The Martian

I saw Ridley Scott’s The Martian as my final film of 2015, and it encapsulated 2015 in film well for me, because I found it mostly meh.

The basics: a 141-minute Robinsonade about a guy that gets left for dead on Mars; the next mission won’t arrive for four years, antics ensue. It’s based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Andy Weir. The screenplay was written by Drew Goddard with the intention that he’d direct, but then he got the chance to direct Sinister Six, and direction shifted to Scott.

I don’t know if or how this shift in direction colored the final film, but it’s most definitely not a typical Ridley Scott film. It has none of the darkness of Alien or atmosphere of Prometheus. It’s much more of a cheery attempt at wittiness with a dose of ha-ha funny bits by Matt Damon, a typical Hollywood overcoming adversity vehicle with enough light-hearted cheer and a typical plot curve to keep Christmas audiences entertained.

The science aspect of the film was decent. They spent a lot of time working with NASA, trying to get the technology and astrophysics aspects of the story correct, and that seemed to work. (The film passed the Neil deGrasse Tyson test, which seems to be the bar for these sorts of things.) I think I had some minor quibbles on it, like the fact that the film put great plot priority on the shortage of food and water, but the Mars station seemed to have endless air and power. (Yes, solar cells, but if I was stuck there, I’d probably start shutting off interior lights.) And Damon is a perpetually dopy actor for me, and I couldn’t believe he would be a genius botanist academic. He also kept a totally ripped six-pack body while eating a starvation diet of only potatoes for like a year, which seemed unlikely.

I did not like the sanitized, high-design aesthetic of the film’s space stations and mission control interiors. It was way too slick and artificial-looking, like bad CGI from the early 2000s. These were supposed to be ships built by the lowest bidder, hurtled through the stresses and wear of space with people living in them, and they looked as perfect as a European modern art museum, not a single scratch or smudge on them. This was incredibly uncharacteristic of Ridley Scott. I realize Alien was a long time ago, and the intention was different, but look at the two back-to-back and it’s striking.

I also did not care for the overly generic plot. The film basically took the most crowd-pleasing parts of Gravity, Armageddon, and Apollo 13, and threw them in a choose-your-own-adventure story. Taking a film and swapping out this for that like a Lego set might be entertaining to the masses, but it’s ultimately unchallenging and bland. This was the kind of film where I immediately knew the first and second attempts at a task would fail, because the third would be the payoff. I don’t expect huge plot twists and payoffs, but this formulaic writing makes a film have no real repeat value, which was the case here.

The film was ultimately successful at the box office. I’m sure Star Wars stepped on the back end of their campaign. I actually thought the film was still in theaters, and was surprised to see it had already moved to VOD. I’m still used to the old days when a video came out on VHS for rental half a year later.

I didn’t hate the film, but didn’t love it, either. That sums up my entire 2015 experience with film, where everything seemed to play it safe and go through the motions. Without digging through notes, I can’t think of what my 2015 standout movie would be. Anyway, I hope 2016 picks up.

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Bridge of Spies

When I was a kid, maybe ten or so, I got a book at the school book fair called Is James Bond Dead? Great Spy Stories. It was a little 64-page book with an illustration at the start of each chapter, about various true spy tales, such as the story of Mata Hari, and Operation Mincemeat, where the allies planted a body of a dead “spy” with false information on the D-Day invasion for the Axis to “capture.” But one of the stories that stuck in my head was that of Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy during the Cold War, who hid microdots in hollow nickels and planted them in dead drops all over Manhattan, while posing as a painter and ham radio enthusiast. He was captured, prosecuted, and later exchanged for Frances Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the USSR.

I’ve fallen down the Abel k-hole a few times, as well as all things black-op spy plane related, and apparently so has Hollywood. Bridge of Spies is a Spielberg-produced Tom Hanks film, written by British relative newcomer Matt Charman, and punched up by the Coen brothers. The movie ties together three (or four) stories with one pivotal event.

First, there’s the Abel story, told in a vintage late-50s New York (which was partly filmed in my old hood of Astoria, which doubles for nearly everything these days.) The other leg is Francis Gary Powers, the secret overflights with spy planes, and his capture. It’s joined together by lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) who was first asked to defend Abel in his espionage case, but who later brokered the hostage exchange, which took place in East/West Germany. A side story involves Frederic Pryor, an American economics student who was captured by East Berlin and held on suspicion of espionage, who was also released with Powers.

The movie itself is a predictable and lukewarm meander through the usual tropes of spy stuff and “let’s be like Mad Men” throwback nostalgia. The Donovan kids are shown duck and cover films in school and cry accordingly; everyone reacts to those goddamn reds who want to nuke us, and so on. There are attempts at chuckles thrown in, making the film something your mother-in-law will enjoy, but ultimately making it a whitewashed PG-13 maybe-historical drama, and not a dark thriller. The Germany sets look like a Hollywood backlot that was used for a Band of Brothers shoot, with the Nazi flags hastily replaced with GDR black, red, and gold. It’s not badly done, but it’s not excellent, either.

