Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (2004)

Sometime during my teenage years, my mom started listening habitually to NPR. In fact, if you were to walk through her house today, I guarantee that you would never be out of earshot of one radio or other tuned in to some human interest story about a guy who has built a solar-powered wildlife shelter for tuna...or something. Now, as a young lad I just wanted to jam to punk rock, and I had no time for BBC News and Talk of the Nation, because those things were obstacles to me listening to And Out Come The Wolves 50 times a day.

But a few months ago my iPod ran out of batteries during my commute and by some masochistic impulse I switched on the radio and tuned into NPR, and it's since gotten its grimy hooks into me. What was an unbearable ordeal to me as a rambunctious youngster has turned into a daily ritual: listening to NPR while driving.

Why on earth am I telling you this? Well, the other day there was a news piece on North Korea and one of the commentators mentioned, in passing, Guy Delisle's 2004 autobiographical graphic novel Pyongyang. I was so blown away by the premise that I went out immediately and bought a copy.

Here is an interesting tidbit that you can casually throw into conversation at a cocktail party: a large amount of conventional (non-computer) animation for Western firms is done in North Korea, including Disney blockbusters like The Lion King and Pocahontas. The (maniacal) North Korean state owns several animation companies that do a lot of the "grunt" work for large foreign companies. It's very similar to most industries, really. Our Nikes, for instance, are designed in Oregon and sold in Chicago, but they're stitched together by toddlers in Kathmandu, or wherever.

Anyway, the Western companies send liaisons and conceptual artists to North Korea to oversee production. Guy Deslisle is one of these. A Canadian animator, he traveled to North Korea to work at SEK Studios, one of North Korea's largest animation companies, on behalf of his Canadian employer. As opposed to the incredibly railroaded and brief visits of some American journalists that you may have seen (like the Vice Magazine report), Delisle was given a surprising amount of access, since he was A.) an employee and not a tourist, and B.) not American. He had to be accompanied by a guide at all times, like all foreigners, but he didn't bring a camera with him and thus he had a lot more leeway to wander off than would be given to a journalist. However, as an artist, Delisle was able to later draw clear depictions of what he saw from memory, and these drawings became Pyongyang.

I am so in love with this premise that I was willing to overlook several things that would otherwise have been obstacles to me enjoying the book. For one thing, I've never liked comic books. This is strange, because I've been a dork my entire life and I've always proudly displayed all the figurative badges of dorkdom -- Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Magic: The Gathering, etc. I just never connected with comics. It wasn't a lack of exposure; growing up in the Chicago suburbs it is literally impossible for a boy to not own a few comic books at some point. I just never really felt like they provided a logical path for my eye to follow, and generally just found them visually confusing. It didn't help that most superhero-oriented comics have pretty weak stories. I had a vivid imagination as a kid and even back then I found most of the stories overwrought and pointless. I got into chapter books at a pretty early age (not to brag or anything), and so I never really had a use for comics, and thus never formed the sort of lifelong attachment to them that a lot of men my age seem to have.

On that score, I subsequently never got into the whole "indie" "graphic novel" scene, and in a lot of cases I find that sort of thing a bit repellent. Keep in mind this is just my personal prejudice talking, and I have no doubt that there are artists creating worthwhile works of power and beauty within the medium, but the basic line drawings and overly-confessional tone of most of the indie comics I've perused seem almost knowingly infantile. A bit cutesy, to put it more simply. When an artist makes a conscious decision to make his main character's face a couple of lines and dots, they are generally removing much of the visual medium's potential for emotional nuance, and that means it falls to the dialogue to explain a bit too much to the reader. And given that a few small panels are in their own right a space-limited forum in which to express ideas, the finished product usually comes out facile and overly simple, thus giving off a childish quality, whether intentional or not. Essentially what I'm saying is that indie comics aren't really my bag, baby.

However, Pyongyang is a fascinating case where the medium is a natural consequence of the creator's real-life circumstances (wanting to depict the weirdness of life in North Korea without the use of a camera), and its interest is dependent on that. This book undeniably works best as a graphic novel, and for that I am duly impressed as a non-comics fan. In many cases, the surreal facts of living in the world's most viciously totalitarian state are softened by Delisle's gentle, spare visual style; much of this imagery is the definition of "politically charged" and the fact that it is delivered in this form takes much of the edge off and allows for more rational analysis.

That is not to say that the content of this book is any less bizarre and shocking. The only way you wouldn't know about the North Korean regime's sadistic draconian grip on the whole of its population would be if...well, if you lived in North Korea. This final bastion of brutally severe Stalinism is the most closed and secretive society on the planet, and to catch even a glimpse of its daily goings-on is to see unadulterated surrealism. There is a pervasive cult of personality built up around Kim Il-sung, the North's founding dictator who, despite the disadvantage of being dead for 17 years, is still officially President. Nearly meeting him in (short, pudgy) stature is his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, celebrated psychopath and horror film enthusiast. Together they form the world's only communist familial dynasty.

An interesting theme that Delisle explores is this sort of extreme conversational opacity that I experienced many times during my stint in China. When talking to somebody about politics (I used to try to talk to my coworkers at my dad's office), it's generally like having a conversation with a very polite brick wall. If you ask someone a relatively straightforward question, like "Don't you think it would be nice if you could express your dissatisfaction with something your government is doing?", you will most likely get an extremely circular and convoluted answer that winds up proclaiming that the state is amazing, God bless the state. It's this weird mixture of propagandist cultural programming and extreme Asian politeness that runs the gamut from coming across as naive to being viciously passive aggressive. In Pyongyang, Delisle depicts this sort of exchange quite deftly, and in varied situations. I was impressed with his ability to capture the essence of its weirdness.

Another recurring motif is the limited resources of North Korea and the bizarre hierarchy of priorities that dictates how those resources are used. Take electricity, for instance. Much of the 50-story hotel Delisle lives in during his stay is completely unlit. At night the city is plunged into darkness, as rationing does not allow the citizens to even light their own apartments. However, when foreign delegations stay at the hotel, the entire thing is brightly lit for the duration of their stay to give the impression that energy conservation isn't an issue. When Delisle is given a tour of the elaborately pointless Pyongyang subway system, it too is completely illuminated. Issues like this are tied up with the general Asian cultural feature of "saving face", twisted up with bizarre North Korean logic and social control.

In much the same vein, Delisle is taken on many "impromptu" (they are very carefully timed and arranged) visits to various North Korean cultural landmarks, like a visit to a museum that is full of gifts to the Dear Leader from governments around the world, which range from comically everyday items like forks to gold to elephant tusks. There is also a museum featuring paintings of American soldiers forcing a child to drink motor oil. Everything that is shown in North Korea serves a dual purpose: to deify the elder or younger Kim, and to undermine the global powers that threaten North Korea's supposed hegemony. The gap between this internal image of North Korea and its leaders and the opposing reality is so bizarre that it's funny, and Delisle capitalizes on this absurdity frequently.

Any foreigner living in Pyongyang must inevitably confront feelings of guilt. After all, foreigners live like members of the government's ruling elite; they eat piles of oily food each night while people mere miles away are literally starving to death. I thought Delisle could have done a more thorough job exploring this particular avenue, but he does reference these guilty feelings a few times and the human mind, after all, is adept at normalizing strange circumstances.

To that end, Delisle injects quite a bit of wry humor, if not outright fun, into the proceedings. With not much else to do, he often gently pokes fun at his omnipresent guides, and the jokes are made much funnier by the simple fact that they are obliviously humorless throughout. To rise to a position where one becomes the face of the country for foreigners, a North Korean must distinguish themselves as being a fanatical ideologue, and this unwavering devotion to the regime is actually quite funny in its strangeness. It would be tempting to portray these particular people as inhuman freaks, but Delisle's depictions are really quite affectionate, and he takes pains to suggest that they're simply the product of environment.

Although the book is autobiographical, I thought its weakest point was that Delisle spends a lot of time focusing on the details of his animation job and explaining non-Korean related things about the animation industry. I couldn't figure out why I was supposed to care about this stuff. His job is often a springboard for weird interactions and experiences, so I understand that he must give a cursory overview of what he's doing, but there are a few times where he simply talks about animation and it is unrelated to his treatment of North Korean society. I found these instances disruptive and self-indulgent.

