Thursday, December 24, 2009


My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for He has been mindful of the humble state of His servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me-- Holy is His name.

Merry Christmas, my friends.


Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B, by Joseph Highmore

I recently, and by recently I mean in the last couple days since I put a bow on top of and kicked in the ass term one of my MA, read--okay, perhaps devoured--Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela. After four months of reading postmodern, postcolonial lit, it was a relief to sink into what I will arrogantly refer to as real literature, literature that--as Northrop Frye describes it--you can live inside.

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded was written in 1740 and is often referred to as one of the first, if not the first, true novels. The eponymous Pamela, a girl born, as one character ominously insinuates, either to undo or be undone, is a sixteen year old handmaid who, when the lady who raised her out of poverty dies, finds herself the unwanted object of Mr. B's, that late lady's son's, rakish desire, even though Pamela's honesty and virtue (eighteenth-century euphemisms for, particularly, virginity but also, more generally, for an entire moral and religious ethos) are her only concerns. She resists repeatedly and steadfastly his advances, which grow stronger each time he fails to seduce her, until, just when she thought she was finally free to return to her parents, he makes her his prisoner, kidnapping her and carrying her off to a private estate where, aided by the sinister Mrs. Jewkes, his house-keeper, he hopes to force her to his will. After she continually refuses his bargains and advances, he attempts to rape her--again aided, quite literally, by Mrs. Jewkes, who holds the stripped Pamela down on the bed for her master. "What you do, Sir, do; don't stand dilly-dallying," Mrs. Jewkes encourages. (The image above is from this scene: Pamela is undressing for bed; Mrs. Jewkes, who is Pamela's jailer even when she sleeps, is ready; and Mr. B, disguised as a drunk and passed-out servant, is watching and waiting.) But Pamela, as she has several times before when Mr. B tried to force her, and because of her delicate mind and because this is, after all, the age of sensibility, falls into a fit, one so violent her attackers thought she was dying. When he sees this, Mr. B, who apparently does love Pamela quite sincerely but has grown up never having his desires frustrated, repents his actions, leaves her unspoiled, and (I'll just skip over a whole bunch here) eventually reforms, and (I'll just skip over a whole bunch more here) finally marries her, much to everyone's relief and happiness, including and especially Pamela's.

There's too much to say. The novel does so many things that my brief gloss only hints at. It upsets hierarchy, placing Pamela, a mere servant girl, in the centre of a new moral order--one in which handmaids and princesses have equal merit. It projects a moral cosmology that transcends class and gender. It offers a vision of justice and reward based on personal moral agency. It vindicates the oppressed, reforms the oppressor, and ends in a subtle apocalypse (by which I mean revelation) of an ordered, unified, purified world. Through Pamela, sort of like an eighteenth-century Beatrice, the world is made better.

What I most love about Pamela, however, is its sincerity, especially in its vision of sexuality. It could be read as a metaphor, I guess, sure, but that is not how Richardson wrote it. It is about virginity and sex; it does not treat them lightly but injects into them weight and gravitas. Which, again... after four months of postmodern lit--and here my well-documented conservative streak emerges--I was ready for a little sincerity and gravitas.

I had selfish reasons for reading Pamela and for now reading the much more formidable Clarissa (Richardson's masterpiece, the novel he will always be remembered for. It's 1500 pages long. There go my holidays). Those reasons might be guessed by those aware of my own projects. Too many of the themes found in Pamela touch very closely those of The Execution... too closely, in fact, for me not to have read it and been aware of it, though I suppose canonical influence isn't what it used to be. The central image--a girl facing the sexual menaces and devices of an all-powerful oppressor, aided only by an unassailable and impenetrable surety and purity of self--is dramatized much differently here than in my own novel, much to my relief (I was worried for a while... and still might be, having only just started Clarissa). I know now that Pamela will, somehow... I'm not sure how... creep into The Execution. It must. I've read it; I can't unread it. But perhaps, as with C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, which I've always thought of as the guiding literary light that I want to follow in The Execution, only I will see the influence.

(Just a note: inspired and slightly put off balance by Pamela, I've been compiling a list of books that I should probably read or be aware of as I continue with The Execution. It's a long list. Mostly, though... and this might sound strange... I've been coming up with a very particular list, a list of books written by men in which the central character is a woman. There is something--and I know many people who will think this sexist, so I'm sorry--about the image of woman that perfectly suits her as a symbol of moral or religious integrity. Dante uses a woman as his central image. So does Donne. So does Richardson. Dickens, too (not always). Lewis, of course. The list goes on. There are, I think, metaphors hardwired into our bodies. Into and out of our bodies can be read metaphors... some arising naturally, I think, others being scribed onto us. I'm interested in seeing what those metaphors are or can be. There might be a dissertation in there somewhere.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Trailer :: Bad Lieutenant

Except for his dual performance in Adaptation, I can't say I've really liked much of Cage's work since Wild at Heart (full disclosure: have not seen Leaving Las Vegas). But the idea of him and legendary director Werner Herzog teaming up is intriguing and... tantalizing.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Reports of My Untimely Demise...

... Probably don't exist, but it's nice to think that someone, somewhere - perhaps some deranged and forever unknown devotee of cynical film review and cultural skepticism lurking out there in this troubled and convulsing series of tubes - has noticed a certain plunging towards flatline drop-off in my posting regularity. Perhaps I need more fiber, or at least fiber's internet equivalent. (You see, in this metaphor, mixed and vexed as it is, posting on a blog and pooping are essentially equivalent activites.)

I am not without excuse for this update shortage. Oh no. I have many excuses in fact. Good ones. Graduate studies in English have commenced, once again at that institute of dubious credibility, the University of Saskatchewan. I now descend even further into the stygian corners of academia, taking on not only the role of bewildered pilgrim, stumbling and fumbling about and occasionally stopping to shout out some curse against the prevailing powers-that-be who keep, ridiculously and with increasing futility, trying to tell me that things like postmodernism and theory are important... but also, apparently, and now when did this happen, the role of guide, of some Virgil-esque (-ish?) agent of academic mercy, sent of help shuffle freshmen students across the seething currents of Acheron and file them away in some departmental bolge, all while avoiding the chomping, slobbering advances of that insatiable beast Cerberus, who in this by now incomprehensible metaphor doesn't really represent anything at all, except maybe my own irrational need to render university as if it where some Dantean punishment. Anyway, in case you didn't catch all that, I'm now leading a first-year English lit tutorial. That, and my own studies, keep me busy.

Also, and I have no half-cooked metaphor to describe this, sorry, I am still writing The Execution. It has become, uh well... distracting. Which is a downgrade. Before, it was consuming. But even so, when I should be reading, I'm writing. And when I should be writing, I'm writing, but not, see, what I'm supposed to be writing, which is essays and seminar presentations and other necessary but, you know, really intrusive things like that. However, I remain pleased with the results. This whole thing has been a remarkable experience. I really had no idea what I was setting out on when I started. It has already surpassed all the personal goals I set for myself. Work on the novel has dramatically slowed with my reentry into the academy, but it remains my primary focus. I might regret that later. You know, when professors start glaring at me that projects are due. But much, much later, when I'm published and celebrated and really filthy rich, it will all have been worth it.

And in whatever time remains, I indulge in grandiose and narcissistic fantasy. With all that, I'm swamped!

