Robert Rauschenberg once said:
I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I am doing.
I've used a bunch of different euphemisms to describe this tendency; sticking your neck out or playing over your head are the two I come back to most. If you get comfortable with limits you've never really tested, you tend to not only stagnate and repeat yourself, but see other people's work in the same lights as well.
It's tough to talk about something like this without sounding like I'm recommending people do things that they simply don't like. I don't know that I would ever visit Poland on my own dime, for instance — not when there's Japan beckoning to me for that kind of treatment. But at the same time, I also know it helps not to be limited by your own interests whenever possible. Like Dean Sluyter says about doing the right thing, you lean whenever you can in the direction to go in without breaking your back.
It's also too easy to get dogmatic about what you think is the right way to expand your mind. Back in college I had a writing professor who suffered from this sort of thing. One of the students was having trouble coming up with story material that he felt was worthy of the effort, and as I listened in astonishment he grilled her about her life — how old was she? had she ever traveled outside of the United States? etc. — and came to the conclusion that she'd lived too sheltered a life to ever be a writer.
I was offended then, and I'm still offended now, even if I think there was a grain of truth to what he said. Yes, having some degree of life experience apart from the four walls of your room is a great idea, but surely there's a more diplomatic way to say it. Or maybe, in his fully-baked cynicism, he felt that if she was a real writer in her marrow, she would cuss him off and go write as she pleased — a variety of reverse psychology that's about as insulting to everyone involved as it is naïve.
I've mentioned before that one of my tricks is to play the you-should-read-this-book game — e.g., if someone's writing a fantasy story and they haven't yet read The Last Unicorn or Gormenghast (and all too often, they haven't read anything by either Peake or Beagle), then I send them in that direction. This, too, has its limits, but I can usually learn one thing from it if nothing else: if the person in question complains about being told to read something, then my guess is they're not going to be much of a writer no matter what I recommend.
A quick skip-and-jump through some recent items of interest...
Some guys have all the luck, but high-schooler Kimihiro Watanuki is not one of those guys. Instead of being a chick magnet, as someone his age rightfully deserves to be, he’s a weirdness magnet. Supernatural beasties and bumps-in-the-night of all stripes are drawn to him like moths to a fluorescent lighting fixture, and so for him even a simple walk to school ends up being a marathon run crossed with a wrestling match. “Monster bait” is not what he had in mind when he filled out his career choice questionnaire; he just wants to get rid of this affliction and go date girls like any other fellow his age.
One day he’s dealing with a worse-than-normal bit of spiritual molestation when he blunders across a house in the middle of the city that seems to ward off whatever’s currently pestering him. It’s a shop of sorts, a place where people can come to have their deepest desires fulfilled — but always with a price, and inevitably with certain conditions attached. The shopkeeper, Yūko, is an armful: leggy, boozy, and flirty, with a propensity for outré fashions, a long good smoke and expensive spur-of-the-moment snacking. She gives Watanuki the once-over and right away has his number. He wants something, she tells him, or otherwise he wouldn’t be here.Read more
As in, I've been hopping about, and haven't had much time to keep people posted about what's happening on this end.
I'm looking forward to some well-deserved time off this weekend, but being up here in Boston has been strangely relaxing in its own way...
Amazon has the five-disc Blade Runner Collector's Edition on Blu-ray for a mere $15. Not a typo. This in addition to a ton of other deals that are meant to compete with Wal-Mart's recent price breaks on BD as well.
If nothing else, it isn't the software that's the expensive part now!
After reading Tun-huang I wondered about the collection of material salvaged from the caves, as described in that book, but I didn't realize the whole thing is slowly being put on the web. Absolutely fascinating stuff.