While we're on the subject, however, I'd like to give my take on Delisle's drawing style. Despite the fact that I spent some time up front emphasizing that I'm not a huge fan of this kind of DIY-style comic book, I think Delisle's intensely personal, "small-time" drawing style works incredibly well within the context of this material, because it emphasizes the unbalanced power dynamic of the individual running up against a monolithic state. While this type of drawing is typically used in confessional, whiny stories about romantic relationships and the like, here it is transposed onto a much larger and more dramatic stage, and it is interesting to see how Delisle exploits that. A statue of Kim Il-sung, for instance, looks suitably huge. and it is drawn in this interesting three panel page:

The motion of the reader's eye, top to bottom, is against that of Delisle's eye, which goes from the shoes up to the face. This sort of visual conflict would simply not be possible in any other medium, and once again it is nice to see Delisle take full advantage of such opportunities. And although much of the book is simple line drawings (but very nicely shaded line drawings), Delisle includes full-page chapter-dividing drawings that are beautifully composed and evocatively drawn. It is in these drawings that he best captures the loneliness, sadness, and strangeness of the country. In an empty, half-darkened banquet hall, for example, the scene is made more powerful by the depiction of Delisle sitting alone at one of its many tables. Because although the invisible majority of oppressed common people are kept off-limits to Delisle and thus are not really depicted in the book, it is in the emptiness of the lavish banquet hall that one can feel their presence, through their absence. The reader can feel them there because they are excluded, both from Delisle's interactions and consequently from the drawing itself.

Although I've tried to give an overview here, the truth is that this is a book that works on its own terms, and the only way to experience it is to read it for yourself. I will say this about it: if a non comic reader such as myself was completely transfixed by it for the three hours or so it took me to read it, I would say that it is a work of considerable power. It is a completely novel approach to the persistent difficulty of conveying the reality of life in North Korea to outsiders, and as such it is also a work of importance and significance. Understanding North Korean society will continue to be relevant well into the future, even if/when the regime topples, because it is an almost pure example of the power of social programming. Pyongyang, I feel, captures the essence of this dynamic in a way that has been impossible to accomplish with more traditional forms of media. It is a fine work, and to top it off I had a lot of fun reading it, so you should too.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sonatine (ソナチネ) (1993)

In my review of Takeshi Kitano's take on the traditional Zatoichi mythology, I touched on the absurdist elements of that film, and the reactions they generated amongst viewers. Audiences have been conditioned over time to expect that every component in a film should have some purpose relating to plot. To a casual observer, Kitano's signature divergences from plot may seem incongruous or even foolhardy. The truth of the matter, however, is that Kitano's body of work is among the most deliberate and meticulous I've ever seen, and a close analysis of his films uncovers the deep thematic exploration that resides within his sometimes jarring style.

After watching Sonatine, Kitano's 1993 masterpiece, those absurdist scenes in Zatoichi make more sense within the context of Kitano's creative world and are, in addition, even more pleasing to me. Sonatine is a thoroughly existential work that makes full use of cinema's potential to bend its own "rules" in order to strike at the heart of an emotion or idea, regardless of how it alters narrative structure.

The film centers on tough middle-aged yakuza Murakama, played by Kitano himself (who also wrote and directed the picture). Murakama, a Tokyo family boss (the Japanese yakuza differs from the Italian Mafia here; "clan" is the umbrella term for a large organization, whereas "family" denotes the smaller fragmentary gangs), is dispatched to Okinawa by his superiors to help a clan affiliate who is engaged in a turf war.

Murakama has all the traits of a man who has grown tired of his routine, his career, his life. He is cold and irritable. He is insolent towards his superiors. In one scene, he openly questions his boss's motives, while the man looks on with forced regal detachment. Murakama is right to question his boss, however. His family's operations have become lucrative and the boss is sending him and his men to Okinawa to get them out of the way so the boss can take over. Because he has stopped caring, Murakama goes. "I'm worn out," he admits to his lieutenant and personal confidant, Ken.

The Okinawa clan affiliates welcome the hard Tokyo gunmen with soft drinks and ice cream, in a brilliant scene where Kitano lets a shot looking out the front window of a bus linger, and linger, and linger. Although the Okinawa boss assures the Tokyo men that the whole thing will blow over, the rival clan (who remain, notably, unseen) notices their arrival and takes it as a declaration of war. There is a series of brutal slayings, shootings, and bombings, and the surviving men, including Murakama, retreat to a vacant beach house to lay low for a while.

The bulk of the remainder of the film follows the characters in this pastoral setting as they ruminate on life in a series of brilliantly staged scenes. The film shakes off its plot without much concern, and becomes an existentialist study. It is done quite elegantly. In their time at the beach, the characters are given a window of reflection that their counterparts in other action films can never fit in between shootings and car chases. It is fascinating to see what they do with their downtime, these men whose lives are overfilled with the business of violence.

This portion of the film is devoted to scenes of almost unprecedented whimsy, with the gangsters playing games on the beach, reading comic books, and singing with each other. I expect that many viewers, expecting a fast-paced yakuza shoot-em-up, would find this section of the film extremely jarring. Going back to what I said at the beginning of this review, audiences cannot help but bring a certain level of expectation into a film, particularly a genre picture. In what is ostensibly a yakuza action film, Kitano devotes lengthy sequences to silly games shot with his signature lingering camera style.

Like that old jazz music cliche about the importance of hearing the notes the musician doesn't play, it is crucial to keep in mind that these playful sequences, which at first seem almost obscenely diversionary, are bookended by extremely terse and brutal sections that depict quite a lot of death. The point, therefore, is that while the gangsters play, the shadow of death both past and future is hanging over the proceedings. Most of the games (shooting a can off a friend's head, sumo wrestling, Roman candle fights) are simply reworked versions of real-world violence that is depicted elsewhere in the film. These connections between two things that are very visceral and "real", play and death, (similar in that they are both purely experiential) underscore Kitano's theme of life and death being intertwined and at times indistinguishable.

Consider this pivotal exchange that takes place about halfway through the film, between Murakawa and Miyuki, a woman who becomes his love interest:
Miyuki: It must be great to not be afraid of shooting people. Not being afraid of killing people means not being afraid of killing yourself, right? You're tough...I love tough guys.

Murakawa: If I were tough, I wouldn't carry a gun.

Miyuki: But you can shoot fast.

Murakawa: I shoot fast because I get scared first.

Miyuki: ...But you're not afraid of dying.

Murakawa: When you're scared all the time, you almost wish you were dead.
It may seem strange, given the nature of this conversation, that there is upbeat music playing in the background, and the lines are delivered with smiles and chuckles. Like much of Kitano's work, the atmosphere here is decidedly playful. Kitano rose to fame as a comedian, and even in very serious pieces like Sonatine, his unique comedic outlook permeates through gloomy subject matter. In other words, it takes a certain kind of person to get the joke of life.

Among the many intriguing devices Kitano employs, one of the most fascinating is a sort of time compression that occurs, pointedly, twice in the film. Early on there is a scene where Murakama uses a crane to dunk a man into Tokyo Bay; a mahjong parlor owner who had insulted him earlier. After dryly agreeing that a person can hold their breath for about two minutes, Murakawa tells the crane operator to dunk the man for two minutes. Rather than letting the two minutes pass in real time, however, Kitano simply cuts and the man is raised spluttering and clinging on to life. This is repeated immediately, with the lost time again unaccounted for, only this time the man comes up dead. Murakawa turns from a conversation he is having and observes unconcernedly, "Wow, we killed doesn't matter. Cover it up." Then he walks away.

The time compression is repeated when Murakawa, taking a walk on the beach in Okinawa at night, observes a rape. A man drags a woman out of a car and throws her on the sand. She is protesting but he holds her down and rips her dress. Cut to Murakawa, who begins to walk casually by. The rapist enters the frame and says, "So you were there the whole time?" Even though we never see or hear the rape, we can assume it occurred, but Kitano cut it from the picture, in the same way he cut the drowning of the mahjong parlor owner. If not for the earlier drowning scene, the viewer would think that Murakawa interrupts the rape before it begins. As it stands it is ambiguous, although he only shows the events leading up to it and the aftermath. Why does he do this?