So in the next little while, as I attempt to find anything approaching a working knowledge of the English language in freshmen papers; struggle to prove that I myself possess such knowledge, however limited, in my own writing, academic or otherwise; and as I once again consider the merit of complete withdrawal from human civilization - I don't know, up on a mountain somewhere, or in the middle of the desert, perhaps surrounded by landmines, or at least a moat - I may not update the old blog all that much.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Review :: Inglourious Basterds

The last lines in Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Inglourious Basterds, go like this: "You know... I think this might be my masterpiece," (or, you know... something like that). It's hard not to think, when you hear lines like these, that the filmmaker is talking to us; hard not to think he's smirking at us from within the tangles of his complex-seeming layers of cinematic self-reflexivity. But I don't really care who you are or what you have directed, those lines have no business ending a film. Any film. But they especially have no business ending a film when they are simply not true.

Inglourious Basterds (and yes, that's how it's spelled), though displaying real moments of creative brilliance, is indulgent, nearly bereft of humanity, and far, far too long. I've been on-board with QT for much of his career. But now he's making it hard to support him. Kill Bill was an explosive, highly entertain homage-slash-pastiche-another slash-tribute to what we are now, rightly or wrongly, calling "grindhouse" cinema. And it was fun. It was fun seeing him revel in these absurd conventions, adapt them with winks and nods to a modern film context, and so produce a set of films that simultaneously reworked and yet revered the ridiculous and tired formulas we've seen used in countless B-grade films for years. And after making films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction or even Jackie Brown, Tarantino had built enough of a reputation that I think many people were willing to let him indulge and create something absurd. If nothing else, it was a successful experiment in cinematic self-awareness. But then came Death Proof, the partner-film to Robert Rodriguez's regrettably bad Planet Terror... and that's when this whole grindhouse thing started to get a little awkward. For while Death Proof was still fun and goofy, even if it's cinematic heritage was much more myopically fetishistic and less accessible than anything else he'd produced (carsploitation, after all, isn't really all that big in the theatres these days), it left me wondering if films like this and Kill Bill weren't just the indulgent digressions of an otherwise talented director but instead the trajectory of all future QT projects. This nagging suspicion, along with a quick survey of the sorts of films he's been producing and helping get off the ground... it was all very worrying indeed. With Inglourious Basterds Tarantino needed to prove that he was still the same man who made Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

He did not. Not to me, anyway.

The film takes place in Nazi-occupied France and follows several characters as they move around and do generally unpleasant things. There's Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his titular troupe of Basterds - a small but viciously efficient squad of Nazi killers who have been parachuted into France to wreak as much havoc and retribution as possible. There's Col. Hans Landa of the SS (Christoph Waltz), the so-called "Jew Hunter," whose job it is to, well... hunt Jews, and who we see coldly and with sliding smiles massacre a Jewish family at the film's opening. And then there's Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the lone survivor of that massacre, who flees to Paris where she eventually runs a small theatre, and where she will eventually be offered her own opportunity for vengeance. And there are other characters. And their stories intersect and overlap and all come together for the film's impressive, if by then long-overdue, finale. It's essentially a Jewish vengeance film. It riffs on that most suspect of film genres, the Nazi exploitation film. It winks and it nods and it swaggers and it smirks. And it all feels a little tired. This is the first time in a Tarantino film I was bored. The dialogue, for which he is often and rightly celebrated, simply becomes indulgent and sloppy; it is in desperate need of a maniacal editor. Unlike the "Royale with Cheese" discussion in Pulp Fiction, most of the talking in this film lacks the verve, the edge, that dizzy delirium that Tarantino can bring to it. It rarely advances the plot, except for a few expositional moments. And it hardly reveals character either. It's just there, taking up time.

But unlike Kill Bill or even Death Proof, which were goofy and campy and allowed to get away with pretty much anything, Inglourious Basterds exposes Tarantino to some awkward questions he doesn't seem capable of answering. In his hands, this material - the slaughter of a Jewish family, the atrocities committed by the Nazis, the rightness or wrongness of vengeance - is roughly handled. Actually, I think mishandled. His "wouldn't this be cool" style of filmmaking reduces WWII to a aesthetic exercise. And that might be okay if he had anything to say. I have nothing against style. But as his last two films have already suggested, Tarantino can throw a lot of words and great images at the screen and yet manage to say nothing at all. And if you're gonna take on WWII, you need something to say.

What is Inglourious Basterds about? It's ultimately only about itself. Even the characters seem more like stylistic foci than actual people. QT does have a gift for characterization. But he doesn't use it here. One of the worst things I think a filmmaker can do is ignore his characters' humanity and treat them like objects. And Tarantino does just this. Never once do you believe any of the characters mean anything or that they are on screen for any other reason than for Tarantino to push them around and use them as props. I don't think Tarantino despises his characters like some directors do; I just don't think he cares about making them seem real. People show up, they talk and talk and talk, and then some of them die in quick moments of explosive action. The only two characters in the film that seem interesting are Waltz' Hans Landa and Laurent's Shosanna Dreyfus. Waltz brings a disarming charm to his vicious Landa. He owns this movie when he is on screen. And Melanie Laurent is simply stunning. If nothing else, Inglorious Basterds has introduced her to North American screens, and I hope we get to see more of her. Unfortunately, and this is not her fault, she doesn't have much to do here. As a survivor of a massacre, she's supposed to be sympathetic, a tragic figure and, unless I'm wrong, she's supposed to be Tarantino's representation of the Jewish struggle. But QT doesn't give us much to work with here. He gives us a few cues and tells us to go with it, which is sloppy. But for much of the film Laurent is tasked with playing it cool as she plots her revenge. And she does. Play it cool, I mean. But in those few moments when the turbulence underneath breaks through, she's gorgeous and haunting and I wish Tarantino had given her more to do. Instead, she's often forced to play her character Uma Thurman in Kill Bill style - stilted and stony and more and more unsympathetic as the film progresses. I wanted more. And from what I can tell I think Laurent can give us more... but not with QT as her director.

With Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino exploded the cinematic landscape with almost New Wave-style brand of energy and vibrancy. But since then he has slowly slid into self-aggrandized autophagia, the victim of his own awareness and reflexive proclivities. Inglourious Basterds is about itself and it is about movies in general. Or at least we're supposed to think it's about movies. But aside from the pastiche feel of many of his projects and the obvious references to other films scattered throughout his work, Tarantino just doesn't have anything to say about film. He's no Godard. This isn't film as criticism. So all those moments of media self-reflection in the end feel more masturbatory than meaningful.

I think all of what I am trying to say can be best explained by the film's worst misstep. Hitler is here. Yes, Hitler is a character in Inglourious Basterds. And he comes off as a cartoon, an offensive mindless cartoon. If these are the sorts of films Tarantino really wants to make - these experiments and exercises in retro-exploitation B-disguised-as-A-grade films - then I'd suggest he stay away from historical representations or subject matters that require a more deft and sympathetic hand. Stick to samurai swords and vehicular homicide.

If the film had been a good forty-five minutes shorter (it clocks in at a solid 2.5 hours); if it had paid greater attention and been more sensitive to its characters instead of treating them as elements in an excited little boy's set-piece; if Tarantino seemed at all interested in telling an actual WWII story instead of tactlessly using WWII as the backdrop to his own stylistic obsessions, Inglourious Basterds might have been his masterpiece. He didn't and it isn't. There are things to like in this film. Of course there are. But they are outweighed and shouted down by all the things the film gets wrong.

Liel Leibovitz over at Tablet puts his finger right into another one of the film's open wounds. I wanted to touch on this, too... but this is a much better articulation than what I would have said. Link.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sharon Tate

Sharon Tate was a rising star in Hollywood. She was married to Roman Polanski, who she met when he directed her in The Fearless Vampire Killers. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in Valley of the Dolls. She was a 60's symbol of beauty and sexuality. On 9 August 1969, forty years ago next Sunday, she, along with four other people - close friends who were at the house that night while Polanski was away in London - was murdered in her home by the followers of Charles Manson. She was stabbed sixteen times. She was eight and a half months pregnant. Her murder, I think, closed the 60's and brought us the 70's.

