Sunday, February 27, 2011

Skinhead by Nick Knight (1982)

I keep going to the Half Price Books in the suburbs, and that's sort of a bad idea, because I always walk out of there with like 4-5 books. Every single time. My list of books to read is now longer than my Netflix queue, and that's a problem. But they have this giant wall of science fiction paperbacks (it almost rivals Myopic's), and the prices are outlandishly low. Like, under two dollars per book low. So I keep pathetically stumbling back in there to give myself more and more homework. Damn you Half Price Books! More like Fifth Price Books!

Anyway, I was there around closing the other day, with an annoyingly tall stack of new sci-fi under my arm, and on a whim I decided to cruise past the music section to see if they had any books on Tamla Motown or Southern soul, because those are two areas of my musical interest that I seriously need to educate myself on. They had one book of Motown lyrics, but seeing as how I have access to the internet, not to mention functioning ears, I decided to pass. The employees were making grumbling noises, so I decided to pack it up and go (I hate when people stay later than closing at the store where I work, and hence refuse to subject other people to it), and right then, by pure happenstance, I spied Skinhead on the shelf. Eight bucks!! A no-braini-er no-brainer there never was.

If you're unaware, Skinhead is one of the two best-known and most authoritative texts on the British skinhead subculture (the other of course being George Marshall's Spirit of 69), although it is important to point out that both books were written during and after the late 70's revival, and not during the original 1960's period that they are principally occupied with. In Knight's case that is a bit more of an issue, but more on that later.

The book is primarily described as a photojournal, and indeed about half of its 100 or so pages are stylish black-and-white photos of--what else--skins. The pictures are uniformly excellent. Almost all are posed, but the subjects appear very natural and comfortable, and that is an absolute necessity in any photo book covering a youth culture. These 50 or so photos are probably the best visual history we have of the oi! and punk influenced skinhead revival. Number one crops, flight jackets, braces worn down in many cases. There are quite a few photos of girls, too, and while this may be a bit misrepresentative of the number of girls actually involved, they are definitely cute and you can only look at so many bald dudes showing off their contrast laces anyway. The photos are taken in a variety of settings: oi! gigs, grimy-looking alleys, the subjects' homes. They all have a suitably grainy, gritty quality that works quite well, and many are taken in close-up, with wide angle lenses that give a literally in-your-face and confrontational feel.

I'll be frank: a few of the photo subjects are obvious National Front members (racists, more or less, for those of you unfamiliar), but a few things are important to keep in mind. First of all, although non-racist/non-political skins certainly outnumbered the NF skins at this point in time (and arguably still do), they still comprised a significant minority, and any book with the catchall title Skinhead should, I feel, be obligated to include them. Secondly, it is crucial to understand that in the period these photos were taken (1980-1981) NF membership was as much an aesthetic fad as anything else. That may seem strange, but there was a media frenzy regarding skinheads which portrayed them all as violent racists, and not only did that attract more confrontational types to the subculture, but even anti-racist types would, for instance, often mockingly seig heil a camera just to add fuel to the fire. If that seems confusing, it's because it was a turbulent time for the working class in Britain and these kids were indeed oftentimes confused. As a final point, the photos in Skinhead are certainly not compiled from a racial perspective. There are also pictures of black skins and traditional types.

In addition to the photos, however, there are several written sections on skinhead culture. The first several are written by Knight himself, and cover a range of topics, each under a large bold heading: Origins, Dress, Hair, Music, Behaviour, Authority, Decline, and Revival. Most are a page or two long, and that is normally where this book comes under fire. For some reason, people seem to think this book is presenting itself as the end-all source on the culture. It doesn't, and it isn't. The information presented is quite good anyway, though. This book, however, is the most authoritative extant source on skinhead dress and style, and on that score it is an absolute treasure trove of information. Skinhead culture has always been fashion first. There's no use denying this, and with such a sharp and smart look, who would want to anyway? There were indeed unifying factors tying skins to one another (being working class, generalized music tastes), but like most British youth cults, skinhead was style-focused, with ideology lagging behind.

In that vein, and in my humble opinion, the best and most important part of the book is titled "Jim Ferguson's Fashion Notebook", and is a detailed description of the main elements of skinhead style in the original 1967-1971 period. There are a ton of illustrated pictures and diagrams, taking the reader through the skinhead wardrobe of 8-eye DMs, crombies, Bennies, Sta-Prest trousers, trilbies, Fred Perrys, brogues, and so on and so forth. Detailed notes accompany each entry, as well as large, page-sized pictures depicting the evolution of skinhead fashion as the years went on (each is headed "1968-69", "1969-70" and so forth). These diagrams are fascinating. You see the looser, grungier look of the first "hard mods" evolve into the smarter, cleaner look most closely associated with traditional skins now, and on to suedehead and smooth.