To answer this, it needs to be pointed out that this time compression device elegantly combines a few of Kitano's main goals with the film. The first is that, while the film's narrative is dependent upon and moved forward by ferocious acts of violence, Kitano doesn't revel in shootings and mayhem. He depicts violence elsewhere in the film, and quite graphically, but in Sonatine violence is always regarded with the utmost impassivity. The film has a number of shootings, beatings, stabbings, and murders, all of them gory and brutal. This is, after all, the nature of such things. However, while an ordinary action film director would dwell on these events by using quick cuts and close-ups, and try to lend them gravity by employing a lot of horrified reaction shots, Kitano conspicuously avoids both of these things entirely. Kitano is known for dwelling on long shots, and even in action scenes he is comfortable regarding them from a distance. Furthermore, during every scene of violence, the faces of the characters are completely unmoved.

The second motive Kitano has in employing the time compression device is his use of mirroring to contextualize "current" events that are happening onscreen as the viewer watches, and to re-contextualize "past" events that have already occurred. By using the technique twice, he gives a greater context to the rape scene that wouldn't have existed without the earlier drowning scene. Conversely, by having Murakawa witness the rape scene, Kitano draws a contrast to the drowning scene, where Murakawa was the aggressor.

As I said earlier, Kitano doesn't concern himself with the gratuity that usually accompanies violence in film. He underlines this point in the starkest manner possible: the climactic gun battle at the end of the film is almost entirely offscreen. The camera regards the building where it is taking place impassively. In a wide shot, the viewer sees the dark upper floor of the building illuminated with the muzzle flash of guns, but the actual fight is depicted for only a few seconds. This partially mirrors an earlier scene on the beach where the characters play with Roman candles at night, playfully staging a mock gun battle. The orange flashes of the real gun battle recall those of the fireworks from the play battle.

A pessimistic reading of these equivalencies might suggest that Kitano is saying that death permeates life, even the diversions we engage in to try and distance ourselves from the inevitable. This may be a bit facile. With this film, Kitano thoroughly explores the themes of existential dread, authenticity, and determinism, in a gleefully implicit and non-didactic manner. Camus famously said that the only real philosophical problem is suicide. Kitano supercharges this idea by temporarily removing a gang of killers from the killing field, and allowing them to examine their own existence. Men who are unafraid of death, who are surrounded by it every day, must after all construct identities that preclude killing themselves. Failing to do so would drive one to the very heart of Camus' problem.

This was an early directorial work for Kitano, and you can see all the elements of his style taking shape. When framing characters, he often centers them in the middle of the shot for an immersive, conversational feel. He uses a lot of very dry reaction shots, something he revisited with Kikujiro. As I've stated several times in this review, Kitano's signature is lingering shots, often wide shots. He uses them to great effect in Sonatine, which is a film that requires the viewer to examine things beyond the surface level, and the lingering shots provide a nice visual metaphor for this. The acting is superb. In particular I enjoyed the performance of Susumu Terajima, who plays the Murakawa Family lieutenant Ken. The character has a nice, gradual arc, with Ken starting as a slick, hard-faced criminal and eventually devolving into laid-back boyishness. The actors as a whole all seem to have a great understanding of the film's dark but not-quite-literal tone, and they are able to develop distinctive personalities.

When I reviewed Zatoichi I called Takeshi Kitano fearless. He is also a genius. There is something inherently romantic and admirable about a man who writes, directs, and stars in his own film. That such a film would be as brilliant as Sonatine seems like almost too much to hope for.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight (2003)

Lately I've been feeling like all my friends have their lives figured out, and I'm the only one who is still unsure of what I want. I'm 26, and whether this sense of uncertainty is a natural phase or some massive personal defect still remains to be seen. Still, I miss being able to sit around with people and have long metaphysical discussions about ideas and values, about beliefs and philosophy and what things mean. Is giving up this kind of conversation one of the costs of being an adult? If so, for me it's a bitter pill to swallow. I almost want to say we've simply moved into a more cynical era, but that strikes me as something an old person would say.

Anyway, a week ago I watched the recent filmed version of The Taqwacores. It was breathtakingly mediocre --if the director had bothered to actually record ADR I think it would have been miles better-- but it was based on a book I enjoyed and it was filmed at a venue in Cleveland where I've seen shows (Tower 2012). I was in Ohio in early 2009 to visit a very dear friend of mine and I made a stop in Clevo to see Empire and Triceratops play the Tower. I remember there still being Muslim punk graffiti on the walls from when they had filmed the movie.

Watching the film reminded me to dig out my copy of the 2003 book. I couldn't find it, the reason being that sometime around 2005 I lent it to my friend Nate, who is supposedly a working class skinhead and shouldn't be relying on handouts (just kidding Nate, I love you). But seeing as how my room is littered with things I've "borrowed" from people over the years, I consider that loss officially cut and I bought a new copy of The Taqwacores to read. This is the digital age, after all, and Amazon Marketplace (One-Click Ordering; I don't fuck around) is what separates us from the beasts.

Speaking of the digital age --and more pointedly, its attendant hyperbole-- this book has been called "The Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims." Damn! The first time I read this (it's printed on the back of the book) I made a sort of "psh" sound, because although I enjoyed the book very much when I first read it, Michael Muhammad Knight is not the most elegant of authors and the novel could do with a good deal of blocking.

However, the more I think about it, I realize that that reaction was arrogance on my part. This book was written primarily for young Muslims, and not being a part of that group, it's not really appropriate for me to make value judgments about what a work should mean to somebody else. In fact, this book inspired an actual, real life "taqwacore" scene. I went through my second reading of the novel with that in mind, and I found it to be an immense help, not least because it made me quash my incredulity at Knight's oftentimes hopelessly naive and romanticized depiction of the punk ethos and aesthetic.

In terms of this review, that is a very important point. This is a novel about Islam that uses punk as a device, not the other way around. The more you know about something, the more difficult it is to accept contrivances that contradict your individual expertise. The "punk" elements of this book are a contrivance. Knight treats the various punk subcultures (street punk, straight edge, skinhead, etc) as if they were all part of a cohesive melting pot of a larger, inclusive "scene." While on some technical level this may be true, there is no way these characters would run in the same social circles, let alone live together. It is more than a bit ironic that, in a novel that attempts to subvert the misconception that all Muslims are ideologues without individual characteristics, Knight simply lumps "punks" together with a similar disregard. But, as I've said, this is the wrong way to read this novel. It's best to accept the novel's contrivances and allow them to take you where they will, because much like a science fiction novel, The Taqwacores' contrivances are an integral part of its ability to explore the human mind and heart.

The book follows a Pakistani-American college student, Yusef Ali, through a year living in an all-Muslim punk house in Buffalo, NY. Populating the house are colorful characters such as Umar, a straightedge fundamentalist Sunni (with "2:219" tattooed across his throat) who is the novel's main antagonist when it needs one; Jehangir, a street punk Sufi mystic who is drunk more often than not; and Rabeya, the only female housemate, a feminist who wears a full burqa covered with punk patches. Yusef is not a punk; he's majoring in engineering because his parents told him to, he's never had a drink in his life, and he shops at Aeropostale. But he is open-minded, if a little bland, and the novel needs him as a sounding board for the wild philosophies of the characters around him.

And there is a lot of sounding off. It is essentially a loosely connected series of dialogues occasionally broken by something more reminiscent of a "scene." What happens to the characters is not nearly as important as the differing ideologies each of them represents and the conversations they have that express those ideologies in great detail. The effect is similar to the dialogues in Douglas Hofstadter's classic meditation on thought process; Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (not that I'm comparing Taqwacores to Hofstadter's book in terms of content or quality): although the ideas in both books could be expressed solely in essays, they are made more vibrant and easily digestible when presented as a back-and-forth conversation between characters.

There are a lot of ideas thrown around in the book, and I will only skim the surface here. Of all the housemates, only straightedge tough guy Umar adheres to the strict, near-monastic life of sobriety, abstinence, ritualized prayer, and halal dietary laws. A main theme that is constantly pulsating in the background is: what makes a good Muslim? Conversely, what makes a bad Muslim? Is there a prescribed role for women within the community? Is there a place for gays in Islam? Is marijuana strictly forbidden, frowned upon, or permitted? What place do violence, swearing, mixing with nonbelievers, and a myriad of other issues have? I believe Knight addresses and answers all of these questions, albeit to his own satisfaction.