I tend to crawl through the internet, picking things up and poking at others, until something explodes in front of me and spiral through link after link until a full picture - sometimes wondrous, other times horrifying - rises up. I knew about the Tate and LaBianca killings and the Manson family's murderous rampage, of course. Who doesn't? But it was only recently, as I was researching a few things for a short story I am writing, that I followed an incredibily convoluted trail of links and the Sharon Tate story opened up to me, and then I spent the evening stunned almost to tears by what I was reading. She was pregnant. She was 26. She was gorgeous. She was lovely and loved. And they destroyed her.

I don't want to treat her as a symbol. I want to preserve her humanity. But if anyone's death symbolizes the senselessness and the injustices that so often torment this mortal shuffle, it may be Sharon Tate's.

In these images she looks nearly immortal. There are crime scene and coroner's photographs on the internet. I found some of them. I won't post them or encourage finding them for yourself. Beauty can be destroyed - viciously, senselessly, and without mercy. It can be left broken. It is the task of the living to preserve the beautiful, however... not to shrink from evil but to stand against it. And so I stand and celebrate beauty.

For those who do not know the story, here is her Wikipedia entry.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pornographic Reflections

This article is about pornography, yes, but it is not explicit and should likely not offend. Still, it's about porn. Also, this is more a collection of thoughts than an argument... just a few things that have lately been running through my mind...

I've been thinking about pornography lately. Wait, let me start that again. As part of the writing process for The Execution, I've been thinking about what pornography means and what it does to the people who view it and make it, porn being not so much a theme as a recurring image in the novel. In the spirit of full disclosure, let me just get it out there (as if it weren't already obvious) that I am a white male fast approaching thirty. And so I, like so many men growing up in this slide between centuries, have a history with pornography, especially the internet variety... you know, the kind that so easily entangles.

OED time. Pornography, n. "The explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc., in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings." As one crude distinction between "art" and "porn" puts it, if after you've masturbated to it you are bored with it, it's porn and likely has no artistic value, despite whatever pretensions it may play at.

A few weeks ago, I watched a documentary called 9to5: Days in Porn, a film that followed (loosely, I think) several people in The Industry - girls (some now famous), directors, agents, producers, the like - for two years. No real thesis emerged - the filmmakers, as much as documentarians can, remained invisible (their attempt, I guess, to remain "objective," whatever that means). A recurring theme emerged amongst the subjects, however: their own happiness and sense of achievement. They claim to enjoy what they do, even the husbands and wives of pornstars, who themselves are often involved in the biz. While I don't necessarily think they are liars, and while I feel certain that no one could survive in that business without at least some measure of self-deception, I also think that the kind of people who produce and participate in porn and purport to find pleasure in it (okay, I'll stop alliterating P now...) actually lack the apparatus and capacity for true happiness (... sorry, I tried). Let me put it like this: I think it takes a certain damaged personality to willingly sell yourself, and an even more damaged one to film your wife or girlfriend with other men. I'm not talking about a history of abuse, or drug use, or anything like that. I'm talking about moral and spiritual devastation. Maybe they are happy, but that's only because they are not whole enough to reach for anything higher.

But I won't lie and say that porn doesn't have a certain attractiveness, especially for the consumer. I won't say that it isn't erotic or arousing or that I'm immune to its enticements. But I've found that the eroticism of porn is tyrannical, and the more time you spend with it the more it rearranges your own ideas of the erotic. In a sense, porn reveals to you your own impulses and sexual imperatives. You could tell a lot about someone, I'd guess, from the type of porn they look at, were they willing to tell you (most of us probably aren't, and that shame is, I think, a good thing). But in another sense, a much more dangerous sense, porn not only reveals them but guides and shapes those impulses, so that after consuming it for any length of time it no longer reveals but dictates, and you find yourself somewhere entirely different and often not pleasant.

The pornographic camera is, for the most part, extremely myopic; it's sexual epistemologies are hermetically sealed and reduce sexuality and eroticism to a function of organs and anatomy, which is simply tragic and repulsive. I myself have several times had to undergo a "cleanse," a deliberate re-mapping of the erotic and sexual, in order to purge myself of these broken images and put back together the sort of mentality and desires that I want. This is hard. Re-mapping your own mind is a very hard thing to do. But it is very valuable and freeing.

I bring all this up because the writing of The Execution has in many ways been a cleanse. For those of you who have read some of my drafts, this may sound odd, given some of the novel's more unflinching episodes, several of which contain elements of sexual cruelty. But it's true, at least for me, the bewildered author. I think Christian literature, and I mean modern Christian literature, lacks a full confrontation with the erotic. It wasn't always like this. Dante certainly didn't avoid such a confrontation. Neither did Milton or Blake. For all three of them, the sexual and the erotic are major themes; and all three of them put the sexual and the erotic into an intelligible and, I think, valuable context (even if Blake's context was... idiosyncratic). I am trying to do that as well. Of course, I'm no Dante, Milton, or Blake, and would never claim to be. But they are my models, my spiritual grandfathers, if you will. In a world where porn has, as keeps getting repeated, gone mainstream, I think it is important, and only going to become more important, to fight back in order to keep the pornographic camera from being the only hand shaping society's vision of the erotic.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Abandon All Hope...

A while back, Electronic Arts announced that they were adapting Dante's Inferno as an action video game, as a sort of God of War clone, but one in which a Medieval Christian iconography, as depicted in the first canticle of the Commedia, is substituted for the Greek mythos. If that makes no sense to you... that's because it makes no sense. Look:

I've been trying to figure out what to make of this. My initial reaction was unmitigated hostility. That anyone could even think any aspect of the Commedia was suitable material for an action game boggled and enraged me. And that then shifted into a sort of anxious curiosity. Translations, even from one medium to another, are not necessarily, in theory, doomed undertakings. But now that I've looked at some of their publicity material and seen some of their PR stunts, the hostility is back. The game is shaping up to be an offensive, ugly parody of Dante's intention... a prurient and savage mockery of his moral and religious kerygma. Leaving aside the more obvious narrative departures (especially what looks to be an unforgiveable mutilation of Beatrice), the developers seem either not to understand or, I think more likely, to be willfully working against the poem, as can be seen here, where they talk about their interpretation of the Circle of Lust. I can only assume most of them, if they've even read the Inferno, read it only to revel within, and now exaggerate, the poem's strong images. I'm going to guess that, if the game is even partially successful, the sequel will not be called Dante's Purgatorio or Dante's Paradiso.

It's not so much the imagery and art direction of the video above that agitates me. It's the fact that this - this! - is being called an interpretation of the Inferno. If you want to make a game about hell and about a warrior (not a poet or a pilgrim, but a warrior) dismembering demons and damned souls... fine. But don't call it the Inferno. Don't bring Dante into it.

In the past, I have posted about the Commedia. Dante's work, not only the Commedia but also his lesser-known works like La Vita Nuova, have had a profound impact upon me. In my personal canon, the Commedia is a central text - not a planet but a star around which spins an entire textual universe. To see it used like this, reduced like this... it feels a bit like witnessing a sex crime, one committed against Dante, against Beatrice, against the entire history of Western literature.