An interview with Douglas R. Hofstader of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame; he's long been one of my favorite thinkers, and it's nice to see him still in fine form. He also had a few pithy things to say about "singularists":
.... the vision that Kurzweil offers (and other very smart people offer it too, such as Hans Moravec, Vernor Vinge, perhaps Marvin Minsky, and many others — usually people who strike me as being overgrown teen-age sci-fi addicts, I have to say) is repugnant to me. On the surface it may sound very idealistic and utopian, but deep down I find it extremely selfish and greedy. “Me, me, me!” is how it sounds to me — “I want to live forever!” But who knows? I don't even like thinking about this nutty technology-glorifying scenario, now usually called “The Singularity” (also called by some “The Rapture of the Nerds” — a great phrase!) — it just gives me the creeps. Sorry!
My feeling is that extropian thinking is a self-indulgence — it's on the order of planning how to subdivide the space on the dark side of one of Jupiter's moons when we don't even have a realistic plan for getting there yet. It's nice to think about, sure, but it doesn't really address the fact that for starters we still live in a world where people still hate each other's guts on pointless principle. To think that uploading ourselves into digital nerd-topia is a shortcut to brotherly coexistence is not to think at all.
A Japanese Region A Blu-ray edition of Avalon [my review] will be hitting stores later this year. It's pricy — $75 — but it has English subs, and I'm not sure this will be released domestically in that form anytime soon. Also intriguing is the Macross Zero and Macross F releases — neither of which have been licensed for the U.S. yet, amazingly — and Vidocq, the latter having been shot originally in HD video. (The DVD didn't look all that great, but I'm hoping a 1080p treatment will show the film off that much better.
The key to Violent Cop is not in the violent moments, but in the shots where Detective Azuma (Takeshi Kitano) just stands there. Late in the movie, after he has been thrown off the force and his friend has been killed, he stands in the office of his commander, unflinching, unblinking, unmoving. This is a man whose reaction to all of life has been distilled down to exactly two stances: indifference or violence. There is nothing else there.
The first scene in Violent Cop, easily the darkest and most unforgiving movie Kitano ever made, sets the movie’s bleak tone: a gang of teenaged boys beating a homeless man senseless. At first there’s nothing but the man smiling toothlessly as he eats something (soup?); then a soccer ball comes plummeting into the frame and bashes into his belongings. The camera lingers dispassionately as the kids punch and kick him; when he collapses, they applaud, cheer, and head on home. Azuma (who has been presumably watching all along) spies one of the boys returning to his house, strides in, and tells the kid to turn himself him. "I didn’t do anything!" the boy whines. "You didn’t do anything? Then I didn’t do anything, either!" Azuma bellows, and pounds the kid’s head against the wall.Read more
It's been a while — look what bubbled up!
HELL FREEZES OVER ALERT! Peter (War Game / Punishment Park) Watkins's Privilege, long out of print and next to impossible to find, has been given a July 29 release on DVD courtesy of New Yorker Video. A review of this is mandatory for me; this movie has dated somewhat but it is still a terrifically scathing indictment of ... well, quite a lot, actually.
The also-long-unavailable Tokyo Decadence is getting a re-release, but it's apparently the 112-minute version, not the 135-minute version with both more explicit material and additional plotting. (Trivia note: Peter Fernandez wrote the English dub script!)
Also look for a deluxe remaster of Delicatessen in August.
Another guilty pleasure of mine, Krull, is also getting a dust-off. (What, no Blu-ray?)
X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes looks like it's being put back on the rails, too — although as much as I love the original, I can see a case being made for a reverent remake that preserves the cosmic horror of the original ending.
A U.S. edition of the Korean by-the-numbers but still fun actioner Shadowless Sword is also on the way. Must put back up my original review.
The Snow Queen — no English subs but Russian animation is grossly underrepresented on DVD in the U.S., so I'm curious about this one regardless.
Kitaro (the live-action GeGeGe no Kitaro) is also headed our way thanks to the fine folks at Funimation.
Here’s something I could never have made up.