It isn't an exhaustive account of the entire fashion, but it does cover all the basics and a lot of the non-basics. Like I said there are a few omissions. But if you want to hear about monkey jackets, Jungle Greens, windowpane checks, and other more idiosyncratic elements of the look, that information is all available online if you know where to look. But on the whole, Ferguson's notes are one hell of a resource, although I'm told the girl's tomboyish look on the 1969-70 page is quite anachronistic. (Shame, really.)

Speaking of anachronism, though, brings me to my one big issue with the book. Most of the written sections give a detailed account of the fashions of the 60's, but the photographs were all taken during the early 80's oi!-focused revival. It's a pretty noticeable difference in style. You don't see a lot of oi! skins in Loake loafers, cardigans, and tonic suits. To a certain degree this was out of Knight's hands, since he was about 10 years old during the original skinhead era, and a disappointingly small number of photos have survived from that time anyway. But the writing still feels out of sync with the photos, and it would have been nice if Knight had given oi! and punk more than a passing mention at the end of his written sections, especially considering the fashion-oriented nature of the book as a whole. It also needs to be pointed out that in the original 60's era those within the culture would never have referred to themselves as "skinheads", as that was just one of many terms of derision used by others. At that time they referred to themselves as "mods" (generally in the north of England), or more usually, didn't apply a label at all.

Earlier in the review I mentioned skinhead culture being primarily fashion-focused, with ideology being almost an afterthought. While this is true, the ideology of some skinheads (NF boneheads) of course bears mentioning in a book that depicts the culture as it was. The last part of Skinhead I have yet to discuss is an excellent article by Dick Hebdidge entitled "This is England! And They Don't Live Here." Hebdidge gives a sociological account of the ideological underpinnings of the skinhead movement, from the traditional side as well as the bonehead side. He reduces a skinhead's motivations to two main themes: "being authentic" and "being British". He goes on to examine how and why different groups of skins constructed varying interpretations on these themes, splintering off into the right, left, and center of the political spectrum. It is a smart, scholarly, and well-written account, and probably the most even-handed but unflinching article I've read on the subject. For anyone looking for insight into the psychological factors driving the movement and its uglier aspects, I'd say this is the essential text. An excerpt:
"Some of the skinheads I've met admit to having 'gone through' one or other of the parties of the extreme right, but, after a brief commitment, the enthusiasm tends to lapse along with the membership. 'I joined the BM,' one skinhead told me. 'For the crack, like. But they went on about Hitler. He's dead. I couldn't see the point.' In general, racist jokes and asides amongst skinheads are no more numerous or self-conscious than elsewhere in the broader streams of white working class speech. This doesn't mean that this kind of racism isn't dangerous. But it does suggest that racism is too deeply embedded in the whole experience of growing up working class to be the sole responsibility of the skins.

"Meanwhile the skinhead/NF stereotype serves a wider function. It's a form of liberal scapegoating no less wrongheaded than the 'reasoning' (engaged in by some members of the Press) which converts every black boy into a mugger. The tensions and anxieties which are inevitably entailed when a more or less racially homogeneous society becomes multi-racial are displaced on to a solitary figure - the leering bootboy. In that way, it--the ugly fact of racism--becomes him, the skin. It has a name. It has a face. It is Them, not Us."
All in all, this is easily one of the best purchases I've made at Half Price Books to date, and that is definitely saying something. It seems like a lot of people (and by that I mean a lot of skinheads) have a dismissive attitude towards this book, and tend to say "Spirit of 69 is better." It's true that George Marshall's tome is an awesome resource, but the goals of that book and Skinhead are quite different and frankly I think it's useless comparing them. Marshall was more interested in tracking the rise of the movement through oral history and first hand accounts, while Knight was more interested in preserving an account of the fashion. It's better to look at the two books as companion pieces of sorts. Taken together they are a very powerful resource. Knight's book is not all-encompassing, it is true, but it is an insightful book, fun to read, and a superbly-written and -photographed overview of a very misunderstood subculture.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Big Fan (2009)

This is a startling, painful film. I watched it last night, and then immediately re-watched it. The funny thing is I hadn't even planned on watching it, or any movie for that matter, last night. But I was at my mom's to do laundry and she was watching some dumb indie romance film, and one of the trailers on the DVD was for Big Fan. I also didn't expect to find myself with so much to say about the film, but I've been thinking about it all day, and that is certainly a rarity for me.

Robert Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler, wrote (and also directed) this film. On the surface, it's a film about sports fanaticism, but really it's about brokenness, and loneliness, and what contributes to an irretrievably damaged person's self-worth. I can't really say much on the subject of sports mania, since I don't really understand it myself. I followed the Cubs very closely for a few years and enjoyed going to games, but I wouldn't even be able to tell you who their starting pitchers are now. However, there are untold millions of people in this country who are fanatical. It is a critical component of our society's cultural landscape, but like I said I don't quite understand it and we'll leave it at that (although I will say, I got a little warped satisfaction while watching this and thinking of all the people who spam my facebook news feed with hyperbolic sports updates).