The history isn’t horribly mangled, although it is very compressed. There’s great on-ground footage of the U-2 in the hanger, ala a training/introduction montage that teach us all about the high-altitude spy plane, but the film squishes the timeline so it appears Powers is shot down on the plane’s maiden flight. In reality, there was a long test period at Groom Lake (aka Area 51) with three pilot deaths, and 23 missions over five years prior to Powers and the May 1960 shootdown. Abel’s timeline is similarly compressed; no facts are greatly changed or even omitted, but Abel was arrested in 1957 and didn’t get released until 1962. The film makes the five-year saga seem like a couple of months of time.

I didn’t know anything about Donovan prior to seeing the film, so it’s interesting to read about him. The Pryor thing is also an odd footnote that I knew almost nothing about. It’s also difficult to find anything describing his involvement or arrest. Pretty much any mention of him is the same single sentence wedged into discussion of the exchange, and I can’t tell what he really did to get arrested, if there was any backstory at all. Maybe there’s some Stasi paperwork on this (that got shredded, probably.) Given the situation, it would not be unfathomable that someone from the CIA pulled him aside in a cafe and told him to snap a few pictures of a building for a few bucks. Or it was a wrong place/wrong time thing. Who knows.

I liked the film in that it was an endless stream of things I later read about. It’s very easy for me to take off from the various points on this and read about the Stasi, the Prior situation, East Berlin, the Glienicke Bridge, U-2 planes, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Area 51 — the list is endless.

(An interesting sidenote: the movie mostly wrote out the involvement of Milan Miskovsky, the CIA agent who was largely instrumental to the exchange. After retirement, Miskovsky was appointed to lead an investigation about the 1967 Detroit riot for the Kerner Commission. He interviewed MLK and other leaders, and wrote a report concluding the US was transitioning into two societies that were greatly unequal, which is an interesting deep-dive if you’re up for reading about civil liberties in the sixties.)

I didn’t like the Spielberg-ization of the movie, though. The film was agonizingly long (141 minutes) and meandered and shuffled through the plot slowly. There were places where he chose to smash-cut between the subplots at a fast clip, but too many other places where he vegetated and made the movie an hour too long. Hanks had a weird Bosom Buddies comedy slant to his character, which didn’t help. And the general sterility of the experience soured it for me. If the Schindler’s List Spielberg, or even the Munich Spielberg direct this, it would have held my interest a bit more. Instead, we got Catch Me If You Can Spielberg, which was meh for me.

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Sleep Research Facility and ambient music

I’m always searching for music to listen to while I’m writing, because I can’t think and fall into the right kind of trance to dump my subconscious onto pages when extreme death metal is screaming away in the foreground. Classical music puts me to sleep, and jazz is jazz, so it’s hard to precisely nail it. I do like ambient music, as long as it isn’t too passive, and doesn’t veer off into the Yanni-esque new age shlock. All points south of classic Eno can be good, but that specific sound doesn’t imprint my brand of writing exactly the way I need it, so I’ve been looking for more.

Dark ambient, for better or worse, is closer to what I like. It contains a texture that provides a good underlying current for my work, and blocks out everything around me, yet doesn’t invade my mind in a way that would turn it in the wrong direction. Dark ambient removes from the equation the type of music a hippy-dippy acupuncturist would play in his office, which is good. The main problem with dark ambient is that it’s impossible to find a straight answer as to what it is. Ask ten people what ten bands constitute death metal, and you will get twelve highly contested answers. Dark ambient is the same. It shares distant borders with Krautrock and experimental music, and I don’t know enough about it to give you a defined answer as to who the main players are. (Maybe you should tell me.) I can tell you about a specific band I like, though.

Sleep Research Facility, the working name of Glasgow musician Kevin Doherty, has released five albums of essentially beatless dark ambient music, along different themes. The one thing in common is a dark, textured soundscape, usually without musical elements, or maybe with long, sustained chords. The name of the band relates to the work’s lack of any elements that would disturb sleep. That’s a slight peeve of mine, because it’s difficult for me to listen to dark ambient that contains extreme screeching, loud noise, and distorted shrieking voices. It’s hard to get in a trance state to work when interrupted with those elements. I’m not saying they don’t have artistic merit within a composition, and I can enjoy listening to them for the sake of listening to them, but when looking for functional music, it’s an issue.