A major issue the book has is its large cast of characters. Some of them are occasionally the impetus for an interesting conversation (The pot-smoking skater Fasiq being one), but generally they feel unnecessary and their presence sometimes derails the proceedings. Do we really need a Sudanese rude boy? A Latino ex-Muslim? An Iranian junkie "skinhead" who is partially homeless? Sometimes it feels like a contrived effort to be inclusive, and frankly the novel would be stronger with a more exclusive focus on Yusef, Jehangir, Umar, and Rabeya. Indeed, the central conflict of the story is that between the dogmatic extremism of Umar and the drunken tolerance of Jehangir. Knight comes down pretty hard in favor of Jehangir, but every character has their say, and as a person who is somewhat prone to judgmental extremes, I think Umar is portrayed quite fairly. That being said, meaningful conflict between these two characters should have happened more often, to the exclusion of the peripheral characters, even if that meant paring down the length of the novel (which, by the way, is a fast 250 pages; I read it in two days).

I have used a lot of space to point out the novel's flaws, and they are many, but the truth is that this is the kind of book that revels in its own flaws. This isn't even a book that was intended for publication; Knight printed out the first copies himself, stapled them, and gave them away for free, zine-style. And although the novel seems a bit clumsy and meandering at times, Knight is writing about a very clumsy and meandering stage of life, both for himself and for his characters. You can't get hung up on specifics when reading this book. Who cares, for instance, that the characters listen to garbage like The U.S. Bombs and Roger Miret And The Disasters? You just need to look past it. (Although I will say that it's criminal that a character like Umar listens to Minor Threat and Youth of Today as opposed to SSD and Judge) The writing can be a little rough (Yusef Ali's responses to a long philosophical soliloquy by another character is typically, "Wow."), but there are genuine moments of inspired creation, like Yusef's first masturbation experience, or a late night trip to a masjid (mosque) where the squabbling characters pray together.

One thing that needs to be pointed out: there are a lot of Arabic and Urdu phrases and expressions thrown around, both in the narration and the dialogue, and unfortunately no edition of the book that I've ever seen has had a glossary. The book is, of course, aimed at Muslims, most of whom I assume are familiar with a lot of these phrases, but for us kafr it is a little frustrating to have to be looking things up all the time.

Despite everything negative that could be said about this book, there are passages that are quite beautiful, and the last chapter or so is simply exceptional. In the final pages Knight breaks from his slightly wrought narrative style into a much looser and satisfying stream-of-consciousness poetic style. If he could have sustained this over the course of the entire novel the book would be unequivocally brilliant. Still, you won't hear me complaining about a thought-provoking book with an outstanding finale.

Do I recommend The Taqwacores? Six years after my first reading, I still found it very engaging, challenging, and enjoyable, but it might have a very different effect on someone that has a different background and values than me. Here's the highest compliment I can pay it: it reminds me of the long conversations I used to have with my friends when we were teenagers, and for me that is lofty praise in the extreme. It reminds me that having an open mind is often better than being sure of oneself. The novel has certainly struck a chord with a generation of young Muslims, and as a means to awaken young minds, you could do a lot worse. Despite being written as Knight's farewell kiss-off to mainstream Islam, at its core The Taqwacores is about individuals finding ways to express their love for their beliefs, and each other, on their own terms. In a society where even our subcultures are constantly trying to pull young people this way and that, I am very happy that Knight's work has hit home with a few of them. 20 year old me would agree.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Proposition (2005)

“There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things.
Sun, and moon and stars, brother; all sweet things.
There’s likewise a wind on the heath.
Life is very sweet, brother.”
A man who sits dying wheezes these words about halfway through The Proposition. His killer moves in close and finishes the poem: “’Life is very sweet, brother; Who would wish to die?’” There is a smile of recognition between the two men. The killer continues, “George Borrow, I believe. A worthy writer, and a beautiful sentiment, sir.” He shoves him over. “But you’re not my brother.”

The Proposition is the finest film Western made in my lifetime. That is not an easy distinction for me to grant, since Clint Eastwood may be my favorite living actor and Unforgiven was undoubtedly one of the greatest films (of any genre) of the entire 1990s. But while Unforgiven was superb and the best-ever filmed rumination on the Western genre itself, The Proposition is a singular work of art that is so thematically rich that it would take a long time to fully explore its depths. I'll just give a brief summary in this review.

While the thematic elements of the film are nuanced and wonderfully layered, the plot is rhythmic and simple. The basic premise is outlined within the first five minutes. It is set in the wilderness of 19th Century Australia. Charles and Mikey Burns, two Irish brothers of the murderous Burns Gang, are captured by police in a brothel following a bloody standoff. Police Captain Stanley (who is after the third brother, the sadistic gang leader Arthur) offers Charlie the following deal: venture into the outback and kill Arthur, and he will pardon both Charlie and Mikey. "You want me to kill me brother," says Charlie, expressionless. "I want you to kill your brother," agrees Stanley.

Mikey is taken prisoner and Charlie is given a gun and a horse and is released. And here you have the film. Charlie, played in a superlatively understated performance by Guy Pearce, must choose between his brothers. It is strongly implied that Mikey is mentally handicapped, and Charlie had escaped the gang with him only recently. It is obvious to Charlie, and to the audience, that it would be better for everybody if he simply went through with the plan and killed Arthur. However, they are brothers and such a thing is not so easily done. It is this conflict between the reasoned and the idealistic, between the utilitarian and the Kantian, that forms the basic underlying conflict running through the entire film.

Meanwhile, the small frontier town that Captain Stanley polices is similarly on edge. Word gets around that Stanley had Charlie released, and a public bloodthirsty for revenge against the Burns Gang (responsible for a series of horrific murders, rapes, and home invasions), begins to grumble darkly for Mikey's execution and against Captain Stanley himself. Stanley does his best to hold back this vicious tide of public opinion, but he is thwarted in his efforts by Fletcher, his boss, and Martha, his wife, who was friends with a local woman the Burns gang brutally raped and killed. David Wenham plays Fletcher, the boss, as a bowler-hatted, starch-shirted dandy who pressures Stanley for blood while fussing over his own suit. Emily Watson brings to the character of the wife an overriding sense of decency and humanity, qualities that seem increasingly like a liability as the film marches grimly on.

In fact, every single actor in this film is magnificent, and none more so than the American Danny Huston playing the keystone role as the sociopathically charming Arthur Burns. Director John Hillcoat lets the movie run nearly 40 minutes before Arthur is even glimpsed onscreen, a similar technique to that used in King Kong. And like the savage ape, for the first third of the movie Arthur lurks in the back of the viewer's mind, a menace only hinted at with fear. Even the rebel aboriginals are afraid of the fearsome "dog man" who lives in the rocks. When Arthur and Charlie finally do reunite, the viewer is surprised. Arthur is an affable, wisecracking Irishman who is fond of literature and seems to exhibit genuine care for his brothers. However, Hillcoat and Cave never let the viewer completely forget that Arthur is a vicious rapist and murderer. There are a few significant shots were Arthur is sitting alone, glaring off into space with a startlingly vacant expression. He is a perfect sociopath: a homicidal maniac wearing a jocular mask of sanity.

Consider one of the film's best dialogue exchanges: Arthur and his gang (the psychotic, childlike Samuel Stoat and the tough aborigine Two-Bob) are getting set to ride off to commit a horrific act of violence. They stop to admire a sunset:
Samuel: It sure is pretty.

Arthur: You can never get your fill of nature, Samuel; to be surrounded by it is to be stilled. It salves the heart: the mountains, the trees, the endless plains. The moon, the myriad of stars. Every man can be made quiet and complete. Even the lowliest misanthrope or the most wretched of sinners.

Samuel: What's a misanthrope, Arthur?

Two-Bob: Some bugger who fucking hates every other bugger.

Samuel: Hey! I didn't ask you, you black bastard.

Arthur: He's right, Samuel. A misanthrope is one who hates humanity.

Samuel: Is that what we are? Misanthropes?

Arthur: (smiling) Good Lord, no. We're a family!

Huston plays this role with considerable depth and great mastery. He explores the idea of a man with an ostensible sense of "family", and culture, but utterly bereft of human decency and empathy.

Guy Pearce is pitch-perfect as the introverted Charlie Burns. With his stringy, lanky muscles and greasy, matted hair, Pearce looks less like a man raised in the desert as he does a man made of the desert, with any trace of fat, and weakness, and civilization boiled away by the sun. Pearce plays him with heavy resignation: he knows what he has to do but is reluctant. It's more than just that, though. Charlie Burns is resigned to his life; he is a hopeless character. Doing the right thing by taking Mikey and escaping the gang leads directly to the ghastly catch-22 that he finds himself in.