I hope this game fails... I mean really fails.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review :: Slumdog Millionaire

In my distraction last year, Slumdog Millionaire was one of the films I unfortunately let fall to the side, which is odd because I am quite the fan of Danny Boyle's work. But there seemed, to me at least, to be something about the film - actually, now that I think about it, probably something about its campaign and publicity, which tried to sell it as a "feel-good movie" - that turned me off, even when the Oscar glitter descended around it. It puzzled me that the man who had very nearly reinvented the zombie genre would make this film. It seemed a bit... I don't know, a bit like James Cameron making Titanic, or something, and that left me twisting in cinematic ambivalence. And in a sense, I was right. Slumdog marks a bit of a thematic shift in Boyle's work - or, if not a shift, then at least a maturation into new territory. Gone is the satiric acid of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting; gone are the thundering apocalyptics of 28 Days Later and Sunshine. In their place rushes and grins a new bounding sense of sincerity, life, and struggle. Slumdog Millionaire startled me by just how alive it felt - like it was bursting and surging and breaking loose across the screen. And almost immediately, as the film started, I found myself victim to it - I let myself fall into Boyle's hands, and for the next two hours he worked upon me, tortured me, and then sent me soaring into the air. Slumdog Millionaire is pure cinematic exhileration.

Jamal (Dev Patel) is a young man from the slums of Mumbai who finds himself on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire... and he's winning. But the life that has led him to this moment has been one of constant struggle, pain, and heartache. He has, for so long, been trying to find and rescue the girl that he loves, Latika (the luminous Freida Pinto - seriously, this girl destroyed me. Just look at her!), and every time he finds her some horrible circumstance will pull them unfairly and violently apart. Now, one question away from winning it all, his hopes for finding her seem balanced on a knife-blade. It sounds like a strange set-up, I know, which is partly why, fool that I was, I let this movie escape me for so long. But though the premise sounds slightly ridiculous, there is so much packed into here - tragic vignettes from Jamal's life, the moments of hope and terror that have constantly provoked him; a stunning picture of squalor and poverty in which life somehow still flourishes; moments of bleak hopelessness and fierce determination. The gameshow narrative - important, sure - isn't really the story of Slumdog Millioniare; it's just the conceit that ties everything together and provides the framework on which Boyle will hang the stories from Jamal's life.

The soundtrack grooves in some Western/Eastern tehno-pop hybrid, and it works. The gorgeous and lush cinematography, always a feature in Boyle's films, glitters and stuns. The edits slash and stitch so rapidly sometimes and with such feverish vitality they spin your head and leave your breathless. It all works, story and execution.

In a sense, Slumdog is pure indulgence. As I browse around and skim the reviews, forums, and comments for the film, I'm bewildered (and enraged) at some of the things I'm finding. There are people who don't like this film! There are people who think it's cheesy, simple, or - most puzzling to me - boring. But it's the film's simplicity and sincerity, its uninhibited embrace of all things pure and immediate, that gives it so much power. Yes, the ending is an uninhibited display of emotion that - I suppose, maybe... - you could look at as being... uh, I guess discordant, as not fulfilling the gritty and wrenching realities that have come before it. But I would say that the film, and its ending, are entirely cohesive, and that the end, which seems not just to take a dip in but actually to dive headfirst into fairy tale sensibilities, reveals the movie's true intentions. All the grit, all the dirt, all the struggle that has kept Jamal from Latika... it's all groundwork for the film's final, nearly transcendent conclusion. It is the "feel-good movie of the year." It's just a feel-good movie that destroys you before it recreates you. It will drag you through the mud and shit (literally, at one point) and then it will lift you up.

And now I'm just gushing and it's getting embarrassing. I'm actually listening to the film's soundtrack as I'm writing this and it's... infecting me. I absolutely adored this film. Not in the same way I adore something like Synecdoche, New York or Let the Right One In... but in that pure way. It's the kind of movie you watch not to be challenged but the kind you watch to see life and hope affirmed. And it's rare to find a film like that these day and even rarer to find one that does it so well and with as much vitality and sincerity as this one. I love Slumdog Millionaire... and you should, too.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Execution (Excerpts)

In the last little while I've been hard at work on The Execution. A rough draft of the novel's first section is now complete and I feel pretty exhausted. I've written essay for the past eight years of my life... writing like this, however, is very different. It's draining. But I'm please with the results. I'm eager to start getting some feedback. Here's a quick look at some of what I have so far. The novel is about David and Alee, a young couple who have been arrested for their faith and are awaiting their sentence. But the sentence isn't simply: it's called the Demonstration and it's designed to break a person's will and faith through torture and degradation. These two passages come from early descriptions of the two of them.

During the day, when the business of survival was not so immediately pressing, Alee helped with the cooking, taking care of the remnant children, mending clothes, or, if she had a moment to herself and Carly wasn’t around to talk, she’d read some of the books that David had managed to salvage before the New Order’s grip on the surrounding territory had forced them to stay huddled on the farm. She had already read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Perelandra, Till We Have Faces (David was a big C. S. Lewis fan, see...) part of The Broom of the System (she didn’t like it, she said, when she tucked it back in with the others; nothing happened in it, and the things that did happen are confusing...), and The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, which startled her and made her laugh. She was now, or had been before the raid, reading a sermon called Death’s Duel. David has said it was one of his favourites. Most nights, in their closet, sometimes before, sometimes after they made love, which, depending on how early in the evening they shut the closet door, required a degree of self-mastery and discretion in order not to wake the people sleeping or talking just inches away from them, David would read to her, quietly, just barely whispering, and she’d fall asleep while the words of great authors, and sometimes not so great ones, wiggled their way into her mind and her dreams. Though she always liked the sound of his voice, she didn’t always like the stuff that David read to her. Blake upset her; Pynchon offended her. When she’d tell David she didn’t like what he was reading to her, he’d sometimes laugh, sometimes nod, but would always offer to change books, which made Alee feel guilty because he obviously loved these books that were strange to her, and she’d also feel a little stupid for not seeing in them what he saw. When she told him this one night after he had put down Blake and was picking up A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the small library he kept stacked in the closet along with their clothes (his few books, their clothes, and a small collection of precious things – Alee’s diary, some pictures of both their families, a Bible that had belonged to David’s mother and one that had been given to Alee by her father and mother on her sixteenth birthday – this was all they owned, really), he paused, the book not yet opened, and looked at her and, after thinking for a moment and coming up with nothing to say, kissed her instead and blew out the candle. “Don’t feel stupid,” he whispered to her as they curled into each other.


Their first night together, back in the dying city, they had found a basement to hide in and sleep while the bombs and the gunfire continue to rattle and burst. Most of the house had been destroyed except for the basement, which had one bathroom, two bedrooms, and what had obviously been a play area for children – toys scattered about, a TV turned-off and somehow suggesting Death, the kind of old and worn furniture that gets banished to rooms not meant for entertaining guests. David had offered to sleep in the other bedroom but the girl had insisted they stay in the same room, so he had taken the floor. He found a blanket and a pillow in the other room and lay down beside the bed. There was no light, only the glow of moon coming through the window. This must have been a young girl’s room, she had said, stating the obvious. The room has done up in soft shades of pink. I guess so, he had nodded. Before lying down on the bed, she spent some time just sitting on it, looking at the room, at the posters on the wall, at the clothes lying on the floor that hadn’t been included in the hasty retreat; she picked up a stuffed animal and hugged it close. Then she lay down above the covers. David lay in the semi-dark, listening to Alee’s quiet crying, feeling useless and miserable and, looking at her – face smudged with tears, clothes dirty and in places ripped – afflicted, as oh God what’s this? ... as several pornographic fantasies, not all of which included a willing partner, rose up in him with alarming haste. He had never before felt tempted by, even flirted with, the idea of rape, of power... but, could that maybe have been because, oh dear... because there were rules outside of him? And if the outside rules were gone, did inside rules take their place? The world had gone away... so too, perhaps, had its expectations? A chance to reinvent...? A chance... for anything...! So then, here is the Question. David discovered several unpleasant things about himself that night. However, he had fallen asleep, determined, at least, if not to resolve the Question right now then at least to delay it until morning. (He never told her any of this later, by the way... how could he?)