Another challenge with creating any ambient music is having a central theme or “gimmick” or some set of tracks for the train to roll down. SRF seems to do this well, in the choice of conceptual framework. The prime example, and a good starting point, is the album Nostromo. This is a nearly 70-minute album that was inspired by the ship from the movie Alien. The album details a walkthrough of the ship from Ridley Scott’s scifi/horror movie, starting in the A-Deck, while the crew is in suspended animation, hurtling through space back to Earth. Scott meticulously detailed the ship, not as a sterile, futuristic vessel, but as a beaten, worn, working man’s craft, like a battle-damaged oil platform in the middle of the ocean. But when the crew is in stasis, prior to the computer waking them, there’s a certain calm, or anticipation in the vessel.

Nostromo starts in the A-Deck of the ship, presenting a deep-bass flow of sound, with slight electrical static and drifting sounds of machinery. It’s not like the harsh industrial sounds of the cyberpunk-influenced electronic genres of the mid-90s (I’m thinking the mechanical sounds of, say, the interstitial tracks of early Fear Factory, or even the earlier sounds of something like Front 242. (and sorry for the horrible reference points. This is very far outside my wheelhouse of musical knowledge, trying to learn here.)) Anyway, the dozen-minute tracks drift deeper into the ship, as the sounds and textures become more refined. The entire album is very dream-like and drifts seamlessly through the ship. The 2007 release contains a bonus track named “Narcissus,” which was the lifeboat escape pod of the Nostromo, which contains similar elements, although it is texturally different. You could imagine Ripley putting herself in stasis and drifting back to earth during the final track.

I listened to Nostromo constantly when I was writing He. I’d sit down to write every day, start the album on repeat, and keep it as a constant soundscape. I do this a lot when writing; for Atmospheres, I listened to the Sleep album Dopesmoker every day for at least a year. It’s not exactly ambient, but it’s an easy album to fall into.

So what album do I use for the next book? More importantly, what is the next book? Still working on that.

Anyway, check out more about SRF at their home page: http://www.resonance-net.com

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Sicario

Sicario is Denis Villeneuve’s critically-acclaimed crime thriller about Mexican cartels and narcoterrorism. I went into the film only knowing that Benicio del Toro was in it, that it had done well enough in its limited-market launch to green-light a sequel along with the wide release, and it was “intense.”

I’m a little curious about Villeneuve, because he’s slated to be in the chair for the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. Given the state of Hollywood, this can only end in disaster, but it’s still something I will watch car-crash style, for the same reason I always click on the comments section of an article on a school shooting, and never, ever should.

Sicario was not what I’d call “intense.” It actually rolled out slowly, with an interesting yet convoluted story of inter-departmental confusion, where the protagonist junior FBI agent played by Emily Blunt gets dropped into a mysterious interdepartmental task force run by Josh Brolin, with del Toro as a “special advisor” to some unnamed agency. The bits of the backstory are slowly put in place as the team goes to get the big cartel boss, antics ensue, etc.

The film largely plods down a single set of rails, a quiet journey punctuated with the occasional intensity of a gunfight or explosion. It was oddly muted for a blockbuster movie though, and did not stray far from the central plot as far as b-story or subplot. It was refreshing in the sense that it did not follow the Save the Cat formula religiously, and trot out Blunt’s love interest exactly on page 30 of the script. But for a 121-minute movie, it did plod on endlessly.

My main issue with the movie is that it was designed as a sort of Zero Dark Thirty of Mexican narcoterrorism, which makes me question its value. I’m not saying this stuff doesn’t happen in real life — it does — but I feel like this movie unconsciously enforces the stereotype of Mexicans/bad Americans-with-guns/good. It seems like the kind of thing Donald Trump fans would point at as evidence that we need to build that wall. It wasn’t gung-ho about it, like a straight-to-VHS Chuck Norris movie of 1986 would be about the evils of Communism. But there was an underlying tone there that seemed to reinforce this.

And like I said, this stuff does happen. There were hostages in Iran, ala Argo, but that movie (which I thought was well-done at the time, until I really thought about it) reinforces this stereotype that everyone in Iran is a flag-burning terrorist, when really, almost everyone in Iran is just a person, nothing more. It makes me uneasy that a huge stable of American films, when viewed from a distance, are nothing more than American propaganda. If that’s what people want, and that’s what they pay for, fine. But when thinking of an art form with so many possibilities and so few slots for screen time, it makes me question the value of the work.

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Review: Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography by John Gruen

I’ve been on a modern art trip lately, trying to learn more about art and artists. I never learned anything in school about art, and other than maybe Jackson Pollock and a bit of Damien Hirst, I don’t know anything.  But I enjoy modern art in the sense that I want to figure out how the artists get famous, how their personas develop, and how they go from throwing paint at a wall to being a part of history.