On the subject of characters, a special mention must be given to the great John Hurt as Jellon Lamb, a self-styled intellectual and bounty hunter that quotes Darwin and holds nonwhites in elevated contempt. Hurt plays the role with a transfixing theatrical bombast, and after viewing the film it's easy to forget that he's onscreen for less than ten minutes. In a film packed to the gills with performances of surpassing excellence, Hurt distinguishes himself by reciting every line like it's a precious treasure: he portrays a man so self-interested that he speaks like a Shakespearean actor, like he's delivering lines from a stage. It takes a very good actor to play a bad actor, and Hurt steals the show for the duration of his appearance.

The blasted, alien landscapes of the Australian outback command a considerable amount of attention from the camera, and Hillcoat is wise to allow himself many long and reflective shots of the terrain. The cracked ground and gnarled, twisted trees look like they belong on Venus. Thick black flies cling to living people as if they were corpses. The implication, of course, being that there are places on Earth that human beings were simply not meant to inhabit. Does the fact that humans persist in these environs speak more of human ingenuity or of human stupidity? This foolhardy will to conquer is, I suppose, one of the greater mysteries of our species.

With that in mind, central to the thematic scope of the film is the notion of savagery as opposed with civilization, and the ambiguity with which both are manifested. “I will civilise this land,” intones Captain Stanley several times in the film, although it smacks more of self-assurance than of conviction. Special attention is paid to Stanley's wife and her carefully cultivated English frontyard garden, which is juxtaposed almost comically against the hellish Australian desert just beyond the fence. At several points in the film, the garden is used as a representation of English civilization encroaching upon the land, which is itself resistant to that force. It is a barrier, also, against the wild, and against the specter of Arthur Burns and the violence, the violation of order, that he represents.

Before the film's brutal climax, Stanley dismisses his aboriginal butler. The man removes his oxford shoes before walking beyond the fence of the garden, and a shot lingers on the empty shoes. This separation represents a physical transition from forced decency back to natural chaos, both in terms of the characters in the scene and in terms of the narrative of the film itself, very much like the shattering of Piggy's spectacles in The Lord of the Flies.

Mrs Stanley herself represents decency, and femininity, society, and polite Christianity; all the delicate social constructs that the harsh environment annihilates without much effort. The only God present in this film is a complete and palpable absence. "I was, in days gone-by, a believer," says one character, "But alas, I came to this beleaguered land, and the God in me just...evaporated."

Pearce and Winstone’s dual protagonistic roles, which represent reasoned nuance, contrast sharply with the extreme and uncompromising characters of Arthur Burns and Eden Fletcher, who inhabit the opposite ends of the film‘s savage/civilized spectrum. Charlie Burns and Captain Stanley are trapped in a position where they must choose between a sort of self-contained virtue for which they will receive nothing but contempt, and capitulation to the pressures of their respective societies. Stanley eventually capitulates, whereas Charlie does not. The Arthur Burns and Fletcher characters, representing the black-and-white extremes of anarchic chaos and social control, eventually reveal their complete indifference to the plight of the characters they seek to influence.

The Proposition shows, therefore, that while it is morally ambiguous, it is not indifferent. In this, it is similar to Leone’s Man With No Name series, wherein the Clint Eastwood character is drawn to a kind of virtue that at first appears to be self-serving, but in actuality is more complex. He is not virtuous because society demands it of him, he is virtuous simply because his own nature makes him inclined to be so. And so it is with Charlie Burns.

It is interesting that most of the greatest Westerns have been made by non-American filmmakers. In some regards I suppose Westerns are similar to science fiction; they manipulate a setting in order to explore certain depths of the human heart that can't be explored within the ordered bounds of contemporary society. This drive is universal. The parallels between Australia's wild frontier period and America's are also fascinating. Consideration is certainly given in this film to the similarities with which the native peoples on both frontiers were treated, a nod to the troubled history America (and American Western film) has had concerning Native Americans.

The screenplay was written by Australian musician Nick Cave, and his love of language is apparent. The tight, spare dialogue embodies the adage "show, don't tell." It is a deeply impressive script, influenced by Conrad and Golding, fully embracing the figurative heart of darkness that lurked above and below the surface of the works of both writers. Cave also composed the film score, and I can say unreservedly that it's one of the best film scores I've ever heard, filled with droning fiddles and eerie hums. Sometimes a barely perceptible buzz will underscore an entire scene, filling every gap with tension. It is brilliant stuff.

I have seen The Proposition about ten times now, but I still find myself startled, intrigued, and amazed by the depth of its themes and performances. Its eerie tone, literary scope, and gorgeous photographic style make it a thoroughly commanding work. See this film.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Throne of Blood (蜘蛛巣城) (1957)

Akira Kurosawa's Japanese contemporaries often airily dismissed his work as "too Western". They pointed to his acceptance by an increasingly global film audience, as well as his alleged sentimentality, as evidence. It seems obvious to me that these criticisms were simply the sour grapes of jealous peers who were envious of Kurosawa's ability to hit upon human truths, and appeal to all audiences; not just the Japanese. Indeed, Kurosawa's perfect intersection of artistry and popular appeal is unmatched throughout cinema of any nationality or time period.

With that in mind, it is interesting to look at Kurosawa's 1957 Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood. Kurosawa had a fascination with Shakespeare (culminating with Ran), that most emblematic of all Western writers. Maybe this stemmed from the fact that neither man was particularly concerned with the constraints of cultural boundaries (Shakespeare less so, as it happens); they were primarily preoccupied with expressing more universal human qualities and flaws. Both artists' work lends itself so easily to adaptation by foreigners: Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood's breakthrough Fistful of Dollars, which was a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, transposed from Edo-era Japan to the American West, is a prime example. Similarly, Kurosawa adapted Shakespeare with ease, with Throne of Blood proving he could do so with grace and style.

The story of a regicide takes on vast new significance transposed against the honor-bound backdrop of feudal Japan. It should be said that the film is not a strict interpretation, and there are a couple minor changes, but Macbeth is the sole source material, and any analysis of Throne of Blood must start and end with Macbeth.

Shakespeare's play, it is generally agreed upon, features Macbeth's driving ambition as the primary thematic force. Throne of Blood, on the other hand, is less about ambition and more about the motivating power of male insecurity. This is largely due to the performance of the great Toshiro Mifune in the lead role. He is agitated and nervous, easily wounded by any questioning of his manhood. He is an overcompensator, evidenced by his elaborate suits of armor late in the film. He doesn't seem motivated by any real desire for power, he is simply terrified of seeming weak. Prestige is just a byproduct of his terrible actions.

Central to both play and film, of course, is the character of Lady Macbeth (here named Asaji), played in the film by Isuzu Yamada, who audiences may recognize, along with most of the other actors in the film, from several other Kurosawa movies. It's a fantastic performance. The ease with which she overpowers Washizu's mind with suggestion and doubt is a sight to behold. Washizu often looks startled and horrified, as if Asaji's paranoid claims dredge up suppressed suspicions within himself. This is likely the case.

The collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune is the greatest in all cinema. Kurosawa is the greatest director who ever lived and Mifune is the finest screen actor of all time. Their 16 films together are a towering achievement. Both brought out the absolute best in each other, and Throne of Blood is a perfect example of Kurosawa's deliberate technique colliding flawlessly with Mifune's boundless dynamism.

As the Macbeth equivalent Lord Washizu, Mifune is light-years away from his trademark role as the laconic, jocular ronin in Yojimbo and Sanjuro; as well as the swaggering, charmingly self-aware wannabe samurai Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. In Throne of Blood, Mifune demonstrates his astounding range. He is gaunt and staring, manic-depressive and menacing. His face twists and distorts in rage and disgust and terror. Characteristically for Mifune, he throws himself into the role with such unrestrained violence that the viewer worries frequently and irrationally for his safety. Not completely without reason: Mifune famously insisted that the climactic scene where Washizu is shot with a hail of arrows be filmed with actual arrows. He was not actually pierced by arrows, obviously, but the arrows hitting the wall around him as he runs around were completely real, as was the expression of terror on his face.

No director in film history has shot atmospherics nearly as well as Kurosawa, and it isn't likely that any ever will. The way he was able to film rain, also used extensively in Rashomon, has to be seen to be believed. The distinguishing feature of Throne of Blood, however, is the frequent use of fog both as a narrative and stylistic device. Incredibly, the film was actually shot on the slopes of Mount Fuji, which provided Kurosawa with frequent and thick fog. It is used beautifully. The iconic scene where the forest comes to meet the walls of the castle is quite possibly the centerpiece of a film packed with incredible shots of nature.