Alee was awake longer. She stared down at David on the floor next to her for a long time, puzzling with her own question, evaluating him, unsure whether she should listen to and trust the voice in her heart that seemed to say he will protect you – a voice not necessarily her own but belonging to Something Else, who was apparently certain about which side of the Question David would eventually – and quite soon in fact – land on. Later, when David woke up in the middle of the night, gunfire jangling through the darkness and flaring down his legs into the clench and curl of toes, he found Alee wiggled up under his blanket on the floor next to him. Her eyes were open and she was staring at him, face ready, in the dropped flutter of a skipped heartbeat, to respond however David’s next move would demand. A test! And so soon... ? Alee – and she probably wouldn’t have been able to say why if questioned – had decided to force the Question, to use herself, to submit herself as the test, right here, now, tonight, knowing that, if she had somehow manage to misread entirely the man in front of her that she could be lost forever, would turn to vapour and drift away and cease to be Alee. An entire world, two of them, in fact – his and hers – hung in the Moment, and David once again found himself on the frontlines of that ancient duel... the Question: Good vs. Evil... a struggle now concentrated in him, only him, faced with the only decision in the universe left to make. And here she is beside him... vulnerable and waiting... “Uh,” is how he stumbles his way out of kicked-up dust, clearing his throat and declaring himself for Good with all the eloquence of firm resolution, “... you okay...?” She smiles, tears somehow still fresh around her eyes, and, after a relieved sigh, whispers, mouths really but David understands her, “Yes. Thank you.” Her evaluation of him apparently complete, he passing several tests he hadn’t even known had drawn swords with him, tests put to him by her and, yes, by God, too... She moved in closer to him and asked him to put an arm around her, which he did, and like this she eventually fell asleep, head resting on his shoulder and now-and-then fretfully rolling in her sleep towards his chest, leaving him – moral victor, yes, but still subject to all the hungers and wants of flesh, yes oh yes – to ache out the night in confusion and, strange he thinks in this confliction, in a settling sense of purpose and, perhaps, yes perhaps, a promise of future contentment...

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Chorus of Resistance

In the last little while, I've noticed that I've become increasingly sensitive to the problem of evil. This has probably come through in my writing in the last little while, I know. But there has been a softening in my heart, and I'm not exactly sure why... but it has left me struggling not to give into despair.

It's not the presence of evil that bothers me. I'm equipped, through years of philosophical and theological training, to understand, at least on a conceptual level, why evil exists. I never ask myself - as I read headlines of horror, as I watch movies that depict it, as I read novels that dive deeper into human heart than is comfortable - why the world is like this, why people hurt each other, why God doesn't intervene. Those aren't the questions with which I wrestle since I consider them answered, resolved. No, instead, it's my experience of evil, even from afar, that plagues me, that turns my stomach, that keeps me up. I feel it. Either through some newly developing sense of sympathy and empathy, of through a more now more keenly felt awareness that I, even I, participate in these structures of evil, I feel the consequences of evil, the dear human cost, the suffering... I feel it more these days then I ever have before. Sometimes, like just recently when I watched the movie Taken, an overwhelming sorrow comes over me and I'm moved to tears. That movie isn't a great movie. It isn't particularly well directed or acted. But it deals with a subject matter - young girls being kidnapped, turned into prostitutes, and sold like merchandise to the highest bidder - that, I'm finding, I am calibrated to be devastated by. I watched that movie several weeks ago and there is still one image, the image of a young girl standing in glass room, terrified, while calm but depraved businessmen casually bid on her... bid for the privilige of destroying her... I can't shake it, this image. It haunts me; it haunts me more than an image from a movie this B-grade should... but I guess the filmmakers, probably unintentionally, stumbled upon something more powerful then their clumsy hands could handle.

A while ago I heard a story about young Muslim women being targetted and raped, only to have another older woman come up to them later and, under the pretext of help, encourage these poor girls to strap bombs onto themselves in order to recover the honor that had been raped away from them... How do you live in the same world as this? I heard this and nearly wept. I could hardly talk. Even a year ago, my reaction to story like this wouldn't have been so visceral. I would have still recognized the evil here, recognized the terrible logic of hell, but I wouldn't have been moved to tears.

But lately any story, fictional or factual, that involves rape or murder leaves me feeling hollow and helpless. Each victim in those cases - the raped girl, the family of the murder victim - they have all had their lives, their worlds, devestated. And I can imagine their pain... with empathy run wild, I can feel it. This isn't something mysterious that I'm describing. This isn't the synopsis of some latest supernatural thriller feeling others' pain and helping them. It's basic human identification, perhaps only amplified now, for some reason. I'm not sure why this is, why this has developed in me now. Perhaps it is the weight of reading that hangs over me now; perhaps it is something built into me. Perhaps I'm growing into a sensitivity I never expected... or sought.

What I'm writting right now, this novel or story or whatever that I mentioned in my last post and which I am right now, at this very rough stage, calling The Execution, is an attempt to resolve some of these feelings. Not do away with them, but place them in a context that is manageable and, more importantly, that does not dull or belittle the human condition, as so many depictions of evil do. It is an explicitly Christian story, something I never thought I'd write. Hopefully I'll have more to say on it soon - I may even have a draft in a month or two -but right now it is only a collection of images onto which I'm working to impose a narrative, or at least enough structure to make it intelligible. What I will say about it is this: the story is about two people, David and Alee, a young husband and wife, who because of their faith are tortured and eventually murdered by an evil State as part of what's called "The Demonstration," a show of will and power meant to make obvious faith's futility. This execution, however, which should by this time in the story's fiction have been rather ruitine matter, becomes the focus of a struggle, both visible and not, between good and evil. The terms of victory sought by this State and by the persecuted Christian remnant are, however, very different.

So that's what I've been thinking about and doing lately.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

This Cake is Delicious

I'm Still Alive. Get it?

Life's moving along at a sure and steady clip, right now. I've decided to write, or at least try to write, by which I mean try to write and this time actually complete, a story... a short novel, I think, or rather a novella. We'll see how far ambition alone takes me. So far, I'm pleased with what I've manage to put down. I mean, I can actually read back and tolerate the next day the things that I wrote the day before, which, let me tell you, when it comes to matters of fiction and fantasy and my own flights into either, this has never happened before. As for the story itself... it is, or at least I hope it will someday be, a combination of the most beautiful and the most horrific things I can think of. It started, actually, as an exercise in purgation and has developed into an attempt both to redeem certain images and to put others in their place.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Project TRICO

The last couple posts have been a bit heavy, I know. Time to lighten the mood a bit. Here's some footage, a leaked trailer I think but probably legitimate, of the so-called Project TRICO, the Playstation 3 follow-up to the brillaint Fumito Ueda games ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, two games that both help to legitimize video games as a possible art form. Enjoy. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Whip

Today I don't recognize the world rising up around us. There are still pieces of our old civilization scattered about, a residual memory of ethical behaviour and of sane and rational thought, but these pieces have been torn from the body, and are rotting fast. The American Left, unknown to most of its citizens, and executed with all the haste and desperate earnestness of a moonless sex crime, is passing its so-called "Pedophile Protection Act," which would classify as hate crimes anything negative or demonizing said about pedophiles. They want to make it illegal to protect and defend our children from monsters. This - this program of sanctioned suicide - will not end until the only crime left is the idea of crime itself. And then we will have destroyed ourselves utterly. I'm not a soldier. I don't know how to fight in a world like this, a world that wants to treat child molesters as citizens afforded special protection and Christians as hate-mongers - I don't know how to fight. But I don't know how to live in this world, either. A choking sadness has caught in my throat and my eyes are itching. But I find that in the face of such evil my sorrow turns vicious and I long to hold a whip in my hand. 