I recently read Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, which I picked up used for a couple of bucks on Amazon.  I know next to nothing about Haring, but I found the book fascinating.  First, it was a real slice-of-life thing, because the book came out I think in 1991, but right after Haring died.  It’s got that 1991 feel to it, the cover and design that makes it look like a rushed-to-print book by a division of MTV made to cash in on the GenX craze, or maybe a Douglas Coupland cash grab of a bunch of Polaroids (I guess he really did do that, though.)  I’m not saying the book was bad from that aspect; it’s just very interesting how book design can become extremely dated, and looking at a book from 1991 or 1992 can immediately pull you back to that era.

My big takeaway from the book was the vision of late 1970s New York.  I’ve discussed this before, but living in Indiana with no connections to NYC meant I had a very specific and jaded view of the city.  When I finally visited for the first time in 1998, it completely changed that vision for me, but I was never sure if this was the Giuliani cleaned-up-Manhattan image and I missed that old New York, or if my vision of the city was completely wrong.  (It’s probably a bit of both.)  Either way, this mythical city still knocks around in my brain, an island sculpted in my head from images in Ghostbusters and Taxi Driver, peppered with horror stories from my stepmother, who grew up there.  I envisioned a post-apocalyptic city with burned-out buildings, crazed murderers high on PCP roaming the subways, and mad Wall Street executives always wearing suits and making millions.

When I moved to New York in 1999, it was completely different, but little things reminded me of this alternate universe. Like I’d be in a subway, and find an old sign in a forgotten passageway that hadn’t been changed, one of the white background ceramic signs with the old school font in black letters, and it would make me think of the French Connection-era BMT tunnels, the low-rise turnstiles that people jumped over when they didn’t have a token.  Or they’d tear down a storefront in Times Square to install some new Disney-Time-Warner-Viacom monstrosity, and for a brief period, the ancient, worn signage from the 60s or the 40s would appear, a labelscar of the long-missing sign for an automat that later became a heroin dealer mecca, and then got boarded up and later turned into a place that sold Statue of Liberty t-shirts.  Even on a hot summer day, when the smell of an ancient New York would waft up from a broken underground transformer or air shaft, I’d briefly get transported to this ancient Manhattan in my mind, the city of The Ramones and Son of Sam and Bernard Goetz.

Haring’s book reminded me of this from his beginning, the guerrilla art projects where he used chalk to draw murals on the subways, in those black portals set in the ceramic-tiled walls, the place where they normally pasted up ads.  He’d get out of a train, rush to one of those, and draw an intricate image, something he could dash off quickly, but that looked so right in the train tunnel, the images of UFOs and babies and dogs.  I love those old drawings of his, but even more, I love the mental image of the old graffiti-covered trains pulling into the station, the ones with real straps to hang onto, and Haring jumping out with a stick of chalk to swim through the river of New Yorkers and etch out the image.

Another thing I liked was that Haring, right when he appeared in NY for art school, stumbled upon William S. Burroughs and his Nova Express conference.  He attended, and later befriended Burroughs.  But one of his big takeaways from the conference was the memetic quality of cut-ups, and that’s when he started using common, repetitive imagery in his street art.  He came up with the baby and the dog, and repeated these symbols, much in the same way Burroughs did with images within his cut-up trilogy.

I also like how Haring would often get approached in the subways when drawing, by people wondering if he worked for the MTA, or had an art grant, or if the drawings were ads for something.  And to cement that artist-patron relationship, and take the memetic thing a step further, he got some buttons made of the little baby drawing, and later the dog, and when someone stopped to talk to him, he’d give them a button.  These became extremely collectible in the art world, a badge proving a meeting with the artist.  It makes me think I really need to print up some buttons.

The end of the book, and the death of Haring, was sad.  But it was a fun read, and still has me thinking of that old New York.

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Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest Wes Andserson flick, last night.  I don’t like watching movies like that on opening weekend, because they draw the baby boomer intelligentsia Berkeley crowd, the ones that never see movies and then laugh at the wrong places at the stupid pre-trailer ads that I’ve seen a thousand times and hiss at trailers for blockbuster summer tent-pole movies and generally drive me insane. But, we’re in the dead period of films, post-Oscars, when all of the turds are released until the next holiday weekend, so I’ll go see almost anything that isn’t some Jesus freak epic (which is about everything right now.)

Anyway, just a few short notes on this, not a review.  This film has incredible production design, absolutely flawless stuff.  It was shot in Germany at some abandoned gothic department store, and then supplemented with models — not CGI, not stock footage, but little scale models that have that quirky, awkward look like a bizarre story book.  The whole thing had that Wes Anderson absurdity to its look, like even the warning sign in the back of the decrepit 1920s spa talking about electrical treatments for liver toxins made you laugh out loud.  That was great.