On the way back from A-KON this year, I dug out some of the manga I’d bought for the plane ride back home and started reading. One of the books was Buichi Terasawa’s Kabuto, a ninja fantasy with the same delirious flavor to its material as the live-action 1981 movie version of Flash Gordon. The second volume, though, sported a scene that somehow seemed terribly familiar: the hero Kabuto confronts a village magistrate in her bedchamber to allegedly “protect” her from a monster lurking outside … except the monster is right there with him — the magistrate transforms into a half-crab creature and prepares to devour Kabuto alive.
Where had I seen this before? I knew I had, and the question gnawed at me hard enough to make me ignore my complementary packet of pretzel sticks. It wasn’t until the plane touched ground that my synapses clicked, and once I was home I realized the Kabuto scene was an almost beat-for-beat replay of a climactic moment from the chapter “Kanekozo” in Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo #1. I would have cried “plagiarism!” if it wasn’t for the fact that Terasawa was, indeed, one of Tezuka’s protégées. And sure enough, there on the first page of Kabuto was this missive: Dedicated to a great hero, my giant master, Mr. Osamu Tezuka.Read more
A piece in Sound & Vision Magazine talks about the five biggest reasons a given movie is selected for a Blu-ray release. Reason #1 is that said title fits in the "home theater demo disc fodder" category — or, in plainer language, stuff gets blowed up real good.
That part didn't surprise me, and sadly neither did reason #5: the title in question doesn't require a great deal of restoration to be put out quickly in a good edition. Hence the emphasis on recent releases, many of which already have ready-to-go hi-def masters taken directly from the digital intermediate created during filming itself.
One of the companies I see bucking that trend is Warner Bros., if only because they have invested an enormous amount of money and sweat into their ongoing film-restoration effort, and because a good chunk of their catalog titles are movie history: Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Blade Runner, Cool Hand Luke, The Wizard of Oz, and so on. All of these are movies I'd gladly have on Blu-ray, but I'm also not silly enough to ignore the fact that a) there are only so many release slots in a given year and b) sometimes the amount of work required to create even a basic edition of any movie, let alone a landmark film, is enough to keep a whole team of people busy for months.
When Criterion announced their first Blu-ray release slate, two things about it struck me. One was the lack of Kurosawa titles (but that's just me being me); the other was how many of them were either broad-selling titles that people who normally wouldn't pick up a Criterion title might be interested in (Bottle Rocket) or titles that had badly needed remastering even under Criterion's aegis (Walkabout). Makes sense.
The earlier titles, though, will need more work. They had been saying that they had hi-def masters for just about everything in their catalog for a long time now, but that didn't mean they could release everything tomorrow — both because of the bare costs involved in filling store shelves with product, but also because even a hi-def master made 12 years ago is going to be blown away by one authored today on a telecine that can do twice the resolution of its predecessor. (And also because Criterion puts more genuine effort into their extras than most studios put into their flagship releases!)
Finally, I made a side trip to the public library earlier today and found that they did indeed have Blu-ray titles in stock — a small selection, but the good stuff like Blade Runner is there. I took home The Golden Compass and want to try and unwind with it one night this week.
Roger Ebert proved to us that you can take great pleasure in going to town on a bad movie, but I worry about people who make a habit of seeking out awfulness for its own sake. That said, this book has been getting some of the most savage reviews imaginable, thanks to a Digg link.
Still — there's a part of me that feels intensely glum that a book like this can get attention (courtesy of Digg, for instance) while there are a zillion other genuinely good books with no readership that will never get a fraction of the attention. Shoot fish in a barrel for too long, and eventually you end up with nothing but an empty barrel with a hole in it ... and a pile of rotting fish peppered with buckshot.
A recent column by Paul Krugman in the Times noted that in the digital age, the old business models of delivering content are going to die no matter what anyone wants.
A subsequent letters column contained many reactions:
It's looking like the market for books is going to become more and more like the market for music — where the book sales are just the loss leader, and the real moneymaker is in the bonus goodies, like being able to see your favorite content creator in meatspace (man, I never thought I'd use that term).