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


A warning: the novel 2666, though I suspect it of being strongly moral, describes some horrific things, like the rape and murder of children and teenagers, rapes and murders not made up but based on real-life serial cases from Mexico, and so this post contains some disturbing content.

The last few months, the first months in almost four years that I haven't been a full-time student at one university or another, have been reading months. As much as you'd like to read a novel or a book of poetry during school, mental commitments to others tasks, not to mention time commitments (though these, I find, aren't nearly as stringent), often keep the mind occupied elsewhere, distracted, if a life-time commitment to education can be called a distraction, and generally prevent simple leisure reading. In the last four months, I've reread Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, read Pynchon's Against the Day, and am now approaching the end of Roberto Bolano's 2666.

2666 is a terrifying novel. It is sprawling, chaotic, probably unfinished, apocalyptic, and charged with a sort of savage sympathy. Though there are several stories here, some more or less self-contained, they intersect and bleed into each other in unpredictable and sometimes misleading ways. The one thing most of these stories share, however, is a connection - faint in some cases; horribly clear in others - to the serial rapes and murders of Ciudad Jaurez, in Mexico, called Santa Teresa in the novel. The novel's fourth part, called "The Part About the Crimes" (Bolano isn't above being unflinchingly literal), is a protracted description of the horrors inflicted upon the young victims. I didn't exactly count the number of cases described, but for about 280 pages Bolano sketches one rape and murder after another, mercifully from the perspective of the ineffectual, corrupt, and perhaps complicit detectives of Santa Teresa, so that the prose ends up feeling detached, clinical, like a police or coroner's report. And yet, as each description piles up, as the trash heap of victims grows higher and wider, threatening to choke out the sky and all breath, as the combined weight of all humanity's suffering funnels into Santa Teresa, brief glimpses of light and humanity weakly glimmer. In Bolano, there is no shining moment. Hope and sympathy are snatched from the fire, and are often burned and covered in ash, but not necessarily irredeemable. 

The excerpt below follows the discovery of two girls, fifteen and thirteen, found tortured, raped, and dead in a house. Estefania Rivas, fifteen, had been hung upside down from a hook on the ceiling, raped, strangled, and shot twice in the back of the head. Herminia Noriega, thirteen, and been raped, beaten, and eventually shot in the back of the head, twice. But that's not what killed her. At some point, during the abuse, her heart had just stopped. As the medical examiner in the story says, "The poor little thing... the torture and abuse were more than she could stand. She didn't have a chance." When I read this, read it in Bolano's coolly detached prose, prose so empty of sentiment or emotion, I wanted to cry, but didn't. I'm not sure why not. It's one of those things, one of those horrors you find in this world, made more horrific not because it is fiction but because you are sure that it isn't, that even if it's made up it's still true, that sink into you, that feel like the onset of a long illness. Immediately following the description of this crime, however, Bolano perfectly shines a light onto the effect his prose has on readers, on this numbing, dulling horror. 

"For many days Jaun de Dios Martines thought about the four heart attacks Herminia Noriega had suffered before she died. Sometimes he thought about it while he was eating or while he was urinating in the men's room at a coffee shop or one of the inspector's regular lunch spots, or before he went to sleep, just at the moment he turned off the light, or maybe seconds before he turned off the light, and when that happened he simply couldn't turn off the light and then he got out of bed and went over to the window and looked out at the street, an ordinary, ugly, silent, dimly lit street, and then he went into the kitchen and put water on to boil and made himself coffee, and sometimes, as he drank the hot coffee with no sugar, shitty coffee, he turned on the TV and watched late-night shows broadcast across the desert from the four cardinal points, at that late hour he could get Mexican channels and American channels, channels with crippled madmen who galloped under the stars and uttered unintelligible greetings, in Spanish or English or Spanglish, every last fucking word unintelligible, and then Jaun de Dios Martinez set his coffee cup on the table and covered his face with his hands and a faint and precise sob escaped his lips, as if he were weeping or trying to weep, but when he finally removed his hands, all that appeared, lit by the TV screen, was his old face, his old skin, stripped and dry, and not the slightest trace of a tear."

Follow-up, May 3: Let me explain. I posted this because lately, for the past six or seven months, actually ever since reading A Tale of Two Cities, a novel that upset me more than I'd imagined it would, what with its descriptions of Revolutionary France's insatiable thirst for aristocratic blood, descriptions that planted a knot in my stomach that hasn't yet quite come undone even all these months after, I've been contemplating the nature of human evil, specifically the desire for human sacrifice, by which I don't mean the institutional practice, Aztecs ripping the hearts out of virgins, children thrown into open furnaces, that sort of thing, but rather I mean the fulfillment of some goal, whatever goal - political agenda, religious mania, sexual depravity, etc - at the cost of human life. This happens all the time. We just don't usually call it human sacrifice. We call it something more tolerable, like murder, war, business, postmodernity.

I can think of no crime greater than the rape and murder of a girl for simple sadistic pleasure, the transformation of another human subject into an object, or at least that's what we say it is, what all the feminists are up in arms about, female objectification. But that's wrong, I think; objectification isn't what's happening here: that's too evasive an answer. It doesn't stare this beast in the eye, but rather flinches. The real horror is that crimes like these, like the darker blood-dreams of the French Revolution or like rape or like murder, isn't that they reduce people to the play-things of unleashed human nature, but that they confront a person in all his or her subjectness, and simply deny that subject the privilege to exist. It's the dark god, the throbbing pulse of the human stain: brutal mastery of another. It is objectification, I suppose, but a very literal objectification, a process of objectification, in which a human subject is, literally, through murder, transformed into an object. Blake's dark satanic mills, always grinding.

I try to tell myself that such crimes are inhuman; I try very hard. But I know that they are all too human. Terrifyingly human. That's why I posted this. Because somehow I must deal with what I know it means to be human. Deal with it, or collapse in a heap of broken images, and finally weep.

Bolano, Roberto. 2666. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2008.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Against the Day

After you've read Thomas Pynchon, everything else, all other prose, seems boring, muted, and dull, as if it were coming at you from deep under water, or as if you were under water - drowning perhaps - and someone was trying to yell at you. But you can't hear them, because you're under water.

Introduced to his novels by a Christian English professor at a Christian college in the Saskatchewan prairies, which is I imagine one of the least likeliest places to encounter Pynchon (a Christian English professor who, by the way, once told me he'd had to think long and hard to decide, when it came down to writing his Ph.D thesis, between a focus on Pynchon and one on John Milton, a decision that is doubtless evidence of some great and incomprehensible psychic schism in his personality),* I have been reading Pynchon for several years now, having made my way heedlessly and recklessly though the sickly and wet corridors of Gravity's Rainbow at least twice, and in parts far more than twice, and through the circuitry and broken synapses of The Crying of Lot 49 more times than is probably healthy or sane. I've only read Vineland once. I have not yet read either V or Mason & Dixon, and I'm not sure why but I'm not really in any rush to, either.

There's really no way to take on a novel like Against the Day, or a novelist like Pynchon, except by diving straight into it, hurled headlong, immersing yourself within its inky and sticky depths, flailing around in it, probably drowning,* or at least feeling as if you're drowning, only occasionally breaking through some surfaces, if only momentarily, to see the sunshine above you, or if not the sun then at least some terrible counter-sun, a solar doppelganger shedding not light but anti-light, Pynchon's light, as he turns the world you know into something alien, menacing, dangerous and erotic in all the wrong ways.