Kurosawa liked using long telephoto lenses due to his assumption that the greater distance from the cameras would get better performances from his actors. He also liked the flattened backgrounds they provided. In Throne of Blood, he uses the narrow 4:3 aspect ratio characteristic of his early work, and this allows him to create a tight, claustrophobic effect. He uses the edges of the frame to conceal and reveal things that, in life, would be easily visible to the characters. It is a fantastic technique when done well, and Kurosawa did it better than anyone (including Leone, who made extensive use of it in films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly). Observe the banquet scene. Having seen a ghost sitting across the room, Washizu draws his sword and stalks laterally across the frame, the camera gently panning to follow him. As his subordinates drop back in fright, the seat where the ghost was sitting comes into the frame. There is nobody there.

I have not seen every filmed version of Macbeth, so I can't call this the best of them. It is, however, miles ahead of the Polanski version. I can't imagine another actor playing Macbeth with the same ferocity, pathos, and self-loathing as Mifune. Kurosawa's critics may well have pointed to a film like Throne of Blood as a symptom of his fascination with Western source material, but nothing could be further beside the point: Throne of Blood is a great film to be enjoyed by everybody, and Akira Kurosawa was a film director without peer.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Paradise Now ( الجنّة الآن‎) (2005)

What drives a man to commit an act as universally reviled as a suicide bombing? The global news media has preoccupied itself with this question for quite a long time now. Well, maybe that's inaccurate. The media has been preoccupied less with the question than in assuring itself (and us) that it has the answers. An Islamic terrorist bomber, we are to understand, acts from either fanatical religious zeal or from a rabid cultural resentment of Western values; i.e. they "hate our freedom".

These overly facile presumptions go virtually unchallenged in our society, in fact I would say they are taken pretty damn well for granted by people of all political stripes. The suicide bomber is portrayed as a psychotic maniac, and for anyone involved in politics or news to suggest otherwise would be career suicide (excuse the pun). It is a significant risk, therefore, for a filmmaker to humanize suicide bombers; to actually search for the reasons behind their actions. I think the idea of portraying a terrorist as relatable in some respects is extremely scary and threatening to some people. These people (and many of them were firmly opposed to the production of this film) are avoiding the elephant in the room: that one terrible act does not necessarily represent the sum total of a human being's thoughts, feelings, and personal history. There are discrete personal reasons people do things that carry greater significance, and to caricature a terrorist's motivations helps to perpetuate their actions.

Said and Khaled, the subjects of Paradise Now, are not fundamentalist zealots. Neither can I imagine them holding a grudge against us Westerners over our MTV and Coca-Cola. They are somewhat mild-tempered twenty-somethings, auto mechanics in the Palestinian city Nablus. They have that air of two men who have been friends since boyhood. You get the sense that, if they were more talkative sorts, they'd be finishing each others' sentences. They while away their time after work smoking cigarettes and listening to cassettes on a hillside. Said is quieter, an introvert. Khaled has a macho streak, but he's friendly and kind. There is very little about either of them that suggests violence or menace. Both are intelligent and well-spoken. Neither, however, seems particularly happy.

The story revolves completely around the two men and their struggle with what they are about to do. Both performances (by Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman) are a study in brooding understatement, and at times the men are (intentionally) difficult to read. However, the audience is given the character of Suha, a beautiful young woman who was educated abroad and returns to Nablus with European-accented Arabic and a sense of values at odds with many of her countrymen. She offers a modern, Western perspective on the events going on around her. She also acts as the conscience and moral center of the film. When she argues with Said and Khaled, she is saying things that they know are true, but have taught themselves to ignore.

After work one day, Said is approached by Jamal, a handler for a Palestinian terrorist cell. He tells Said that tomorrow is the day that Said will cross over to Israeli territory with Khaled. Once there, they'll blow themselves up on a crowded bus. Sometime before the events of the film, the two men had requested that they be given a mission like this, on the condition that they do it together. Said's response to Jamal is understated: "Are you happy?" asks Jamal. "Yes, very. Thank God," replies Said in a monotone. His face gives nothing away, but there is a significant moment shortly thereafter where Said sits alone in his room, staring off into space while the camera regards him quietly. Later he is restless, unable to sleep. The camera cuts to Jamal, who is sleeping comfortably.

They all meet together the following day at the group's hideout. Said and Khaled are given shaves, haircuts, and crisp new suits. They eat a last meal together and then bombs are strapped to their torsos. They cannot be removed except by a key that Said and Khaled will not be given. They are permitted a hurried meeting with the leader of the terrorist organization, who gives the impression that he's had the same conversation with many men before.

Said and Khaled are driven to the Israeli border and told to rendezvous with their contact on the Israeli side. Once they climb through the fence, however, they're spotted from a distance. There are gunshots and the men flee. They get separated and Khaled runs back to the handlers. Said hides before going on alone, contemplating carrying out the mission on his own. Back at the hideout, the men start to grumble over the possibility that Said has betrayed them. Khaled won't hear any of it and drives off in a frenzy to find his friend.

I won't give away the entire story, but I will say that the movie peels away the layers of each man's social conditioning and bravado, and reveals the feelings and fears that are deep below the surface. In my opinion, I don't believe the film asks the viewer to sympathize with Said and Khalem's actions, it simply asks that they be regarded like any other person: with consideration given to the context of their lives.

An Islamic suicide bomber, by definition, commits an act that is intended to provoke a political response. It is all too easy, therefore, to pigeonhole the motivations of the man himself as overtly ideological. The main underlying theme of this film is thus: it is unwise and inaccurate to end with these easy assumptions. Ideology can be a powerful motivating force, but for a man to be capable of killing himself and innocent people around him, there must be a greater and more personal drive. It's my opinion that the entire Arab-Israeli conflict centers not on a difference of religion, but on the kind of tit-for-tat tribal violence that is endemic throughout human history. People hate each other for believing in different gods. But the reason people kill each other is more likely because they know someone who's been killed by the other side. A mother, a sister, a friend. The need for revenge is personal, it's more real than a simple difference of political opinion. If you kill a man's family, he'll come looking for revenge. Ideology has little to do with it.

Religious fanaticism and political extremism provide a convenient mask that one can hide their own personal vendettas behind, however. Observe, for instance, how Said and Khaled frequently conceal their real motivations behind a wall of ideology. When Khaled records his "martyr video" (a popular genre at the local video store, we later find), he goes on a political/religious rant -- read none-too-convincingly from a sheet of paper. Said is never reluctant to make his feelings towards the Israelis known, but he keeps the real reasons for that resentment hidden. We're given a glimpse of the sort of casualness with which violent oaths are thrown around in Israeli/Palestinian culture: overheard conversations in a cafe and in a taxi contain hyperbolic threats directed generally towards Israel and Jewish settlers, almost as asides to normal small talk. Is this sort of thing meant to be taken seriously? I doubt there's an easy answer for that, but my feeling is that in this culture it's expected and not a very big deal.

I don't mean to imply that the film lets the two men off the hook completely. They are pawns in a big game, it is true, but they are allowing themselves to be manipulated. Both know that what they are doing is wrong, but they have been conditioned by a culture of violence and by a desperate need to be somebody, to have an effect on what is going on around them.

A recurring theme in the film is the feeling of a loss of control, that one's fate is already shaped by large forces with too much momentum to stop. We see that this resignation is used as a kind of avoidance of the present. Said is in love with Suha, for instance, but what does that matter when he is going to die tomorrow? There is a scene where Said and Suha drink coffee together, and Said describes a personally formative (and violent) memory from his youth, in his characteristically unassuming way:
Suha: Do you go to the movies?

Said: No. There's no cinema in Nablus anyway.

Suha: I know, but have you ever been to a cinema before?

Said: Yes, once. Ten years ago when we burned down the Revoly Cinema.

Suha: (pause)...You did that?

Said: Not alone. There were lots of us.

Suha: Why? What did the cinema do to you?

Said: Not the cinema. Israel. When Israel decided not to employ any workers from the West Bank, we demonstrated. Then we ended up in the cinema and burned it down.

Suha: But why the cinema?