The script had an interesting bookend shell game: a girl goes to a statue in tribute of a famous author; cut to the old author reading from his book; cut to the young author staying at this hotel as it is in decline and talking to the old proprietor, who has dinner with him and tells the tale of his youth and the hotel in its heyday.  I liked that quirky twisting of the plot.

Unfortunately, I thought the actual plot itself was a bit too Wes Anderson, too cookie-cutter.  No strong b-story, and just plodding along on this stock adventure.  There were lots of twists and turns and some good humor.  But the 99 minutes seemed to drag a bit in the middle, and the whole thing was a fluffy cake, pure sugar without a lot of weight at the bottom of it.

Acting was great, an absolutely solid Ralph Fiennes as the lead, with Tony Revolori (relatively unknown?) as the young hotel owner, F. Murray Abraham as the older version. But one of Anderson’s key tropes is to have the usual gang pop in with minor roles.  It always gets a laugh to see Owen Wilson or Bill Murray show up with a single line or two, but the cameos have gotten to the point where they almost annoy me.  Marching on Jason Schwartzman in a funny hat (or whatever) does not make a film.  It’s a chuckle, but it’s getting predictable.

Overall though, a pretty good one, especially if you’re into his stuff.  It’s no Life Aquatic, but the design though, is worth the price of admission.

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Review: On the Road (film)

So I got infected with the Kerouac bug late, toward the end of college, when I fell out of the computer thing and suddenly needed to read everything I saw to learn how to write.  I locked into On the Road and loved it.  It wasn’t cool to love it – I don’t know what it was cool to read at that point in time, because I’ve never been cool.  But I liked the way the central character of the book wasn’t Dean or Sal as much as it was the blacktop-twisted terrain that made up the country between the two oceans, the open road, and how the change of seasons and passage of time was reflected in his prose.  There was also something I liked about the bond between friends, and the way these people lived on the fringes of a society that at the time was straighter than a stainless steel ruler.  I know everyone thinks of beatniks as 60s creatures, and maybe Kerouac as a 50s rebel, but this book was written about the late 40s, in the strange vacuum after the war, when a nation struggled to redefine itself, and quickly slid into a cold war.

So I read a lot of Kerouac in the mid-90s, although I later got pulled into the Burroughs maze and then elsewhere, but I used to read OTR every time I travelled, be it a flight to the midwest, or a trade show in LA.  These voyages were far, far removed from what Kerouac did, but there was something relatable, the crossing of a continent, the worship of a road map, the feeling of watching the world pass you by, 65 miles an hour at a time, while you meditated and ruminated on the thoughts in your head.  And during those early years of my voyage into literature, Ginsberg was still knocking around, and he and Francis Coppola were screwing around with the idea of making this great book into a movie, which made everybody cringe with fear.  I remember them doing some blind casting call in New York, and the rumor mill churning with names like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp.  And there was a part of me that wanted to see the film, especially since I did like Coppola’s work, and spent far too many times watching Apocalypse Now over and over and over.  But there was a much bigger part of me thinking, “don’t fuck this up.  Don’t make a hipster doofus Gap commercial out of this great book.”

The big problem with making OTR into a movie, regardless of director or producer, is how to condense this non-novel work into a flat, linear, two hour film.  We’re talking a 320-page book that consists of five parts, three giant roadtrips, and a hell of a lot of internal monologue and plotless “kicks” that relies a great deal on observations of a backdrop, rather than the plot-driven arc of a modern novel, which half the time is based on the formulaic plot arc of the typical movie, anyway.  Really the only two ways to do it is to try and compress and consolidate the scattered bits of adventure within the trips, making it into one or two action-packed blazing-fast roadtrips, or do a completely nonlinear, art-film collage of images and snapshots of the journeys, and hope that enough people who read the book would go to see it, and that you didn’t get skewered alive by people who are so ADD-addled that a Transformers sequel is not plot-driven enough for them.

So, I saw the movie yesterday, not really planning on it, because I honestly didn’t even know it was out yet.  And… it didn’t suck.  But it wasn’t incredible, either.

First, the film looked great.  Visually, it was astounding.  Walter Salles did a lot to capture The Road, the huge fields and pastures and ribbons of blacktop and canvasses of clouds and snow and rain and sun and everything else that makes America between the two coasts America.  And it was, for the most part period accurate.  I had fears they would recast this into a bunch of hipsters in the 2010s driving around in old ratted-out Ford coupes and saying “Daddy-o” a lot, some kind of Tarantino wet dream of old mixed into new.  And it wasn’t that.  It was the old Hudson and the old New York and San Francisco and Denver, done in such a way that it captured 1949 exactly.  I’m sure you could go over this frame-by-frame and find a doorknob that wasn’t manufactured before 1967 somewhere, but for the most part, it looked great.  And it was uncanny how some things fit the narrative so exactly.  Like there were many scenes were Sal and Dean were out on the fire escape of the Harlem coldwater flat, catching a smoke, and it looked and felt just like that famous picture of Kerouac on the roof of a New York apartment.  This all got nailed so exactly.