Obsessiveness in general, however, I do know a little about, and I think the majority of people do as well. There are things in every person's life that become the object of too much preoccupation. It could be a lover, or a career, or a collection, or a combination of things. Big Fan looks at a case of extreme, crippling obsessiveness and asks the viewer to gauge their own level of perspective.

Paul Aufiero, played by comedian Patton Oswalt, is a New York Giants fan and nothing else. He is 36, lives in his mother's house in Staten Island, works a night job taking tickets in a parking garage. He spends every waking moment of his life listening to sports talk radio and following Giants football. He spends countless hours carefully writing down scripts that he later reads when calling into his favorite sports radio show. He passes them off as spontaneous. He practices his inflection to make it sound more natural. He and his best (only) buddy Sal go to every Giants home game, only to spend it watching the game on TV in the parking lot because they can't afford tickets.

Paul is the kind of guy who refers to the players on his team by their first names. He deludes himself into thinking that his and Sal's presence in the parking lot will have a positive impact on the Giants' play. He lives for his late-night tirades on the radio show, and is also on a first-name basis with the radio programmer who puts his calls through to the DJ. He loathes his faceless call-in nemesis, Eagles fan "Phil from Philadelphia" with pure vitriol. In Paul's mind, football fandom is a war of sorts and Phil is his bitterest enemy.

This may sound like the setup for a broad comedy, but this is a drama that is both intense and disturbing. There is little in the way of plot; almost all of the movie's running time is dedicated to a detailed character sketch of a man with a total lack of personal identity. Paul wants things that all men want: he wants his voice to be heard and accepted. He is persistent, dedicated, and single-minded; interestingly, these are things that are typically lionized in the movies. But I don't know if I've ever seen a character as straight up pathetic as Paul Aufiero.

Paul's character first and foremost represents cognitive dissonance. Paul has spent his entire life suppressing whatever assertive, self-improving instincts he may have had. He is absolutely dedicated to something that, ultimately, even diehard fans would admit is quite trivial in the grand scheme of things. Paul has forced the incredibly complex system of his own human emotions into one linear scale; he feels good about his life if the Giants are winning and he spirals into despair when they are losing. In the process he has lost the ability to feel anything about the life he himself is living.

He and Sal are out for pizza one night when by chance they see the star of the Giants team, Quantrelle Bishop, at a gas station across the street. They begin to follow him, with a notable absence of discussion beforehand. The star linebacker and his entourage stop first at a house in the hood, quite obviously to get some drugs, but the naive Paul and Sal are of course perplexed watching from a distance. They then continue on to a high-end strip club in Manhattan. In a drawn-out and (intentionally) awkward conversation, Paul and Sal debate on the best way to approach Bishop and his entourage. They cluelessly try to send a drink over, but when this fails, Paul musters up his courage and walks over. At first the guys do what some cool black guys do when presented with a goofy white guy: they talk about him as if he isn't there while sort of acknowledging his presence ("Check out this motherfucker!"). Bishop himself is dismissive but humors them for a little. Then Paul lets slip that they had followed them from Staten Island and the coked-up Bishop goes ballistic, attacking Paul and knocking him out.

Much of the rest of the film's plot, such as it is, concerns Paul's subsequent dilemma: does he press charges on Bishop, thereby probably sending him to prison and ruining the Giants' Super Bowl hopes? A cop comes to see Paul in the hospital and asks him to go through the details. Paul feigns amnesia. The cop can tell he's lying. "We don't know what happened at that club," Paul later says on the radio in defense of Quantrelle Bishop, and you can see that he has almost, but not quite, convinced even himself.

Paul's brother Jeff is an ambulance-chasing attorney with all the typical trappings of success (a giant suburban McMansion, a comically large-breasted wife, and one of those Peter Francis Geraci-style TV ads - "have you been injured in a car accident?"). In short he is the diametric opposite of Paul. Interestingly, the movie never tells us which brother is the elder. I suppose what's important is that no matter their ages, Paul is still the child of the two. When Paul wakes up in the hospital, Jeff immediately sees lucrative possibility and tries to pressure Paul into suing. Paul refuses flat-out.

At first I found it curious that Paul isn't completely spiritually broken by the attack. After all, the man he most admires, most needs, treated him with the utmost scorn and hostility. To make matters worse, he is put in a position where he could hurt his team, and by extension, his life. But then I realized that the predicament is in many ways probably the greatest thing that has ever happened to Paul: inasmuch as he can hurt the team by pressing charges against Bishop, he can also save it by keeping quiet. What Paul yearns for most is power, a voice that will affect things, and here he is given it. He needs it, he needs to feel important. But of course there is a high price. Under stress from the situation Paul has a seizure. We suspect it could be from the trauma of his injuries, but he later admits that a CAT scan revealed nothing. He is killing himself from the inside out.

