The William Blake-Peter Venkman Connection

Reading a little William Blake last night, I finally figured out who he reminds me of. From The Four Zoas:

Los was the fourth immortal starry one, & in the Earth
Of a bright Universe Empery attended day & night
Days & Nights of revolving joy, Urthona was his name
In Eden; in the Auricular Nerves of Human life
Which is the Earth of Eden, by his Emanations propagated.

That is pure Louis Tully as possessed by Vinz Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer:

During the rectification of the Vuldronai, the traveller came as a large and moving Torg! Then, during the Third Reconciliation of the last of the McKettrick Supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!

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Review – Beyond the Rift

The Canadian biologist and SF writer Peter Watts, in the somewhat sour and defensive afterword to his selection of short stories Beyond the Rift, comments ruefully on the terms he finds often applied to his work: dark, paranoid, dystopian. (Sour isn’t there yet although I guess I’ve just added it to the list.) But, as he points out, “There’s wonder here, too: a diaphanous life-form big enough to envelop a star; mermaids soaring through luminous nightscapes on the ocean floor; a misguided Thing whose evolutionary biology redeems Lamarck.”

The best stories in this selection are the ones that give scope to that sense of wonder. When Watts focuses on the near future, or the earthbound, or the topical, his characters are often one-dimensional ciphers; and there’s always an undercurrent of aggrieved resentment, of sour disappointment in how inevitably awful humanity’s behavior will be. beyond-the-riftBut when he gets out into deep space or deep water his stories, paradoxically, get a chance to breathe; taking time with the setting, and the mechanics of surviving in it, he lets his characters out from under his judgement, and once they’re free they consistently surprise the reader and themselves.

So the standouts here are the stories set in space (“The Island” and “Ambassador”) or in the undersea milieu of Watts’s Rifters trilogy (“Home” and his first published story, “A Niche”). I’d previously read the Hugo-winning “The Island,” about a mother-and-son team of wormhole builders who come upon an intelligent Dyson swarm, and found the downbeat ending to be a gratifying, surprising tonic. “The Ambassador” is less expansive but similar in tone, while “A Niche” is an expertly paced and constructed story, with the kind of ending that makes you laugh in delight at how well the author has set it up and how little you saw it coming.

The characters in these four stories are all edgily, uneasily posthuman, brutally bioengineered for the harsh environments they explore. Their existence is more or less a torment to them, sometimes due to neglect of the human sensibility trapped within the engineering and sometimes due simply to past trauma (there’s a substantial amount of past trauma in Watts’s work, often child abuse).

The Things,” meanwhile, possibly the best-known of the stories here, is a retelling of John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing from the alien’s point of view. It’s clever and enjoyable, a thorough exploration of a truly alien mindset. And it does a great job of making the alien sympathetic — but honestly don’t be fooled:

the-thing

That is not a life-form you should be rooting for.

Other stories are less effective. Watts, the son of a Baptist minister, doesn’t like Christianity — in the afterword he calls it believing in “an invisible sky fairy who sends you to Space Disneyland when you die,” and the atheist clichés there give you a sense of his not-terribly-nuanced thinking on the subject. So “A Word for Heathens,” and “Hillcrest v. Velikovsky” spend some time on that. There’s a handful of stories that extrapolate modern technology to pretty modest results (“The Eyes of God,” “Mayfly,” “Flesh Made Word,” etc.). A different reader may get more from these ones than I did, as I tend to find this sort of story the most inessential sub-genre in SF.

“Nimbus” is about, uh, angry clouds.

These stories, as well as a few forgettable others, may spring from Watts’s frustration with modern humanity but they don’t play to his strengths. And I suspect he knows this: it’s probably not a coincidence that his novels take place in the same settings as his strongest short stories. So far, of the novels, I’ve only read the truly magnificent Blindsight, but the whilequel/sidequel Echopraxia, due to hit the shelves in August, is already one of my most anticipated reads of 2014; and based on “A Niche” I’m pretty eager to get to his Rifters trilogy.

Theories of Nerddom and the Horrors of Fandom

This is a pretty interesting conversation — Lev Grossman and Adam Sternbergh discuss theories of nerddom, sub-categories and all:

Grossman: I like to think of myself as a three or even a four-quadrant nerd: SF, fantasy, comics, and video games. Though, granted, my obsessiveness about them isn’t very equally distributed. Especially since becoming a dad, I have nowhere near enough time to keep up with games or, really, with comics either. I might suggest a refinement along the lines of, one’s nerdiness is a fixed quantity, a non-expanding pie, which can only be allocated to one genre/medium at the expense of another?

