of the lit journal Unstuck includes all sorts of stories, poems, essays, whatzits, etc., including a little story of mine, "The Island Unknown". The list of authors is awesome: Steve Almond, Kate Bernheimer, Jedediah Berry, Gabriel Blackwell, Edward Carey, Brian Conn, Rikki Ducornet, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Caitlin Horrocks, AD Jameson, J. Robert Lennon, Jonathan Lethem & John Hilgart, Paul Lisicky, Elizabeth McCracken, Ed Park, Donald Revell, Mary Ruefle, Tomaz Salamun, David J. Schwartz, Mathias Svalina, Daniel Wallace, Dean Young, Matthew Zapruder, etc. You can get the issue as a beautiful paperback, and/or you can download the e-book version from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

16 December 2012

Warrior Dreams and Gun Control Fantasies

Yesterday's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was the sixteenth mass shooting in the U.S. in 2012.

Looking back on my post about "Utopia and the Gun Culture" from January 2011, when Jared Loughner killed and wounded various people in Arizona, I find it still represents my feelings generally. A lot of people have died since then, killed by men with guns. I've already updated that post once before, and I could have done so many more times.

Focusing on guns is not enough. Nothing in isolation is. In addition to calls for better gun control, there have been calls for better mental health services. Certainly, we need better mental health policies, and we need to stop using prisons as our de facto mental institutions, but that's at best vaguely relevant here. Plenty of mass killers wouldn't be caught by even the most intrusive psych nets, and potential killers that were would not necessarily find any treatment helpful. Depending on the scope and nuance of the effort, there could be civil rights violations, false diagnoses, and general panic. (Are you living next door to a potential mass killer? Is your neighbor loud and aggressive? Quiet and introverted? Conspicuously normal? Beware! Better report them to the FBI...)

That said, I expect there are things that could be done, systems that could be improved, creative and useful ideas that could be implemented. I'd actually want to broaden the scope beyond just mental health and toward a strengthening of social services in general. I'm on the board of my local domestic violence/sexual assault crisis center, where demand for our services is up, but we're hurting for resources and have had to curtail and strictly prioritize some of those services. It's a story common among many of our peers not just in the world of anti-violence/abuse programs, but in the nonprofit social service sector as a whole.

What we have is a bit of a gun control problem, a bit more of a social services problem, and a lot of a cultural problem.

One of the best books I've encountered on this subject is James William Gibson's Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America. It's from 1994, but is in some ways even more relevant now.

New Issue of The Revelator

The latest issue of The Revelator is now online. Eric Schaller and I put this one together with love and craft. It includes new short stories by Meghan McCarron and Laird Barron, poems by Sonya Taaffe, comix by Chad Woody, a column on music by Brian Francis Slattery, art by Adam Blue, miniatures used in the movie The Whisperer in Darkness, a previously-unpublished interview with H.P. Lovecraft that Nick Mamatas discovered, etc. Once again, we have, we believe, fully embodied our motto: The Truth ... And All.

The easiest way to keep apprised of the always-unpredictable, regularly irregular schedule of The Revelator is via our Facebook page.

08 December 2012

Notes After a Viewing of Red Dawn (2012)

The question is not whether Red Dawn is a good movie. It is a bad movie. As the crazed ghost of Louis Althusser might say, it has always already been a bad movie. The question is: What kind of bad movie is it?

(Aside: The question I have received most frequently when I've told people I went to see Red Dawn was actually: "Does Chris Hemsworth take off his shirt?" The answer, I'm sorry to say, is no. All of the characters remain pretty scrupulously clothed through the film. The movie's rated PG-13, a designation significant to its predecessor, so all it can do is show a lot of carnage, not carnality. May I suggest Google Images?)

My companion and I found Red Dawn to be an entertaining bad movie. I feel no shame in admitting that the film entertained me; I'm against, in principal, the concept of "guilty pleasures" and am not much interested in shaming anybody for what are superficial, even autonomic, joys. (That doesn't mean we can't examine our joys and pleasures.) No generally-well-intentioned, "diversity"-loving, pinko commie bourgeois armchair lefty like me can go into a movie like Red Dawn and expect to see a nuanced study of geopolitics. I knew what I was in for. I got what I expected: a right-wing action-adventure movie based on a yellow peril premise. Red Dawn is an unironic remake of a 1984 movie predicated on paranoid right-wing fantasies; it's not aspiring to even the most basic Starship Troopers-levels of intertextuality and metacommentary. There's none of the winking at the audiences that fills so many other 1980s remakes and homages (e.g. Expendables 2, which relies on the audience's knowledge of its stars' greatest hits — the only convincing performance in the movie is that of Jean-Claude van Damme, who, apparently overjoyed to be released from the purgatory of straight-to-DVD movies, plays it all for real, and becomes the only element of any interest in the whole thing). The closest Red Dawn comes to acknowledging its position in the cinemasphere happens when it turns the first film's very serious male-bonding moment of drinking deer blood into a practical joke, giving the characters a few rare laughs.

What are we supposed to feel good about in this movie? The 1984 Red Dawn was not even remotely a feel-good movie, but it gave us a space in which to feel proud of an idea of America that could survive even the most devastating attack by the Soviet Union (and its Latin American minions). It made a point of showing concrete objective correlatives for the abstract idea that is "American freedom" — the one that was most impressed on me by my father when we first watched Red Dawn together was the scene where Soviet soldiers talk about going to a gun shop to collect the federal Form 4473s, and using them to track down gun owners. This, to my father and many other people, demonstrated exactly why even the most minimal type of registration of guns is not merely annoying, but a threat to freedom. I vividly remember my father saying, "If the Russians come, we burn those damn forms." Red Dawn was not merely an action movie; it was a documentary.

02 December 2012

Anna Karenina

Rex Reed pointed to perhaps the best criticism of the new adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright, a criticism that is over 100 years old. On 18 September 1905, James Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus about Tolstoy: "He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical." Wright's film of Anna Karenina is often dull, often stupid, sometimes tired, sometimes pedantic, and literally theatrical.

I have a fundamental problem with any adaptation of Tolstoy's novel. If someone (e.g., William Faulkner, F.R. Leavis) were to tell me that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written, I would not disagree. Not having read all of the novels ever written, I'm not in a position to rank them, but I've certainly never read a better novel than Anna Karenina (and I've read War & Peace, — but for all its glories and wonders, it falls apart at the end, so Anna has a point up on it there). Additionally, Konstantin Levin is just about my favorite character in any novel.

Much of what I love about the book and its characters is not, though, its drama. One of the things that distinguishes Anna Karenina for me is that it doesn't work as anything but a novel, because novels can encompass, enliven, and embody so many discourses: dramatic, yes, but also philosophical, journalistic, political, historical... It takes genius to do the same with a dramatic genre, a play or a film, and Joe Wright is not a genius.