A running thread throughout the film is of repressed sexuality, and the latent sexualization of sports figures. On the wall in his bedroom, Paul has a giant poster of Quantrelle Bishop emblazoned with the slogan "quarterbacks beware." In one sequence, the camera pans over the poster in close-up, and we can see the pornographic quality inherent to it. When Paul and Sal are in the strip club, they are surrounded by beautiful women, but when offered a lapdance, Paul brusquely brushes the stripper off and continues to stare intently at Bishop. Paul masturbates in bed (under his childish NFL bedsheets), but doesn't use pornography and we see him in wide-shot. We can't tell what he's thinking about, and we certainly don't want to know. The need to be the "#1 Fan" has completely eclipsed all the other needs in his life, including the physical.

It is impossible to watch Patton Oswalt in this film and not think of Robin Williams in One Hour Photo. Both are manic but pretty lighthearted stand-up comedians, known for verbosity and fun goofiness. Both also channel that manic intensity into scary roles as obsessive loners. I like Patton Oswalt's comedy, but was even more impressed by his ability to inhabit Paul Aufiero. He has the boyish face and mannerisms necessary to convey that Paul is an arrested child of sorts, but also the focus to suggest something more sinister.

There is a twist late in the film where Paul confronts somebody. To get ready, he puts on his football jersey and paints his face in the style of fanatical sports freaks everywhere. There's a shot where he's looking into a mirror and smears the first of the paint on his face. The look on Oswalt's face at that moment made my soul crumple. He stalks around like Pagliacci the tragic clown, a sinister mask of white paint. The sequence leading up to the confrontation is so tense and awkward I actually had to turn the movie off for a few minutes. Oswalt is absolutely brilliant in these final scenes. He has pathos, and power.

Kevin Corrigan has a supporting role as Paul's only friend, Sal. Every time I've seen Corrigan he's been completely miscast (in my opinion) as a laconic tough-guy type, which in my opinion always falls flat because I don't find him particularly menacing. Contrarily, he hits all the right notes in Big Fan as Paul's enabling accomplice. Sal provides a few laughs courtesy of his clueless nature (at one point he tries to persuade Paul that sodas that come in brown bottles are healthier for you than those that come in green, because they're "more natural"), but even as a support character I found him satisfyingly complex. On one hand, he could be viewed as even more pathetic than Paul, since he stays up to listen to Paul's scripted tirades on the radio and then call him to offer congratulations on a job well done. He's the easygoing lackey of the two, like the kid who happily goes along with whatever games his friends want to play. However, we get brief hints that Sal isn't as far gone as Paul. He has his own apartment, for one thing, even though it's dingy and small. He seems to enjoy following football, contrasted with Paul's pathological need. The sharpest contrast between the two, however, comes in a couple quick cuts so fast it'd be easy to miss: when Paul is following Quantrelle Bishop through Manhattan, the camera follows the car cruising slowly through the neon-walled canyon of Times Square. Cut to Sal, who is staring up at the lights in wonder. Cut to Paul, whose eyes are locked on Bishop's car with intensity.

Big Fan is not a great movie, although it is certainly a very good one and one you should watch. The biggest shortcoming is the ending, which doesn't quite pay off what the film has put us through. It takes us to the brink but then chickens out, and I haven't decided if that was wise or not.

On that note, it is necessary to point out that this movie was initially conceived as a broad sort of comedy. I skimmed through several reviews after I was done watching it and was surprised to find that some reviewers had seen it as a black comedy. Maybe it will play that way for you, but I only saw a few instances where the movie was really going for laughs, and those moments sit a bit uncomfortably with the tone of the rest of the film. Certainly there is the potential here for a 40 Year Old Virgin style comedy, but it would require a massive script overhaul and a completely different style of direction. This is, in fact, the bleakest movie I've seen in a long time. It is also very ambivalent about how we should feel about Paul. In Siegel's The Wrestler, we can sympathize with Randy "The Ram". We hope for him, because all in all he's a nice man, and he's trying to better his circumstances, even if that means desperately trying to recapture a past life. We're not quite so sure what to do about Paul. He is quite literally both protagonist and antagonist, the cause of his own masochistic self-annihilation. What does that mean for the film? It means The Wrestler was a better and more enjoyable movie, but Paul Aufiero is the more fascinating character.

So who is Paul? We never really find out completely, which I think was wise. We don't know when and how he became obsessed with football, because as far as the movie is concerned he always has been and always will be. We don't understand what motivates him, beyond a need to be heard and accepted, because we aren't privy to anything that happens to him prior to the beginning of the movie. He is barely a man; he represents the idea of obsession and inward hate.

The opening shot of the film is of Paul's parking attendant booth, tiny against the stark background of the parking garage. Paul's voice repeats over and over: "I can't tell you how sick I am..." It isn't until the next shot that we see Paul is practicing one of his radio diatribes, and that is just the first half of a sentence, not a declaration. But the first impression is the more honest, and the more lasting. Paul could not, in fact, tell you how sick he is, because he won't admit it even to himself.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

James Carr - You Got My Mind Messed Up (1966)

I wish I had the musical vocabulary to do a review of You Got My Mind Messed Up justice, but I don't. Which is a shame, I know. Obviously I am going to do this anyway, and you people will just have to write a better review in your heads, because this is my favorite soul album of all time, and you need to hear it.