And as far as making a career out of it goes, well, I've still got my day job and don't plan on leaving that anytime soon. I thought for a long time about the consequences of trying to become a full-time writer of fiction, and realized it probably wasn't a smart idea to hitch my livelihood to the shifting winds of public taste. I'd like to be able to write what I like without having to worry about whether or not it means being able to eat this month, too.
Nothing like seeing a series hitting its stride. The Yagyū Ninja Scrolls had a slow first volume, but picked up swiftly the second time out, and now its third installment follows nicely in the same vein. Come to think of it, even if this series hadn’t ratcheted up the way it has, I would’ve had a hard time saying no to it: me, turn down an adventure culled straight from the pen of the man who essentially created the pop-culture ninja mythos as we know it? Not happening. Seeing Scrolls work out as well as it does only enhances the pleasure of reading it.
The story so far: Yagyū Jubei has pledged to help the surviving women
of the Hori clan enact vengeance upon the Seven Spears of Aizu, the
villains who slaughtered their husbands. Under Jubei’s stern but wise
instruction, the seven Hori women begin to do the seemingly impossible:
shape themselves into a fighting force that will use misdirection,
tactics and cunning as much as old-school swordsmanship and blunt-nosed
violence. Individually, they’re no match for any one of the Seven
Spears, and they all know it — but they’ve already killed one of them
(the sickle-and-chain-wielding Daidoji) by working together, and that
alone is a major boost to their collective spirits.
I gotta be honest: At first, with Kurohime, my frustration overshadowed nearly everything else. From what I’d seen of volumes one and two, the series sported great potential but hadn’t quite achieved liftoff. Now, however, by volume 6, the story’s picked up plenty of speed and momentum, a fun mix of ultramodern shonen-manga attitude and ancient Japanese mythology. The latter grabs me a bit more than the former, but the fun of it is that both of those things are jammed together cheek-by-jowl on the same page (and often in the same frame). Most important, I was more interested in what wasactually going on than what could be going on.
The opening couple of pages quite wisely run the voodoo down for everyone who didn’t feel like showing up earlier. Kurohime, the magical gunslinging witch, rebelled against the gods and was punished for her transgressions by having the vast majority of her powers sealed away. In her “powered-down”, “chibi” form, she’s Himeko, a bratty little girl who can barely summon enough energy to blow out a candle. Only true love can unlock the full gamut of her strength, and much to her own surprise she finds it in the form of Zero, a young man with a bit of gunslinging skill of his own. Zero’s death broke her heart, and now despite her diminutive form and minimal strength, she’s determined to find Zero’s spirit and bring him back to life. Read more
In a word: A-KON.
The major highlight of the event was meeting, talking to, buying stuff from and giving support to none other than Peter S. Beagle. His legal battles are coming to a head as of the end of this summer, and I'm hoping they don't have to go to a full-blown lawsuit for him to recover what's rightfully his. I also managed to take the single worst picture of me with him possible, but he had a wonderfully warm and reassuring anecdote about a certain jazz guitarist that made me feel a lot better. (From all I've seen, Mr. Beagle is just that kind of guy; he was a consummate gentleman to all who came by.)
A full gamut of photos from the show can be found here.
I found a few goodies in the dealer's room, mostly budget-priced stuff — like a $5 copy of the insane Hong Kong treat Saga of the Phoenix (I need to get a copy of the prequel, Peacock King) and both volumes of Buichi Terasawa's Kabuto, which is like a supernatural ninja story crossed with the live-action 1981 Flash Gordon movie. Of course I dug it. The same vendor also had one of the fairly rare Kodansha Library English-language editions of the New Kindaichi Files stories; Amazon doesn't carry these domestically, so I snap them up whenever I come across them at a good price.
The only big downside was my phone dying, but I picked up a replacement — a Nokia, with Bluetooth and multimedia playback — for a pittance. It's a little scary how much they can cram into these things, and I found a lot of my reluctance to use my phone as a media player / camera / personal organizer / etc. dropping away once I had a chance to play with it.