The acting was decent.  All of the main roles were competently done.  Garrett Hedlund was a decent Moriarity.  Tom Sturridge did okay with Ginsberg, and didn’t play him as a crazy zen hippy freak, but rather the Ginsberg he was before he devoted himself to that persona, when he struggled with who and what he was, which I really liked.  The only “known” actor to me was Kirsten Dunst, who you’d think would curse the whole thing, but she made a pretty believable Camille.

But…  something was missing, in a huge way.  The film just plodded along, from scene to scene, from season to season.  I could do it without a plot, but the touchstones weren’t there, something was missing from the movie, and it just had no soul.  If you didn’t have the book practically memorized going into this, you’d be hopelessly fucked. And if you did, you’d recognize the little scenes, and be able to piece it all together, but it would be like eating nothing but bread for dinner.  Even if it’s the best artisanal sourdough whateverthehell bread fresh out of the oven, and looked and smelled incredible, you’re still eating 137 minutes of bread and nothing else.

There were slight jabs at an agenda that bothered me, too.  I mean, when you put some distance to it, Neal Cassady was a stone cold asshole, a prick to the nth degree, dropping babies into every inviting crack he could find from Atlantic to Pacific, stealing and hustling and scamming and screwing and swindling from shore to shore and back.  Free to be you and me, but to anyone with a social conscience, this is pretty cringeworthy behavior.  And there’s been a small cottage industry of calling attention to this, led by Carolyn Cassady.  She wrote a book of memoirs called Off the Road, which painted the sordid picture of Neal and crew being a bunch of drunken assholes that left her and other women behind to fend for themselves.  And I’m not choosing sides here — I think she’s got a valid opinion here and think she’s entitled to it, and hearing about this side of the story made me that much less interested in Neal worship.  (I never read Off the Road either, and it’s possible it’s completely different than what I’m mentioning here.)  Anyway, the film threw in a few jabs of Camille yelling and screaming at Dean and throwing him out, which I guess is in the book anyway, but it seemed like they hung on that a bit to give that viewpoint a little more press.

The one thing that I really, really liked about the film was Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee aka William S. Burroughs.  There wasn’t a lot of time to this story on the screen, but Viggo was dead on Burroughs, the speech and mannerisms and quirkiness, walking around his beaten Louisiana swamp ranch, croaking about revolvers and orgone accumulators.  The slight downside was Amy Adams cast as his wife; she simply did not fit into the movie at all as a drug-addled Joan Burroughs.  She’s a great actor, but far, far too perky and cheery to do something like this.  But Mortensen – man, he was incredible.  There was a scene with him sitting on the floor with a toddler Billy Burroughs, helping him draw and color on some construction paper, drawling on about vampires and sharp teeth to drain blood from people.  It was absolutely, positively brilliant, and made me wish there was a whole new reimaging of Naked Lunch with him taking over for Peter Weller.

Kristen Stewart played Marylou, which is sort of the butt of many jokes, and her lack of acting ability.  And honestly, she wasn’t bad.  She wasn’t incredible, and she certainly did not look 16, but she filled her minor role well.  And you get to see her tits.  Oh yeah, don’t go with your mom to this one — lots of sex, lots of fucking, and a couple of scenes of dudes kissing dudes, so this one won’t ever get shown in the midwest.

Overall, it could have been much worse.  Instead, it just wandered.  I guess that’s what the book did, too.  But books can wander like this a lot more than films, so what are you gonna do.  I’d give this a weak 6 out of 10, but honestly, the best you could possibly do for a commercially viable product is probably scraping the bottom of an 8.

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Movie reviews: Flight, End of Watch

I go to the movies every damn weekend, and I see some occasional good movies, a lot of okay ones, and a fair number of bad ones.  I never write this shit down, and maybe I should.  I just don’t want to turn into a movie reviewer and have to remember how many stars I gave what; I just want to remember that I saw a movie in the theater so I don’t rent it six months later and then find out ten minutes and six dollars later that I already saw and hated the damn thing.

Here’s the last couple of weeks:

Flight

Denzel Washington is an alcoholic airline pilot who manages to land a crashing plane without killing every person on board, antics ensue.  This movie was a straight down the middle C for me, because it had some suspense, but it was so goddamn formulaic, it was ridiculous.  Also, it made me go home and fall into a deep k-hole reading NTSB incident reports, which probably wasted a week of my time.