It's an overlooked classic that deserved a heck of a lot more recognition than it got. Now, I am like a fussy baby when it comes to soul. Little things about the mix, or the instrumentation, or just the "vibe" in general can ruin whole albums for me. I know that might be funny to some of you, since my taste in other kinds of music is, ahem, a bit less discerning. But I really am very particular about soul, and I usually measure soul records by how similar they sound to You Got My Mind Messed Up.

Which is to say, I like soul bold, and brassy, with a clear vocal recording high in the mix. The horns are out front too. There are some nice rolling bass lines, but nothing that reminds me of funk. Some shimmery electric organ here and there. It's the epitome of the Goldwax/Stax records sound. So classy and infectious. I can't really hang with anything else.

We could go on about instrumentation, but the truth is a Southern soul album sinks or swims on the singer's voice. James Carr is ferocious; he's a soul tyrannosaurus. He's quite similar to a raspier Ray Charles in some respects, but with that emotive power more reminiscent of Otis Redding. Actually, I don't care about anything so I am going to go the extra step and say James Carr out-emotes Redding for the most part. This came out in 1966, and is supposedly a more restrained flavor of soul than the funk-influenced styles that would later dominate, but Carr is right out front throughout the entire record, howling and screaming and basically just bleeding all his misery out and not giving a fuck. Listen to the performance on "Coming Back to me Baby" and how even between verses he snarls and exclaims on time with the beat. Or on the title track where he goes from a near-whisper to a full-on wail, but never lets up. It's that kind of raw intensity that keeps me listening to this album over and over.

There are enough upbeat stomps on here ("That's What I Want to Know") for you to clomp around to in your boots and braces, if that's what floats your dinghy. But there is also a peppering of slow-dance numbers to keep the birds and the bees in business* at the end of the night. Speaking of, the album highlight, and Carr's best known song, "The Dark End of the Street", kills. Absolutely fucking kills. If you are going to listen to one song on this record to make up your mind about it, let it be this one. It's one of those songs that's been covered a million times and no one has even come close to duplicating the raw emotion of the original. Now, I love Percy Sledge, but in this case he shouldn't have even fucking bothered trying. Dan Penn, who co-wrote the song, has said that compared to Carr's version, there is no other version.

Even if this record was just "Dark End of the Street" followed by 11 tracks of Carr playing the didgeridoo, it would still be my favorite soul album of all time, just on the strength of that one song. Impossibly, however, the rest of the album is up to that standard. I find this is pretty unusual for hit-based genres like soul, but there you are. Every single song on this record elicits an emotional response from me. Honestly if you don't want to dance to at least one of these songs you need to report back to SkyNet to get an update patch on your emotion-simulating software.

In all seriousness, please give this record a listen. There isn't a lot of stuff I listen to that I would say has "universal appeal," and this is no exception, but it's the pinnacle of a sound I've fallen in love with of late, and it's brilliant.

*I stole this phrase from Spirit of 69. I'm sorry, everybody.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke (1985)

Arthur C. Clarke is my favorite science fiction writer. In addition to being a great writer in general (with regard to style and structure), he had a true gift for looking at a scientific concept and seeing the narrative possibilities it offered. For Clarke, the science comes first and moves the story along, much like real life.

Songs of Distant Earth uses a few main scientific devices, but the foremost is the effects of relativistic time dilation. Remember high school physics class? The faster an object moves, the closer it comes to the speed of light, the slower time passes for that object. (At the speed of light time does not pass at all, incidentally) So, while 50 years may pass for somebody who is stationary on the surface of a planet, for instance, a person aboard a sufficiently fast-moving spaceship will only experience the passage of a few.

In the earliest 21st Century, we are told, Earth's scientists discover a way to harness the power of neutrinos to explore the inner workings of the sun. To everyone's horror, they find that the Sun is a time bomb: set to explode into a nova sometime around the year 3600. Humanity may survive, but not on Earth. The nations of the world band together and construct colossal "seedships" capable of traveling at vast sub-light speeds and containing enough genetic material (of people, animals, plants, insects, etc) to populate distant worlds from scratch. Many are sent, and the dwindling population of Earth prepares for the coming cataclysm.

The narrative opens on Thalassa, an oceanic paradise world 160 light-years from Earth consisting of a huge sea and a habitable archipelago of islands. It is about 3800. Thalassa is one of the planets conquered by a seedship, and a happy, carefree human society has existed there for about 700 years. They have no radio contact with Earth, as their antenna has been in disrepair for years due to their blissful negligence. One day, however, they receive visitors: the last starship to leave Earth, making a stop on its way to Sagan II, its final destination.