It’s nice the way these guys embrace nerd identity, and they seem pretty self-aware about the whole thing. But really I find nerddom, or more specifically its manifestation as fandom, verrrrry sketchy as an overall rubric. I don’t think it leads to anything worthwhile and I think as a mindset it’s responsible for producing a lot of pap. Fandom — by which I mean the state of fandom and fan service, rather than “fans” themselves — is the direct cause of The Phantom Menace and the grindingly demoralizing Dune prequels of Herbert and Anderson. It feeds the mentality that says, “You liked your Boba Fett hors d’oeuvre? Really? Well how about a full Boba Fett banquet then? You’d like that, right? And we’ll fill your fridge with Boba Fett so you can have it with every meal from now on, forever.”

I do enjoy reading interviews with Grossman, though — he’s very candid and articulate, and not at all shy about admitting his own self-doubt. I enjoyed The Magicians well enough, but I wouldn’t re-read it, whereas I’ve read his AV Club interview several times.

“A wicked thing to do” – Priest on Tidhar

Christopher Priest is not a fan of Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century:

English prose can be subtle, exciting, descriptive, rhythmic, mood-inducing, beautiful, shocking. Good prose is a required art, and to scatter short sentences in undigested lumps throughout a novel is a wicked thing to do.

Then he really goes in for the kill, calling Tidhar out on particulars:

A fug of smoke cannot ‘crescendo’; the word ‘oblivion’ means the state of being forgotten or disregarded, and is not a synonym for ‘annihilation’; similarly, there is no such word as ‘obliviating’; air does not condense out of mouths in cold weather, but breath does (Tidhar gets this right later, so he knows the difference); someone who has a hole blown out of his head is described as ‘very dead’, which is presumably much more dead than just dead; ‘”We don’t age,” the Old Man said’, which suggests he must have been born old; colours don’t ‘leech’ away.

violent-century-lavie-tidharI might disagree with Priest on “very dead,” depending on the context — its nonsensicality is kind of its point, and it can be used in a jocular spirit (I’d also like to point out to Priest himself that his own phrase “a hole blown out of his head” isn’t really correct, either idiomatically or conceptually). And I don’t mind it when an author doesn’t follow standard dialogue punctuation. Priest seems a bit fuddy-duddyish here — if it’s good enough for Joyce and McCarthy, it’s good enough for me.

Still, it’s a great review, and it did sort of confirm my own impression of Tidhar’s book. I might read it at some point, but it was already low on my list.

By the way, it’s interesting that Priest mentions “recent Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan” — Nolan’s film of Priest’s own novel The Prestige is fantastic (as Priest has pointed out in the past), a real masterpiece, incredibly subtle and assured in its plot and pacing.

I Am Lame (The Film Version!)

I’ve seen one movie on Film Comment’s list of the 50 Best Films of 2013. One! It was Gravity.

gravityMy moviegoing is pretty much limited to things I’ll watch with either my wife or my son; or, more and more rarely, both. My wife can’t watch violence, because she finds the modern portrayal of it in films or television to be morbid and sadistic (though she’s usually fine watching people throw punches or shoot each other in the less visceral pre-80s style where there’s no crunching bones and jets of blood and graphic taunts). I admire this, really, but it limits our movie-watching to a surprising degree. She also has no interest in science fiction.

My son, meanwhile, has pretty typical tastes for a 13-year-old: he likes comedies, action, and science fiction. Will Ferrell shows up a lot. Superheroes show up a lot. If Will Ferrell plays Ant-Man, we’ll probably watch it.

In addition, I rarely watch movies on my own. If I have time to myself, I generally use it for bookish stuff like reading or writing (or this blog). There’s a whole slew of movies I’d like to watch but I can’t quite justify the time to myself, so it’s generally something I do when I can justify it as a semi-social family activity.

Given all that, there’s some films I’d definitely like to see here. Realistically I won’t get to the foreign-language films, which is a shame. I miss subtitles, but I’ll give myself a bit of a pass on that one as I watched plenty of films in German while living in Munich.