Denzel is a good actor, but I wouldn’t call this performance mind-blowing.  The theater was crowded as fuck though, the temperature was 96 degrees, and they must have shown 90 minutes of trailers.  We were all awarded with some nice full frontal of Nadine Velazquez, though.  (At least Denzel had access to a perfect landing strip at the beginning of the movie.)

I heard little about this movie going into it, and expected more involving the plane crash, but that part of the movie ends quickly, and you go into this long-form alcoholic denial trip, which was okay, but I’ve already seen that after-school special.  I’d give this a strong three and a half stars out of five, and it’s a good rental, but you probably won’t catch this one on the plane.

End of Watch

There was nothing to watch this weekend, so we went and saw this.  I hate to harp on a movie for being plotless, since I basically write plotless books, but this was a plotless movie.  It’s basically a character study about these two cops driving around south central LA, with a lot of detail about their respective wife/girlfriends, a small amount of detail on inter-office politics at a police station, and a largely wooden story about Mexican cartels.  The whole thing is shot to look like it was taped on video cameras as part of a school project, like a “found footage” thing.  But this combined with the generic suspense of the story made me feel like I was doing tape tracking of raw footage for COPS episodes.  Seriously, about an hour into it, I got this weird disassociated feeling, and thought “am I still watching a movie?”  It sort of felt like I was sitting through a TV show I had no interest in.

Takeaways to this: Jake Gyllenhaal could totally play Paul Ryan in a biopic if he got the right hairpiece.  Anna Kendrick looks suspiciously like Adam Scott (Ben on Parks and Rec) and that always bothers me.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s stupid.  2/5.

 

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Review: Editorial by Arthur Graham

I’m sick of plot. I mean, I’m sick of the unshakeable, so-called undeniable truth that books have to have three acts, a hero’s journey, twelve points, three trials, or whatever the hell archaic structure every hack writer regurgitating genre fiction on the kindle tells you that you must have in order to sell books. Maybe you do have to make something a blatant rip-off of the same exact script mainstream Hollywood has been green-lighting for the last two or three decades in order to sell millions of copies to bored housewives in flyover states, but that doesn’t mean it’s what I personally want to read.

That’s why Arthur Graham’s latest, Editorial, interested me. This novella, recently re-released by Bizarro Press, doesn’t follow the template of every vampire romance thriller the make-money-fast crowd is hawking online. It’s a clever bit of meta-fiction, which starts with a collection of vignettes that are seemingly unrelated: a narrator talking about his days as an orphaned youth, a drifter with a Kafka-esque phase shift into a snake, a world 470 years in the future where global cooling has shrunk the seas and made formerly underwater areas the new waterfront property. There’s also the metafictional appearance of an editor, working on his own science fiction story, which is (or isn’t?) the story you’re actually reading.

It’s admittedly hard to focus while in the first dozen or two pages of Editorial, as I found myself thinking, “where is all of this going?” But the stories start to bleed into each other, in an almost dream-like fashion. I then realized that each story was a ring, and as you passed through the first circle, that ring contracted, telling you just a bit more truth about the interconnectedness of the different pieces.

In my previous failed career as a computer scientist (damn you, Calculus II!) my algorithms classes talked greatly about the concept of recursion, or the repeating of items in a self-similar way. For example, when given a huge list of numbers to sort, us humans like to iterate through the list, start at the beginning and go through it in a linear way, comparing numbers and switching items. That might make sense to us, but it’s an incredibly inefficient way of doing things. Instead, you could define a procedure that compares the first item in the list to the rest of the list, passed into the same procedure. That means that the list minus the first item is sorted the same way, which involves taking its first item out, and sorting the rest with the same procedure, and so on. Eventually, you reach a point where you have just one item, and the base case comparison is obvious, and then you blast through this huge stack of partially completed sub-steps until everything is solved.

Editorial works in the same way. It’s asking the eternal question of what is truth and what is real, but the first half of the book involves a lot of busy-work in setting up all of these self-referential calls. (And I by no means am saying the writing is sub-par or ineffective; there’s a good deal of sharp prose and character building contained throughout.) But once you get past the halfway point, you start to hit the essential truths, the point where those recursive calls hit their base cases and make you start saying “yes! exactly!”

The book also contains a lot of reptilian imagery, characters turning into snakes, or really being snakes, which at first seemed like a curious choice. But there’s this constant return to Ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail, which you see prominently on the book’s cover. It’s the same as these concentric, ever-constricting pieces within the book, the archetypal representation in Jungian psychiatry of the human psyche. Since Plato, different mythologies use this idea of a snake eating its tail as the central force in the creation of life. Editorial struggles with the basic idea of if this character is alive or being created by the editor. It’s ultimately the same question we’ve always been asking.