Unlike the seedships, this is a lifeboat of sorts, carrying a million refugees from Earth frozen in stasis, and a small live crew. These are Terran natives, who were born on Earth, and who witnessed its terrible destruction. I feel like the interaction between the Terrans and the Thalassans is almost Biblical in nature: the Thalassans are innocent occupiers of a new Eden, and the Terrans come from the sky with the knowledge of good and evil. Indeed, a recurring theme is the reluctance of the Terran visitors to "corrupt" the Thalassans' harmonious society.

Among the novel's many themes is the loneliness of a humanity divorced from Earth. There is real, unexpected poignancy in the way Clarke describes Earth's final days, and the after-effects its destruction has on the survivors. I think a lot about how most of our brains are so removed from the natural environment they evolved in, so this concept really hit home with me. It is moving the way the characters struggle with their memories of loved ones from their home planet: all dead 200 years ago, but to the survivors awaking from their frozen sleep aboard the starship, it all happened yesterday.

Clarke has such an easygoing and engaging style; it's easy to blow through 100 pages of one of his books without even realizing it. This book in particular, though, has a more poetic and lyrical style than his other work.

This is not, like Clarke's greatest novel (Rendezvous with Rama), a pure work of hard sci-fi. There is human drama, mostly dealing with the effects of time dilation on personal relationships and the schism that grows between those that want to continue on to Sagan II and those that want to remain on Thalassa. There is some small cultural conflict between the native Thalassans and the Terrans, primarily over sex (the Thalassans live in a mostly possessiveness-free society). This is not the main thrust of the book but it does nudge it from the extreme of "hard sci-fi" into "social sci-fi" a bit. This is not an area Clarke was strongest in, at least compared to the political sci-fi subgenre's greats (like Ursula LeGuin), but I'm very glad he added those dynamics anyway, because the effects of the book's scientific concepts on its society are important considerations.

Clarke makes a theme of lost cultural memory - not all of Earth's books, music, and art was able to be sent to the stars with the seedships. In fact much of it was deliberately purged: anything relating to religion, for instance. As a character explains:
"It is possible to build a rational and humane culture completely free from the threat of supernatural restraints. Though in principle I don't approve of censorship, it seems that those who prepared the archives for the Thalassan colony succeeded in an almost-impossible task. They purged the history and literature of ten thousand years, and the result has justified their efforts. We must be very cautious before replacing anything that was lost--however beautiful, however moving a work of art.

The Thalassans were never poisoned by the decay products of dead religions, and in seven hundred years no prophet has arisen here to preach a new faith. The very word "God" has almost vanished from their language, and they're quite surprised--or amused--when we happen to use it."
A recurring motif in the story is that a situation will remind a character of some great saying. The reader will know the source, the character does not.

Even though, as a work of literature, this book is slightly diminished compared to Rama or 2001 because of its broad (too broad?) political focus, it is stronger in a way, because Clarke lets himself ruminate on human emotions in a way he didn't with those other books. This is a sad book, and it is a resonant one too. Human attachments can never survive the passage of time, and Clarke is able to show that quite literally here. The characters are treated sensitively, whereas in many of Clarke's other novels they simply provide a point of view. Like I said, that is not a fault of those novels, but the emotional depth of this one is one of its great strengths.

That being said, if this book has a fault, it suffers from an embarrassment of riches of sorts. There are a few too many avenues that are introduced that are never fully explored. Maybe this was Clarke's intention; the scientific curiosities of the universe are so vast that to fully explain those that the characters encounter would be disingenuous. Be that as it may, the story's most interesting diversion (the possible sentience of some life-forms discovered on Thalassa) would probably have made a compelling novel in itself, and it feels glossed-over and unfinished here. There are so many concepts introduced in Songs of Distant Earth, just as casual asides, it really makes me marvel at how incredible Clarke's mind was. When the Terrans first land on Thalassa, for instance, they are able to understand each other perfectly because the invention of sound recording in the 20th century has frozen language in place, much the same way that the development of human society freezes human biology in place, by compensating for evolutionary selection factors.

Even though I found myself wishing the book had been a bit longer due to this multitude of partially-explored concepts, I suppose that is just a side effect of one of Clarke's strengths: he always left the reader wanting more.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Zatoichi (座頭市) (2003)

For the Japanese moviegoer, there may be no framework better established than that of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman. He is a gentle, soft-spoken, middle-aged man who wanders around the 18-century (Edo period) countryside, visiting gambling parlors and helping people in need. He carries a cane with a sword hidden inside, and when he is sufficiently provoked, the sword flashes out and a very surprised yakuza's blood sprays all over the place. Great stuff. A series spanning no less than 26 films was made, starring Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi himself.

I took a general Japanese culture class in college, and we spent a few days watching a Katsu Zatoichi film, if that tells you anything about how ingrained in Japan's cinema culture the series is. I was transfixed. There is something innately satisfying about knowing that some tough-talking yakuza bully is about to get his intestines splattered all over the wall by a meek blind man.