The novel's narrative, if the definition of narrative can be manipulated to include a novel such as this, is carved out during the time between the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to the time just following World War I, when the world, newly made (or perhaps newly destroyed, its pieces left strewn about Europe), is taking its first steps into what we now understand to be the current situation. If you're not into that whole abstraction thing - and I probably wouldn't blame you if you weren't but I would also suggest to you that Pynchon, probably not your cup of tea - the novel is about Frank, Reef, and Kit, the sons of one Webb Traverse, dynamite-hurling anarchist and union man, and the ways in which the three of them deal, or don't deal, with his (spoiler!) murder. There is a lot more to it than just that, however... a whole heckuva lot more. Just look at this: here, out of context, are just a few things that happen: a set of boy adventurers, along with their Henry James-reading dog, travel through the Earth in a hydrogen balloon; they then, later in the novel, travel under the desert in a sub-desertine ship; a man teleports, and changes race and hair colour, through yoga; a man nearly dies under a wave of mayonnaise; people communicate with an intelligent tornado. It all takes a bit of getting used to. As in Gravity's Rainbow, but ramped up in Against the Day to fever pitches, history and science, the very world we've come to know and rely upon, unhinges, blends without warning into pseudo-scientific phantasmagoria, dimensional instability, and moral horrors only slight exaggerated. Things drawn from nearly every conceivable corner and province of the early 20th century, things like the mysterious Tunguska Event, the collapse of the St. Mark's Campanile, the minutia of early 1900's fashion, the bloody politics of the Balkan Peninsula, the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot, the Reimann Zeta Function, a form of calcite known as Iceland Spar notable only for its properties of double refraction, religious mania, sexual obsessions and depravities, all and more... worlds and worlds more... it's all here, everything you didn't know about the world. Pynchon is one of those authors who apparently not only knows everything, but has subjected everything there is to know to his own often horrific, often hilarious re-imagining of reality. The end result is a work of literature as likely to baffle and perplex as it is to dazzle and seduce.

It's clearly not for everyone. I've been reading Pynchon for a few years now and I had trouble accepting what he was doing here. But for those willing to sail the skies with Pynchon in this strange airship of a novel, the rewards, and the incredible and simple pleasure, of reading a master who not only wants to say something but have fun saying it are without comparison. Read Against the Day.

* He chose Milton.

* Drowning is the metaphor of the day. Deal with it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review :: Synecdoche, New York

Sorting through my initial impressions of Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut from Charlie Kaufman - the madman and perhaps genius, perhaps hopelessly self-indulgent scriptwriter behind Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - I find that, like with a David Lynch film (his later films, I mean... say Mulholland Dr or INLAND EMPIRE) I'm left not so much with a thesis, or even a clear idea of what the hell just happened, but rather I'm left with a list of adjectives that I can throw at, or at least hopefully hurl in the general direction of, the film, the appropriateness of which I cannot fully guarantee: humane, honest, empty, dead, dying, brilliant, indulgent, smug, detached, nihilistic, hopeful, neurotic, narcotic, loathing, fearful, obsessive, possessive... I could go on, but I need to drop a period in here somewhere and here's as good a place as any. There is a type or class of film, like a David Lynch film, like the films that Kaufman has written before this, that don't so much defy criticism as - seemingly deliberately, invitingly - turn criticism in upon itself, leading critics and reviewers to talk more about themselves and their reactions to what they just saw instead of the film itself. Kind of like theory, I guess. Navel-gazing can be fun, I know... but it usually doesn't get us very far. So, Synecdoche, New York.

Synecdoche, New York is the story - though that might be a too generous use of "story," so let's instead say it's the image or impression - of Caden Cotard (Philip "Mattress Man" Seymour Hoffman, who, let's all just agree, is nearly flawless when it comes to picking roles... except for that unfortunate Capote business), a man apparently living in a constant state of midlife and identity crisis. (Aside: though still important: the "Cotard delusion" is, according to Wikipedia (I know, I know), "a rare neuropsychiatric disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that he or she is dead, does not exist, is putrefying or has lost his/her blood or internal organs.") When we meet him he's about 40, I'd say, married to Adele (Catherine Keener), has a daughter with her, and is directing a production of Death of a Salesman. Adele leaves him, however, (of course), and takes his daughter, Olive, off to Germany, where she (Adele) becomes a world famous artist right?... you know, the nauseatingly "modern" type. I don't think we're supposed to hate her, but I did. Cotard's production, meanwhile, was very well received (he cast young people to play Willy and Linda Loman, that visionary bastard), and he eventually is given a grant to create his own play. And here's where the whole thing becomes thoroughly "Kaufman." The play he ends up staging is as complete a recreation of his own life, and everything around him, as is possible. Actually, strictly speaking, probably more than is possible, but let's not get too strict about what is and is not "real" here. Lines between art and reality blur; characters are doubled, redoubled, sorted into various tiers of reality and simulacrum, fall in love with characters and counterparts from outside their own tier, etc, etc; gender lines are crossed and recrossed, more etc, etc... it all becomes a bit metaphysically confusing, especially when he throws his then-wife Claire (Michelle Williams), who is playing herself in this aggressively neurotic play, into the mix with another actor, maybe stalker, who seems to be playing Caden better than Caden seems to know himself.

I think the whole thing is probably less confusing than it sounds, really. The search for meaning and identity, in which some of us, so many of us really, are hopelessly, desperately mired, always seems pretty straight-forward to those on the outside and so incomprehensible to those on the inside. Looking at Caden from the outside, as spectators to a life far more ordinary than it at first appears, with all its compulsions, obsessions, and generally pathetic behaviours, a strong audience urge to reach out and penetrate the art/reality boundary in order to slap him, shake him up a bit, begins to take hold, or am I only speaking for myself here? I felt frustrated with Caden. But the urge to slap him comes not because he's so different from us (me) but because he reflects us (me) perhaps too well. Not in the specifics, obviously (I don't have a German-speaking, tatooed lesbian daughter, nor neither the Cotard or Capgras delusions... I think), but in the general "feeling" Kaufman manages to capture of this uneasy life.* It's easy to diagnose someone else's life from the outside; easy, as Another once put it, too see the splinter in someone else's eye. We are, all of us, however, trapped inside; we are, all of us, from time to time in need of that godlike hand that occasionally comes crashing through whatever membrane separates us from our audience to slap us; like Caden says, in what for him is a rare moment of perhaps clarity, there are billions of people on earth, and none of them are extras: they are all the stars of their own plays, whether they are consciously staging them or not. 

But now I'm victim to the film, too, and it's got me talking less about it than about my feelings and impressions inspired it. I'm not even interpreting it at this point but have used it to talk about something I'll just go ahead and guess Charlie Kaufman didn't even have in mind. Not very critical of me, I know. But Synecdoche, New York isn't the kind of film that you just give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to... it's the kind of film that you watch and digest, the kind that you put on a shelf and take down again some time later and think about. It's the most "literary" film released last year, by which I mean it feels more like a novel than a movie. It just operates on another level, one that you wouldn't say seems terribly interested in obeying rules and conventions. Actually, one of the only films I feel I can probably compare it to, besides a few of Lynch's more risky metaphysical tableaux, is Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Wait, don't leave! What I mean is that, like that film, it appears to be operating on the dream-level, where everything is given that slight lateral shift and bumped just left of reality, where cause and effect aren't quite as chummy as they are over here in what we call the real, where nightmares and fantasies come marching down the street, apparently having been given license to be out and about by nothing more than a stray thought, an unpursued impulse; it's the territory inhabited by people like Michele Gondry and Terry Gilliam, where all the signs that this is a dream, and follows dream rules, appear to be there but without ever giving us any reassurance that, yes, relax, this is actually a dream. It's a bit hallucinatory, and a bit dizzying, but when you discard a strict definition of the real, you're free to dazzle people. And dammit, Synecdoche, New York dazzled me.