So here’s the list of potential watches from Film Comment’s list:

Me + Wife:

  • Before Midnight
  • American Hustle — might be a bit of tough sell for moments of violence
  • Blue Jasmine

Me + Son:

  • Upstream Color — probably in a few years, once we get around to seeing Primer as well

Me + Wife + Son:

  • Inside Llewyn Davis — both wife and son like Coen Bros. movies, thankfully
  • Gravity — re-watch, wife hasn’t seen it but might like it
  • Her
  • All Is Lost
  • Captain Phillips

This is all a pretty far cry from my 20s, before I was married, when I’d burn through Criterion Classics laserdiscs at an alarming rate. (Yep, owned a laserdisc player. CAV vs. CLV! Kurosawa! Kubrick! Antonioni!)

Some Thoughts on “Man of Steel”

I finally saw Man of Steel a few nights back. It was about what I expected; usually my feeling for this sort of movie is that I judge it pretty leniently while totally seeing the point of view of those who hated it. I can see why someone might find a film like this charmless or leaden or bombastic, but enough of my childhood love for superheroes still lingers that I can’t quite dismiss it. My semi-random thoughts:

  • It’s probably impossible to shoehorn into one movie the Krypton backstory, Clark’s childhood and youth, his wandering years, his transformation into Superman, and the battle for Earth against Team Zod. At least one of them has got to go (hence Superman and Superman II). You’ve got two-and-a-half hours to tell your story — that is precious real estate, man. Don’t spend five minutes with Superman engaging in a CGI chessefest fight with the tentacles of the world-engine, don’t plug in a rushed flashback of his father dying nonsensically in a tornado or another one of Clark redundantly refusing to fight a batch of bullies, and don’t spend a whole chunk of that real estate with a needless sequence of Superman and Lois captive on the enemy vessel. And absolutely don’t spend time on this whole Codex thing; don’t even use the word Codex.
  • The first half of the movie feels awfully choppy and half-baked. There’s probably a million blogposts and articles out there diagnosing how to fix it, but to my mind it would’ve been best to have the first forty-five minutes following Lois as she tracks down this mysterious super-powered do-gooder, with a flashback to each actual event springing naturally from her interview with each witness. You might have to leave out the whole Krypton sequence at the start but that was a bit of a hash anyway. It’s hard for me to judge how elegantly the 1978 Superman did it, because it’s so integral to my sense of the movies (I was seven years old when I saw it in the theater), but the whole pre-cape-and-tights hour of the ’78 version feels perfect to me in its pacing and emphasis.
  • One of the few moments that just felt right in the first half of this movie is Lois following Clark up onto and into the ice when he’s investigating the spacecraft. Man-of-Steel-Trailer-Kryptonian-ShipThat should have been the climax of that first act following Lois, with Clark always on the periphery: both she and Clark finding what they’ve been looking for and finally meeting. Unfortunately, in the actual version, we’ve literally met this woman five minutes earlier. Amy Adams can make a character instantly sympathetic but the script, directing, and editing should’ve helped her out a bit.
  • Meanwhile, pretty much everyone has complained about the wholesale destruction in Smallville and Metropolis in the movie’s second half — specifically, the fact that Superman isn’t making much of an effort to protect civilians. But I felt like this was when the movie started to find its feet. They make it clear that Clark has basically never even thrown a punch in his life; suddenly he has to take on a bunch of superpowered überwarriors in hand-to-hand combat. He’s got a full plate just staying alive and in the fight. There’s a bit of resonance here with his (human) father telling him “there’s more at stake here than our lives or the lives of those around us” — to put it brutally, a certain level of collateral damage is acceptable if you’re trying to neutralize a larger threat to Earth as a whole.
  • But on the other hand, Zack Snyder has never struck me as someone who’s skillfully planting those kinds of subtle thematic call-backs in his movies. And on the other other hand, ugh — once superhero movies start making the case for “acceptable collateral damage” we’re probably knee-deep in an ugly worldview that’s a little too close to what our post-WW2 imperial foreign policy has curdled into.
  • The comics-fandom fuss about Superman killing Zod seems weird. Basically, Supes kills Zod to prevent him from killing a handful of innocent people, realizing that he’ll never be able to stop him as long as he’s alive. Then he roars with despair at what he’s done. But back in Superman II, he throws Zod and his cronies into an icy chasm after they’ve lost their superpowers — in other words, once they’re safely neutralized, and after Superman brutally crushes Zod’s hand. Then Reeve and Kidder sort of wriggle their eyebrows and smirk about it. I mean, come on, which is worse?
  • Solid actors all around — Laurence Fishburne really sells the moment when he decides to stay with the intern trapped in the rubble. I found that quite moving, especially in conjunction with Superman destroying the world-engine. It felt like one of the few moments in the film that worked exactly the way it was intended to, despite the silly tentacle fight immediately preceding it.
  • Henry Cavill is so handsome he edges into uncanny valley territory. The guy looks like a Muppet. Good casting choice though, I love the last look he gives the bully in the bar, sort of a baffled “man, I will never figure out why humans are such aggressive little shits sometimes.”
  • Dr. Emil Hamilton needed to take on a comic relief role here. I usually hate the schematic feel of the comic relief role, and overall I liked the serious tone of the movie — it felt less po-faced than I had expected based on reviews. But they still really needed someone commenting on the ludicrous stuff going on in order to defuse its ludicrousness. Richard Schiff is great but we really needed Jonah Hill saying “I can’t believe you just said ‘it’s supposed to go in all the way'” and “Am I the only one getting a kinky catsuit vibe off that Kryptonian chick?”