It is a revered, slightly cheesy franchise that remained dormant for many years until this re-imagining by the great Takeshi Kitano (known in his home country as "Beat" Takeshi), a venerated Japanese actor and artist, a published poet who is perhaps best known for portraying hard-boiled yakuza tough-guy types. (Years ago he was in an accident that paralyzed one side of his face, and a running joke in Japan says that you can't tell which one, since his expression never changes) Western audiences may know him best as the "teacher" in 2000's Battle Royale (バトル・ロワイアル), which is awesome, by the way, and will probably get its own entry on here at some point. Kintaro is also a major Japanese directing talent, and he brings his usual uncompromisingly singular vision to Zatoichi.

The story stays true to the feel of the original Zatoichi series. It feels episodic in some ways: it's just one of the blind swordsman's many adventures, and that gives a subtle depth to the way Kitano portrays the character. Anyway it begins in the manner of many (most?) samurai flicks: a country village is under the thumb of two opposing Yakuza clans. Zatoichi totters up the road with his cane. He meets a widow (the lovely Michiyo Okosu in an equally lovely supporting role) who offers him a place to stay ("Don't get any ideas," she warns him). He wanders into town to gamble and comes across her nephew, a comically pathetic gambling addict who is none too lucky at dice. Guadalcanal Taka, a Japanese comedian, is hilarious as the hapless nephew. He plays it earnestly and gets a lot of big laughs. Through a series of misadventures they meet a pair of murderous geisha, and the plot turns toward revenge drama. There is also another dangerous newcomer in town, a ronin who has been hired by one of the clans as a yojimbo, or bodyguard/retainer. He may be as fast as Zatoichi, and we see him ruthlessly kill a lot of people. He's not an evil character like his employers, though, and we see the movie heading toward a climax we don't necessarily want to see played out.

This is classic stuff, but many directors tend to get heavyhanded and ham-fisted with such rich material. Kitano, on the other hand, has a deft touch. He knows what scenes need real emotion, he knows when the audience needs a little (or a lot) of blood, and he knows when to inject his bizarre sense of humor, which is quite frequently.

Kitano, like Kurosawa (if that comparison may be permitted), has an eye for the austere and balanced. This is a beautifully shot film. Typical action movies, in the US and abroad, have developed a sort of common visual language within the past twenty years that has become dogma. Fast camera movement, even faster cuts, camera shaking all over the damn place. These developments were striking the first few times we saw them, but to me it's grown tiresome. Kitano's Zatoichi has a refreshingly unique feel. There is frequent camera motion, to be sure, but just as often Kitano sets up still, contemplative shots that allow the viewer to ruminate a little. Imagine that. Overall the scenes are filmed methodically, with gentle pans and zooms that regard the subjects thoughtfully. Kitano often lets a shot linger for a few seconds longer than we've become accustomed to, and it is jarring but incredible at the same time. People and backgrounds are arranged precisely.

And yet this is an action movie. There is no lack of blood, in fact during the fight scenes it is spraying everywhere in fine jidaekgi (samurai flick) fashion. Kitano said in an interview regarding the film that he doesn't like sword fights where the swords clash together too much, as it isn't true to life. Watching these scenes I have to agree (no, I have never been in a sword fight, unfortunately); when two men are trying to kill each other they don't move so the audience can follow, they try to cut their opponent down as fast as they possibly can. The swords flash out and the action is over in a second. That is not to say that the choreography isn't fantastic, though.

Striking visuals contrast with the serene, earth-toned look of the film, and the whole thing feels very familiar and surprising at the same time. Kitano dyed his short hair bleach-blond for the role, I assume for no other reason than it visually distinguishes Zatoichi. It was a bold choice, but like many other bold choices that went into this film, Kitano pulls it off completely.

The most arresting, and delightful, thing about this movie is the undercurrent of percussive rhythm throughout. There are short musical interludes woven into the film; farmers swinging hoes into the ground in a complex syncopated beat, people in a field dancing in time with falling raindrops, workmen building a house. This is not a "musical" at all, at least not in the way we typically understand that term, but these little interludes are perhaps the true showcase of Kitano's talent as a director. He obviously has a deeply intuitive understanding of the subtle beats of combat scenes, but he applies that knowledge to every aspect of his film; everything from the way Zatoichi's footsteps crunch on the dirt path to the way the characters speak, the timing of the cuts, etc.

Speaking of music, this film has one of my favorite movie scores, by the composer Keiichi Suzuki. The film is silent when it has to be, but often it is alive with simple, percussive tunes. Xylophone, Japanese drums, electric organ. The modern, avant-garde character of the score clashes in a really pleasing way with the traditional, conventional look of Edo Period Japan.