Said: Why us?
This is an incredibly human film. There is genuine warmth, and humor, and sadness that all emanate from the uniformly superb performances. You find yourself hoping Said and Khaled turn back, and not just because they are about to do something so unthinkable, but simply because they are easy to like, easy to identify with. Abu-Assad has crafted his characters delicately, with great care. The actors dance through the dialogue with grace.

Don't let my pretentious analysis of the film stop you from enjoying it. It is a well-crafted and enjoyable work. Every aspect of it is well done, and some of the shots are eye-poppingly gorgeous. The plot is taut and exciting. The fact that the film is a significant artistic achievement doesn't hamper its ability to appeal to and affect the viewer's emotions on a very basic level.

Do I understand the terrorist mind better for having seen this movie? Maybe. I think that the point--and the tragedy--of the film, however, is that Said and Khalem aren't impenetrable psychopaths that defy comprehension. Given a different set of circumstances they would almost certainly be much like any of us: appalled at the depths that the forces of violence can drag a man down into.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that I think Lubna Azabal, who plays Suha, may be the most beautiful human being I've ever seen in my entire life. I welcome your strong opinions on this subject.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (2008)

For somebody who writes in such a terse and unambiguous style, Joe Abercrombie sure leaves me feeling conflicted. Now that I'm through the second book (of three) in his First Law series, I am still torn over how to feel about the series.

First of all, let me get this out of the way: there is still no map in this book, and after doing a little research, I found this, which is essentially Abercrombie's disavowment of maps (at least as far as his series is concerned). There are some good points brought up there, but I think on the whole Abercrombie is quite wrong about the way his books are read, and a quick dive into some SF/fantasy forums seems to confirm this. My point is this: the geography of Abercrombie's world is very discrete and confusing, and expecting readers to remember place names and locations in a 500+ page book is simply unreasonable. The main thrust of Abercrombie's anti-map argument is that the inclusion of maps and other graphics railroads the reader's imagination and takes them out of the story. But the fact is, when I have no idea what the hell is going on because I'm confused about the geography, that's hardly an immersive experience either.

That's enough about that, however. I can respect the man feeling strongly about the way his creation is published. On the basis of its contents, however, I am still not 100% sure how I feel about this book, just as I was unsure how to place its predecessor. The books were written one right after the other (more on that later), so they are consistent with one another in the extreme, for better or worse. I still found the Glokta character fascinating, but with irritating mannerisms, for example. There are still a few too many characters that are too similar to one another. There is still no sense that any of the main characters are ever in real danger.

However, this is a two-sided coin and the aspects of Blade Itself that I found excellent are still very much present in Before They Are Hanged. The story picks up right where The Blade Itself leaves off, and the book as a whole is similarly fast-paced. I read the majority of this book yesterday (probably about 400 pages or so), and I must say it flashed right by. Abercrombie has a gift for building tension and keeping a long story engaging, but it never feels cheap or manipulative. He doesn't resort to constant cliffhangers like George R.R. Martin, for instance. Which is commendable, since Before They Are Hanged juggles three or four groups of characters, depending on the point in the story, in a variety of locations. The rotation through these groups isn't a fixed 1-2-3-4-repeat cycle either; sometimes a chapter will end with one group and then the next will start up again with that very same group. I was very grateful for that, and pleased to see that Abercrombie has enough confidence in his skill as a narrator to avoid the urge to insert artificial tension with chapter breaks.

Most of the praise Abercrombie has gotten over the series has centered mainly on his unconventional approach to character archetypes. For example, the wise old fantasy wizard is here, and he is both wise and old, but he is also cranky and manipulative and self-serving. Here is my concern: it's all well and good to defy the standard fantasy character models, but is it a valuable undertaking when done for its own sake? Abercrombie certainly likes to shake things up, but when all the pieces have settled does it make for a better story? I'm not sure. George Lucas tapped into a vast collective cultural subconsciousness with Star Wars, by studying ancient storytelling archetypes and reworking them into a pulp sci-fi setting. Abercrombie does almost exactly the opposite, and while the results are interesting, I'm not totally convinced it has a purpose beyond simply being different.

Having said all that, I do like the characters and their interplay. This book pays off much of the characterization Abercrombie labored over in Blade Itself, since we can now see all these strikingly disparate personalities bouncing off one another. A few of the character arcs, such as they are, are quite pleasing as well. There is a very arrogant character who is humbled over the course of the novel, and although that was almost impossibly predictable, it still proved to be satisfying, and the predictability of it actually blended nicely with a very unlikely romance that develops between two other characters.

Even though most of the other characters have come into their own in this, the pivotal volume, Inquisitor Glokta is still the main attraction, so to speak. I enjoyed his playfully sardonic letters to his superiors sent from the remote city he has been given the impossible task of defending. His italicized "inner voice", as I have mentioned before, still grates on me for some reason though. However, this is still a gift of a character, and the subtle changes bubbling to the surface within Glokta may be the most redemptive and rewarding quality of the novel, period.

On the whole, Abercrombie has a gift for characterization, and slipping in and out of the voices of the POV characters. It has a very sitting-around-the-campfire storytelling feel to it, and I imagine that's what he was going for. He has a good feel for natural-sounding dialogue, though maybe not quite as good as he thinks. His fights are well-choreographed, and while that might not be a good reason on its own to recommend these books, it is ultimately very important because there is quite a bit of fighting done.

There is one more thing I feel I should mention. Abercrombie released this trilogy at a pace of one book a year, and frankly that's fucking remarkable, especially considering the length of the books (over 500 pages each). That's well over a full page a day, and that doesn't even take publishing lead time, rewrites, editing, etc into account. In an era where the more popular fantasy writers have the luxury of extremely relaxed deadlines, it's so refreshing to see a big name with a strong work ethic. We live in a digital age and fans can now instantly contact their favorite authors on their blogs or through email, but if anything I feel that has allowed writers a much more convenient medium through which to post excuses. I am not just referring to George R.R. Martin, although that motherfucker is undoubtedly the worst. My point is, hats off to Joe Abercrombie for keeping that nose to the grindstone.

I've just decided that I'm likely overthinking the First Law series. These books are probably best read as enjoyable, if ultimately rather disposable, fiction. There are no particular profound human truths revealed in the pages of these novels, but they are first-rate adventure stories, and the pages whiz by in a blur. I suppose the real mark of how I feel about this series thus far is that I have already ordered the final installment, and I can say unreservedly that I'm looking forward to reading it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine (Genesis) (1993)

Here is a puzzle game that will haunt your dreams and send your synaptic processes tumbling down around you like a collapsing building. "I'll just play for a few minutes," you assure yourself at 9 pm. But then some sort of time warp occurs, all of a sudden it's 3 am and you're standing on top of the couch, sweating profusely and screaming obscenities at the TV.

Released in Japan as Puyo Puyo (ぷよぷよ) in 1991 for the Famicom Disk, the game was ported as a Sonic the Hedgehog spin-off (with no Sonic!) for the North American market, and released on the Sega Genesis in 1993. There are a few graphical differences, and of course a different set of characters, but none of that matters because much like Tetris, this is a pure-gameplay type game. There is zero storyline, simple graphics, no distractions or side tasks...just you in an all-out war against your own mind.

My roommate bought an officially-released collection of Genesis games for the PS3 (Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection), and honestly most of the games are complete garbage. Notable exceptions are Gain Ground, Shinobi III, Ecco the Dolphin, Streets of Rage, and obviously Mean Bean Machine, but holy shit. I grew up with Genesis so it's a bit hard to admit, but the SNES has withstood the test of time quite favorably, whereas the Genesis...

Let's talk about Mean Bean Machine, though. After a misfire with Columns, Sega really hit on a true mind-bending puzzler with this release. Combining elements of Tetris and Dr. Mario, it blows away both of those (classic) games, both in terms of intricacy and strategy. I won't say it's more fun, because your idea of fun might not be kicking over your living room table in frustration, but to me at least, it's more fun. Let me put it like this: I love Tetris, but I can routinely get above 200 lines (level 20) on, and sometimes I just want a harder drug.