Writing style? I’ve seen other reviews throw around mention of Vonnegut, and the book contains little scribbles and drawings similar to what V used in Breakfast of Champions.  It reminded me a bit more of Slaughterhouse-Five, probably because of the unconventional plot.  It goes blue a bit, which is fine by me, but if you’re the type who attends regular book burnings, you might not be cool with a dude who was once a snake hooking up with another dude at a truck stop, so be forewarned.

Editorial isn’t an easy read. I mean, it’s not Ulysses, but it isn’t Twilight, either. It’s a challenge, but a rewarding one, and my only regret is that I have so much difficulty finding this type of book amongst the seas of detective murder mysteries and YA romance stories.  Anyway, check this one out.  It’s available in print and on the kindle.  Also stop by Arthur’s web site at http://arthurgraham.blogspot.com/ and give him a holler on facebook, too.

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And So It Goes

I just finished reading And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields’ biography of Kurt Vonnegut, and have mixed feelings and unchecked nostalgia.

The mixed feelings part: the book was somewhat lopsided, but I liked it more than most of the reviewers.  Like someone reviewed it “and so it goes – into the trash”, and I didn’t have that bad of a reaction to it.  I do think Vonnegut probably deserves a more scholarly approach, something that carefully studies all of his books, analyzes their meanings and connections, and focuses less on his life.  That was the main criticism from many reviewers, that Shields didn’t “get” Vonnegut’s work, and dwelled on stuff like his assholishness and extramarital affairs.  I don’t know if he “got” it or not, but he didn’t spend the amount of time on it I would have liked.

That’s not to say Vonnegut wasn’t an asshole.  There’s plenty of examples covered in the book, from the extended divorce-or-not-divorce antics with both of his wives to the various affairs and infidelities.  There’s also all of this business about Knox Burger.  Burger was one of Vonnegut’s early champions, someone who, as the editor at Collier’s, got his short stories published; later, when at Dell, he got his books put out there.  When Burger was thinking about quitting Dell and taking the great leap into being an agent, Vonnegut whole-heartedly encouraged him to do it, and said he’d totally jump ship from his representation and come over to him.  So Burger quit, and Vonnegut told him he couldn’t do it.  There are several other examples of this kind of indecisiveness, and maybe Shields just cherry-picked some of the worst incidents and framed them to draw a morbid picture, but it’s all the kind of stuff I didn’t think about when reading Vonnegut’s fiction the first time.

I think that’s what bugged me about Vonnegut’s post-Timequake career, and this book.  I first read Slaughterhouse-Five as a college freshman, sitting in the IMU building on the Bloomington campus (which, coincidentally, Vonnegut’s dad helped design) and that metafictional construct of mixing himself and fiction into the same story line made me think that in some weird way, I knew him.  I didn’t know anything about him outside of his books; there was no wikipedia back then, and maybe he was in the New York gossip papers, but he wasn’t in the news out in Indiana.  I didn’t hear about the divorce news or the struggle he went through to write Timequake, and being oblivious to that stuff left the persona of Vonnegut much more impressive to me.

When I first started writing in 1993, Vonnegut was one of the writers I took a serious deep dive on.  I bought every Laurel paperback edition I could get my hands on and plowed through them all quickly.  My favorite was Breakfast of Champions, and I probably read it once every year or so, especially when I’m sick of everything else and just need something quick and decent to straighten my head again.  That said, Vonnegut was one of those lithosphere layers of literature for me, something I could easily consume and that would leave an impact on me, but all of the books blended together and didn’t have the forever scarring effect that a more difficult read might.  Nobody else wrote like Vonnegut, which meant his stuff was unique, but it also meant I couldn’t descend further into his madness.  I read the core canon of his stuff, then moved onto other things, occasionally dipping back in to reread a book out of nostalgia.

But at some point, Vonnegut started to lose his charm to me.  I think part of it was the balance between his fiction and his hashing out his personal life in the form of metafiction, until it got to the point (maybe around Palm Sunday) where there was no story and he was just throwing out straight memoir.  By then, he moved, in my eyes, from metafictional genius to cranky old man.  Timequake tried to turn this on end, with this strange twist of exploring determinism with the gimmick of time being stuck in a mobius loop, but he ultimately got dragged into this sea of autobiographical misery.  Everything he did after that was either re-releases of stories that were originally published before he his his stride, or old man rants on the state of politics in the Bush era.

So to read a whole book that contains only these personal life details was somewhat depressing.  The part of the book up to the publishing of Slaughterhouse, the bits about his struggle to find an audience, were compelling.  But after that, it feels like the back half of the book was nothing but Vonnegut waiting to die, which was incredibly depressing.  It’s not that Shields did a smear job on him; the content made it unavoidable.

Oh well.  Maybe I need to re-read some of his old books to get this out of my head.

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