It's not really giving anything away to say that movie ends with a big, elaborate dance number where all the characters come out on a stage and stomp away to pounding Japanese drums. This is a controversial aspect of this film, but I find myself wondering why. I thought it was an absolute delight. Does it make sense plot-wise? Maybe not, but plot is hardly the focal point of this movie anyway. I think it ties together the rhythmic sensibilities of the entire film, but more to the point it's memorable and fun. People bitch about strange things. The conventionality of the modern action movie is to blame, probably. In the West, it seems like all of our revered franchises (Bond, Batman, et al) are being re-imagined as gritty, dark, heavy-handed films with all the joy sucked out of them. What's wrong with simply having some fun at the movies? Anyway, it's yet another risk I'm glad Kitano took. It's a perfect finale from a fearless director.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (2007)

Let me get the ball rolling on Blade Itself by pointing out a shockingly dumb quote from John Enzinas of SF Site that is featured on the back cover: "I could happily recommend The Blade Itself for the fight scenes alone." Okay. Just to be clear, this is a book. It's a bunch of pages between two covers. It's not a Jackie Chan movie, it's a damn book! Why on earth would you ever recommend a book to someone on the basis of its fight scenes!

Maybe this sort of thing is just symptomatic of how pervasive the influence of video games has been on the fantasy and sci-fi communities throughout the last decade or so. On that point, maybe Enzinas' quote is insightful in some regard. No, I take that back. But moving forward, maybe this is weird but The Blade Itself has a distinct video game feel to it. Now, that isn't really a good thing or a bad thing in itself, and fortunately Joe Abercrombie makes it work. Here's what I mean: there are four or five major characters, and this is more or less a getting-a-team-together story (this is the first in Abercrombie's First Law series). The major characters feel a bit like character classes in an RPG game: a swordsman, a wizard, a barbarian, an archer. Thankfully, they are all well written and Abercrombie gives each of them a unique voice.

Speaking of which, the book is similar in structure to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, with the story being told from the third-person point of view of several characters. Each chapter is told from a different character's point of view, on a rotating basis. Their stories weave into and out of one another, but not in the dizzyingly complex way of Martin's books. Like I said before, this is mostly a book about a team getting together, so the individual stories head toward one another, inevitably.

The world the action takes place in feels a bit Plain Jane, but in the end that isn't a handicap because this isn't the kind of story that calls attention to its surroundings. The action is centered around The Union, which is a familiar-feeling stand in for Western Europe, or close enough. To the north, there is the expected frozen wasteland filled with warring tribes, and to the south there are various other kingdoms, deserts, and so on. Maybe my main gripe with this book is that, at least in the edition I have, there is no map! There is quite a bit of travel in this book and I felt that it could definitely, definitely have benefitted from one.

Abercrombie has a good writing style. It gets the job done. He's no Patrick Rothfuss, but fortunately for him he's no George Martin, either. He's pretty spare on description, which I found pleasant, but your results may vary. The Blade Itself is nothing if not a page-turner, and Abercrombie's no-frills approach keeps things moving along at a pretty rapid clip. It took me less than four days to get through all 527 pages (that is 131.75 pages a day), and I had work a couple of those days, so obviously Abercrombie has a gift for holding the attention of his readers. And it's not like every single chapter ends with a Martin-style cliffhanger either; this is simply well-written fantasy.

One thing that is weird about this book, though, is the insane amount of characters described as being uncommonly huge. That may strike you as a weird thing to notice but it seems like every other character that is introduced is strikingly large and strong. No exaggeration, there must be more than ten such characters in this novel. Very strange and a little distracting.

Up to this point, I haven't mentioned a character that is simultaneously the best and worst part of the book: Sand dan Glokta, the only POV character that doesn't feel at all like a unit in a Squaresoft SNES RPG. Glokta is an ex fencing champion and war hero who was captured by the enemy on a campaign. He was tortured and disfigured in the enemy's dungeons, and returns to his homeland ruined and disgraced. His friends abandon him and he finds himself in the office of Inquisitor (torturer) for his government. Glokta's chapters mainly focus on the political sphere of the Union, with him and his Practicals (assistants) capturing people and torturing them for information. Crippled and disfigured, Glokta's entire life revolves around pain, both the pain he endures from his old injuries and the pain he dishes out to his captives. Pretty interesting stuff, but Abercrombie wrings the whole thing dry a bit. Glokta has a constant internal monologue, which can get pretty annoying. It's like, yeah, we get that Glokta is cynical and sniffs out people's ulterior motives, but I found myself just wishing he would shut up sometimes. This made the Glokta chapters frustrating to read; he is easily the most interesting character but his little italicized monologue bits really strained my patience.

That's not to say, of course, that it ruined the book, and on the whole it's a pretty minor gripe. I liked the characters, even if they were a little too close to archetypes. Abercrombie does a great job at making their perspectives distinct from one another. If you are curious, the much-lauded fight scenes live up to their reputation, I guess, but don't get the impression that this book is just a bunch of battles. There is plenty of violence, but for me the most exciting part of the fight scenes was just seeing who would come out of them alive, because I actually ended up caring about most of the major characters, which is the most important thing for this kind of fantasy. I have the next installment in the mail and I'm looking forward to reading it.