    man-of-steel-07

    Ich bin deine Huckleberry.

  • Speaking of which: I thought Antje Traue did a great job, and boy does she have a lovely German name. I almost wish my name were “Antje Traue.” But Ursa from Superman II profoundly stirred the libido of 7-year-old me and will always remain my favorite Kryptonian lady psychopath.
  • Some special effects that struck me as particularly neato-burrito: the cleanly columnar pillars of fire shooting up at Krypton’s destruction; the cars and debris floating up and then thudding back down around the ship in Metropolis; those cars then later instantaneously pancaking on the ground.
  • It’s a personal thing but I’m always bugged when the question of language is glossed over. All the Kryptonians are fluent in English, even Jor-El’s ghost. How does that happen?

Richard Brody, 2001, and the Cardinal Sins of the Critic

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody is an interesting film critic — and an actual critic, not just a reviewer (unlike waka waka Anthony Lane, or David Denby who inexplicably liked Troy but hated Iron Man). The guy is steeped in a century of world cinema and is one of those types secure enough in his own acumen to throw a wild card like Marnie into his Top 10 list, or fearlessly extol the excellence of Norbit (again and again!).

But in his recent post on Gravity he commits one of the serious critic’s cardinal sins (another of which is, indeed, approving of Norbit). I’m not talking about this little piece of scientific illiteracy:

It’s notable that the movie is called “Gravity,” which, of course, is what’s lacking in outer space. The effort to return to Earth entails the effort to reënter its gravitational field.

Aside from containing two of the New Yorker’s Top 3 eccentricities (putting movie titles in quotes instead of italics and the renowned diaeresis [the third is their spelling of vendor as “vender”]), the ignorance of how gravity actually works that’s on display here is astounding. But you know what? He’s using it as a rhetorical device, so I’m going to give him a pass on this.

What’s more troubling is the crucial error in this passage:

It’s worth recalling that the grand climax of “2001” is also the entry into a gravitational field (Jupiter’s) and that its colossal force gives rise to one of the most hallucinatory visions in the modern cinema.

2001-a-space-odyssey

Richard Brody watching TV in his Brooklyn sublet

How many times has Brody seen 2001? Bowman is entering Jupiter’s gravitational field? Really? Because the camera pans away from Jupiter and its impossibly aligned moons and monolith as he enters the Stargate. Bowman isn’t pulled toward Jupiter in any way — aside from the fact that, just by being anywhere near Jupiter, he’s already in Jupiter’s gravitational field, and has been for his entire time on screen.

I know I sound like Comic Book Guy here, but this really is crucial to any understanding of what’s going on in 2001. Whatever forces are at work on Dave Bowman, gravity is not one of them by this point, and the viewer isn’t meant to think that it is. The force field Bowman plunges into springs from conscious agency. Clarke and Kubrick make it quite clear that, by reaching the monolith that floats among the moons of Jupiter, humanity (with Bowman as its exemplar) has reached the stage where it can be permitted to pierce the veil of “nature” and its clockwork forces. He has proved that he can be granted access to the next step of evolution, shaped consciously by intelligence rather than blindly by environment. It’s amazing that Brody, who has complained about “an emphasis on the observable…stripped of inner experience”, could be so literal, and so wrong, about one of the greatest films in all of cinema.