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...