It's definitely a falling-block game, like Tetris and Dr. Mario, in that the goal is to make units disappear by grouping them, but the twist is that the first group of beans don't give you many points at all, it's only chain reactions caused by that disappearance that get you ahead in the game. Let me explain that better: like Dr. Mario, the units are little two-ended jelly beans, with each end being a different colored bean (there are five colors in total, compared to Mario's three). You spin them around as they fall, and arrange them in patterns at the bottom of your screen. Four beans of the same color disappear, and in turn make the beans lodged above them fall. If you can get these beans, as a result of falling, to group themselves into another group of four, and so on, you will have seriously screwed your opponent. That's right, because in contrast to Tetris, Mean Bean Machine is always played as a competition, either against a computer or human opponent. Developers always struggled with the concept of making the competition between two players interactive, and Mean Bean Machine addresses that (and makes the game much more difficult in the process) with its garbage-bean mechanic. If you put together a good combo, useless clear garbage beans will fall on your opponent's screen, screwing up anything they were putting together on their side. These beans can only be removed by making combos adjacent to them, which gets increasingly difficult to do as time and space are constricted near the top of the screen.

It might sound quite confusing on paper, but the premise is actually rather simple once you're playing. The strategies you need to use, while equally indescribable, are similar to the multi-tiered "think several moves ahead" processes one uses in chess. In fact, it takes a great deal of chess-reminiscent "if -- then" logic to arrange a multi-level chain reaction, and you are severely time-limited. Add in the extra factor of falling layers of garbage blocks from your opponent, and it's like speed chess with an ever-changing board.

I may have made the game sound like a hopeless exercise in frustration, and it is. But the challenge is simply what makes it so rewarding. After performing some remarkable feat of mental gymnastics, you will feel a wave of euphoria as you watch your opponent's screen fill to the brim with garbage beans.

If you want your cognition to be pushed to the breaking point, this is your game. Even if you are naturally good at math and logic, the upper levels of Scenario Mode are so sped-up that I guarantee you will find a very significant challenge. If you've deluded yourself into thinking you're good at puzzle games, shut off Tetris and come play with the big boys.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Creepout - Tribe Called Hardcore (2010)

The Japanese are famous for their unwavering devotion to their chosen obsessions. The otaku mindset informs the general Japanese approach to pastimes. Video games, manga, jazz music, karaoke, name it and droves of Japanese have dedicated their entire being to it.

But Cleveland-style hardcore, that's pretty specific, right? I mean, Tokyo is a big place (about 35 million people in the metropolitan area) and all, but how likely is it that there would be a subculture of people in a foreign country dedicated to something that only a handful of people here in America know the ins and outs of? Well, I'm only half Asian so I'm not going to do the math for you, but it's pretty fucking unlikely. But lucky for Tokyo hardcore kids and the rest of us, there does exist such a subculture, replete with construction gloves, Indians tattoos, Timberlands and Browns jerseys. I guess good taste transcends language barriers.

And Creepout is top of the heap in my opinion. People usually associate Japanese hardcore with more punk-oriented stuff like Gauze and Death Side. You know; fast, fuzzed-out, treble-y, with public restroom-quality recording. That stuff is cool and all, but if you know me you know what I like, and what I like is some big fat Clevo riffs. Politics aside (as they should be, up to a point), I think Crime Ridden Society is the hardest record of the 90's, and from the sounds of it, so does Creepout.

Tribe Called Hardcore is Creepout's best material so far (even though I also love the self titled and the split with Integrity), and it's basically a loving tribute to One Life Crew, Cleveland hardcore, and the Indians. The record opens with a sample of the Troggs' "Wild Thing", which confused me at first, until I remembered that it was the entrance music of the character Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn from the Cleveland Indians-themed comedy movie Major League. Such an amazing reference. After that the LP kicks in and takes you for a wild-ass ride, so wild in fact that you'll think you're right in the thick of Ten Cent Beer Night, if Ten Cent Beer Night had had Those Who Fear Tomorrow playing over the PA.

One Life Crew and In Cold Blood are the obvious starting points for Tribe Called Hardcore, with certain parts (like "Martial Law") reminding me of some of Crowd Deterrent's more melodic moments (example: "Late Nights, Fist Fights"). They stick to the intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-breakdown that Integrity and OLC honed in the largely linear-structured 1990s. The breakdowns are fucking nasty. The pre-chorus and pre-breakdown parts develop a nice sense of space by letting chords ring, or cutting everything except one guitar, before hitting you with a fast 90s-style slam. Good examples are "Fuck Your Heaven" and "Bash Brothers", which both have breakdown lead-ins that remind me of "Real Domain". This is hands-down my favorite kind of hardcore, and it's so nice that these guys have taken such care to re-create the hallmarks of its feel.

My boy Yuichiro is on guitar sounding like the reincarnation of Blaze Tishko (Blaze isn't dead, fyi), serving up similarly tasty riffs with all the flavor but half the body fat. That picking style is so key to the Clevocore aesthetic, and I don't think I've ever heard it nailed so well by an outsider. Kunihyde's vocals are quite similar to Wake from the great Japanese oi! band Sledge Hammer (Samurai Spirit, only the truly ignorant need investigate further): raspy bordering on gurgly but still carrying a tune, sort of. With some shades of Mean Steve, too, of course. Great stuff.

One of my favorite things about the album is that they have a bunch of their homies (Senta, Ill-Tee, Lowbuster, Dr. Feelgood) come on to do guest vocal spots. This is something that is almost never done well on hardcore records, but they're placed well, and all these dudes sound so raw that it works. Especially on the last track ("59 Ways to Hell"), where there is a Wu-Tang style rotation of guys that sound like city-destroying monsters out of a Godzilla movie.

In summary, this is the best Cleveland-style hardcore record of the past 15 years. It's made with such a high degree of authenticity, it's no surprise these dudes are basically honorary Ohioans. Essential listening for fans of OLC and the Cleveland Indians.

Story time. I am one of a handful of Americans who have had the privilege of seeing Creepout in their natural habitat. On my way home from Korea in 2009, I visited Tokyo for the first time, and wouldn't you know it, there was a Creepout gig going down that coincided perfectly with my trip.

For the first three days in Japan I think I slept about 3 hours. I had decided that the best way to experience the stuck-in-a-videogame neon insanity of Shibuya and Shinjuku was to be in a sleep-deprived daze (I was right, by the way). Somehow I managed to find out how to get to the place where the show was, and let me assure you Americans reading this that that is easier said than done, especially considering that the entrance to the place was hidden between two buildings and looked like a stairway down to an abandoned cellar. Sadly, shows are pay-to-play in Japan, and at exorbitant rates to boot, so I think I wound up paying about 30 bucks just to get in. This better be the best damn hardcore show of all time, I thought to myself. Lucky me; it was totally unforgettable.

Every single person I met was incredibly welcoming and friendly, especially after I dropped the names of some mutual friends from Ohio (because I'm a baller), so it was a little bit of a shock when the show started and I saw how hard these kids go off. I should say that I've been to hardcore shows in several countries and in Asia it's unusual to see a lot of movement from the locals. I think it's extremely embarrassing when people talk about moshing, but I'm going to break my own rule here. These dudes were seriously beating the hell out of each other. But there were exactly zero fights, and everyone was smiling and having a great time while getting hit right in the grill.

I generally try to stay out of things when I'm in a new city, because every scene has varying levels of what is considered acceptable, and there can be a fine line between getting a "nice moves, bro" pat on the back and getting your ass beat by dudes with face tattoos. However, after seeing the Japanese kids wail on each other for about half an hour and fucking love every second of it, I figured I was ok. For their last song Creepout covered "Murdario Stomp/Pure Disgust" and that sealed it. I stepped out and immediately got pasted right in the face. But when the pit calls, a true pit warrior must answer, so I gave in to the dark side of the force and sang "Pure Disgust" until my throat was raw.

Anyway, I had gotten hit in the face, hard, at least three times during that last song. The trains stop running relatively early in Tokyo, so I had to run from the show to catch the last one back to my hostel. At some point while I was running, I started gushing blood from my nose, only I didn't realize it because I was seeing stars, sleep-deprived, and running as fast as I could to catch the train. I caught it, just barely, and sat down. After a minute or two I noticed all the business-suited salarymen on the train were staring at me. I was wondering what their problem was but then caught a glimpse of myself in the window across the aisle. I was quite a sight. I was wearing a white t-shirt and the front, as well as the lower half of my face, was covered in blood.

I cleaned myself up (luckily I had my backpack with an extra shirt inside), got back to my hostel about an hour later, and slept like a rock. Great night.

Note: I'm uploading this because as far as I can tell there's no way to buy it right now (I bought it on CD from the band last year), but if you dig this come out to see these dudes play Summer of Hate, which is their one U.S. show a year.