* And "feeling" is an important part of this film... the way a scene feels, the image and impression that it leaves, is as important, perhaps more important, than the actual events of it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review :: Persona 4

Last year, amidst all the blood and sweat, all the claw scratching, biting, and eye gouging of the current gen consoles' battle to emerge amongst consumers as the best gaming option, a battle that took shape as Microsoft launched their New Xbox Experience (NXE) and Sony desperately tried (and failed) to make Home sound interesting, and finding itself thrust into the gore-slicked frontlines against the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Fallout 3, titles that were supposed to redefine gaming and take it to new heights, titles that had gamers the world over blogging furiously and screaming blood-curdling murder against those who might appear indifferent or unconvinced... shrugging off all these corporate plottings and technological wonders and fanboy rantings was a little Playstation 2 game, Persona 4.

Persona 4, or Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 if you want to get all technical and geeky about it, is, as far as I can tell, the Playstation 2's last contented breath. This is the way the console ends... but not with a whimper, no sir... with a bang. A big, bloody fantastic bang. On a console noted for its outstanding JRPGs, Persona 4 is one of the best. Never receiving the same level of attention or coverage as the by-now-bloated Final Fantasy franchise or the phenomenally popular and probably demon-inspired Pokemon species of game, at least not here on North American soil, the Persona series has been quietly building up a niche of faithfully devoted fans or, as I like to call them, the upright heart and pure. Amongst those who know, there is hardly a franchise out there that inspires as much affection and devotion, which either means we are a faithful remnant sown on the rocky soil amongst weeds and serpents... or that we're all bonkers in need of long-term institutional care. I'm an optimist (and an egoist) so I maintain the former.

So, Persona 4. You play as a young teenager recently transferred from the bustling and as your are quickly and often told utterly corrupt big city into a small rural town, a small rural town soon shocked out of its foggy malaise of would-be innocence and naivete by a series of brutal murders. When one of the victims turns out to be a fellow high school student, you and your recently made new friends set out to catch the killer. All is not Nancy Drew here, however, as you discover that, far from being a case of routine homicidal mania (few things ever are in video games), the killer is actually... um, well this is strange... killing people by throwing them into a world that exists inside the TV! These victims soon show up on the ominous Midnight Channel, a Videodrome-style* program that only appears on televisions on rainy nights at, yup, midnight, after which their bodies are soon discovered in bizarre locations. However, mercifully, you almost immediately discover that, for some reason (sometimes things don't need reasons, you know), you possess the ability to enter this television world by climbing into the screen, and you soon make it your mission to save as many of the Midnight Channel victimes as you can. Inside the TV, the true Persona raison d'etre takes hold, and interiors become exterior. You see, everyone, all people, have more than one side, the side they present to their friends and to society, the good and acceptable side, right? and then the dark, creeping, perhaps Freudian but let's not push that idea too far side of them, the side that contains all their unspoken, perhaps unspeakable, desires. In the world inside the TV, these sides become separated, and the dark sides, the Shadow selves, reek havoc. Tamed and defeated, however, these Shadow selves become Personas, powerful manifestations of that characters personality, which are able to perform combat moves and cast spells. It's a surprisingly rubust gameplay system and an even more surprisingly sophisticated theme for a game to tackle. Soo... I guess think Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Silent Hill meets Final Fantasy.

Gameplay is also divided into two types. In the real world, Persona 4 is essentially a social sim. You make friends, attend class, participate in school clubs and activities, take part-time jobs, gather together with your team of friends to solve the case, and, um... date girls (some critics have crudely described the game as a dating sim... bah, I say. Bah!). In the television world, however, Persona 4 is a strong, though let's be honest not the best, JRPG combat game, in which you fight peoples' Shadow selves, often grotesquely themed versions of their hidden desires, and a host of smaller Shadows who are just there because... well, because you need some monsters to fight, dammit! But while the gameplay mechanics are functional and at times addictive, they are not the star of this show. Rather, startlingly unlike almost all other games, Persona's real charm lies in its characterizations, narrative, and themes. Though there are a few cultural hurdles to clear, and though there are some things you just shake your head at and write off as "Japanese," the characters here are some of the most well-defined, best-executed I've ever seen. It approaches cinematic quality (well, surpasses it actually, depending on what you hold up as your cinematic standard). Some of it is quirky, some of it is strange and bizarre, some of it is just a little too precious at points... but it all comes together to form a cohesive whole, one that feels psychologically and emotionally authentic. These aren't caricatures, aren't stock characters, aren't game cliches, but rather are fully formed characters, many of whom I enjoy spending time with, a rarity in games. So often game developers focus almost exclusively on mechanics (which are important, don't get me wrong) and end up ignoring, or simply tacking on, character development. Not Persona 4.

There is also quite a bit to enjoy on the thematic end of things. The Persona series has never pulled punches. It's solidly rated M, and for good reason. I mean, in Persona 3 the characters summoned their Personas with "evokers," gun-shaped tools with which they shot their own heads. You could actually see what I guess is sort of a psychic debris coming out the other side as their Personas appeared. (The teen suicide motif was not lost on critics, nope, no siree.) Persona 4 continues that mature tradition, though unlike many other M-rated games, Persona never feels as if it were exploiting its rating when it comes to things like violence of profanity. It feels more as if they simply made their game and accepted whatever rating they were given, which, given some of the games sexual themes (the Midnight Channel version of the biker gang member's repressed homosexual fantasy comes to mind), is, naturalich, M for Mature. And some of the things here are deftly handled. This isn't a clumsy or ham-handed treatment of repressed personality. In one particular confrontation, a friend's Shadow self, who had already revealed all that person's deepest and most embarassing romantic feelings, confronts her friend, a standoff that dives into the awkward depths of how friends really feel about each other. The sort of thoughts we all have - my friend is better than me, so I hate her; he's holding me back; he's the strong one, I'm the weak one - get played out. It's not as metaphorical as in, say, Silent Hill 2; some of the things are a bit on the nose. But the game gets credit just for going there, for setting up a sort of arena of the interior and allowing characters to battle it out and hopefully find some peace not only with each other but also with themselves. It's horrifying and touching.

(Um... that trailer might be enough to scare off some people... sorry.)

Persona 4 is simply a fantastic game. Its characters and themes are some of the strongest and most fleshed out in the industry, its combat is quick and fun, its storytelling is, even considering everything it's up against with the current gen releases, outstanding, add to all that a compelling art direction, some great anime cutscenes, and a snappy, hip soundtrack and you get not only of the best JRPGs in a long while but one of the best RPGs in a long while. It puts things like Fallout 3 and even Mass Effect to shame (though it's really not all that hard to shame Fallout 3... especially in the character and narrative departments). It's not without a few annoyances: the game does rely on some heavy grinding** in some parts, and it has a frustrating habit of making you click through a number of information screens a hundred times over, but those aspects are negligible. I should probably also point out that I haven't actually finished the game yet. It takes something like 50 to 70 hours to wrap this one up... so at least you're getting your money's worth.

If you like RPGs, and can handle a tolerable dose of some JRPG stylings (oh, sorry... an RPG is a "role-playing game" and a JRPG is a "Japanese role-playing game... and believe me, there is a distinction), Persona 4 is a must-play. I don't really want to get too deep into RPG theory, but Persona 4 breaks nearly every convention and improves, and I mean dramatically improves, on the already established Persona style. After playing it, I've had to rethink my choice for 2008's game of the year. Sorry, Dead Space. But any game that challenges Silent Hill 2 as one of the most psychologically and emotionally compelling games of all time simply must have my recommendation.

*Isn't that just the most bizarre trailer you've ever seen? Seriously, what the hell!?

** Grinding, for all you non-gamers, is a mechanic in which you simply fight battle after battle in order to advance not the plot but your character's level. It can turn some people off.